Good news for all of us racked by guilt as a result of being raised Jewish, Catholic or Protestant! There is a whole different way to feel bad about ourselves, and it is called honor-shame.
of the individualist Western culture, we are used to feeling guilty when we break a rule even if no one knows about it. But that’s been losing its force in recent years. Moral relativism has made it harder and harder for us to feel bad about doing the wrong thing.
Don’t lose hope, however. We have another option. We can be more collective in our thinking, like most of the rest of the world. Shame can then be used to exclude us or make us feel badly about ourselves when we fail to meet group standards.
Remarkably, honor-shame groups have been hiding among us in plain sight all along. The military (think honor and code), street gangs (where to be disrespected can be cause for violence), sports teams (think awards and “respecting the game”) and small towns (which use gossip to curb certain behaviors) all embody an honor-shame culture.
Learning the language of honor-shame can help us, according to Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, in two other ways. First, it can help those who work in other cultures. The authors offer a wide variety of fascinating stories of mistakes and successes they’ve had in navigating this way of life from Nepal to the Philippines to Fresno.
Second, it can help us read the Bible with greater understanding because it is saturated with honor-shame thinking. Words and phrases like honor, name, praise, glory, renown, put to shame, disgrace abound in Scripture. From Cain’s distress over Abel to the way issues of honor-shame permeate Jesus’ parable of the father and two sons, from the crucifixion to the resurrection–this way of thinking brings fresh light and deeper insight into stories and concepts we thought we already knew well.
Neither honor-shame nor guilt-innocence is superior to the other, like being right- or left-handed. Both can be valuable and both can be misused. But if we are able to see when they are at work and how they operate differently, we may be beneficiaries of great honor and a clear conscience.