Honor & Shame: Unlocking the Door by Roland Muller

Please Note: This is a Cross-Cultural resource specifically aimed at those in Christian ministry. However, it includes some helpful chapters about guilt/innocence, fear/power, and honour/shame cultures: if this is something you are interested in, but you don’t feel the book as a whole is appropriate for you, I would recommend Chapters Five, Six, and Eight which focus more on the sociological background and development of these cultures.

I have been to many training sessions based on the ideas articulated by Roland Muller in Honor & Shame, but it took me a little while to sit down and read the book myself as it is very expensive to get a physical copy shipped to the UK (it is much, much cheaper to get it as an ebook). If you are involved in Cross-Cultural work of some sort, the chances are that you will have heard the concept of guilt/innocence, honour/shame, and power/fear cultures even if just in passing. Yet it is a concept which we often still struggle to understand fully, and I know that I can think of instances even within the week I write this where I have made mistakes in relating to those who come from different worldviews to mine.

Muller recognises three main cultures or worldviews at work in our world: guilt-based culture, fear-based culture, and shame-based culture. Each of these works in a dichotomy, with the opposite of guilt being innocence, the opposite of fear being power, the opposite of shame being honour. Every culture has a mixture of at least two of these, with one being dominant over the others. The cultures can be loosely defined like this:

  • In a guilt-based culture (very generally, most ‘Western’ cultures), what matters the most is doing what is ‘right’ or ‘correct’. The law is important and not even the lawmakers are above it. If you do something wrong, you feel guilty. If you see a police car with its lights flashing, you immediately look to see who the wrongdoer is and make sure it isn’t you.
  • In a fear-based culture (generally considered to be tribal cultures as well as dictatorships), what matters the most is appeasing a higher power. This might be a supernatural power, perhaps demons or spirits, or a human power, such as a dictatorial regime. The key thing here is that this higher power is outside the law; it cannot be appeased simply by keeping the law. Everything you have could be taken away at the whim of this higher power.
  • In a shame-based culture (many Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures), what matters most is the honour of a specific group, usually the family. What is considered honourable will vary within these cultures, but it often includes some combination of wealth, academic success, marriage, children, status, career, and taking care of your family. The crucial element in all of this is having a position in the group and the ultimate shame would be to be banished from the group.

One of the most helpful parts of the book is when Muller turns to look at the fall-out of when these cultures clash with each other. Within this chapter, he makes the claim that cultural differences are not limited to race or nationality; there is a generational aspect to this which needs to be acknowledged. When thinking of UK culture, for example, most would classify it as a classic example of guilt-based culture: what matters most is keeping the law and doing what is ‘correct’. However, for the ‘millennial’ generation, growing up in a time in which morality and ethics are being debated and adapted constantly, this is not the case. Look at any media aimed at teenagers and you will see that the big theme is not whether what you do is ‘correct’ but whether you can find your place in the world. This is not guilt-based culture. This is shame-based culture. It is the driving force of the (for lack of a better word) ‘quarter-life crisis’: graduates do not feel guilt over their struggles to find jobs, houses, and a sense of identity, they feel shame. Western leaders, whether political, academic, or religious, need to start educating themselves about shame-based culture because that may not be where our society is now, but it could well be in the future.

The book is aimed at Western evangelical Christians who are involved in Cross-Cultural ministry, with Muller calling for greater awareness in the way in which we share the good news of Jesus with those from other cultures. He makes it clear that he is not saying Western Christianity is wrong in its understanding of Scripture, but that it is wrong when it assumes that the only way of communicating the message is through an illustration of guilt and innocence. Yes, we are all guilty and deserving of judgement. Yes, Jesus is the innocent one who took our guilt on himself in his death. Yes, we are now considered innocent in God’s eyes as a result. This will not mean much to someone for whom guilt is not a major cultural concern. Consider this: it is clear in the Bible that we are all in a position of unending shame from our treatment of God; Jesus, from his position of honour, willingly dies the most shameful death so that our honour could be restored; as a result, we are now honoured and considered co-heirs with Christ. This is the same good news, the same message. Yet it will have a much greater impact on someone from a shame-based culture.

This is a little book, but an extremely thought-provoking one. For those involved in Cross-Cultural Christian ministry, these are vital issues to think through. How effective are we in sharing our faith with those from different worldviews? Are we causing unintentional offence or putting up barriers we never even realised? Have we taken into account that the way the Bible speaks into our culture is not necessarily the way it will speak into another culture? These are all important questions we need to be challenging ourselves on regularly.


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