Not long ago, I returned from a business trip to Qinhuangdao, China.
While on the (ridiculously) long flight home, I found myself reading a Beijing-based newspaper. There was an editorial in this paper about a controversy. The author wrote that, while crossing the street, he had seen an American tourist yelling at a motorist who had run a red light. The Chinese author noted that his countrymen seemed upset at the American for yelling, rather than upset at the driver for running the light. The author was arguing that they should instead be upset at the person who broke the law. He (who was American-educated) pointed out that American tourists are the most law-abiding people in China, and encouraged the Chinese to embrace such an approach.
What the author has failed to grasp is an important difference between American and Chinese culture. Every culture, you see, uses one of two “lenses” when viewing and judging a person’s moral rightness. Each of us views actions either in terms of a law-guilt lens, or an honor-shame lens.
Law-guilt cultures (e.g., America, Britain, France) determine the moral righteousness of a person by whether they adhere to the laws of the land. Running a red light is against the law, so the American was outraged by it. Running a yellow, while perhaps just as dangerous, is completely fine because it is not illegal. Lying to someone might not be all that great, but it doesn’t make you a criminal—so we tolerate it, and even freely admit that we all do it. Failure to leave a tip on the table may be bad form, but none of us would say it is morally wrong; skipping out on the restaurant bill is illegal and stealing.
Consider how often people describe themselves as “law-abiding citizens” as an example of their own goodness. Consider how often you have heard a statement like this: “Okay, I might have done that, but it’s not like a killed anyone.” Consider times when taxes or tolls seem outrageous, and you say, “It’s almost criminal”, or “It’s highway robbery.” You don’t like it, but you see nothing wrong with paying the toll; because deep down, a person is not really immoral unless they are engaging in an actual criminal activity.
It is that distinction—criminal versus law-abiding—that ultimately determines for us whether a person is “good” or “bad” for us. This is the primary attitude for a law-guilt culture.
But not all cultures see the world through this lens. Other cultures—some estimates say up to 70% of all cultures throughout history—are in fact radically different in their gage of morality. These are called honor-shame cultures.
Honor-shame cultures (e.g., the Biblical world, Japan, the Far East) judge rightness not based upon adherence to the law, but rather based upon the honorableness of the action. Laws are good, but honor is more important: maintaining the honor of your family and your name is critical, even if laws must be broken to achieve the goal. Your reputation is your most valuable asset, and must be protected. Running a red light is bad if it is seen by others as shameful; if everyone else accepts it as okay, then it is not a “bad” act. Lying to someone is dishonorable, regardless of whether you do it in a criminal manner. If you are supposed to tip, then not tipping is just as bad as skipping out on the bill—especially if others can see you, and know that it was you.
So in an honor-shame culture, the primary consideration is not, “Is this person a criminal?”, but rather, “Is this person honorable?”
What is the difference? Well, one was illegal and one was not. To us, in a law-guilt culture, the legality of the lie makes all the difference in the world! To someone from an honor-shame culture, the public lie is equally immoral regardless of its legal ramifications.
This is an example of a law-guilt culture: if you aren’t guilty of breaking a law, you are not a criminal, and hence not all that bad. The honor-shame culture would assess the rightness or wrongness of the act regardless of whether it was illegal or not. So masturbation is either always dishonorable or always honorable, regardless of whether it is illegal.
So in my opening example in China, the American tourist (and the American-educated journalist) sees the law-breaking man running the red light as more wrong than the American who publicly berated him. But to the Chinese, who are an honor-based culture, the American tourist making a public scene is far more "wrong" than the person who, in running the red light, did no one any harm.
Now this distinction, it turns out, has an awfully lot to do with Christianity. The Scriptural word referencing honor (doxa) is used more in the New Testament than the words “sin”, “forgiveness”, “remission”, and “mercy” combined. The authors of the New Testament thought about personal honor so much that it shows up on average about ten times per book of the New Testament. Obviously, this honor-shame context is something that we need to understand, since most people throughout history have viewed the world this way, including those who God used to found our faith!
In the second part of this post, we will look at exactly what honor means in the New Testament, and look at some examples of the text. We will conclude with a look at what this means for us, as sinners saved by the grace of God.
For a more thorough, scholarly treatment of the subject, see DeSilva’s very excellent, “Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity”.i>