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One Man’s Honor Is Another Man’s Shame

The Forgotten Commandment

I wonder if you remember a viral video from a few years ago titled “Asian Parents React To I Love You.” It featured a number of Asian young adults telling their parents “I love you” and recording their parents’ response. Why did this video go viral? Because saying and hearing “I love you” is uncommon in many Asian cultures. It’s not that Asian parents and children don’t love one another, of course, but that love and honor are displayed in other ways. These children were surprising their parents by something that would seem wholly unremarkable in many other parts of the world.

I have been sharing a series of articles on the fifth commandment—“honor your father and your mother”—and have come to the place where we need to speak about culture. We have already seen that children owe their parents a life-long debt of honor. But what we have only hinted at is that honor is displayed in different ways across different contexts or cultures. Our goal is to find ways that each of us can express the honor we owe our parents, but we can only do that when we have first accounted for cultural differences.

I have the joy of living in what may be the world’s most multicultural city. Even my own small church has representatives from at least 30 different cultures and much of the research for this article has come from interviews with them. Interviews included discussions with people representing Belarus, Canada, El Salvador, Ghana, India, Iraq, Jamaica, Philippines, and South Korea and the differences and similarities are fascinating. I will distill it into two broad groupings, two kinds of culture, each of which has very different expectations when it comes to honoring parents.

One Kind of Culture

The first kind of culture values autonomy and independence as high virtues. Parents expect to eventually regain their independence as their children leave the home and they look forward to a retirement of ease and entertainment. All the while their children look forward to gaining permanent independence from their parents. This culture tends to idealize the fun and freedom of youth while dreading the responsibilities of adulthood. Age is not associated with wisdom and respect but with fear or even mockery at the loss of physical and mental faculties. Aging adults dread the coming loss of independence.

This culture has few fixed expectations and demands when it comes to the ways adult children are to honor their aging parents. Parents may expect little more than regular phone calls and visits on major holidays. As parents get older, children may become involved in their care, but without being primary caregivers or moving parents into their home. Rather, as parents age there is an expectation they will move to retirement or nursing facilities and live out their finals days there.

When it comes to finances, parents are to support their children until they become independent, but there is little expectation that children will return the favor later in life. Instead, parents are to diligently save for their own retirement and fund it themselves. When parents do need to be cared for, that responsibility is distributed among willing children and does not fall to a particular child based on sex or birth order.

These low expectations are shared by parents and children alike. One interviewee said, “My parents told me that when they are old, we should just move them to a nursing home. They would hate to disrupt our lives in any way.” Grown children do not wish to interrupt their lives by caring for their parents; elderly parents do not wish to inconvenience their children by needing care. If there is shame in this culture, it is attached to parents who have not diligently saved to provide for their own care.

Another Kind of Culture

Another kind of culture values honor and respect as high virtues while dreading and avoiding whatever brings shame. These cultures respect the elderly and associate age with wisdom and authority while associating youth with folly. They often have terms or titles for those who are older and customs to show respect and deference to elders. These cultures place low value on independence and autonomy and much greater value on duty toward family.

Honor is displayed in obedience and sacrifice while shame comes from disobedience and selfishness. Thus even adult children are expected to honor their parents by spending time with them, by obeying them, and by both seeking and heeding their wisdom in major life decisions. And just as parents have sacrificed for their children, children are later to reciprocate with sacrifices that will benefit their parents. The actions or behavior of children of any age will enhance or diminish the family’s reputation.

There is typically a strong hierarchy within the family where the eldest son (or eldest child in some cultures) bears the weightiest responsibility for care and provision. It is expected that as his parents age, he will welcome them into his home, for this brings honor to both the child and his parents. To put his parents in a retirement or nursing facility would bring great shame to the whole family—shame to the child for not fulfilling his duty and shame to parents for not raising their child well.

Two Considerations

These are very broad descriptions, of course, but I suspect you can recognize the two kinds of culture. The first exists mostly in Westernized nations while the second exists within honor/shame societies and, in various forms, encompasses most of the earth’s population. The differences between them are pronounced to say the least.

One culture’s honor is another culture’s shame.

Consider this: A North American adult can say, “My parents live in a retirement home” and people will think the family has done something good and noble. After all, mom and dad saved diligently and can now afford to be in a nice retirement community; the children are content that their parents are cared for by professionals and surrounded by people in the same life stage. But if an Indian adult says, “My parents live in a retirement home” their peers will be horrified and think the family has done something woefully shameful. After all, the child is refusing to fulfill his obligations which demonstrates that his parents did not raise him well. Now those parents are cared for by cold professionals rather than loving children and they are surrounded by strangers rather than family members. One culture’s honor is another culture’s shame.

This forces us to grapple with a couple of considerations.

First, our cultural presuppositions may be wrong, but just as a fish doesn’t acknowledge the water it swims in, we have trouble acknowledging the role of the culture we live in. One kind of culture may demand too little while the other may demand too much. One culture may legitimize dishonor while another may idolize honor. As Christians we need to think carefully and biblically rather than simply accepting what the culture dictates. It is possible that Western children will have to make efforts to convince their parents they ought to be honored while people from other cultures may need to refuse to conform to some of the expectations placed upon them.

Second, we need to show honor in ways that are appropriate to our culture and meaningful to our parents while still remaining faithful to Scripture. Thus the way I show honor to my parents may look very different from the Ghanian or Cuban friend sitting next to me at Grace Fellowship Church. I don’t necessarily need to honor my parents in a Ghanian way and my friends don’t necessarily need to honor their parents in a Canadian way. We can and should learn from one another, but without judgment for what may seem like either dishonor or over-honor.

We will speak more of culture as we progress to a discussion of the particular ways we can and should show honor to our parents.

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