Shame and Honor, Guilt and Righteousness

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How do we know what is right and what is wrong?  Your answer will be different depending on your worldview. And it’s important to keep these differences in mind when we enter the world of cross-cultural ministry.

Here in North America and also in Europe (often called the Western world) we have a complex legal system based on guilt and innocence — a legal system that has direct effects on the church. Many of our church fathers were trained in the law (John Calvin comes to mind.) So in Western culture we tend to value truth, right from wrong, and individual rights.

On the other hand, in many parts of the world including Africa, the Middle East and Asia, truth and being right are less important than guarding honor and avoiding shame. For many people in these parts of the world, shame is a communal event that can increase or decrease the prestige of a person in a community.

The late author Nabeel Qureshi illustrates this example when he writes of a time in his youth when he would ask for a free cup of water and then fill it with Pepsi. In his eyes, under his worldview, there was nothing wrong with this until someone noticed and called him out on it. Then he experienced shame.

When we come together as people from different cultures and worldviews it is important that we understand these differences. This fundamental approach has theological implications.

Someone from a shame/honor culture will be more attuned to shame than to sin (not that sin won’t also be recognized just as in Western culture we also experience shame) but shame will be the main need identified.

Nabeel Jabbour, another author, tells of taking a Muslim friend to the movie, The Passion of the Christ. After viewing the movie, in light of Christ’s death on the cross, the friend responded with the words, “I am so unclean.” This is the language of shame.

When we share the gospel across worldviews, it is important to remember that Christ not only paid the price of our sin, but he also removed our shame (Hebrews 12:1-3) and made us sons and daughters of God, and even more we are made heirs (and as heirs are given the honor of the Father). This is truly good news!

One book suggestion for follow up reading is "The Global Gospel" by Werner Mischke, MissionONE resources, 2015.

For more ideas on connecting with your Muslim neighbor go to the Salaam page on the Resonate Global Mission website, leave a comment below, or contact [email protected].

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Amen!  The problem is, our theology in the West is not aimed at shame and cleanliness; It is aimed at sin and guilt, e.g. the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.  Therefore we are rarely effective evangelizing in the East.  But the Bible and ancient theology from the East does address our condition in this way.  Do you know any western theologians who are working in this area?

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Hi Kent,

Glad you resonated with this post. I know only of the work of Werner Mischke who I met at a COMMA (Coalition of Ministries to Muslims in (North) America) conference awhile back. But I would like to learn more about this paradigm. I think Christus Victor as an atonement theory has a lot of application in this area. If you learn of other theologians focused on shame/honor I would like to know too.

Please say more about the Christus Victor atonement theory.   Thanks.

 

 

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My understanding of Christus Victor as a theory of atonement is that it takes the focus off of the penal substitutionary death of Christ (not to say that is wrong but a different focus) and puts it on Christ's victory over evil on the cross. While the penal sub theory is more of a legal construct (guilt-righteousness) Christus Victor is more focused on a wholistic healing and triumph over evil - which also incorporates better shame - honor and fear - power paradigms. I also think penal sub theory tends to focus more on the individual (although certainly Christ's death has cosmic implications) while Christus Victor emphasizes victory over systemic evil and communal types of sin that lead to shame. So it takes us in some different directions. But one could also say that in penal sub theory Christ is not only paying the price of our sin but also covering our shame - so there is overlap. I'd love to reflect more on this.

A colleague turned me toward psychological studies on this.  Makes sense.  A name to pursue is Brene Brown.  She has two TED talks that are instructive here.  She points out that shame is quite common in our culture as well.

In general, shame says, "I am not OK," rather than saying, "I have done wrong."  Thus the solution is acceptance rather than absolution.  God in Christ sees us for who we really are, and nonetheless loves us, and is proud to call us his children and friends.

Community Builder

Thanks for the reference to Brene Brown. I should learn more from her. Practical theology is multi-disciplinary and we can learn much from these other areas.

I think that Paul Hiebert has written on guilt/shame/fear societies.

 

I would be interested on further reflection as well, on the shift that seems to be going on within Western society as well, in that it seems that the society is shifting from being a guilt based society to more of a shame based society. With the rise of social media, online activism, "doxing", etc, it seems that shame is much more of an operative power than guilt.  I remember from Lew Smedes' book that while guilt is a heavy feeling about what I have done, shame is a heavy feeling about who I am...in some ways even more fundamental and debilitating.    I wonder if we are losing ground culturally in part because we continue to use the language of guilt in what is becoming a society of shaming.

This shift makes sense to me.  (What is doxing?)   I observe a general loss of a moral center, or a moral authority.   I grew up in Christendom, but our society has steadily shifted away from honoring God or the Scriptures or even the Judeo Christian heritage.   Francis Schaffer predicted this in his spot on analysis in a book titled  A Christian Manifesto.    While growing up, there was a strong and pervasive sense of right and wrong.   That fits well with guilt and righteousness or innocence as the main axis upon which to measure one's standing in society.   "Am I a good man?"   Well, at least better than those fools on Jerry Springer.   But now, with a moral center as weak as "Do no harm" and "Seek your own fulfillment and pleasure,"  it would follow that the axis of Guilt and Innocence would weaken and the axis of honor and shame would strengthen.        

A question I would ask then is, "What does it mean to be an honorable person in American society?"   "What values does one need to uphold in society in order to be perceived honorably and to avoid shame?"   What is the measuring stick?

 

 God used The Global Gospel as a tool to help me understand shame and how to deal with it.   In the West we do not even see it, but it is there.  When Adam and Eve fell, what do they say?   "We disobeyed?"  "We are guilty?"   "We sinned?"  or "We were ashamed, so we hid."   When the Prodigal's son repents, his words are words of shame --  "I am no longer worthy to be called your son."  When Jesus touches the leper, He is showing His power to cleanse the unclean.  When He calls the woman bleeding for 12 years a "daughter" He replaces her shame filled unclean identity with His honor.    Jesus absorbs our shame and honors us with a new title.   He endured the cross, scorning it's shame  (Hebrews 12:1-2).   Thanks for bringing up this topic! 

 

Jesus absorbs our shame and covers us with His honor.   That is what I meant to say.   I like that idea of being covered with the honor of Christ because our tendency is to cover ourselves with fig leaves and hide.   But Jesus gives a covering that allows us to come out of the darkness. 

I love this reflection.  I had my eyes opened to this stuff a few years ago and have found it increasingly useful theologically and in pastoral ministry in a multi-cultural context.

Anyone wanting more should check out honorshame.com.  Some other resources include books by David DaSilva, Bruce Malina, Curt Thompson (The Soul of Shame), Robin Stockitt (Restoring the Shamed), and Roland Muller (Honor and Shame).  Wheaton College held a conference in 2017 on the topics.  In addition to guilt-forgiveness and shame-honor, there is also a fear-power ethical orientation out there, often figuring more prominently in animist cultures (See also The 3-D Gospel by Jayson Georges).

One comment on the post.  "Someone from a shame-honor culture will be more attuned to shame than to sin," sounded to me not quite precisely right, and might reflect a Western cultural assumption.  In parallel, what if we said "someone from a guilt-forgiveness culture will be more attuned to guilt than to sin."?  I'd propose understanding guilt, shame, and fear as people's emotional experience of sin rather than alternatives to experiencing sin.  What predominates in that experience will be culturally conditioned.  In addition, how people come to be aware of sin functions differently.  Shame is experienced through relationship (see the "Pepsi" example in the post) and tends to be more in operation in collectivist cultures (if shame gets individualized, it might be more like the fame-shame orientation pondered in Christianity Today some years back).  For people of such cultures, they may find it remarkable how dull Westerners are when it comes to group-incurred shame, perhaps, you know, because "they're more attuned to guilt than to sin."  Americans revolve ethics around personal responsibility, but we, and in particular whites, resist structural or group responsibility.  Westerners also have a tendency to equate right and wrong with law and legality, which can be manipulated to help us hide sin ("I didn't do anything wrong!").  Just as Westerners might complain that those in shame-oriented cultures don't feel bad until they're caught and so they suffer from a lack of "rule of law" (sound familiar in Middle East geo-politics?), those of other cultures may properly critique Westerners for not feeling bad unless there's some rule on paper and so Westerners suffer from a lack of social sensitivity and respect for others.  Finally, I am wary of any assumption that a guilt-forgiveness cultural and theological orientation is somehow superior to other approaches, or that Westerners are in a cultural position to understand sin better and thus have to translate it for others.  Instead, guilt-forgiveness is one part of the multi-faceted thing we call the gospel, but it needs shame-honor, and fear-power to be a more complete picture, and we will need Christians from around the world to gain that picture. 

That was a good catch.  I think I meant to say "guilt" but said sin.  But no matter.  I really like framing it a guilt-forgiveness culture. Previously I had used guilt / righteousness.   Do you have any thoughts on atonement theory?  It seems to me that Penal substitution fits very well with Guilt/forgivenss, but possibly Christus Victor might be more fitting with a shame honor culture.  Do you have thoughts on that?

 

Exactly!  The emphasis on penal substitution fits very well in a Western context.  We get legalese and external standards of law.  But for shame-honor contexts, I think the atonement model that I've seen somewhat developed is more like humilitation-glorification (Phil 2, and such thinking might provide some fresh takes on the Ascension), or possibly alienation-restoration (from a collective culture point of view, this has everything to do with shame-honor).  For the latter, Jesus' parables are thick with such themes - Prodigal Son, Wedding Banquet, Waiting Virgins.  Christus Victor probably corresponds better to fear-power cultures, and is clearly in operation in various sub-saharan African contexts that are seeing that Jesus defeats demonic powers and witch doctors, for example.  That might explain some of the success of Pentecostal churches in those regions.  There's a great layout of the key points on pp. 53-54 of the book "The 3-D Gospel." (And we Westerners love organized layouts!)  There, it suggests "satisfaction" as the shame-honor atonement theory, and notes that the satisfaction is actually a restoration of God's honor after He endured the shame of having His own creatures reject Him and become sinners.  

Ok thanks.  I've ordered some of the books suggested and will soon be able to see pp. 53 and 54!   Thanks for you thoughts on the Atonement theories as well.  I find this very helpful.  Again, if  you have good resources to recommend on alienation-restoration or humiliation glorification -- I would welcome that.  i would like to see how an author works that out.