Www.HonorShame.com provides biblical resources and tools for Christian ministry in contexts where honor and shame are key values. We examine honor and shame culturally, biblically, and practically to develop a biblical missiology. HonorShame.com is the digital platform of the Honor-Shame Network and is hosted by Jayson Georges. Guest posts are always welcome. Be sure to subscribe for weekly posts.
About 90% of unreached people groups and 65% of the world’s population lives in honor-shame contexts. Despite the global prominence of honor and shame, Christian workers are often unsure how to fruitfully and biblically engage those cultural dynamics. Despite its primary importance in global cultures, honor and shame remain blind spots in Christian theology and ministry. Awareness of how God removes our shame and restores our honor in the Bible greatly impacts Christian ministry.
They are collectivistic societies that use the moral values of honor and shame to regulate behavior. Thus, people’s primary response to sin is shame and disgrace (not guilt). The primary motivation in social situations is avoiding disgrace and maintaining harmonious relationships. Life is viewed through the prism of acquiring honor for the community. Honor-shame cultures value hospitality, family, respect, community, generosity, purity, loyalty, and patronage. Honor and shame are present in all cultures, but especially the cultures of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Honor is the group’s recognition of a person’s worth. It’s like a public credit rating, where everyone has a score. Honor is when other people consider you worthy, valuable, and respectable. Honor is an abstract, social construct that can be hard to define precisely. Synonyms of honor include: face, dignity, respect, reputation, status, authority, prestige, and value. The OT word for honor (kavod) means ‘weight’ or ‘glory.’ The NT word (timē) means ‘price’ or ‘value.’ Western cultures often dismiss honor as medieval or archaic, but most cultures consider honor the defining essence of humans.
People feel shame when they violate community ideals and expectations, whereas guilt comes from transgressing laws and rules. Guilt says, “I did wrong, so I should confess and make restitution before I get punished.” Shame says, “I am wrong, so I should cover and hide before I get exposed.” The solution to shame and guilt are also quite different. Shame is removed by other people; the shamed must be restored by a higher person or reincorporated into the group. Guilt on the other hand is alleviated through acknowledgement or punishment. Once the perpetrator has made restitution, s/he is pardoned and declared innocent.
God’s view of honor and shame is not limited to specific verses, but pervades the entire narrative of scripture and nature of salvation. God has been working throughout human history to redeem people from shame to honor, so that He may be glorified as the source of honor. The Bible portrays God as the greatest advocate of our shame-removal and honor-restoration.
The Bible recognizes there are true and false varieties of both shame and honor. False shame results from social stigmatization and rejection, but there is objective shame which humans experience before God by virtue of our disloyalty and defilement before Him. Honor, likewise can be illegitimate (coming through one’s manipulation of society games) and legitimate in nature (graced by God, for eternity).
The Bible does not disregard honor-shame cultures as morally inferior or undesirable. Christians should not dismiss sentiments of honor and shame in cultures, but work to redefine what is honorable and shameful according to God’s code of honor. This is possible because Christ’s death saves us from our shame. For more about honor and shame in the Bible, see: top verses, Psalms, Proverbs.
Western theology typically defines sin as “missing the mark,” an individual transgression of a particular rule or law. But in honor-shame cultures such as the Old Testament, sin is breaking a relationship. Human sin involves dishonoring God by not observing the covenant expectations (Rom 2:23). People covet false honor through worldly channels, thus forsaking the status God offers. Sin bypasses God’s honor for an alternate means to status and identity.
Sin is an illegitimate claim to honor that brings shame at multiple levels. At its essence, sin dishonors God and disgraces his worth as creator (Rom 1:21–23). Sin despises God’s name (2 Sam 12) and fails to properly glorify him. Sin also brings shame upon the human sinner. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they hid and covered—the trademarks of shame. Sin leaves people subjectively ashamed and objectively shamed before God (Dan 9:7–8). The sin of other people also creates shame; when you dignity is violated, a sense of unworthiness or defectiveness often ensues. Furthermore, shame is recognized as a common cause of sin. Anger, gossip, violence, abuse, terrorism, etc. represent human efforts to restore honor, most often by shaming others.
God is working in history to remove shame and restore honor. So our calling is to join God’s mission of blessing all peoples with his honor. Christian ministry mediates and proclaims the glory and honor of God available in Christ through faith by grace. Establishing honoring relationships is the basis of all Christian witness.
In honor-shame cultures people may not be seeking to soothe their troubled conscience, but restore their tarnished reputation. Their main existential problem is shame. So explain how God exalts people from shame to honor through Jesus Christ. Because our objective shame before God is even worse than the shame we before their people, we need God’s salvation.
Understanding honor and shame also informs the means of evangelism. Honor-shame cultures tend to be oral-learners, hierarchical, group-oriented, and concrete-thinkers. So evangelism could use narratives, address heads of families, and incorporate concrete social examples to explain spiritual concepts. Honor and shame also affect the conversion process—people may reject Christ because of family shame, or follow Christ because of the new Christian community they will join.
Discipleship equips people to live out God’s honor. Jesus calls us to spurn false shame and false honor, and to live according his new code of true, eternal honor. Since we have eternal glory in Christ, Christians forgo cultural competition for honor to humbly serve. NT epistles like 1 Peter equip Christians to live honorably in all of life.