Social scientists speaks of two kinds of culture: honor (or shame) culture and guilt culture. In the West, most nations and people have a guilt culture. That is, we expect each other to be motivated to do right based on our consciences — our internal sense of right and wrong — and we expect people to do right even when no one else is watching.
Obviously, people sometimes fail to attain to our own standards, but this is how we teach our children, and if we run into people who don’t think this way, we consider them immoral or lacking character.
When we fail to meet our own standards, we feel guilty. We think of ourselves as having violated a universal standard of right and wrong. For Christians, we try to educate our consciences to hold us to the standards we believe God imposes — in secret, in public, whatever. Hence, we live in a guilt culture.
An honor culture is different. We considered this not to long ago in a brief series beginning with this post. In an honor culture, people are governed by what others think of them. The standard is imposed, not by the individual, but by his community, his family, his clan, or even his nation. They have little concern for their own consciences.
In such a world, it became essential[for church leaders] to define carefully who constituted one’s group of significant others—those people whose approval or disapproval mattered—and to insulate group members from concern about the honor or dishonor in which they were held by outsiders (Seneca Const. 13.2, 5; Epictetus Ench. 24.1; Moxnes 1993). If one seeks status in the eyes of the larger society, one will seek to maintain the values and fulfill the expectations of the dominant (pagan) culture. If one has been brought into a minority culture (e.g., a philosophical school or a voluntary association like the early Christian community) or has been born into an ethnic subculture (such as Judaism), then one’s adherence to the group’s values and ideals will remain strong only if one redefines the constituency of one’s circle of significant others. The court of reputation must be limited to group members, who will support the group values in their grants of honor and censure (Plato Cri. 46C-47D). Including some suprasocial entity in this group (e.g., God, reason or nature) offsets the minority (and therefore deviant) status of the group’s opinion. The opinion of one’s fellow group members is thus fortified by and anchored in a higher court of reputation, whose judgments are of greater importance and more lasting consequence than the opinion of the disapproving majority or the dominant culture (Plato Gorg. 526D-527A; Epictetus Diss. 1.30.1; Sir 2:15–17; 23:18–19; Wis 2:12–3:5; 4:16–5:8; 4 Macc 13:3, 17; 17:5). Both Greco-Roman philosophers and Jewish authors routinely point to the opinion of God as a support for the minority culture’s values. Both admonish group members to remain committed to the group’s values, for that is what God looks for and honors in a person.
Craig A. Evans & Stanley E. Porter, eds., “Honor and Shame,” Dictionary of New Testament Background, 520.
In other words, the early church worked to define a person’s household or nation as the congregation or church-universal, so that “honor” would be defined by the opinion of the church, rather than the surrounding pagan world. Honor in the eyes of God and his people should motivate, rather than honor in the eyes of one’s pagan neighbors or government officials.
A quick word search through the New Testament for words such as “honor” and “shame” reveal that the New Testament writers often wrote in these terms. We miss the meaning entirely, because to us “honor” is personal integrity rather than meeting the standards of the person’s community.
Honor cultures differ among each other, but the readers will be familiar with some examples. In Japan, honor can drive someone to commit ritual suicide rather than “lose face” — suffer shame in the eyes of others. In some nations, dishonest business practices or fraudulent scientific research is considered normal and acceptable — provided the dishonesty is not discovered. It’s the discovery that brings shame, not the actual dishonest act. Indeed, in an honor culture, people generally feel no guilt for their sins, only dishonor and shame for having been found out. Thus, the Hebrew of the Old Testament has no word for “conscience.”
In modern Palestine, the residents of the Gaza Strip insist on sending rockets into populations portions of Israel — often into the homes of fellow followers of Islam — for the sake of honor. To a Westerner, the attacks are futile, immoral, and self-destructive. But in their honor culture, fighting back, even futilely, is an essential element of honor. And many Palestinians would far rather have the honor having fought to the death rather than freedom, democracy, and material wealth.
Honor drove the 9/11 attackers to destroy the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon. The goals wasn’t to win a war but to demonstrate that vengeance remains possible. Regardless of the cost, the honor of Islam must be upheld by seeking vengeance for battles fought 500 years ago. And, therefore, Western offers of financial aid, schools, and freedom do not respond to the Palestinians’ cultural imperatives.
This is very hard for a Westerner to grasp, and if you’re struggling, go back to the series on Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes or read this article and this other article. It goes against something so central to the Western worldview, feeling guilty for doing wrong, that we cannot imagine a different way to think.
The realization that there are honor cultures is of fairly recent origin, and so many Bible translations, commentaries, and dictionaries were written utterly unaware of the challenge. But once we realize that the First Century Jews did not think like us, we are enabled to see the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) differently. Indeed, it’s filled with criticisms of their honor culture. I was, I believe, the SOTM that changed Europe to having a guilty culture — literally changing how we perceive morality and the goodness of ourselves and others.
Jesus was not just fine tuning his listeners’ moral compasses. He was insisting that they conform to God’s will regardless of the standards of their culture or families. He was teaching us how to have a conscience.
(Mat 5:25-26 ESV) 25 “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
To Western ears, this sounds like pragmatic advice: better to compromise than to risk a total loss. But to Jesus’ listeners, he was saying, “Don’t dispute for the sake of honor. Continuing to litigate for the sake of looking honorable to your friends is self-destructive.”
I mean, why would the Jews need God the Son to come in the flesh to tell them how to calculate risk-reward in a dispute? We Westerners think that way by nature. But in an honor culture, someone might fight a losing battle through every last appeal just to save face — and because the culture honors those who fight to the bitter end long beyond any hope of winning.
Do you remember Baghdad Bob? This was the nickname for Saddam Hussein’s press secretary, who stood in Baghdad shouting vengeance against the US for invading and threatening retaliation — while American tanks rumbled in the background. He was obviously defending a failed regime, and American’s considered him a hilarious example of denying reality. But among his people, his defiance in the face of certain defeat was considered honorable — a source of great national pride.
Hussein had most opportunities to avoid war and certain defeat but — for the sake of honor — refused all efforts at compromise, preferring a fight to the bitter end and certain loss to the shame of yielding to America.
(Mat 6:1 ESV) “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
We Westerners see Jesus as warning against pretension and pride, but in that culture, good works were often done solely to gain a good reputation in the community — that is, to gain honor — and that was considered commendable, not immoral.
We’ll discuss more examples as we go, and I covered several biblical examples outside the SOTM in the earlier series.