Work & Vocation in Honor-Shame Cultures

 This post was originally published at the Washington Institute‘s Missio blog.  

Is our work sacred? Does God “see” what you and I do from 8am – 5pm? Beyond the paycheck, do our jobs mean something?mongolian_woman-300x199
In our ever secularized world, contemporary Christians seek to recover and restore sacredness to everyday life. Christian theologians now discuss the spirituality of work, rest and the Sabbath, and even food. When Western culture deconstructs notions of purity and holiness, life feels dreadfully common and ordinary. Rather than restuffing traditional religious practices, recent theologies examine the sacredness of life’s many facets, including what we tend to think of as merely pedestrian. The gospel is the public declaration of Jesus’ lordship over all of creation and every aspect of life. Therefore, the gospel must reformulate our theology of work.

Yet, as I see it, many of the conversations of vocation and work are largely and markedly contextual, predominantly taking place within and being lead by those from Anglo contexts (although there are exceptions to this). Highlighting the cultural underpinnings does not in any way delegitimize the topic. Nevertheless, I believe it is important for us to think through how to frame the conversation for the encouragement of Christians globally, including those in and from honor-shame contexts. To enhance our understanding of vocation, it may help to consider views of work and vocation from outside Western contexts. So why have questions of vocation been largely Anglo-driven?

For one, the cultural assumption behind theologies of vocation is “I am what I do.” Westerners derive existential value from “doing.” Our identity is no longer community- or family-based, but work- and hobby-based. If I am what I do, then what I do from 8-5 is a central part of my identity. We long to confirm that our work — the basis of our being — is rooted in the divine, contributing to the gospel and the furtherance of the kingdom of God. We ask, “How do we follow Jesus as a barista, or accountant?” That longing is pressing and legitimate for Western Christianity.

Honor-shame cultures – i.e., group-oriented cultures prominent throughout the Majority world — assume “I am who we are.” Identity derives from group belonging – from being and relatedness, not from doing. Asian cultures introduce themselves by family name, not job position. “Is my group acceptable?” animates non-Westerners more than “Is my work acceptable?” For this reason, for instance, Asian-American Christians theologize more on race and ethnicity, asking, “How can we follow Jesus as a Korean-American, or ABC (American-born Chinese)?” The basis of our identity directs our theological reflection, for all peoples. So how do honor-shame cultures perceive work?  Some reflections:
  1. Globally, most honor-shame contexts are financially disadvantaged. Work is more about survival than vocation. Many people long to just work, regardless of its social or spiritual meaning.
  2. At a cultural level, people view profession as a means to honor. A primary benefit of work is the status it confers upon the family. Children sense parental expectations to select a prestigious career, as it reflects on and advances the family’s reputation. Or, refugees from middle-class backgrounds may refuse entry-level positions or manual work upon resettlement into America because of the shame associated with those jobs. The public status of a job can overshadow the salary or personal fulfillment derived from it.
  3. Honor-shame cultures value work, but for different reasons. Work demonstrates commitment to extended family by material provisions. Honor-shame peoples working in Diaspora dedicate most earnings towards remittances, gifts, and public celebrations. Work becomes a symbol of loyalty and allegiance to the family, particularly as parents age into retirement. Work is a way of honoring parents, especially in immigrant families where great sacrifices were made for the future generation. As people share earnings communally, work serves to advance group interests more than personal fulfillment or net worth. Work is good when it allows one to enhance family relationships. In this way, work assumes gospel significance; it cements family networks.
  4. Christians from an honor-shame context value work and labor, but questions of vocation and calling tend to be linked more to ethnicity than profession. Consider the story of Esther and Mordecai. Their jobs in the royal court were a means to enhance their ethnic and family bonds. They expressed their faithfulness to the community above the employer, in a redeeming manner. Western Christians typically link vocation with work, but perhaps we could benefit from also linking our vocation to our community, family, or ethnicity, in addition to work. Vocation can be “connecting our work to God’s work” and “connecting our family to God’s family.”

resources for Majority World ministry

4 Comments on “Work & Vocation in Honor-Shame Cultures

  1. Saints – this is excellent – so grateful for your insight vs the fierce independent Corinthian spirit of the west…

    Marc White, Director

  2. I greatly appreciate these blogs. Very perceptive and well written.

    Another dimension for the above is that because honor-shame societies tend to be interdependent, people look more to relationships for survival than to their abilities. This is reflected both in their orientation to those below them and above them in their hierarchies, but also in their theology. For example, for Muslims in many Asians societies credit for food on the table goes to God, not to their own efforts. There is therefore a constant reinforcing of the necessity for humility before the one who provides.

  3. Mark great point about how the interdependence that is built into collectivistic, honor-shame cultures fosters humility before God and others. When relationships are a matter of survival, you see your need for others. That is a great check for Western readers coming from a culture that prides itself on self-accomplishment and rugged individualism.

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