Friday, 13 May 2016



Wrongly convinced that his wife, Desdemona, has betrayed him, Othello enters the bedroom where she is sleeping and strangles her with his bare hands. It is theatre’s most famous honour killing. There was nothing theatrical about the murder of the young wife Samia who was shot in April 1999 by an assassin hired by her own mother in the Lahore offices of a lawyer. Samia was trying to get a divorce.  And there was nothing theatrical about the murder of 21 year old Rania who was shot four times in the back of the head by her own brother in a poor suburb of Amman. Rania was unmarried, but pregnant. And there was nothing theatrical about the murder of the 21 year old Palestinian Sameera whose body was found stuffed down a well in July 1999. Gossips said she slept around.

Honour killings are very widespread: there have been recent murders in Afghanistan Bangladesh, Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey and Uganda. And they are numerous. The United Nations estimates there are 5,000 honour killings a year.

Three Victims: The Woman, The Man, And Honour

There are three victims in all honour killings. There is the young woman, brutally murdered in her prime. There is the male murderer, who like Othello thinks of himself as a man of honour, but who becomes a killer of the one weaker creature it is his duty to protect. And the third victim is the concept of honour. At the end of the play Othello is asked how people should view him. He replies – An honourable murderer, if you will; for nought I did in hate, but all in honour’

But how can the murderer of either a moral or an immoral woman ever be honorable? How can the words ‘honour’ and ‘killing’ ever be put together? If honour leads to a strangled Desdemona, or Sameera’s corpse being thrown down a well, surely this sort of ‘honour’ is perverse? All codes of honour must address the issue of sexual betrayal, both alleged and real, but there must be a better way, a more humane way than just brute killing.


It is Joseph, the father of Jesus, who shows us true honour when faced with apparent sexual betrayal. Like Othello, or Sameera’s family, Joseph was suddenly faced with a highly charged question of honour. The girl he was engaged to was pregnant – and Joseph wasn’t the father. At this point, when the evidence seemed overwhelming, Othello and thousands of men like him have allowed raw jealousy and revenge to blind them to kindness, and drive them to kill in the name of honour.

Joseph faced exactly the same inner demons. As a man, jealousy and revenge would have welled up inside him as he looked at Mary’s womb. And as an Eastern man he would have faced an overwhelming desire to protect his honour. Joseph was a carpenter, a respected artisan. His emotional life depended on what others thought about him. To lose their respect, was to lose his everything.

These emotions screamed at Joseph to kill – but instead he was able to hear from God in the midst of this personal crisis and so save Mary and the baby in her womb. This is surely what we would all like – that in the midst of our personal crises, especially in our own families and marriages – we hear the voice of God.

But how can we hear the voice of God? The story of Joseph teaches us that - hearing from God does not depend on chance, but on the disciplines you cultivate in your life.

What are these disciplines? They are all in Matthew 1:19 and 20. Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant – and ‘then being a just man and not wanting to humiliate her in public he decided to divorce her quietly. As he considered this, an angle of the Lord appeared to him’

Joseph had developed three crucial disciplines in his life, and it was because of these he did not turn into a raging murderer, but instead heard from God.

The Discipline of Kindness

Joseph was a just man. The Greek here translated ‘just’ does not mean the legal sense of the word; rather it was originally used to refer to people who faithfully performed their social and traditional duties. He was what Iranians call a true man, or what the English call a gentleman, or what the Medieval Age called a chivalrous man. This means that in his life, Joseph had disciplined himself to perform hundreds of small courtesies, and real sacrifice in terms of his relationships with others and society. He was a man, ‘who did not insist on his own way’, a man who could ‘bear all things.’ In short – he practiced  the discipline of kindness. And so when the personal crisis of Mary’s pregnancy suddenly announced it self, Joseph had already disciplined himself to be a man who knew how to sacrifice his own emotions and act kindly.

We do not know when a personal crisis is suddenly going to sweep into our lives, but they will come. So we need to ask ourselves –am I cultivating the discipline of kindness? Am I acting in a sacrificial way in the small details and the important decisions? Am I recognized as a kind person by my family, my church – and my local community whatever their religion?

The Discipline of Mercy

When confronted with his pregnant fiancĂ©, according to the customs of his day, Joseph had three options – he could have demanded that Mary be stoned according to the law of Moses, which treated fornication and adultery as the same (Leviticus 20:10; John 8:5); he could have quietly divorced her, and let her deal with the consequences of her pregnancy; or he could have taken her as his wife.

Joseph could not bring himself to marry someone who had seemingly lost her virginity to another man, but  he had a fundamental aversion to anyone being publicly humiliated. So he decided to quietly divorce her. However serious someone’s crime, a truly honourable man will never forget that all people, made in the image of God,  deserve respect. So when Joseph had an opportunity to publicly humiliate Mary for her apparent immorality, he instinctively held back, because he had cultivated the discipline of mercy in his life.

How happier our homes and churches would be if we all cultivated this discipline. It is seen in the Old Testament when the sons of Noah did not publicly humiliate their father when he got drunk and took his clothes off, but instead walked backwards into the tent where he lay to cover him up (Genesis 9:23). It is summed up in the New Testament, which tell us that  love ‘covers a multitude of sins’, and ‘does not rejoice  at wrong’ (1 Peter 4:8;1 Corinthians 13:6).

We need to ask ourselves whether we have this discipline of mercy , this rule, that we will never publicly humiliate or demean another human being, whatever their alleged crime. Rather we will follow the Bible’s command and show ‘perfect courtesty to all men.’ (Titus 3:2).

The discipline of kindness and mercy stopped the power of jealousy and revenge overwhelming Joseph. A final discipline enabled him to actually hear from God.

The Discipline of Patience

A final discipline that Joseph had developed was to consider his decisions. Matthew 1:20 says - ‘While he considered this (his decision to divorce Mary). Joseph thought, he pondered, he reflected very carefully on his plans. He was not the sort, condemned in Proverbs, to act rashly. He had seen off the demons of jealousy and revenge and had made what seemed to him to be the kindest decision in the midst of this personal crisis – but still he waits a little. And no doubt it was during this time that he committed his way to the Lord and trusted in Him, as Psalm 37 commanded him to do. And it was while pondering, that the Lord spoke to him supernaturally – ‘An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’ The rest is well known history. Joseph obeyed the angel and not only saved Mary from public shame and probable stoning, but also protected her while she gave birth, and when Jesus’ life was threatened by Herod.

But all of this happened only because Joseph exercised patience.  So often in life we want to rush and finish off a matter. We all find it hard to pause and pray. And in this rush, we can miss the voice of God, make serious mistakes, and harm ourselves and others.


Joseph saved Mary’s life, and showed future generations the path of true honour when faced with seeming sexual betrayal. The false code of honour that kills is fuelled by jealousy, revenge, and family pride. The true code of honour, as seen in the life of Joseph, is controlled by the disciplines of kindness, mercy and patience which leads to being able to hear the voice of God. May we all live as honourable men and women who hear God’s voice in the midst of our personal crises.

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