An introduction to honour and shame

An introduction to honour and shame

If you’ve grown up in the West, honour and shame are probably not things that impact you very much. Westerners are not known for feeling shame deeply. If you do something embarrassing, that’s unfortunate but not that bad. If it’s funny, it may well end up on YouTube!

Those who have grown up in the East know full well what honour and shame are. They are foundational to most Eastern cultures. In essence, it means that your actions impact your reputation and the reputation of your family. When you do something seen as honourable, like graduating from university or buying a house, your reputation is improved and your family is honoured. When you do something shameful, like failing an exam or getting arrested, your reputation is lowered and your family is shamed.

You might have heard of the term ‘losing face’. That is connected to honour and shame. No-one who has grown up in an Eastern culture ever wants to ‘lose face’ or be publicly embarrassed. It is not easy, if you are from such a culture, to publicly admit mistakes or to take risks that could lead to shame. (That could be one key reason why the relationship between Australia and China is so rocky).

This is what drives the views of Chinese parents towards education, for example. Parents drive their children to work hard and achieve good marks. If they succeed, they will have a better chance of success in life and will bring honour to their family. That by itself sounds like a positive thing. The negative side, however, is that the threat of failure is massive. If the child does not achieve what the parents expect, they will be shamed. That is far worse than a Western parent being disappointed in a child; this is something that everyone will want to avoid.

Why is it important to understand honour and shame, even if it is not a big deal in your culture? For two reasons. The first is that the Biblical cultures were Eastern and dominated by honour and shame in ways some of our modern cultures were not. And secondly, because we live in multiethnic societies and have people whose lives are dominated by concepts of honour and shame in our churches. Understanding these ideas impacts how we understand the Bible and how we should apply it so that it truly connects.

Let me give you an example. In our church, we recently looked at Matthew 13:53-58, which covers Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus says in v57 that “a prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and in his own household.” We can skip over that reference to honour if we are not thinking in terms of Eastern cultures. Jesus, the most popular teacher and healer of the day, has returned to his hometown. We might reasonably expect them to honour their homegrown hero. Instead, he doesn’t receive honour. He is shamed. As they know his family, they cannot bring themselves to seriously accept Jesus and honour Him.

When applying this to Eastern cultures, we need to take honour and shame seriously. We need to see that because Jesus, our Lord, was shamed, we who are in his family should also expect shame. We might, like Jesus, be shamed by those nearest to us like our parents or our close friends. Most do not see it as an honourable thing to follow Jesus; many Asian parents will see the Christian faith of their children as a distraction from chasing the success they should be looking for in career and money and possessions. If we know that reality that our people face, we will encourage them that it is OK to face shame for their faith. It will hurt, and it will be hard to be shamed by parents, but it is more important to be honoured by God than by honoured by our family.

Honour and shame impact everything that people who have grown up in the East do. All who teach the Bible to a mix of cultures need to be aware of this so they can apply the Bible as strongly and helpfully as possible.