SOTM: Background, Part 2 (Honor)

SOTMHonor Culture

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.

For example,

(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.

Just so,

(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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to SOTM: Background, Part 2 (Honor)

  1. Wonder how many comments you’ll get on this serious series? I’d imagine it’ll not be as many as your posts on baptism!

  2. Dwight says:

    I’m not sure your statement of “but in that culture, good works were often done solely to gain a good reputation in the community” is entirely correct in that doing good could bring honor, but many thought that status in the society brought honor as well, kind of like today. So good was a relative thing as if I do good and am good at work, I will be honored with more money, even though this good may or may not help others. The higher I rise, the more honorable.
    Of course I could attain an honorable status by not doing good and being devious, but by being good at it, kind of like a lawyer or a politician. Had to throw that in there.
    If we do bad things we should be hit with guilt and be convicted, Paul felt this even as He worked as a Christian, in that he felt He had a lot to make up for. He might have been free from his past sins, but he still felt the weight of his past and this pushed him to work harder.
    But true honor and glory may come unseen to those around us from God.
    We do need to seek honor, but by being honorable.

  3. Gary says:

    Jay, God’s will, or at least God’s permissive will, has frequently taken into account societal and cultural norms. God’s will for his people in this world does not often stand independently of the societies we live in. Today, for example, we would likely disfellowship a Christian who keeps another person in involuntary servitude. But 150 years ago such a Christian in the American South could have served as an Elder.

  4. Gary says:

    To give another example, fifty years ago Churches of Christ understood God’s will concerning divorce and remarriage to require a strong disapproval of or even refusal of Christian fellowship to many divorced and remarried persons. That was in accord with the prevailing norm of American society, or at least the church-going segment of it. Society changed and today most Churches of Christ will accept divorced and remarried persons as members without regard to their previous marital history. The change in our understanding of the relevant scriptures on divorce and remarriage occurred roughly in tandem with societal change. Our understanding of what God’s will requires of us or allows us is heavily influenced by the culture we live in. We really cannot understand God’s will for us apart from the tenets and presuppositions of our society.

  5. Gary says:

    Some of the cultural assumptions behind Jesus’ teaching in the SOTM are strikingly different from those of many Christians today. Matthew 6:2,3 is based on an assumption that of course followers of God will regularly be giving alms or assistance to the poor beyond their own family members or friends. Today Christians can go years and years without giving any alms to the poor without feeling that anything is missing from their practice of religion. In fact, the societal norms and presuppositions of much of conservative Christianity today are more likely to lead Christians to criticize the poor for being poor and hypothesize about the mistakes they have made that have caused them to be poor, all without the thought of giving alms ever coming to mind. While this contemporary mindset needs to be challenged it’s difficult to see God condemning selfish Christians today who can’t see outside of their cultural assumptions and norms. In their understanding they are leading godly lives so they are penitent even in their disobedience.

  6. Dwight says:

    I believe it was God’s attemtp to create a Christian culture due to the fact that we have statements such as “because of me the the world will hate you” and Christians were different and set apart, not by dress, but by actions or at least should be. Unfortunately many of us sometimes get left in the dust by non-Christians in regards to love and charity and treting others with kindness.
    Back to the Christian culture. The Jewish culture was supposed to be set apart by many things that were reflective of the Jews, but this Jewish culture was not fashioned by man, but by God. The same with the Christian culture…we should be fashioned not by man, but by God. Many of the things a Christian will do will probably fly in the face of the non-Christian, like assembling and partaking of the Lord’s Supper, etc, as only a saint would understand why one would do these things in the first place. In many respects the surrounding wordly culture shouldn’t change Christianity…Christianity should change surrounding worldly culture, but then again the Christian culture that is offered should worth changing to.

  7. Mark says:

    Jews and later Christians had ten big rules to set them apart. In liturgical churches, these are still read every Sunday individually or the summary of them offered by Jesus which says to love G-d and love your neighbor as yourself and on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. Either way, these were regarded as too simple and while followed by all of Judaism and Christianity and did not often make it into a cofC sermon because they did not set the cofC apart like IM and the little “c” did.

  8. Dwight says:

    I beg to differ as we do often read about loving God and loving one another, but what I find is that we don’t often teach the how or application, at least on the loving one another aside from just showing up at assembly and doing it there, never extending beyond the brethern. Now we do teach that we are to love God and the ways we do it or show it is by prayer, singing, the Lord’s Supper, etc., but again we often fail when it comes to showing our love towards God by showing our love towards others that God showed His love towards…the sinners and those not of the flock or those not like us.
    IM is simply a point of opinion that was elevated to a point of sin among some.
    The little “c” was to place Christ as the big “C” of which the little “c” belongs to.
    Culturally the Jews looked and acted differerntly from the Jews and the Greeks/Romans in many things, but it was less about how they looked and more about what they did and how they spoke…Christian character shined through and was evident to all in the fruits of the Spirit.

  9. John says:

    I would like to follow Gary”s line of thought with an example of my own.

    I remember a Preacher’s Forum at Harding during the seventies that focused on Elders. During the open forum someone asked the panel how a church could remove an unqualified elder. One of the speakers walked to the podium and announced loudly, “You have to shoot him”. Well, the place rang with laughter; I laughed. Everyone thought it was hilarious.

    That was acceptable in the seventies; today, with so many children and innocent lives lost to gun violence, a statement like that would be absolutely wrong.

    A closing note. I pray for the day when the majority of conservative evangelicals no longer hold to the view that the master/slave passages INFER that slavery does not necessarily have to be an evil. That if a nation, either through war or other grave problems, found itself a slave holding society, a Christian could hold slaves if the Christian treated them gently. It is a view silently, yet widely held, But, once we as a society learn how monstrous a practice is, there can be no going back, no justification.

  10. Dwight says:

    Things are evil, until God says they are evil or until we turn that thing into an evil. Often we take something that is basically good or benign and twist it till it reflects us and our hearts. Slavery was accepted in the scriptures and slaves in the NT were told to return to thier master, but the master was told to accept the slave as a brother. The slave/master relationship was retained, but the slave and the master were called to love one another within that relationship. Back then cutting a slave loose resulted in no place to eat or sleep and within at least God’s law the slave had rights, could have a family, etc. We call God master, so we must understand that we are to be a slave, at least in the aspect of the relationship. But God is also our father, but still we are as children to do His will. However we describe it God is on top and we are on the bottom and only God can lift us up when we are a “good and faithful servant.” This master just happens to love his servents.

  11. R.J. says:

    So Easterners have a communal conscience while we Westerners have a personal conscience?

  12. R.J. says:

    The Pharisees probably abused the so-called exception in honor-killing. They probably falsely inferred that honor even lays aside God’s command “Do not Murder”! They also believed that murder doesn’t happen unless or until the victim actually dies. Thus you could physically and verbally assault someone maliciously-even plotting their demise. But unless one actually gives up the ghost, no murder has taken place.

    So Jesus was not giving a new definition of murder. But was merely restoring it’s true meaning. Both in light of it’s Hebrew definition(witch includes premeditated murder) as well as the whole of scripture(e.g. fighting that leads to indirect death).

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