Why understanding “honor and shame” matters in cross-cultural partnership

Honor-and-shameUnderstanding honor and shame as a dominant value in eastern cultures helps us differentiate the “east” from the “west.” In the United States and other western nations, the values of right and wrong are dominant in contrast to honor and shame. Another way of describing this is to say that the west has “guilt-based” societies, whereas the east has “shame-based” societies. This contrast is extremely significant in the way people lead their families, order their lives, make decisions, and relate to others in their community. It is a core value for family, vocation, politics, religion … in short, for everything that matters in life.

An excellent resource for understanding the honor and shame culture of the eastern world (and the cultures of the Bible) is Jerome H. Neyrey’s Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. The opening chapters alone provide an excellent overview of the prominence of the honor and shame values which are entrenched in the eastern world, beginning with the ancient world of Greece and Rome. Here are some quotes …

Honor is defined as “the worth or value of persons both in their eyes and in the eyes of their village, neighborhood, or society” … “The critical item is the public nature of respect 
and reputation.” (p. 15)

[Quoting Aristotle]: “Now the greatest external good we should assume to be the thing which we offer as a tribute to the gods and which is most coveted by men of high station, and is the prize awarded for the noblest deeds; and such a thing is honour, 
for honour is clearly the greatest of external goods … it is honour above all else that great men claim and deserve.” (p. 5)

“It would not be an understatement to say that ‘honor’ as reputation and 
‘good name’ was endemic to 
the ancient world; hence, we hear classicists and anthropologists calling it a ‘pivotal value’ of 
the Mediterranean world, both ancient and modern.” (p. 5)

[Concerning Scripture]: “Whether we turn to Paul’s letters and examine his self-presentation, his conflict with rival teachers and preachers, his praise of certain behavior or blame of other, or his articulation of the status and role of Jesus—all of this needs to be assessed in light of the pivotal value of his world, namely, honor and shame.” (p. 15)

I believe that when Christians from the west are partnering cross-culturally with Christians in the east, then the understanding of the honor and shame value system is crucial to having deep friendship and a healthy partnership. This is but one aspect of the cultural intelligence (CQ) that believers need to acquire to be effective in a cross-cultural partnership.

In the next few posts, I will explore this further, and include some personal stories from my experiences in the Middle East that involve a partnership ministry which serves among various Muslim groups.

What do you think? I invite your comments concerning the significance of honor and shame in ministering cross-culturally.


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