October 25, 2020

Have You No Shame?


Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible
by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien
IVP Books (2012)

Part Three of a series.

“In fact, the entire issue of honor and shame over against right and wrong (innocence and guilt) is a bit of a mystery to us. As authors, we must confess that this chapter was one of the more challenging to write. English just doesn’t have good words to describe this system, and our cultural values run almost in the opposite direction.”

Having interacted with people who live in “shame” cultures, I can testify that understanding situations and relating to people in those cultures can be quite bewildering at times. Whereas I tend to look at things through the lens of right and wrong or good and bad, it has been hard at times to fathom the more relational perspective of friends and coworkers. I can recall many occasions, for example, where it was clear that someone we were working with in India was either giving us false information or not telling the whole truth for fear of losing face. It was not so much “the truth” that drove them to relate to us as they did, it was the cultural values of retaining honor and avoiding being shamed before their community and guests.

Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien discuss the very different perspectives that are found in other cultures who don’t share our individualistic and legalistic conceptions.

…our decisions to act rightly are not necessarily made with other people in mind — to please others, for example — but on the basis of an objective and largely individual sense of right and wrong.

…Things work differently in shame cultures. In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressures and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way. Rules and laws are less a deterrent for bad behavior than the risk of bringing shame on oneself or one’s family.

As a simple example from the Bible, they note how Paul considered himself “faultless” as a Pharisee within his community, even when he was persecuting Christians (Philippians 3:6).

In a more contemporary case, they tell about a region in Indonesia, Aceh, that was hard hit by the 2004 tsunami. An isolated area, the Achenese government at first welcomed Western help. However, after a few months, the government began to worry that they were losing face in the sight of their people by having to rely on outside assistance. Though they didn’t want the outsiders to leave, they ordered them out anyway, effective on a certain date. With the help of an Indonesian official, they were able to work out a way of getting the aid they needed while saving face. However, Americans were furious, thinking the people of Aceh ungrateful, which in their eyes was wrong.

The authors show in further illustrations that the Ancient Near East was, by and large, made up of honor/shame cultures rather than right/wrong cultures. The issue is not which is better or worse, for they both have strengths and weaknesses, and God can and does work in both kinds. The issue is that we may fail to understand what the Bible is saying if we don’t recognize that much of it is written from a point of view that is different than ours.

David with Bathsheba, Chagall

David with Bathsheba, Chagall

The OT story they analyze in these terms is the account of David, Bathsheba, Uriah, and Nathan, showing in scene after scene how David and others act not out of inner conscience but out of concerns about honor and shame. David only internalizes his sins and confesses them when confronted by the prophet Nathan with a story he considers shameful. And then the consequences God pronounced were of ongoing shame for David and his royal household.

This language is also reflected in the concern throughout Scripture for God’s glory and the honor of his name. And Jesus consistently appealed to matters of honor and shame in his teaching and ministry. In fact, it is clear that many of his public words and actions caused the religious leaders of Israel to lose face, thus inflaming their hatred and inciting murderous actions against him.

This chapter fits closely with the chapter on individualism vs. a more collective understanding of life. Broadly speaking, individualistic cultures tend to focus on standards of right and wrong, inner moral guidance, and personal consequences and rewards. More collective cultures operate under standards of honor and shame, relational considerations, and the consequences that fall upon the community for individual actions.

  • How have you seen these distinctions in your reading of the Bible?
  • Have you had any experiences relating to people from different cultures where these differences have emerged?
  • What are we to make of these cultural differences in the way we conduct our lives as Christians?


  1. It strikes me as all the more miraculous that a man crucified by the authorities would be embraced and experienced afterwards as Living Lord by others operating out of a set of values typified by an honor/shame culture. Surely being crucified involves bringing shame on oneself and one’s intimates.
    The issue raised in the above post is an often unspoken reason why Asian Buddhists reject the idea of Jesus Christ being a savior; for them, to die a criminal;s death, naked and tortured before the whole world, surely means that one is cursed, that one is not honorable and venerable like Confucius and Gautama Buddha, who after all were honored and respected among in there own times. The cross is shaming; that’s one of the main reasons the Romans employed it.

    • Kyle In Japan says

      Exactly. This is why the Resurrection of Jesus is so important; it vindicates him and replaces his shame with glory. Only an event as unexpected and earth-shattering as the Resurrection could have inspired a bunch of dejected, hopeless disciples to lay their lives on the line for the truth that this Jesus is really God’s son and is reigning as King. Without resurrection, Christianity is a sham.

    • Good stuff, Robert F. This thought touches upon my marvel at the one thief who is hung on the cross beside Jesus, who eventually comes to realize Jesus as Savior. I mean, who ever would decide that a guy hanging beside him in SHAME is Savior, Messiah and King? I consider that thief one of the “heroes” in scripture.

  2. My first thought after reading this concerned so-called “honor killings” of women who have supposedly “shamed” their families. That is scary indeed.

    • That is scary, but not unknown in the Bible either. See Genesis and Judges for examples. This is a main reason Moses set up “cities of refuge” under the Law.

      • I thought the cities of refuge were for people who had killed unintentionally so that they would have somewhere to live without being threatened by the clan whose member they had killed.

        Women are just not considered highly in the Scriptures because it was a patriarchal society and they just aren’t in such. Job may have got his wealth back and a new wife and family but note no concern is spared for the dead. No words are spared in Genesis 34 to find out what Dinah felt for Schechem. Judges 19 also has a charming story.

        • i just read judges 19 for the first time a few weeks back. holy moly that was chilling.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I think my Bible’s subject headings refers to Judges 19 as “A Horrible Crime”.

        • Kyle In Japan says

          Job didn’t get a “new wife.” Also, women in OT Israel were magnitudes better off than pretty much anywhere else in the world and if you’ve carefully read the books of the law in the OT you’ll recognize that women had far more rights and protections than anywhere else in the world. Be careful not to read 21st-century values back into a world were many of our cultural values would have been flat-out laughable to most people.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My first thought after reading this concerned so-called “honor killings” of women who have supposedly “shamed” their families.

      Wipe out the Shame in blood. Avenge the Dishonor.

      As I commented below, in honor/shame cultures:
      1) “If nobody knows of my sin, I Am Not Shamed.”
      2) “Dead Men (or women) Tell No Tales.”

  3. Kyle In Japan says

    Understanding the shame dynamic has definitely enriched my reading of the Bible – the Lost Son doesn’t just squander his father’s wealth, he shames his name and reputation among others. Ishmael and his mother are dishonored when driven out from Abraham’s family. Jesus preaches not to worry about external acts – public prayer and giving tithes – that people viewed as essential to increasing their honor and status in society.

    I live in Japan, which, while not as “eastern” as it used to be, definitely has a lot of honor/shame stuff still in place. It tends to promote corruption through back-door bribes/deals in businesses. People tend to be drawn into a complex web of relationships based on gift giving and receiving based on obligations to other people that must be repaid (as an individualistic westerner, I find this annoying and consequently try to avoid getting started on things like that!)

    The number one way I can think of that we need to apply this to our lives as Christians is to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around us, and we need to look out for and be conscious of how our actions and behavior affect others – and honor or shame others’ perception of God, our faith, and our churches.

  4. One of the best books I’ve read that talks about how honor and shame relate to the Cross is Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Mark Baker and Joel Green.


    When we read Scripture surrounding the ideas of sin and God’s response to it, it definitely changes the way we view the Father. The Cross was God taking upon Himself the shame of our sin more than God lashing out at sin in wrath. It fundamentally changes God from being a distant tyrant angry with our actions because He’s offended to a loving Father who is merciful to us despite our bringing Him shame.

    • Agreed, great book. Interesting that Brenee Brown’s talks on vulnerability and shame are among the top 5 most viewed TED talks of all time. Apparently we all live in shame cultures, it’s just that in the western cultures shame is more covert, and the things that we identify as shameful are subject to change. Must be part of our fallen condition.

  5. I was reminded of 1 Cor 11:2-15, the head covering bit, which often references dishonor or disgrace being attached to women with shaved heads. Reading that a buzz cutted teen it was always clear their was a concept foreign to me at work – why would one hairstyle be more honorable than another?

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Having interacted with people who live in “shame” cultures, I can testify that understanding situations and relating to people in those cultures can be quite bewildering at times.

    The difference between guilt and honor/shame cultures is “shame” always involves someone else and “going public”. It’s only wrong if a third party knows about it.. Like Chesterton’s Father Brown commenting that “you need one for suicide, two for murder, but at least three for blackmail.”

    And the drawback of honor/shame cultures is the combination of…
    1) “If nobody knows of my sin, I Am Not Shamed.”
    2) “Dead Men Tell No Tales.”

  7. It is precisely because of Christianity’s embrace of right/ wrong values that Nietzsche labels it a slave religion. In honor/shame cultures, the aristocracy always has the upper hand, because they possess the power to manipulate outcomes to their advantage, to make things look good and to smooth over the rough edges, to crush the weak and restore natural order, and Nietzsche is comfortable with such an arrangement because he believes that beneath surface appearances, all social values really employ the use of power to achieve desired outcomes. He dislikes Christian appeals to right and wrong because he believes they are a tool that the weak use to neutralize the natural and cultured superiority of the aristocrats, those who should wield power in any social arrangement because they possess that natural superiority that the masses, the herd, can never possess; he believes that such slave morality merely masks the power envy of the masses, which he calls resentment, and seduces those who have natural superiority to hold to these very same values of right/wrong that will emasculate and enervate their natural superiority and denude society of all that is noble and worthy. It is exactly this dispute between right/wrong values and honor/shame values that is dramatized in John 18:38 when Pilate asks of Jesus,”What is truth?”. We should be alert to the ways in which honor/shame values influence the narratives of the Bible; but we should also be aware that ALL traditional societies adhere to honor/shame values, and that the shift to right/wrong values is a salutary, new and relatively recent development in societies that has a direct link, not to all, but to certain texts and strands of texts in Bible and to the hermeneutic that developed from paying attention to them.

  8. We all live in honor/shame cultures. It’s just that our culture, even though more right/wrong, is still to a good extent an honor/shame cuture. As an example of how to explain what I am saying in this, I could offer the mere existence of “The Post-Evangelical Wilderness” to begin with.

    • I agree. It’s a matter of where our culture(s) fall in a continuum, and what honor or shame attaches to.

  9. It would be really interesting to look at the current Patriarchy Movement from this perspective (shame vs right/wrong). There’s an anthropology Thesis topic for anyone interested 🙂