Honor and Shame 1: Foundation

One of my favored pet peeves is the fact that most of the modern world and all of the ancient world lives/lived under a paradigm of honor and shame that is ignored and marginalized in the modern west.  A good way to think of it is to mentally compare a medieval samurai or ninja to a modern American, and examine how alien their viewpoints are to each other.  This is especially apt because the concept of honor with the samurai is associated with saving or losing ‘face’, e.g. bolstering or undermining one’s public image.

This dichotomy in worldview is a huge blind spot in most theologies.  The people who wrote the Bible were much closer to the samurai in outlook and attitude than to us.  Now, part of Western culture is a result of how Jesus actively worked against the samurai viewpoint, so in some respects this blind spot is the result of moving (or trying to move) closer to the Truth.

But the “trying to move” in parenthesis pretty much expresses my view of the experiment.

For an example, I give you this parable:

What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

Many a modern Christian may wonder what the point of this parable is.  It’s so obvious.  Why was it even included in the Scriptures?

It was included because it was written in a world of Samurai Face.

First, understand that there were few-to-none opportunities for privacy, and in the ancient world it was assumed that just about any interaction in a story was in public unless there was very good reason to believe otherwise.

From the samurai point of view, the first son behaved more honorably than the second because even though he had no intention of obeying his father’s will, nevertheless he did not cause his father shame by disrespecting him in public.

Jesus’ audience was in the place of the first son.  The tax collectors and prostitutes to which Jesus refers had acted shamefully, thereby publicly disrespecting God, but later repented and tried to do his will.  Jesus’ audience, however, behaved like the first son, not seeking the will of God, but not publicly disrespecting him either.

Because making someone who is not your enemy lose face is the greatest crime in Samurai Face World, the second son is by ancient standards very evil indeed, whereas the first son is not particularly evil.  Jesus, however, is saying that God is concerned not with face, but with actual obedience.  In other words, with guilt and innocence.  Like the West.

Here is another important distinction between the cultures:  honor and shame is more culturally important than innocence and guilt to Samurai Face World, but in the modern West, we hold innocence and guilt to be more important.  This is a direct result of how our culture grew in earth tilled by the gospel.

But the seed is not the plow.

A few more examples, and then the zinger.  First from Matthew 6:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

Here, we are told not to seek honor from men, so that we may receive honor from God.

Now Revelation:

The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Here we are told that those who do well in God’s work will be given very public power and honor.

Another from Revelation:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

The final judgement is a public judgement.

One more, from Luke:

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Notice in these examples that Jesus is appealing to Samurai Face World in its own terms.  The first undermines the persistent concept in Samurai Face World that that which is not seen does not count (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas) not by saying that it is our actual deeds that matter — in the first example, the trumpet-wielding charity, like the ninja charity, is still giving to the needy — it is whether we are seeking honor from men, or from God.

Similarly, the last example specifically appeals to our desire for honor in order to encourage humility.

Jesus undermined the effects of the Honor/Shame dynamic, but he did not undermine the concept.  Put another way, he did not go around preaching that honor and shame were meaningless and it is with guilt and innocence that we should be concerned, but rather he said that what mattered was our honor and shame before God, or rather, our honor and shame when all of our deeds are made public.  Instead of saying “You say ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but I say that what you do is important even if no-one will find out,” Jesus says “Everyone will find out.”

This may seem a rather minor distinction.  Guilt and innocence are for all practical purposes identical to shame and honor before God.  But I find the distinction important for the following reason:

It is my contention that the reason the honor/shame dynamic dominates almost every culture rather than the innocence/guilt dynamic is that honor and shame are more fundamental truths, and are therefore wired into the human psyche, whereas guilt and innocence are not.

Once more, for emphasis:

Honor and shame are more fundamentally true than guilt or innocence.  Guilt and innocence are, in other words, a flavor of honor and shame rather than independent realities.  The most foundational flavor, but a flavor nonetheless.

Honor and shame are wired directly into the human psyche.  Guilt and innocence are not, except inasmuch as they can be translated into honor and shame.

It is this fundamental paradigm shift — seeing the world through the eyes of the samurai — that allows one, in my opinion, to finally begin to understand the human heart.  Naturally, if we looked at the western world as a samurai who had grown up in feudal Japan, we wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of it.  But as Westerners, if we can move back to the honor/shame paradigm, put on our Samurai mask, and look through those eyeholes, many things that are confusing will become clear.

If guilt and innocence mattered more than public face, groundless insults wouldn’t sting.  But they do.

If guilt and innocence mattered more than public face, celebrities would not be important.  But they are.

Elections are won or lost on face.  Lovers are chosen or disregarded on face.

People kept their pants on when promiscuity was shameful, and dropped them the moment the shame started to shrink back under the relentless assault of the sexual revolution.  Divorce rates were low when single mothers were regarded at best with suspicion, and often as morally bankrupt; divorce rates are high now that single mothers are held up as heroes.  To bolster my hypothesis that the relationship is causal, I would like to point out the little-known fact that the overwhelming majority of divorces are initiated by women.

When it was shameful to be a working old maid, women who wanted to work became stay-at-home moms instead.  Now that it is shameful for a women to care about her children more than money, many women who want to be stay-at-home moms head off to college and to the workforce instead.

The truth is that we all live in Samurai Face World, but in the West we have papered it over so effectively that the truth which drives our actions and chooses our paths is completely hidden under a thick layer of common knowledge.

This hypothesis will be the foundation of several of my posts in the future.


3 thoughts on “Honor and Shame 1: Foundation

  1. I think that the point that Jesus was making was that although the “church” of the day regarded public works as being the “test” or “righteousness”, God regards both the works and the motives as the test. We all fail on both counts. We do good in public (I donated to the policeman fund!) for personal gain, not because we are motivated by mercy and righteousness. We walk around thinking we are being good but we jay-walk or go over the speed limit to save a minute. To pass the test we must obey the speed limit because it is the right thing to do.

  2. The Stranger says:

    I disagree. The Bible appeals to our self-interest all the time. Sure, motives are a huge factor — Jesus’ equation of lust to adultery and hate to murder makes it clear that God is more interested in our motives than the actions themselves — but in these very examples he appeals to our desire for rewards. He doesn’t say “Give to the poor because it is right,” he says “give to the poor because God will reward you.” I think to teach otherwise is to promote a spirituality that is more ‘spiritual’ than God intended, which is a trap designed to make the gifts of Heaven seem unappealing.

  3. To paraphrase Proverbs 1:7, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It doesn’t say what the end is.

    Reward/Punishment is a great way to learn what God likes/doesn’t like, but that is only the beginning. What God wants is our love. It is not an accident that many of the illustrations of the ideal relationship between man and God found throughout scripture is that of a bride and groom. Reward/Punishment is the beginning of the path to God.

    From BibleGateway.com:
    Matthew 22:36-40
    New King James Version (NKJV)
    36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
    37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

    The “greatest commandment” is not Reward/Punishment, it is Love.
    Heaven is not a reward for those who obey his commandments. Heaven is where you get to show God your love forever and ever.

    Read Matthew 25:31-46 a few times. Those who merely obey the letter of the law do not get to love the Father forever and ever. Those who love their Father get to keep on loving him.

    Reward/Punishment gets us started on the path. Love carries us the rest of the way to Him.

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