The Shame Honor World View

(With our January 7 trip to India nearly here, I thought I’d run some blogs about one of the most basic theological differences between Indian culture and ours.  I have found this VERY helpful in knowing how to better communicate the Gospel to those from different cultural backgrounds.)

While the English-speaking world and Europe view life from a guilt-based world view, another large segment of mankind sees things through a shame-honor paradigm.  The Jews in Bible times viewed life this way.  The Bible talks about shame and honor four times as often as it does about guilt and innocence.   Countries in the 10/40 window today have this world view. 

Arab countries clearly are shame-based.  Family and tribal honor comes above everything else.  The pride of the tribal and national rulers is clear.  Offense is taken for the smallest slight, which is why there is always so much infighting amongst the Arabs.  It can be seen in the way those who are perceived to bring shame to the family are treated.  Fathers and brothers are required to kill wives or daughters who bring shame on the family by their sex or morals.  Their death restores the families’ honor.  The same is true of becoming a Christian.  The shame it brings on those around them can only be removed by their death. 

Asia, too, is shame-based in its perspective of life.  China and Japan are all about honoring and showing respect to those who deserve it.  Their society is full of bowing down, showing good manners and being respectful of those deserving of honor. 

India is the same way.  I am shown great honor in the way I am treated.  To do otherwise would shame those in a position to honor me.  I am showered with the best hospitality they have to offer, with shawls and flower garlands, with offers of help for whatever I am doing.  God is honored in their worship by entering taking off their shoes and the women covering their heads. 

Shame is to be avoided at all costs.  If a wife disgraces her husband by something she says or does, by not producing a healthy male heir or by some other dishonorable activity she is often murdered by her husband and/or mother-in-law.  Her sari will ‘accidentally’ catch fire while she is bent over a stove and she will burn to death.  This is accepted by their culture for it is the way shame is removed.  Babies who are born handicapped are often left to die for their imperfection brings shame to the whole family and often even the tribe.

If a student fails to get good enough grades in school to move to the next level they may take their own life.  That is true in Japan as well as India.  The pressure to succeed and bring honor instead of failing and bringing shame is very great. 

Because there is no right-wrong grid of absolutes government officials are often very corrupt.  They become rich at the expense of the taxpayers.  This wealth brings them honor.  However if they are caught and their corruption is exposed they quite often take their own life because the shame of being caught and losing their income is so great they don’t feel they can go on.  Corruption isn’t shameful, but being caught is. 

While our ethics are based on right or wrong which stem from absolutes in the Bible, their morality is context-sensitive.  It is relative, depending on the circumstances.  There is a growing belief in relativism in America today.  It exploded in the public arena as ‘situational ethics’ espoused by Playboy and other similar magazines. 

It is very hard for us to think in terms different than we always have for we have no frame of reference built into us to understand and follow that philosophy.  We can’t imagine not looking at things through a guilt-innocence, right-wrong grid.  They can’t imagine looking at things in that way!  Thus when we bring the Gospel to those with other world views but use our guilt-innocence paradigm, they don’t respond.  They don’t understand it.  It doesn’t speak to their needs.  They don’t feel guilt like we do so why should they need a solution to it.  They just don’t think in terms of right and wrong.  For someone else to kill their daughter would be shameful, for them to kill her if she is does something different than community standards brings honor.  It doesn’t make sense to us but does to them!

For us as evangelical American Christians guilt-innocence is the way we see everything, but even in America that framework is shifting with the younger generation and the unchurched.  As our culture buys more and more into the lie that there are no absolutes, that right and wrong are determined by each person just for themselves, than the guilt-innocence viewpoint loses its hold.  In America today we see it being replaced by a shame-honor system. 

Perhaps this is most clearly seen in teen culture today.  Things aren’t evaluated by right and wrong but by cool and uncool.  Certain dress, talk and actions are cool, thus they are honored.  Others are not cool, they are uncool, and thus they bring shame.  Everyone tries to fit in and be honored, not rejected and shamed. Their group of peers replaces family and tribe.  Being part of a cool group is paramount.  Rejection by ones chosen group brings shame and devastation.   People today aren’t asking “What should I do?”  Instead they are asking “Who am I?”  Am I acceptable?  Am I all I can be?  Am I getting all that is due me?  This is all about being honored and not shamed.

The greatest shame in shame-based cultures comes from rejection.  When a person is rejected by their family or tribe the shame can be overwhelming.  To be sent out of one’s home with nothing and have to beg naked on the street is a shame most cannot endure.  Death is preferable.

Jesus Himself used the shame-honor viewpoint to explain salvation.  The gospels are full of stories of Jesus healing lepers.  There was no one more dishonored, no one more rejected than a leper.  They had to walk around calling ‘unclean, unclean’ wherever they went. They couldn’t heal themselves, only God could do it.  By removing the same in their body and restoring them to honor Jesus was clearly showing He could remove the shame in our lives and give us honor instead.

All of Jesus’ many miracles of healing removed the shame of the handicapped and replaced it with health and wholeness.  The unworthy person is now worthy again.  This was Jesus’ calling card, proving to all who He was and what He could do.

He took away the stigma of Gentiles and removed their rejection, bringing them into a place of honor in Israel.  He healed a woman with a 12 year issue of blood which made her unclean and unable to even enter the temple.  He removed the shame of the woman taken in adultery and the woman at the well in Samaria.  He gave them honor instead of disgrace.

So we have these 2 perspectives of life: guilt-innocence and shame-honor.  Are you wondering which one is right?  If so I hope you get the irony of that question.  Only those in guilt-based systems would ever even think in those terms!  But since that is the way we think let’s try to answer that question in the next blog.

1 Peter 2:6; Romans 9:33  “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

How would you explain shame to someone?

When have you felt shame?  Why?

Do you still feel shame?  Why or why not?

\What advice would you give to someone who felt shame as to how to get rid of it?

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