Understanding the culture scale, Risk/Caution, through the lens of honor & shame

God Calls Abraham, State 2 by Wencelas Hollar (1607-1677)
God Calls Abraham, State 2 by Wencelas Hollar, 1607-1677 (public domain)

You can take a quantum leap in understanding your cross-cultural ministry partner by understanding the five basic culture scales. Today’s focus:
Risk/Caution

According to Brooks Peterson in Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures, there are five basic culture scales. They are: 1) Equality/Hierarchy, 2) Direct/Indirect, 3) Individual/Group, 4) Task/Relationship, and 5) Risk/Caution. Previous posts focused on the culture scale of Equality/Hierarchy … and Direct/IndirectIndividual/Group … and Task/Relationship. In this post, we are looking at Risk/Caution, which refers to the degree to which people embrace change, risk, and the future—versus stability, caution, and the past.

According to Peterson:[1]

A risk style refers means people prefer to

  • make decisions quickly with little information,
  • focus on present and future,
  • be less cautious—in a “ready, fire, aim” way,
  • change quickly with out fear of risks,
  • try new and innovative ways of doing things,
  • use new methods for solving problems,
  • have fewer rules, regulations, guidelines, and directions, and
  • be comfortable changing plans at the last minute.

A caution style means people prefer to

  • collect considerable information before making a decision,
  • focus on the past,
  • be more cautious—in a “ready, aim, aim, fire” way,
  • change slowly and avoid risks,
  • want more rules, regulations, guidelines, and directions
  • refer to past precedents of what works and what doesn’t,
  • stick to proven methods for solving problems, and
  • not change plans at the last minute.

An example from Scripture: God calls Abraham

The calling of Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 represents God’s command for a radical departure in the life of one man living in the ancient Near East. This “radical departure” is not simply a departure from one land to another. It is also a departure from one way of thinking to another: From caution to risk from past to future … from familybased honor to God-given honor. Knowing that the ancient Near East was thoroughly rooted in the culture of honor and shame, it is helpful to understand these verses from that perspective.

Here is my two-part thesis:

  1. God called Abraham to leave his family in the land of Ur and all of the familiar, traditional, family-based honor that went with that—to a life of honor that is of a much greater magnitude: honor bestowed by God himself.
  2. While God’s call constituted the risks of a radical departure in geography, faith and worldview, it nevertheless retained as a central motivation for both God and Abraham—the pursuit of honor and glory.

Here are the verses:

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

(Genesis 12:1–3 ESV)

When God told Abram to leave his country, his kindred and his father’s house, God was telling him to leave his core identity—to abandon his very source of honor, or manhood—in exchange for another. All of the wealth and honor of a man in the ancient Near East consisted of land and family—land because their wealth would be based largely on the number of livestock they would have (camels, sheep, goats, etc.)—and family because it was through family, that is, blood relations, father to son, that wealth and honor was passed from one generation to another. The command by God to leave all this comprised for Abram an unthinkable risk. In his book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill has a chapter about this called “The Journey in the the Dark: The Unaccountable Innovation.” In regard to Genesis 12:4, “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him…,” Cahill writes:

So, “wayyelekh Avram” (“Avram went”)—two of the boldest words in all literature. They signal a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the long evolution of culture and sensibility. Out of Sumer, civilized repository of the predictable, comes a man who does not know where he is going but goes forth into the unknown wilderness under the prompting of his god. … Out of mortal imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, something—in the future.”[2]

The point is this: What Abram (or Avram) did in response to God’s call, was for him a tremendous risk, and constituted a huge counter-cultural act of boldness because it violated the traditional way that men accrued and preserved their honor. Despite this great risk, consider the honor-laden rewards that Abram would receive by believing God’s promise and by acting in obedience:

  1. “to the land that I will show you”—God was promising Abram that, although he was to leave the honor of his father’s land, Abram would gain the honor of another land. This was made plain in later revelations from God that this ‘promised land’ was to be the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:18–21, Gen. 17:8).
  2. “I will make of you a great nation”—this was God’s promise that, although Abram had no son, had no heir, and therefore had none of the highly-prized honor that comes by having a son to carry on his name—Abram would nevertheless, according to God’s promise, be the father of a great nation.  Further promises from God revealed that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5). God also said, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:6). God’s promise to honor Abraham in this way is simply of inestimable value.
  3. “I will bless you”—this is God’s bestowal of divine favor on the man Abram. In the economy of honor and shame, to be blessed by God Almighty (Gen. 17:1) constituted an enormous accrual of ascribed honor.
  4. “I will make your name great”—this was God’s promise that Abraham would gain a public reputation of great honor. Abraham would become a man of renown and glory in the “public square.”
  5. “so that you will be a blessing”—this is God’s promise that Abram would become a benefactor. A man can only be a benefactor of blessing if he himself is a man of means; he must first himself be a person of wealth and honor if he is to be a means of blessing to others. God’s promise that Abram would “be a blessing” is another promise of honor.
  6. “I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonors you I will curse—this is God’s promise to pay close attention to the social, public dimension of Abraham’s relations. As blessing is to honor, so also is cursing to dishonor; this is a vivid acknowledgment by God of the public nature of honor and shame. God is guaranteeing that God will not allow Abraham to be shamed by his enemies. Again, this is an extremely valuable bestowal of honor from God to Abram.
  7. “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”—this is God’s way of explaining the extent of the honor which is to accrue to Abram’s account. God promises that Abram’s honor will not be limited to his own family, local community or region. God promises that Abram will ultimately have the weighty influence that extends to all the families of the earth—a global significance, global renown.

Again, from the cultural perspective of honor and shame, God is asking Abram to abandon the traditional source of honor (in that culture, a truly unthinkable act; this was a huge risk) in exchange for the honor that God himself is able to give. Remember the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22—in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son? This represents the climax of a lifestyle of risk which Abram lives out by faith in covenantal relationship with God—and which, in the end, is commensurate with the immense honor, inexpressible in value, granted him by God.

What are the lessons for practitioners of cross-cultural partnerships?

  1. With regard to risk and caution, it has been my observation that godly Christian leaders in the majority world may sometimes be more comfortable with risk than their western counterparts. Even though they may come from risk-averse societies, their faith in God, their walk with Christ, their knowledge of God’s promises may lead them to take big risks; this propensity for risk-taking may be greater than the western Christian partner. Suggestion: Try to assess your partnership in the light of biblical values more so than on the basis of cultural preferences. Pray together about risk-laden opportunities in the power of the Holy Spirit so that you can have unity of mind and heart. And don’t assume that higher risk makes it more biblical or spiritual. Practical wisdom is still necessary in all situations.
  2. The pursuit of honor and the avoidance of shame was core to the cultures of the ancient Near East. They are still core values in most majority-world cultures, especially in the Near East and Far East. I would venture to say that all Muslim peoples and all Eastern peoples have honor and shame as vital, core values. Suggestion: Do not underestimate the significance of honor and shame as motivation in the decisions made by your cross-cultural partners. When faced with a situation that puzzles you, look at it again through the lens of honor and shame, and see if it makes more sense.
  3. Remember that Abraham, even in his abandonment of his familial and traditional sources of honor, nevertheless was moved to obedience in part because God’s promises were heavy-laden blessings for immense gain in his ‘honor account.’ Suggestion: Because westerners generally live by a different set of values—right & wrong, not honor & shame—they may have the tendency to judge people with the honor & shame value system as being less than virtuous, or at worst, unbiblical. This would be a big mistake. Instead, practice “suspending judgment” and patiently, quietly listen and learn.
  4. The honor and shame value system is not inherently good or evil. God rewarded Abraham with great honor because of Abraham’s obedience and faith. I believe the whole Bible is written with the default cultural value of ‘honor and shame.’ I also believe that because of man’s fallen nature, the honor and shame value system can be very sinful and destructive. On the other hand, one could make the argument that the most biblical and wholesome of cultural values is the pursuit of honor and the avoidance of shame—when lived out through God’s grace and truth in Jesus Christ. Suggestion: When spending time with peoples of the majority world, learn to listen and observe how the granting of honor, the pursuit of honor, is core to their way of life—and to their way of glorifying God. You may be surprised at how this may positively influence your own walk with the Lord.

What do you think? What examples can you share to illustrate tensions that can develop in partnerships because of the dynamics represented by the culture scale of Risk/Caution? Please comment.

Note: If you want an assessment of your own personal cultural style, go to Brooks Peterson’s web site: accrosscultures.com. Select the link, Begin the Peterson Cultural Style Indicator. You will be able to compare your own cultural style to the general cultural style of the nation where you are engaged in a cross-cultural partnership. There is a fee of $50 for this assessment, but I think it’s an excellent investment in your understanding of the contrast in cultural styles and the adjustments which people on both sides of your partnership may need to make—in order to achieve greater understanding and a more effective partnership.

1. Brooks Peterson: Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures (Boston: Intercultural Press, 2006) p. 52

2. Thomas Cahill: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Doubleday, 1998) p. 63


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