How does God’s Kingdom reshape morality and ethics in honor-shame contexts?
The most common proposal for Christian’s ethics in shame-based contexts is something like, “People should not care about other people’s opinions, but just do what is right. Get rid of all vestiges of honor and shame in morality, and replace it with a notion of absolute ‘right and wrong.’ ” I see several shortcomings with this approach to ethics in honor-shame contexts.
- This moral reasoning parrots Kant’s categorical imperative—a moral duty and obligation to act by “an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself” (wiki)—which presupposes Enlightenment cultural values.
- Making more rules and laws hardly changes behavior in honor-oriented societies, as Appiah discussed.
- This individualistic system of morality divorces ethics from relationships and the reality of community.
- In collectivistic contexts, not caring about other people’s opinion is itself immoral and wrong.
So, what is a biblical (i.e., socially redeeming and God glorifying) approach to moral change and ethics in an honor-shame culture? Christians should not abandon the pursuit of honor. They should passionately pursue honor, just the right kind of honor. The goal of discipleship is not to pivot people from shame-based morality to a guilt-based morality. Rather, the goal is to transform people’s notions of honor and shame so they align with God’s. God’s kingdom reality transforms people’s honor code. This is the exact strategy of 1 Peter.
1 Peter-A New Honor Code
When Christians’ public reputation was discredited through slander (2:12; 3:16), reviling (2:23; 3:9), maligning (4:4, 14), and suffering (1:6; 2:19-20; 3:14, 17; 4:1, 15, 19; 5:10), Peter relates how Christians have already been conferred with an honor status (2:6-7, 9-10). “As children of God’s family [Christians] too are honored with Gods’ grace/favor, sanctification, rebirth, inheritance, praise, salvation, redemption, life, goodness, blessing, imperishable crown, exaltation, protection, and glory—all images of honor” (Elliot, ‘Disgraced Yet Graced,’ p. 173). Then the final 3 ½ chapters of 1 Peter instruct Christians how to act honorably in an array of social contexts. Here is my paraphrase of 1 Peter 2:11-12, the letter’s main thesis:
Those cherished and honored by God, I urge you as marginalized and scorned social outcasts to refrain from cultural mechanisms to establish your own reputation (because that actually demeans your worth before God). Rather, make sure your behavior among the pagans is honorable in God’s sight. So, even though they scorn you and spoil your reputation, eventually they will see your respectable behavior and honor God when he returns to publicly declare who is honorable and shameful for eternity.
Here are 5 spheres of life where believers are to pursue a higher, truer honor according to 1 Peter. Observe the central role of honor in Peter’s instruction.
Marriage The world’s honor code: Marry for family status. Women’s worth is external and visible. Men achieve honor through dominance and force. 1 Peter’s honor code: Wives adorn your inner self, for this is very precious (i.e. honorable) in God’s eyes (1 Pet 3:4). Husbands honor your wives (1 Pet 3:7).
Offense The world’s honor code: When you are slighted, hold a grudge. Forgiveness is a sign of weakness. Create rivalries to accrue status. 1 Peter’s honor code: Don’t defend your honor. Follow Jesus who was offended but never retaliated or threatened (1 Pet 2:23).
Persecution The world’s honor code: Fight back. Don’t let yourself be humiliated. 1 Peter’s honor code: Persecution is not a disgrace, but badge of future glory. You should glorify God that you bear his name (1 Pet 4:13-16).
Leadership The world’s honor code: Exploit power. Extort people in lower positions. Control people. Demand respect. 1 Peter’s honor code: Tend the flock and do not lord it over others, then you will win an unfading crown of glory (1 Pet 5:1-4; Mark 10:42-44).
Followership The world’s honor code: Gossip, malign, bring down leaders. 1 Peter’s honor code: Accept authority and clothe yourself with humility, then God will exalt you (1 Pet 5:5-6).