How Honor-Shame Cultures Confess Sins
How should people confess their sin? What form should confession take?
I was raised Catholic, so the the word “confession” means reliving those experiences as a mischievous little boy shuddering in a confessional booth saying, “Forgive me father for I have sinned.” For everyone, the word “confession” brings to mind specific experiences and forms. What do you think of as confession? How did your parents teach to “confess”? If your parents were evangelical Americans, then you were probably taught something like, “Look your brother in your eyes and say, ‘I’m sorry. I sinned against you. Would you please forgive me.’ “
In Western Christianity confessing sin usually involves 1) the verbal acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and 2) a request from pardon (i.e., “please forgive me.”) This approach to confession reflect Western cultural values. To clarify, I am not questioning the fact that Christians must confess, that is a biblical given. I am asking about the form of confession in different cultures. I heard a story from central Africa that may clarify:
A Christian man stopped coming to church (in part because he was too ashamed of his drinking habit to appear before other Christians). When he returned church one Sunday, he acknowledged his sin by sprawling face down on the floor.
The form includes voluntary self-abasement. This person was publicly shaming himself as he laid flat on the floor, thus physically representing his error of his way. He was lowly, dirty, and shameful, and was now acknowledging that before the church family. This chart compares approaches to confession.
Ezra’s confession includes many elements of the honor-shame approach to confession.
“When I (Ezra) heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.
At the evening sacrifice I got up from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle torn, and fell on my knees, spread out my hands to the Lord my God, and said, “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” (Ezra 9:3-6, emphasis added)
What should confession look in an honor-shame context? No one person can answer this question, as it is ultimately a decision of the local church community. How people sincerely “acknowledge sin” will be informed by cultural practices. So this is only suggestive.
What forms/symbols have you seen people use to acknowledge wrongdoing? Have you seen someone try to confess, but it not be received because they were confessing “the wrong way.”
A common perception of honor-shame cultures is “they always hide sin to save face.” I’m not claiming honor-shame cultures are the most forthright, but I have seen multiple times when Westerners failed to notice the alternative ways other cultures acknowledge wrong.
Confessional Photo: PAP/Marcin Bielecki
Read more in this series, “Honoring Theology“:
The form of confession in Kenya varies from either one church body to another, or from denomination to another. In mainstream churches historically started by Western missionaries or agencies share the same Western form as you’ve described in the post. However, newer church movements, such as Charismatic/Pentecostal, and African Initiated Churches, confession of sin(s) has a public debasing/disgracing of one self to it. For some new church movements that I am farmiliar with, it involves coming to church with sackcloth, lieing prostrate before the church congregation and then the pastor comes forward to lift up the head of the person/people confessing.
Thanks Martin for describing the different forms you’ve seen in Kenya. That is a vivid example of the contrast.
Thank you keep more post like this one coming. The chart provided in this article is very helpful, especially for people like we seeing to do culturally appropriate evangelism with H/S culture people.
Loved the “3D Gospel” book. Be encourage and keep up the good work.
I could write extensively on this as it has developed into a large part of our study and consideration within the honour/shame context.
While the public shame element is often seen it is normally related to sin that has already been found out/exposed. Confession of sin that others don’t know about is extremely rare because as Puritan Thomas Watson said in his book on Repentance – confession is “self-accusing”….ie it is self-shaming. It can also expose something that would in turn shame the family. In a culture where shame is the ultimate sin, this creates a problem – instead of confession bringing release, it brings more shame.
A deep awareness of God’s removing our shame in Jesus when sin is confessed, through addressing this specifically in discipleship, is needed.
We are realising, as hard as it is, for many reasons, there needs to be verbal confession as well as any other demonstrations.
Recently watching a YouTube video by Zimbabwean Stephen Lungu who was a notorious gun and knife wielding gang leader before he was saved, it was interesting to note how he emphasised the importance of verbal confession.
Interestingly Ezra did both – he got down on the ground and he ‘said’……and what he said included both references to shame and guilt.
Our Western confessions can sometimes be guilt focused and we ‘get it off our chest’, spit it out and get it over with – often with little sense of the shame elements related to damage to relationships both to God and to others. Here in Africa we see a lot of effort going into expressing shame and/or desire to ensure the relationships are ‘back on track’ and in harmony again, but often without any specific reference to or discussion of the sinful act that caused the damage to the relationship.
Often an ignoring of that act results in a pseudo relationship restoration with ongoing fear that the person may still bring it up or expose it again later.
Very nice post and comments that follow. All give good food for thought and reflection. Among other things it got me thinking about the root idea of New Testament confession (Greek ὁμολογέω or ἐξομολογέω), to agree, acknowledge, or say the same thing. And how this only conveys part of the idea. It seems that repentance (μετανοέω) helps fill out this concept with the idea of changing direction or as Danker puts it, “have a serious change of mind and heart about a previous point of view or course of behavior’, esp. in the face of extraordinary developments .” This is typically demonstrated by an action or at least there is an expectation that some action will follow that demonstrates that what went on in the mind, or expressed by the mouth, is real. Faith is seen to be faith by what we do and it seems that with true confession and repentance in scripture, a shame/honor culture, we see this vividly portrayed again and again. An action, falling on one’s face, sack cloth and ashes, more fully portrays our confession and repentance, and demonstrates that we are serious. Ezra captures this and of course there are many other examples.
Thanks again. Great food for thought and rumination. I know this only scratches the surface but is worth considering.
In the Asian culture I work in, I find that younger disciples do not express verbally or non verbally anything
when sorrow is expressed over the results of a sin (like lying about their leader) or
when concern is expressed about work not done and how the work done could bring positive results or not done could bring negative results or
when asked what is the truth when a lie has been discovered.
(To give a few examples)
I see now how confronting these issues is guilt-based culture.
Is it important to help young disciples see sin and its consequences and give them opportunity to make things right and give hope that they are forgiven and can do better in the future?
Is it important to teach people to evaluate their work and how they can improve it?
Is it important for someone to tell the truth when they have lied? Is it important for them to know that it is safe to tell the truth and that they will still be loved and forgiven either way? Must we trust someone who lies to us?
What is the best way to help people become teachable, more pure, excellent in their work, and honest in shame/honor culture, in addition to the wonderful qualities they already possess of loyalty and harmony in relationships and value for people?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if repentance is expressed, as long as a change is found in their behavior. Such difficult things to understand and navigate! Wondering if I can succeed?