How innocence guilt header

How Innocence/Guilt and Honour/Shame Cultures Collide

In cross-cultural evangelism we need to understand what kind of cultural paradigm a person is coming from. Here is how the two dominating paradigms interact with each other.

Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.

This is the final part, part 21, in the series.

Previously I wrote about the different ‘operating systems’, or paradigms, that we all work under. And the task for us now is to try and understand, in the broadest terms, how these different paradigms operate and regard each other.

Innocence/Guilt and Honour/Shame culture views

We’ll focus on the two dominating paradigms: the innocence/guilt paradigm (IG) and the honour/shame paradigm (HS). The following list will give some idea of the cultural values embedded within each and how one culture views the attitudes of the other.

  • When it comes to relationships, IG places a strong emphasis upon equality, which HS would regard as disrespectful. Whereas HS places a strong emphasis upon hierarchy, which IG would regard as oppressive.
  • With time, IG tends to be task-focused, which HS would regard as unkind. Whereas HS places the emphasis upon the event focus, which to IG seems to be inconsiderate.
  • With speech, IG highly regards truth, which to HS might consider rude. Whereas HS places the emphasis upon harmony, which to IG seems to be dishonest.
  • With money, IG places a high value on independence, which HS might regard as stingy. Whereas HS puts an emphasis upon patronage, which seems corrupt to IG.
  • With food, IG seems to place importance upon efficiency, which HS would regard as neglectful. Whereas HS places the emphasis upon hospitality, which to IG can seem ostentatious.
  • Finally, in the realm of ethics, IG is built upon a guilt-based culture, which to HS can come over as shameless. Whereas HS culture is shame-based, which to IG appears lawless.
"As we live in increasingly multi-cultural communities, we each need to see beyond our own cultural horizons for the sake of the gospel."

Confused? Let me illustrate it in another way using Brook Peterson’s five basic cultural scales 1 to show how an IG culture sits on the other side to positions taken by an HS culture.

Innoncence/GuiltHonour/Shame
Equality← →Heirarchy
Direct← →Indirect
Individual← →Group
Task← →Relationship
Risk← →Caution


Biblical examples

Equality or hierarchy?

In the Old Testament, we come across an action of David’s that doesn’t make much sense to those of us high on the IG scale of equality, but which makes perfect sense to those within an HS culture of hierarchy.

“David said to his men, The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed. So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way.” (1 Samuel 24:6–7)

When you (from within an IG culture) visit your friend (who’s also from within an IG culture) it probably seems the most natural thing to help wash up the dishes after an evening meal. In fact, it would be a positively ‘good’ thing to do.

But if you are visiting a friend who’s from within an HS culture and you go to help with the dishes, that might be regarded as an insult, for you are violating the hierarchy of that home.

Direct or indirect?

Or let’s take the polarities between the direct approach of someone from an IG culture as compared to the person within the HS culture who is far more comfortable with indirect communication. Notice how Jesus responds to confrontation.

“And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:10-12)

He answers with a question. He avoids direct confrontation. So, when we have the opportunity to respond to our friend from an HS culture, we need to slow down and be generous with our time.

Indirect communication takes longer and should be a far gentler process than the efficient, logic-driven communication style of those from within the IG culture. You’ve probably noticed that the ability to tell stories and parables can be an invaluable tool when communicating in this way.

Individual or group?

Or what about the contrast between our very individualistic IG culture and the more group-oriented world of the HS culture? Isaiah gives us an example of how God’s personal dealings with him were immediately translated into viewing things through corporate eyes.

“And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; … ” (Isaiah 6:5 ESV)

Within HS cultures, decisions are made much more slowly because of this dynamic, and the place of the church community within the life of the new believer has a far higher place than the IG culture would readily recognise.

Tasks or relationships?

The IG culture also places a higher premium on getting a task done than investing in relationships, which would be the HS priority. Mary and Martha represent these extremes.

“She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving.” (Luke 10:39-40)

And what so many of us living within the IG cultural paradigm need to grasp, especially when with a friend from an HS culture, is that spending time with someone is vastly important. These things can’t be rushed. That person can’t become a project. The relationship must be genuinely developed and treasured in the expectation that the Lord will then provide opportunities for further sharing.

Risk or caution?

Or the axis between risk and caution. The IG culture is full of independent risk-takers who then challenge their HS friends to take the radical step of following Jesus Christ as their Lord. But often they can overlook what an enormous step this would mean for their friend.

We sometimes look at God’s call to Abram as an invitation to go on an exciting ‘trip of a lifetime’, failing to realise the massive cultural implications this would have had for this childless couple.

“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1–3 (ESV)

Now, of course, the gospel is a call to risk. But, as with Abram, we need to make sure it is accompanied by the assurances of honour and blessing. In this way, our HS friend would be encouraged to venture out in faith, dependent upon the faithfulness of our promise-keeping God.

Seeing beyond our horizons

Now there is so much more that could be said upon this subject (so much more!) and I may have lost some of you along the way in this article because we are looking at issues that are rarely, if ever, addressed within the context of being ready to share the good news of Jesus on a personal level.

This may have opened your eyes to issues you had never before considered. But as we live in increasingly multi-cultural communities, we each need to see beyond our own cultural horizons for the sake of the gospel.

And lest you think that you won’t ever find yourself in such a situation, let me close with some observations from Andy Crouch who, writing in Christianity Today in March 2015 2, suggested that the innocence/guilt culture may well be transitioning into a ‘shame’ culture and we need to be ready:

“Instead of evolving into a traditional honor–shame culture, large parts of our culture are starting to look something like a postmodern fame–shame culture. Like honor, fame is a public estimation of worth, a powerful currency of status. But fame is bestowed by a broad audience, with only the loosest of bonds to those they acclaim. Some of the most powerful artefacts of contemporary culture—especially youth culture—are preoccupied with the dynamics of fame and shame.

“In a fame–shame culture, the only true crime is to publicly exclude—and thus shame—others. Talk of right and wrong is troubling when it is accompanied by seeming indifference to the experience of shame that accompanies judgments of “immorality.” So attempts to reiterate traditional Christian sexual ethics fall not on deaf ears, but on ears highly attuned to dynamics of shame and rejection.

“The beauty of the gospel is that it acknowledges guilt and shame, covering both with the shame- and guilt-bearing representative Son. What honor–shame cultures are offering to missionaries, our own fame–shame culture may offer as well: a chance, in the depth of both our guilt and our shame, to discover just how completely good that news can be.”

1Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures, Brooks Peterson, Intercultural Press (2004).

2 The Return of Shame, Andy Crouch, Christianity Today, 10 March 2015.

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