We all know that honour is an outdated idea.
Reputation now, bolstered by all the modern means of publicity, yes, that’s something real, but honour sounds as if it’s 50% family inheritance and 50% heroism when the former is out of date and the latter is a combination of courage and insanity.
There’s nothing new in being sceptical about honour. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV prince Hal tells Falstaff before a battle that “he owes God a death” to which Falstaff replies with a sceptical examination of “honour”:
‘Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay Him before His day. What need I be so forward with Him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter. Honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere ‘.scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.
He concludes that honour is a mere coat of arms, a claim to nobility. Shakespeare of course doesn’t leave the matter there but shows certain characters gaining honour in battle because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. But in spite of that, most people remember Falstaff’s speech long after the rest have been forgotten. We all know that honour is a concept born in past culture which has no currency now.
And yet, what exactly were we offering to the NHS staff whom we applauded at our doors? Thanks? Yes, but not just that. Celebrity? No, something more serious. Solidarity? Possibly, but for how long? So, could it be that we were dealing with Honour, and if so, were we conferring it or recognising it? I think we were recognising that by their duty, courage and skills, these women and men had gained honour in the eyes of our society which we had to reflect back to them so that they would know it.
If that is so, here, in the 21st century, is an admission of the relevance of an ancient concept, which suddenly seems real because we are faced with an obvious public danger. Our normal rejection of it may be due to the normal absence, in our society, of that sort of danger. Certainly in war there are special honours for outstanding acts of courage, but honour is also given to all who have done their duty. The honour we have given to the NHS staffs is of the latter kind: they found themselves in a situation where we would have been terrified, and they were also, but they did their duty, day by day.
I smuggled in the word “duty” because it too is considered a bit out of date, as representing a moral obligation: to do what we can to protect the lives and welfare of our fellow human beings. The pandemic has reminded us that we may have duties which go beyond our comfortable self- concern, and even if we don’t like them, push us to do the right thing in order to preserve our honour, even if only in our own eyes.
Jesus, as reported in the Gospels, offered to everyone, especially to those regarded by others as scum or outcast, an advance of honour, simply as human beings, capable of doing their duty. Something like this advance of honour is offered by citizens to their fellow citizens in any decent society. Of course some may prove unworthy of this honour, but the mutual regard which makes society work, cannot be maintained without it.
To refuse this advance of trust is to dis-honour a fellow citizen; to refuse it to a particular class of citizen, is to dis-honour not only that class but the whole society which cannot survive peacefully without that trust. And if a whole class of society, let’s say, those with black skins, has been systematically dishonoured, what will happen when a particularly vile and dishonouring murder of one of that class is shown on every kind of social media? Well, then we get the USA today, where that whole dishonoured class is demonstrating its conviction that the bonds of society are broken. In the face of riot, arson and looting people who sympathise with their black fellow citizens may plead for calm, pointing out that this violence does their cause no good. They forget that black citizens have been deliberately dishonoured, treated as scum, by the Police, whose actions have been supported by some in society and permitted by others.
It turns out, not the first time, that Jesus was a good deal wiser and more realistic than those who imagine that you can take away a person’s honour and still expect her to be a loyal citizen; and certainly wiser than a President whose exercise of power involves dishonouring his opponents almost every day. Some Christian believers may dissent from my interpretation of what Jesus offered to the dishonoured of his society. They may want to call it, healing, compassion, salvation. These are good words, but without the restoration of honour they would have been meaningless.
The New Testament word for the restoration of honour is “redemption” which means “buying back” and was particularly used of the liberation of a slave. The dishonouring condition was removed and the former slave set free to be a citizen. Those who wrote about Jesus thought that this word characterised his practical application of his message. His advance of honour freed people to do their duty as human beings.
I certainly don’t have a ready-made policy for the USA, but I want to insist, in the wisdom of Jesus, that it must include a) an end to the dishonouring habits of the Police towards black people and b) a start to restoring the honour of those who have been deprived of it again and again.
Our common knowledge that honour is an outdated idea turns out to be wrong.