Why Western Theology Neglects HonorShame

The themes of honor and shame are woven throughout scripture, and most of the world frames life in terms of honor and shame, yet they are virtually absent in our contemporary theology, This gap in Western Protestant theology is (partially) explained by an”anti-honor” bias within Western thought.  

These two quotes from significant Christian thinkers reflect the West’s negative perception of honor/shame cultures.

I had strong reservations about the idea of honor, since historically and sociologically I associated it with forms of life for which I had little sympathy.” ~ Stanley Hauerwas

The civilizations of the West have striven hard and consciously for two thousand years and more to liberate themselves from the thrall of honour (sic) and shame. …We accepted in their place a moral system where guilt and forgiveness are supposed to replace honour and shame.” ~Margaret Visser, in Beyond Fate, p 41.



Western cultures consider honor-shame societies ‘outdated,’ ‘old-fashioned,’ ‘uncivilized,’ ‘pre-modern,’ etc.  This is not just concerning shame – the obvious bad guy of the two.  We also blackball honor.  For example, Google generates 9,940,000 results for ‘honor killing‘ in 0.40 seconds.

At this point in Western civilization, we automatically view honor and shame negatively.  To dis honor is now standard thinking in Western worldviews.  We inherit a longstanding intellectual tradition that moral systems ought to progress from shame (bad) to guilt (good).  (Yes, we revere honor as a social object as evidenced in how we ‘honor’ our elders and veterans, but honor as a moral force defining social identity, structures, and morality gets dissed.)

The problem comes when our dismissal of HS systems leads to a significant hole in Western theology. Then we unknowingly export an “honor-less” theology to the Majority World.  See the problem? To engage and bless all nations of the world we must understand this intellectual DNA transmitted to us. Once our cultural narrative categorizes ‘honor-shame’ as negative and irredeemable, its challenging to restructure the Christian worldview (i.e. God, the gospel, salvation, atonement, Christology, eschatology, ethics, etc.) according to honor-shame values.    

If we think honor-shame values are culturally primitive and ethically unacceptable, we probably will not allow ourselves to look at God through those lenses. For Western Christianity, this represents a significant area of ‘cultural captivity’ and ‘theological blindness’. This is not the only reason for the neglect of honor-shame in Western theology, but this component of Western thought functions as a silent assassin, thwarting our ability to see all facets of salvation in Christ and bless all nations with His honor.

Do you dis honor, or honor honor?  What do you think of honor-shame cultures?   In what ways do you see Western culture (via movies, news, stereotypes, etc.) define the HonorShame elements of non-Western societies … either positively or negatively?  

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6 Comments on “Why Western Theology Neglects HonorShame

  1. Great thought! Good questions! Need to think on this.

    Is there a verb missing from this paragraph?

    “To engage and bless all nations of the world we must this intellectual DNA transmitted to us.”

    Thanks for these emails. Will miss you in So CA but plan to see you in DC

    • Thanks Roy, for the feedback and careful reading. It should read, “To engage and bless all nations of the world we must UNDERSTAND this intellectual DNA transmitted to us.”

      See you in DC!

  2. Hmm,

    It seems after reading Jesus and the Apostles’ teaching, much of it is meant for us to transcend the normal way of the world’s honor shame operation in favor of recognizing one’s relationship to God as being guilty and needing forgiveness. Of not caring what society thinks, that is, not being concerned with honor when Truth and Love are in conflict with honor and shame. Honor is seen as that which leads to dueling, to shedding blood when blood and life should be protected and a peaceful solution found. It seems, in short, that Jesus directly affected this aspect of Western culture.

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