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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about honor, what it is, what it means. Some people might react to that with surprise, equating honor simply with moral goodness, with uprightness, with excellence.

For example, this spring, my daughter, like many students, graduated with honors. People may be seated at a place of honor. Military honor guards guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and help to bury the fallen with solemnity. Traditional wedding ceremonies saw spouses promise to love, honor, and cherish each other. One of Judaism’s and Christianity’s ten rules handed down on Sinai is to honor one’s father and mother.

Yet it’s so hard to really pin down honor. It’s more than just “something good.” It’s how we act according to what we perceive as a moral code and a social code. In other words, to have honor can be to be bound by what society sees as right.

Many years ago, when my daughter’s godmother met and started a relationship with the woman she would eventually marry, that woman told her “You are someone to be honorable with.” That was a kind of shorthand for saying “I will not lie to you. I will not cheat on you, abuse you, or be unfair to you.” All good, all worthy, but I wonder sometimes about the implication that perhaps some people do not deserve to be treated honorably.

If honor is all-good, then what can we make of the idea that honor for some means killing others? For example, a news report came out of Pakistan this week that a man set fire to a home, burning alive his two daughters, their four children, and the husband of one of the daughters, because one daughter had married for love against her father’s wishes. That was his way of restoring his honor, and in fact, honor killings across the world (even here in the U.S.) murder about 5,000 females a year.

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Readers might automatically equate such acts with Islam, but I don’t want to point that finger, because killing in the name of honor is far more complex (and honor in Islam is far more complex). The Cambodian genocide of the 1970s provides an illustration. Researcher Alexander Hinton went to Cambodia in the 1990s in part to ask former Khmer Rouge, “Why did you kill?” What would we expect to hear if we asked such a question? “Because we are evil”? “Because killing is exciting”? Maybe in the moment, killing does become exciting. Maybe in the moment, people do become evil; psychological research tells us that most of us are capable of far more evil than we might ever imagine.

But in the end, those are hardly ever the answers we will hear, and they were not the conclusions Hinton reached. Instead, he determined that “Khmer Rouge ideology was partly based on preexisting cultural models of face and honor.” Six hundred thousand people dead: murdered, starved, or worked to death, for honor.

I think of the words of American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “Honor, like shame, begins with the desire not only to be good, but also to look good in the eyes of others, which is why it, too, comes in both healthy and unhealthy varieties. Duels, feuds, gang wars, and honor killings—based on the belief that respect is earned by your ability to do violence—have given honor a bad name. But honor can be redefined and made healthy so that it’s earned through integrity. A society without this sense of honor would be as bad as a society without healthy shame.”

Religion is, after all, just one part of society, albeit an important part in that it can affect how we all treat each other, for the better and worse that Bhikkhu mentions. As a study abroad student from Georgetown University wrote about her observations in Jordan, “it is difficult to extricate honor from religion or from conventional gender roles. The specifics of what honor entails vary for Christians and Muslims, but the basic concept is the same for both groups,” and she explained the characteristics of a typical honorable Jordanian man and woman. To be honorable in one sense is to conform to society’s ideals; yet isn’t it also honorable to challenge those ideals when they are outdated, when they marginalize some in our communities?

When I got Covid, I found the behavior of some dishonorable. Then I faced my own emotions – fear and anger – and realized how they were affecting my ideas of honor. What is honorable, what is right action– sometimes, as Facebook would say, it’s complicated.

Nancy Thompson is author of Touching the Elephant. She teaches comparative religion, history, and humanities classes at CCV and NVU.


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