Friday, September 7, 2012

About-Face and Grace

I think I was four years old when I was introduced to the sociological concept of "face." My parents told me about a bizarre story, reported in the Ann Arbor News, of a foreign student who had been hiding out in the attic of our church for some months. One-shot Googling on "Student hiding out in First Methodist Church Ann Arbor" turns up the story, and it's even weirder than I recollected. The student actually managed to hide out in the church for four years! [Did my blog inspire this redredge of the the story by the University of Michigan's alumni magazine?]

The police archives record that the year before I was born, exchange student Cheng Lim had come to the University of Michigan from Singapore. His studies were sponsored by the church. But Lim was not doing well going into his fourth year  at Michigan:
In 1955, Lim did not apply for the fall term as he was distressed due to low grades, feeling he had failed the people that had brought him to Ann Arbor. In an attempt to fake his suicide, Lim walked down to the Huron River and threw his passport into it. Later that night he went to the First Methodist Church and climbed a ladder that led to an attic on the north side of the church. For the next four years, Lim lived in this cramped attic space. During the night he would sneak down to the kitchen for food and water.
Lim's poor grades had put him in a situation where he stood to "lose face" with friends, family, and the people who'd supported his studies. But his over-the-top response was incomprehensible to me. How could "facing up" to your shortcomings be worse than the living death Lim chose for himself? The story does have a happy ending. When Lim was eventually discovered, the church and members of Ann Arbor's business community helped him renew his visa and then supported him while he completed a master's degree before returning to Singapore. That's what I call grace.

 Although the term "face" wasn't used in the show, a few days ago the concept appeared in a BBC discussion of foreign soldiers being murdered in Afghanistan by local police or soldiers. A British officer told the BBC that one contributing factor in some of the first incidents had been foreign officers shouting at Afghan troops they were training. This was just the everyday sort of yelling military people do, but evidently being shouted at causes such severe loss of "face" among the Afghans that they resort to killing the person who humiliated them. Cultural-sensitivity training has since reduced that source of "green-on-blue" violence, but now other problems (including insecurities from perceived lack of commitment on the part of Western forces, signified by the impending withdrawal) have increased the attacks. Again it is difficult for me, as a Westerner, to understand the moral processing that leads to the decision to kill someone who has called attention to your shortcomings.

Then there's Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" which made it clear that Japanese soldiers were expected to kill themselves rather than be dishonored by surviving (or being captured) when other members of their platoon had been killed. I now see from Wikipedia that this is related to a military version of "face":
 "Bushidō (武士道?), literally "the way of the warrior", is a Japanese word for the way of the samurai life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry. It originates from the samurai moral code and stresses frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honor unto death."
I gather from the Wikipedia page that the concept of  'face' came into the English language from Chinese, where the concept is conveyed by two different words referring to social status and moral character. Less dramatic than Lim, Iwo Jima, and green-on-blue shootings, but still bizarre from a Western perspective, is the high value placed on "face" in the social status sense. I remember hearing of fantastically expensive Chinese restaurant banquets that hosts really couldn't afford -- but were happy to pay for to buy "face" with status guests.

On the one hand you could dismiss "face" as just a weird Asian status thing. But as the Wikipedia page indicates, elements of it are fundamental to  humanity. Experts quoted there say that "face" is essential to functioning in one's community. At the high end, it translates to prestige, influence, authority, and power; minimally it conveys "trust within a social network" and undergirds cooperation. People feel good when "face" is in place, and stung by its loss. It's a bit like personal moral capital -- goodwill that makes for collegial relationships and an easier life within your hive. It is part of the delineation of your group and your standing within it.

But "losing face" is what I'm obsessed with at the moment. It starts with the agony of realizing you have made a mistake or fallen short of the mark in some way. But the key next bit is how you feel about the mistake and yourself as an imperfect person,  and how you expect the people around you will react (assuming others know of your transgression). Making a mistake is always going to be painful to some degree, but the strength of different moral values folds into it, both for you and for the people who've learned of your shortcomings. Clearly loyalty to one's group would figure much more intensely in Oriental cultures. I am also struck by the fact that the prime examples of dire consequences of "losing face" involve men. Does this reflect a fundamental difference in the societal roles of men and women?

A very provocative blog that I read recently proposed some of these issues came into play for Jesus and, at least from some perspectives,  he stood to disgrace himself in an incident recorded in Mark 7:24-37.  The blog article, "Jesus Was Not Colorblind: Racial Slurs and the Syrophoenician Woman," concluded that Jesus uttered a racist slur--calling a Gentile woman a dog:
a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 But Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
28 And she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then He said to her, “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.”
30 And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.
The blog's author, David Henson, says scholars have made various interpretations whistling past the fact that Jesus is calling the woman a dog. Maybe it was wink-wink, air-quotes "little dogs." But Henson thinks the straightforward interpretation is that Jesus was saying his miracles were for Jews like himself and not for the sub-human likes of the pleading Gentile woman.
As a good Jew, Jesus would have been reared to give thanks daily that he was born a Jew, not a Gentile, a man and not a woman. Jesus could not help but become entangled by such a sexist and racist snare. Jesus, given his embedded culture, could not be colorblind. And neither can we.
Our species is born to defend and live in groups. But Henson goes on to say the real jaw-dropping bit -- and maybe the reason this is in the Bible --  is not that Jesus said something offhand that was clearly in conflict with his values (as conveyed in the rest of his teachings.) Yes, He made a mistake. The amazing bit was what He did at that point:
When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his racist, sexist slur, Jesus listens, and hears. It is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind. “But even the dogs get table scraps,” she replies, a complex response often required of the member of the “lesser race” who stands up to dismissive racism even while accepting its instituted, ugly, dehumanizing order.
Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith, a moral exemplar, his teacher. Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into the unfortunate privilege of dominance or prejudice. He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed. When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never be the same...
Jesus fell into one of the types of trap that the rest of us stumble into every day. This time it was dismissal, ignoring, or disrespecting people from another tribe. He had already lost a bit of face just by being approached by the non-Jewish woman. Jesus could have "saved face" by not doing the about-face. He could have ignored her. But instead he hears her, tacitly admits his mistake, and changes course. That's when the love and grace begin. The woman's daughter is healed; Jesus is redeemed in my estimation; he's made a mistake, taken it on board, then corrected course. He's shown us how to handle being wrong. HINT: It's not by committing virtual suicide or hiding in a church attic for years; it's not by murdering or insulting the person who pointed out your shortcomings. It's by reversing with grace.

I must have been in my 40s when I realized that losing face is not as bad as I feared. I remember a kindly counselor giving me some constructive criticism--that I was thin-skinned; that I tended to jump into conversations too energetically with the witty riposte, even when someone else was getting to an important point and needed to be heard. I went home and fumed. How dare they? But when I finally found some equipoise and let this sink in, I realized the counselor was right; I was wrong; I had nothing to lose and much to gain by making a course correction. Life could be better if I were a little tougher, listened more and wisecracked less. I have found healing and grace in this -- as have, surely, the long-suffering friends around me.

It's always going to feel awful to make mistakes. I hate it. But I am grateful that I live in a fairly forgiving hive, imbued with the grace that permits admission and redress of shortcomings, so people can move on without compounding pain by hiding mistakes, pretending they didn't happen, trying to argue that wrong is right, punishing oneself, or punishing others for lovingly speaking the truth about our deficiencies.
As it turned out, this reading was the subject of our curate's sermon last week. Jess gave a great sermon and I've invited her -- and Father Peter, a retired priest who lives in our village, to share their thoughts, along with my ever-thoughtful and thought-provoking Dear Husband -- a little writing-fest on the parable. But I'm not sure it's going to happen.

So Jewell's comment (thanks Jewell!) inspired me to just summarize these additional thoughts here for the moment. If curate Jess, Father Peter, or DH come through, I'll guest-post their words here.

Jess, like David Henson, mentioned some other ways people have skirted the painful thought that Jesus called the Syrophoenician woman a dog. Maybe it was a lesson to the disciples, standing in the wings. In the next breath, however, Jesus is doing what he does -- healing. It's a mystery, Jess says, but just the sort of thing that keeps challenging her in the Bible.

As I was congratulating Jess on a good sermon, she mentioned that Father Peter had suggested yet another gem of a reading. As I understand it, (and this is third-hand) Father Peter said that the "demon" that might have beset the Syrophoenician woman's daughter was racism. In the mother's interaction with Jesus -- persistently seeking him out, then drawing this reaction from him, she had done the work needed to rid the daughter of her demon. The woman was to go home and find her daughter healed. This is consistent with other healing that Jesus does -- or maybe I should say catalyses -- where he essentially says, 'your faith has healed you.'

This interpretation is also consistent with research findings about how parents of out-group children can help them cope with racism. In his book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson summarizes the work of April Harris-Britt. A little (but not a lot) of preparation for bias was helpful for coping. And coaching kids to be proud of their minority ethnic history
 "was exceedingly good for children's self-confidence; in one study, black children who'd heard messages of ethnic pride were more engaged in school and more likely to attribute their success to their effort and ability."
I am having a nice little revel imagining the Syrophoenician woman going home, rushing in joyously to see her daughter in a new light. Fist-pump, YESSSSS, He DID it! Sweetie, We're IN. We're Syrophoenicians and even the God of the Jews LOVES US!

One last thing that interests me in a very equipoisey sort of way is that these various readings are not mutually exclusive. You can find the parable mysterious and provocative; you can find reassurance in Jesus reversing course and thereby demonstrating how this can be the beginning of grace; and you can also say the woman managed to heal the racism she had been subject to -- just by (sorry-) doggedly being herself and  speaking up for her race and her daughter.


  1. Hi Celia,
    Fran mentioned your blog today in our Presby Women's meeting. We asked for a link to your blog. I don't think Fran even knew, at the time, that your most current post was about the Canaanite woman but, interestingly, that's the story we will study at our next meeting. We're using Frances Taylor Gench's Back to the Well. We discussed the intro to the book today. I enjoyed your post and intend to visit frequently.

  2. I'd be interested to hear what your group came up with in their discussion. It's been fascinating to get these different ideas on the passage. cheers and thanks!