Few things perplex and upset Westerners
more than “honor killings.” Of course, there are good reasons people find the
In recent years, reports of honor killings have become far more
common. For examples, you can click here, here, and here. An honor killing occurs when a person
does something deemed shameful by one’s family or village. Typically, they
involve a woman who is accused of illicit sexual relations with someone with
whom she is not married. In order to restore honor to the community, a
relative––often a brother or uncle–––will then murder the woman. Only then will
their wrath be appeased.
So, it’s not surprising how people
respond when they hear me and others talk about the importance of honor and
shame in the Bible. They ask a very natural question, “Was Jesus’ death an
The very idea of explaining the
cross with something so heinous as honor killings is revolting to most people. Yet,
I have heard some even suggest the possibility that we could explain penal
substitution in terms of an honor killing. Before dismissing the question
entirely, we ought first to consider how people might potentially link these
What similarities might they
share? In each . . .
father is dishonored by the shameful behavior.
offense evokes his wrath.
appease his wrath, the father seeks to avenge the affront on his honor.
the father punishes his child, upon guilt has been imputed.
The above four statements
generally reflect traditional accounts of penal substitution. It doesn’t take a
lot of imagination to understand why some people reject this theory of
atonement. They think of it in the same way that people think of modern day
How does God judge the cross?
To the relief of many readers, I
do not recommend we call Christ’s
death an “honor killing.” However, the entire question does reveal quite
clearly the significant questions at stake when it comes to the matter of contextualization.
I don’t commend it as good contextualization.
To begin, the association
between the cross and honor killings would cause more harm than good. Due to
confusion of concepts, using terms like “honor killing” is not helpful. For one
thing, people do not associate honor killings with love, but rather with
Let’s be clear––the biblical
writers pinpoint those responsible for his murder.
Peter says to those in
Jerusalem, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and
foreknowledge of God, you crucified and
killed by the hands of lawless men. [Yet] God raised him up, loosing
the pangs of death, . . . ” (Acts 2:23; cf. 2:36; 5:30; 10:39; Luke 24:20).
An “honor death”
It would be better to speak of
Christ’s work on the cross as an “honor death”,
not a “killing.” As such, he
willingly sacrificed himself for the sake of God’s honor (and ours). I’ve
argued the latter idea more thoroughly in my first book Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of
Salvation through Honor and Shame.
This is a far more faithful depiction
of the cross. Among the many passages we could choose from, consider these two:
And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for
us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Gal 5:2)
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to
himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling
the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. (2 Cor
Christ was certainly killed, .
. . by murderous sinners. Through Jesus’ death, God indeed vindicated His honor
(as he foreshadowed in Ezek 36:22, 32). Nevertheless, Christ gave himself.
The shift in perspective has
significance practical implications. In fact, seeing Christ’s work as an “honor
death” actually undermines the type of thinking that fuels so-called “honor
killings.” From the perspective I’ve suggested, people can’t mistakenly think
they imitate God by murdering a relative who has publicly shamed them.
On the one hand, God does not
in fact smite humanity in vengeance; he instead took on flesh. That is, he “emptied
himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And
being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point
of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8-9).
On the other hand, Christ's
death spurs his followers to do the opposite of anything that might be called
an “honor killing.” Consider how the cross-shaped Paul’s
approach to ministry.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the
surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every
way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not
forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death
of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For
we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the
life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work
in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:7–12)
In effect, Christ’s death redirects
our path to glory. He overturns conventional notions of honor and shame. Accordingly,
the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to look to
Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the
joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is
seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
In the same way, we Christians
need to rethink our conceptions of honor and the way we seek honor. I
particularly have in mind passages in 2 Corinthians, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. I'd urge
people to reflect on the way each letter reorients honor and shame in light of
When we present Christ’s death
in this way, we magnify the glory of God. Without calling the cross an “honor
killing”, we contextualize the gospel message in a way that is
biblically faithful and culturally meaningful.
Jackson Wu (PhD, SEBTS) teaches theology and missiology in a seminary for Chinese church leaders. Previously, he also worked as a church planter. He has just released his second book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. In addition to his blog, jacksonwu.org, follow him on Twitter @jacksonwu4china.