Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Summary: A text which explains the differences between guilt-innocence and honor-shame cultures, outlines a biblical basis for ministry in honor-shame cultures and discusses practical implications for ministry in these cultures.
Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. For those of us from guilt-innocence cultures (many from Euro-American backgrounds), our encounters with those from honor-shame cultures often leave us baffled as we fail to understand why we are unable to connect or why we have offended. Our globalized world makes this kind of cross-cultural understanding vital.
This is especially so with those engaged in mission in these cultures. Incarnational ministry means getting inside the skin of those with whom we are engaged in ministry. In this text Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker take us inside both honor-shame cultures and the scriptures and help us understand what ministry in honor-shame cultures might look like.
First of all they help us understand how honor-shame cultures are different from guilt-innocence cultures. Fundamentally, these cultures are about who we are in relation to others rather than what we have done in relation to a set of laws or principles. Honor-shame cultures manifest themselves in terms of patronage, indirect communication, event orientation, purity, hospitality, and social roles. Unfortunately, those of us from guilt-innocence cultures often see dependence and corruption, lying and deception, tardiness, rituralism, obligation and ostentation, and oppression. Can you see where things might go wrong?
Perhaps the highlight of the book for me was where the authors show how the Bible, written in an honor-shame context provides us a basis for understanding shame and for restoring and seeking honor. They trace these ideas through both the Old and New Testaments, culminating in the work of Christ in which he bears our shame, making it possible for us to be restored to honorable relationship before God.
The last half of the book works out the implications of an understanding of honor-shame cultures and a biblical framing of honor-shame for redemptive ministry in these cultures.
They begin with a spirituality of honor and shame, noting the great reversal of the gospel where pride equates with shame and humility with honor, and how this reshapes our ideas of honor and shame. A chapter on relationships follows with “Eight Commandments” for relationships in honor-shame contexts: 1) use a cover, 2) reconcile symbolically, 3) be a client, 4) guest well, 5) share gifts, 6) be a patron, 7) be pure, and 8) give face.
The chapter on evangelism begins with building bridges of honor in relationship and then shows how the gospel is a story of status reversal. Our problem of sin is unfaithfulness–disloyalty toward God that breaks relationship. Our dilemma is shame, a disgrace that merits banishment from God’s presence. God’s solution in Christ, is that his death is a bearing of shame that restores our relationship by repairing our honor. Our response is one of allegiance–loyalty to honoring God. The result of all this is that God makes outcasts his children and exalts us to eternal glory and honor. Conversion, then is often communal and involves the transference of allegiance, not only to Christ, but a new group.
Ethics is the pursuit of honor in a different key, which often involves humbling of self to serve. While to the watching world, this may be shameful, and difficult, it is motivated by the honor that comes in faithfully serving God. It is an honor shaped by pursuing glory, purity, and love. Finally this is pursued in a community that transforms shame by reintegrating the shamed into community, where forgiveness is practiced to restore relationship, and where leadership is practiced not from a position of privilege but rather service that seeks God’s honor.
The book concludes with appendices of key honor-shame passages in scripture, key honor shame stories, and a bibliography of resources for further study. Each chapter concludes with discussion questions that may be used for personal reflection, or classroom or group discussion. The book is written at a level suitable for an academic course on cross-cultural communication, but equally can be beneficial for churches and individuals engaged cross-culturally with those from honor-shame cultures.
The authors do not argue for one or the other frames being superior, and note that all cultures have a mix of these elements with guilt-innocence dominant in many Western contexts while shame-honor is dominant in most Majority cultures. While generalizing, they note that each culture expresses these differently and to understand honor-shame in one context is not to understand all. They liberally illustrate from experiences in a variety of cultural contexts, often at their own expense in sharing their failures as well as successes.
One of the big conclusions I drew was the priority of relationship. Rightness is not legal rightness, but being in right relationship in community, and with God. To build bridges of honor that communicate how important a person is to us, to give face, to restore the shamed all are biblical ideas but so different than doing the right things and having the right ideas. I also appreciated the thoughtfulness the writers showed in redeeming honor and shame, which sin may distort, providing paths of restoration, and better ways both to live for honor and honor others. In doing so, they move beyond cross-cultural understanding to cross-cultural mission with a gospel that is redemptive in every culture.