Every culture has certain standards that distinguish good and respectable people from the bad and disreputable people. Every culture has ways of compelling people to adhere to its standards. Some force adherence through guilt, some through fear, and some through shame.
In a guilt-innocence culture, your standing before others depends upon your level of guilt or innocence. Your reputation is measured by adherence to laws, so nations and cities and even organizations all have their laws carefully codified. If you break one of these laws you enter into a state of guilt and can only have your innocence restored by satisfying the requirements of the laws you’ve broken, perhaps by paying a fine or serving a jail sentence.
In a fear-power culture, your standing before others depends upon your level of fear or power, especially over gods and spirits. Your reputation is measured by the amount of power you gain and maintain. Fear comes when power has been taken by others or ceded through a failure to conform to society’s expectations. The way to overcome fear is to gain power, perhaps by offering a sacrifice (with the most costly sacrifices gaining the greatest amount of power) or by consulting with a shaman or witch doctor.
In a shame-honor culture, your standing before others depends upon your level of shame or honor. When you fail to maintain cultural norms, you gain shame and need to restore it with acts of honor. The greater the shame, the greater the act of honor needed to balance the scales. This is why we sometimes hear of honor killings in which a man will murder members of his family. The horror of bearing shame is greater than the horror of slaughtering his own child.
Every culture has elements of all three, but one always predominates. You probably see that western cultures tend to be guilt-innocence, southern cultures tend to be fear-power, and eastern cultures tend to be shame-honor.
The majority of the readers of this site live in westernized cultures and are most familiar with the guilt-innocence paradigm. Our nations have laws to govern every situation and to mete out justice to those who transgress them. When a person becomes guilty of breaking a law, we expect he will pay his fine or serve his sentence, and, once he has done so, we consider his innocence restored.
But today we are witnessing a fascinating transition as the western world assumes more of the distinctives of a shame-honor culture. We see this especially in matters related to sexuality. Advocates of the new sexual morality are attempting to pass laws that will permit new forms of relationship and codify new understandings of gender. These laws also forbid various “phobias” and forms of what they label “hate speech.” The goal of the advocates is to use the power of the law to force conformity.
But as they wait for the laws to make their way through the various congresses, senates, parliaments, they are applying pressure through the power of shame. And for many people, the power of shame has been enough to compel them to deny their former convictions and to embrace new ones. Shame is a mighty persuader.
In western culture today, people who maintain a good reputation in the eyes of society are not necessarily the ones who are doing things according to law, but the ones who are doing things according to a code of honor. The law does not forbid anyone from holding to biblical convictions on traditional understandings of gender or marriage—not yet, anyway. But society applies great shame to those who hold to such convictions. Reporters show up at their homes and businesses, their names are emblazoned in headlines, their friends and family members desert them. Such people then have to choose whether they will continue to bear this shame or whether they will perform an act of honor. Such acts of honor may be publicly retracting their position and apologizing for it, it may be marching in a parade. It will be some outer action that proves an inner conformity. Through that act, shame is removed and honor restored.
As Christians we take comfort in laws governing free speech and protecting freedom of religion. But pleading conformity to the law means little when a society has shifted to a culture of shame and honor. It is possible to be innocent according to the law but still bear great shame in the eyes of society. We see this very thing happening all around us. We have always known that persecution against the church would bring the possibility and perhaps the likelihood of falling afoul of the law, of being judged guilty for what God says is good and true. After all, Jesus himself was innocent but declared guilty and we should not expect to be treated better than he was. But perhaps we have not prepared ourselves so adequately for the possibility and the likelihood of having to bear great shame for what God says is good and true. Perhaps we haven’t adequately prepared our young people to understand and resist the conforming and convincing power of shame. We shouldn’t be surprised, though, because Jesus carried great shame and he has promised that those who hated him will hate those who follow him.
This puts the call on us to dig deeper than ever into the good news of what Jesus Christ has accomplished. We know the cross addresses our guilt, but it also addresses our shame (and, of course, our fear). Through the cross Jesus Christ took our guilt to give us innocence, he bore our shame to give us honor, he overcame Satan to take away our fear and give us power. The gospel transcends every culture and, in that way, has a powerful message for all of humanity.
As our culture enters into this time of transition, we may need to fine-tune how we think and speak of Christ’s work. We are adept at addressing how justification makes us right in the courtroom of God, and certainly this is great news. But in a shame-honor culture, the news that resonates even louder is the proclamation that Christ has borne our shame to give us his honor. It is this message we need to consider anew and preach in fresh ways. We need to let people know that Jesus Christ has provided all we need to stand before him with boldness and confidence even when we are judged dishonorable in the eyes of society. As the shame and honor paradigm becomes more prominent, we must assure ourselves and promise others that the good news of the gospel powerfully addresses shame.