Installment #3 of an ongoing series on Star Trek character Worf and the New Testament
Klingons – speaking generally – do not sneak. It’s a major motif of the Klingon honor-based culture, in fact – honorable actions are conducted in public, and dishonorable actions (i.e. shameful) are conducted when nobody’s looking. The converse also generally holds true; to do a thing openly is to do it honorably, and to do it secretly is to do it dishonorably. This is a governing dichotomy of Klingon culture, and its parallels with the culture of biblical Palestine make it one more Bible lesson we can glean from Worf.
Consider Mark 5, beginning with verse 25. The rest of the chapter – and carrying on through Mark 6:6 – presents three seemingly isolated episodes that are actually thematically linked by this public/secret dichotomy present in honor-based cultures. It starts in Mark 5:25, with the story of a woman rendered unclean for more than a decade due to a health issue. While being unclean for brief periods wouldn’t necessarily cause a person shame, prolonged uncleanness – and the accompanying severance from Jewish community and identity – would cause a person to feel mammoth shame, and her actions are consistent with such a diagnosis. By sneaking up on Jesus, she exhibits the telltale sign of shame for Klingons and Jews alike.
If it’s shameful to sneak around; it’s orders of magnitude worse to be caught and exposed. The discredit resulting from such a public humiliation would be indelible for a Klingon, and the stakes are just as high for this poor woman when Jesus turns to ask “who touched me?” To Americans, her moment of crisis before she answers Jesus may read like simple embarrassment, but the decision to admit that she had touched Jesus would necessarily have been preceded by a moment of abject terror as she weighed coming forward to accept that indelible humiliation. That she does so anyway demonstrates just how defeated-by-life she is when Jesus intervenes. And intervene he does; rather than further shaming her, Jesus dignifies her in front of everyone, congratulating her for her faith and sending her away by publicly announcing her healing. Jesus didn’t need to know who touched him so he could ratify the healing that had already taken place in her body; Jesus needed to speak to her so he could repeal her shame – a healing that could only happen publicly.
This happens while Jesus is en route to visit a family with a sick child, and by the time Jesus arrives, the child has died. This part of the story begins in Mark 5:35, and it picks up the shame/honor theme right where the last passage left off, inasmuch as laughter and shame now descend upon the same Jesus who went out of his way to lift shame from the suffering woman only moments ago. Rather than arguing with the mockers (they laugh because he told them the deceased child was only sleeping), he just puts them out of the room and raises the child from the dead in secret. And when that’s completed, Jesus tells the family to keep what he’s done quiet.
To put this in perspective, imagine Worf being laughed at and publicly shamed. He’d probably want to fight, and you can bet that if the reason for laughter at his expense later turned into his vindication, those who had mocked him would hear about it, for more reasons than just pride. In any honor-based culture, honor is power. To reverse your shame into your honor and your enemy’s shame is to effect a power transfer from your enemy to you, and in such a culture seizing power for the glory of your family in one’s greatest aspiration.
With that help from Worf, we can observe two significant reversals in this passage. The first and most obvious one, of course, is the reversal of death itself. The second, however, is Jesus’ acceptance of shame, rejection of the honor that would come from public knowledge of his miracle, and refusal to accept the power transfer due to him for reversing his shame into honor. Whereas earlier in the chapter Jesus went out of his way to destroy the shame of the woman with the bleeding, when it comes to himself, Jesus makes no such effort. He not only accepts shame willingly; he gives instructions that preserve both his own shame and his mockers’ power. Harboring no ambitions for his own honor, he doesn’t exactly sneak, but Jesus definitely disregards the cultural expectation that honorable actions must be done in the open as he chooses a new path.
Mark 6 drives this choice home with a vengeance. At home in Nazareth, Jesus is so poorly received that he utters his famous quote that a prophet is without honor only in his hometown. If we read Mark without the aid of Worf, this might seem to us a sad and isolated anecdote about how people responded to Jesus. With the help of Worf, however, we’ve already seen how this episode continues the shame/honor theme from Mark 5. Here the author of Mark shows us that not even in Jesus’ hometown – among those who know him the best and thus should honor him the most – will Jesus publicly claim the honor he’s due. The people of Nazareth don’t honor him, and it’s their loss. For his part Jesus leaves quietly, accepting shame yet again, and keeping his honor secret.
For Christians – since we try to model our actions after Jesus – the subversive nature of Jesus’ willingness to renounce honor, keep secrets, and accept shame is easily overlooked. But Worf wouldn’t miss it in Mark, and neither should we. Jesus’ aspirations lie elsewhere, and that makes him completely counter-cultural.