Honor and Shame

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

In 1946, an American anthropologist by the name of Ruth Benedict published a study of Japanese culture called, ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’. I have to confess that I have not read this book, but I did read of a story contained within it about a man who borrowed money against just his good name, with the promise that he would repay it by the following New Year. Not sure it would really work down at Wells Fargo or wherever, but lenders there in Japan at the time would routinely offer loans on such terms, without requiring any collateral, because they knew that in Japan the sense of obligation to repay the loan was so fundamental and strong that the borrower would not risk their public reputation by defaulting on the loan. In other words, the borrower agreed to be publicly laughed at if he failed to come up with the cash. More ominously, though, if he really did fail to repay the loan by the stated time, he might be expected to commit ritual suicide in order to protect the honor of his family.

Here’s another story. An American was working in Morocco and was driving through the streets of the city of Fez with a co-worker when behind them a police car put on its lights and siren, requiring his colleague to pull over. The American began to experience what many of us experience when approached by the police. We immediately become flustered and start running through a mental check list of the things we probably have done wrong. We begin to feel guilt. So, the American was surprised when his co-worker stopped, got out of the car, and warmly greeted the policeman, shaking his hand, and kissing him on both cheeks. Then ensued an apparently good-natured, if animated, discussion about the rules of the road and, after a little while, another hand-shake, after which his colleague got back in the car and proceeded on to wherever they were going.

As it happened, the American in the car taught humanities in a university and figured out what he had just witnessed. He had seen a real live example of an everyday event being played out in what is called the ‘honor-shame’ system.

Broadly, there are two dominant types of culture in the world, one is known as ‘shame culture’, and the other is known as ‘guilt culture’. In fact, I have learned that these categorizations were first made by Ruth Benedict, who we met at the top of this sermon. She had noted the rigorous shame-based system of Japanese culture.

Whereas guilt culture is driven by internal pressures within an individual, which will govern the way someone behaves, even if no-one else is aware of it, shame culture is judged by the court of human opinion. Actions are driven by the need for belonging to a peer group, and having honorable status within that group. Social position and affirmation are in many ways the be-all and end-all. Losing face – experiencing public shaming – is just about the worst thing that can happen. And this is often a zero-sum thing: in other words, going up to points in honor has to mean that someone else in the group has to go down two points in honor, thus experiencing shame.

This is all very interesting, but why am I telling you all this stuff? Well, it turns out – who knew? – that we have a tendency to overlay our reading of the Bible with our own cultural context which, broadly in Western civilization is guilt-based, rather than shame-based. But let’s think about what kind of culture first century Palestine – the society into which Jesus was born – operated within. The answer is, of course, an honor-shame culture.

Read the Bible through this honor-shame lens and things do become a little clearer. First of all, it explains why, at the start of St. Matthew’s Gospel, when you get that impossibly long and tedious listing of the full genealogy of Jesus, starting back with Abraham and along the way listing such luminaries as Kind David. It was establishing, in a culture where one was ascribed honor by the prestige and standing of the family into which one was born, that Jesus came into the world with utterly unimpeachable family credentials. His human family tree was as good as it got.

When you read a story like the parable of the Prodigal Son with the honor-shame cultural lens, it takes on new characteristics: remember, the farmer’s younger son goes off and blows his entire trust fund in an orgy of partying and when he comes back home with his tail between his legs his father not only welcomes him back but in kissing him on his face, and throwing a big party in his honor, with the fatted calf and all that, what he is doing is not just demonstrating love but, more importantly to Jesus’ hearers, he is restoring his honor. His older brother is furious about the party, as we recall. Yet his anger is less about the cost and more about the shame that his younger brother had brought upon the family.

That’s why, in today’s reading from St. Mark’s gospel, that the disciples were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, which to us might seem either inconsequential or self-obsessed, suddenly takes on a more significant meaning. Because we now see how important this kind of thing was within a culture in which honor, publicly-bestowed and conspicuous, was so extraordinarily important.


Jesus was born within the honor-shame culture, but he turned it on its head. He messed with it in all sorts of ways, and he knew exactly how to use it to make his point. As we know, Jesus has all sorts of run-ins with the religious authorities of the day – the Pharisees especially. Jesus and the Pharisees are not just playing intellectual games with each other, where they try to catch out each other with clever theological banter, even though it kind of seems like that to us. Rather, what is going on, perhaps principally, is to do with honor and shame. When the Pharisees ask a question, they are trying to take this young upstart rabbi down a peg or two. After all, they are the equivalent of the Ivy-League-educated elite, with fine robes and impeccable social standing, and they want to reinforce this superior standing by publicly rebuking this itinerant, homeless preacher. And, yet, Jesus always gets the better of them. They never manage the public takedown and, indeed, rather than burnishing their honor, the Pharisees are publicly shamed by Jesus. They are made to look stupid and are ridiculed. And worse still, they are humiliated by someone who, poor and homeless, from a dusty one-horse backwater town in a boondocks part of the province, was at the very bottom the pile in terms of social standing. In short, the only way for them to restore their lost honor and standing was to utterly destroy Jesus.

Again, reading this gospel reading through the lens of the honor-shame culture, we can then see the inevitability of what Jesus is saying his fate will look like, that he will suffer death because of what he is doing and saying. Jesus isn’t just poking the crocodile with a long stick, he is lying down in front of it and poking its face with his finger. He knows what will happen.

Everything Jesus does turns the honor-shame system on its head. He knows that it exists, and he also knows that it is important to people. He understands how the prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading, would have felt in being humiliated and ridiculed in front of everyone in his society because he told things how they really were rather than playing the social game. Jeremiah’s life became utterly miserable because of it. What Jesus is saying isn’t that the system of social standing doesn’t exist: rather, he is saying that your aspirations, as his follower, should be different. Today’s reading finishes up with the famous phrase, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last’. It would have been quite something if Jesus had said that the system of social hierarchy didn’t exist. But he actually was saying something even more radical than that: he was saying that the hierarchy existed and that one should aspire to be at the very bottom of that hierarchy. Aspire to that position, as he did – and one becomes, in fact, a king. Humble oneself and one will be exalted. He reveals the paradox which is the key to a fulfilled life: if you seek honor you will not find it. But if you deliberately don’t seek it… well, that’s how you will find it. It’s a maxim not just for there and then at that time, but for here & now, too.

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