Why learn about honor and shame? Here are four benefits.
I once saw a Turkish person read Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15). He read the opening verse about the son asking for his inheritance, closed the Bible, and declared, “That would never happen. Nobody could shame their father like that.” Honor and shame are essential for interpreting the Bible. People trained on the topic often say, “I now see honor and shame all over the Bible, as if I’m reading a new book!” The Bible was written in honor-shame cultures, so this is not surprising. The word “shame” appears twice as often as “guilt” in scripture, and many stories of God’s salvation center upon the restoration of status from shame to honor. Honor and shame also enrich our theology of key doctrines, such as sin, salvation, atonement, and hell.
Learning the cultural script of honor and shame enables us to meaningfully communicate honor to people. Though several years of living in Central Asia, I learned how food, gifts, indirect communication, and patronage could be leveraged to build kingdom relationships. Perhaps more importantly, I finally realized all the ways I was inadvertently shaming friends, neighbors, and employees! When honor-shame is the default operating system for life, failing to play by the code causes relational friction.
Shame terrorizes all people, regardless of cultural background. The fear of disgrace is not limited to Arab or Asian cultures. Shame was a part of the fall in Genesis 3 and therefore shame affects the entire human family. Addressing honor and shame in ministry training allows Christians to see how they personally struggle with shame. Shame and false honor are driving forces in our lives, even for Western Christians in ministry. Before proclaiming God’s salvific honor to unbelievers, we must appropriate God’s honor for ourselves.
Honor and shame are inherent to the gospel and essential for the Christian mission. Jesus Christ dismantled shame and procured honor for the human family. The church now continues the mission of God to bless all nations with God’s honor. This socio-theological reality impacts all facets of biblical mission. We spotlight three examples. Evangelism explains that all people stand ashamed before God, so all must abandon their pursuit of worldly honors and receive the honorable status of God’s Son. Discipleship empowers Christians to resist cultural disgrace and live for the glory of God’s name. Effective development increases people’s social capital, not just material wealth.
Honor-shame is indispensable for reading the Bible, building relationships, growing spiritually, and ministering fruitfully. Without a basic understanding of it, our cultural blindness threatens to compromise the gospel and limit the power of God’s salvation.
Originally posted at the International Missionary Training Network.