Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures

Shaming Shame- Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures

Shame is prevalent. It is everywhere. Not just in collectivistic, traditionally-oriented societies, but in western individualistic ones. Mark Baker and Jayson Georges bear witness to this in their Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures quite persuasively, although it focuses more on how those ministering in predominantly honor-shame culture can better share the gospel with the natives in those cultures. Both Baker and Georges have been missionaries at a considerable length of time in their life.  Baker was a missionary to Honduras, now teaching at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary; Georges is still a missionary to Central Asia, and both are Americans by birth and culture.  In this regard, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures is not just helpful for missionaries and those living in honor-shame cultures, but for Americans who have never left America, because America (and Western Europe) is no longer predominantly shaped by guilt-based culture, thanks to recent surge in refugee migration and influx of immigrants from countries all over the world.

The book is composed of three parts—cultural anthropology, biblical theology, and practical ministry. In part one (ch. 2 and 3), readers will get the basic facts about the dynamic of honor-shame, especially in comparison to guilt.  According to the book, honor is a person’s worth in society (40). What is shame then? It “means other people think lowly of you and do not want to be with you” (42). Because of this understanding, honor and shame directly affects one’s sense of who one is, whereas guilt usually has only to do with what one did, thus bypassing who one is, unless in combination with honor-shame picture. Also, measuring one’s worth by wealth, power, and what not, is what contemporary capitalistic system is all about, and this is why the authors argue that shame has become global. This makes sense. In part two (ch. 4 and 5), the book focuses upon reading the Bible through the honor-shame lens. In chapter 4, it begins with the fall and sin in reading Genesis chapter 1-3. Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shame is defined as the emotion of rupture coming from the first couple’s dishonoring God, “Man perceives himself in his disunion with God and men. He perceives that he is naked… Hence there arises shame… Man is ashamed of the loss of his unity with God and with other men… Shame is more original than remorse” (68). If this is sin, Jesus is the ultimate shame remover. In his earthly ministry, Jesus redefines honor through the beatitudes. I will quote the very beginning of the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-20 here: “Honored by God are those who are shamed for being socially dispossessed and underprivileged, because (believe it or not!) all the honorable blessings of God actually belong to them” (90). Not only did Jesus say things to redefine honor, he actually worked for honor redefined. In his dealings with the leper in Mark 1, he touched him to remove his shame from his life. “As the source of purity and holiness, Jesus repelled the shame of unclean leprosy. With the extension of a single finger, Jesus rewrote the entire social matrix of cleanness and acceptability” (97). And it is in this regard that in part three biblical salvation is defined as i) status reversal; ii) group incorporation (167). Because Jesus has lost his ultimate status before God the father, we have been adopted to be his sons and daughters.  Therefore, no matter how other people measure our worth to be low or high, our honor (our worth as persons) comes from God.  At the same time, through Jesus we have been incorporated into God’s people where the redefined honor is coming into being through communal living. The authors argue that 1 Peter is exhorting the persecuted saints that their honor is preserved before God, that even though they have seemed to be treated with contempt and shame, their salvation remains intact. Seen in this angle, if honor is all about one’s worth, and shame about one’s worthlessness, the task of communicating what is meant by salvation in the Bible is made much easier in contemporary cultural landscape. It is in this regard that part three also approaches other important ministerial issues, such as evangelism, conversion, community, ethics, and others.

And this is also why I believe that the points made in this book is surprisingly applicable to contemporary western culture. One evidence for that particular claim is Tim Keller’s ministry in Manhattan, New York. As is well known already, Keller’s presentation of the gospel is encapsulated very well in his book The Prodigal God. Surprisingly enough (or perhaps not so surprisingly), the authors in this book interprets the parable in Luke 15 in the same way, understanding the younger son’s fault to be that of suffering from false shame, and the older one from false honor, which is precisely what Keller was trying to get at in the book. Why is this interpretation of the parable from the perspective of honor-shame so well in 21st century urban Manhattan? We have a lot to think about (102-105).

However, this does not mean that contemporary western society can be completely understood through honor-shame lens, as it is also not true of other societies. As I read through the book, there were some fine lines between uplifting people’s honor and getting corrupt. For example, Georges recounts his experience of trying to get an official document from the government in Central Asia. In order to navigate through the bureaucratic hurdle, his friend told him to give a chocolate bar to the government official as a sort of a thank-you gift in advance (145-146). In American context, this might be taken as a sign of corruption.  Even I came from Korea, with the implementation of anti-corruption law recently in effect, I felt resistance to what Georges did. This might cause serious conflicts between cultures, and while Georges say that we should understand their culture, and this is not necessarily bordering on corruption, there is always an open chance for this kind of incident to develop into corruption.

In fact, they have devoted a significant section to what ethics is in honor-shame context, and this mostly clears up my concerns about the honor-shame lens being weak on ethics and morality.  According to the authors, morality in the honor-shame context is honoring others in relationships.  Authors are strong in saying that such honoring others should begin with God, who holds the standard for the substance of such honoring. Unless God becomes the standard, honor-shame lens could be easily bought into corruption, as with any other cultures, including the one based on guilt. “Transforming honor code is central to Christian discipleship” (216). What western Christians should be cautious about is their ethnocentrism, which Georges strongly warns against (140), for honor-shame culture can align with justice no problem. It is not so much a matter of intrinsic corruption as it is of our bias toward non-western societies, authors shrewdly point out.

In my reading, I felt that this book gave me a well-rounded overview of what it means to minister in honor-shame contexts. More than anything else, I think this book has opened up for me a new perspective into reading the Bible through honor-shame lens. I will keep on this endeavor, so I can have a deeper understanding of God’s plan in the particularity of human culture. As I said already, however, this book is perhaps too big on missionary contexts, that it tends to neglect what is happening in western society, which I would like to work on more. Overall, this is an eye-opening book for persons deeply steep in doing theology through guilt-innocence lens. I think it will provide a good opportunity to do contextual theologizing. Lastly, I close with a resonating narrative of 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, in which the perpetrators were Chechen immigrants. The uncle of the family said to the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators, this: “You put a shame on our entire family. And you put a shame on entire Chechen ethnicity…” We have to take note of the fact that this happened in the United States of America, not in a traditionally honor-shame oriented culture.

Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures