[Editor’s Note: We are honored to host this essay from Dr. Jackson Wu as part of Missio’s sustained conversation about vocation in honor cultures. For earlier contributions to this conversation, click here and here. We welcome other contributions to further this conversation.]
To some degree, every culture is an honor-shame culture.
While we may not use the words “honor” and “shame” in our daily life, the way we live often reflects a number of key features of so-called “honor-shame” societies, predominantly identified in Eastern cultures. In this post, I will focus on one characteristic that people often overlook when thinking about honor and shame––namely, collectivism. After explaining some of the inner logic of honor-shame, or collectivistic thinking, I will offer a few applications, particularly with respect to vocation and its relationship to honor.
Honor-shame cultures are inherently collectivistic. By comparison, Western cultures tend to be more individualistic. What does this general cultural difference mean practically?
In more individualistic cultures, people often define themselves by how they are different from others. Usually, there is a greater emphasis on personal achievement and individual rights. Many social groups have voluntary membership. For example, in American evangelicalism, it is quite common for people to switch churches or “shop around” for a new church. Thus, one does not necessarily feel an enduring obligation to stay with one’s own group.
By contrast, in more collectivistic societies, one’s identity tends to be defined on the basis of his or her similarities with others, sometimes referred to as an “in-group.” These might include one’s birthplace, family name, gender, education level, or position. People typically have a greater sense of duty in relation to their in-group. Individual well-being is wrapped up in the well-being of the group. Loyalty and conformity are esteemed as virtues.
Why Are Honor-Shame Cultures Collectivistic?
Honor and shame are inherently public.
If a person has honor (or, conversely, shame), this means that a certain social group in some sense regards him or her as having (or lacking) value. The criteria for evaluation vary from in-groupto in-group. Academic achievements or athletic ability will secure for individuals one kind of “value” in the eyes of a watching public, while other personal features will procure other honors. Language, skin color, wealth, family name, and gender are other possible social standards used to differentiate insiders from outsiders. Of course, one’s character will also influence a person’s “face,” or public reputation with others.
Wherever we find insiders and outsiders, there are various measurements being used to assess one’s public worth or value within a given social group. Quite often, these criteria are unspoken, but operate powerfully, even if tacitly. Usually, we can identity insiders and outsiders if we know the symbols of honor and shame implicit to a particular subculture. By “subculture,” I mean anything from a family and church to a company, school departments, or some other social group. Honor might be accrued based on one’s style of clothing, the type of smart phone one carries, one’s alma mater, or one’s title within an organization.
In some sense, we often never move past the social rules that govern a typical eighth grader. Our symbols simply change and become more expensive.
Honor and Vocation: “You are what you do”
Clearly, collectivistic aspects of “honor-shame” cultures exist even in so-called “individualistic” countries like America. I would now like to demonstrate at least one way that this matters for those in Western cultures, and how honor often guides the way we think about our vocations and occupations.
If someone wants to be noticed (i.e., to get “face” in the public eye), then it is important to find some way to stand out. People want to be distinctive and unique. Since Western cultures often emphasize personal actions and achievement, people quickly begin to associate importance with function. “You are what you do” is one of the chief mantras of Western honor-shame thinking.
There are diverse manifestations of this mentality. In churches, those who preach and teach are often regarded as more important. In families, even if the mores have changed somewhat, society still tends to ascribe more honor to the wage-earning dad than to the stay-at-home mom. Being the leader is still preferred to being a follower. Not surprisingly, this mentality inherently creates problems since not everyone can be the leader. (I suspect many debates about egalitarianism and complementarianism are rooted in a perspective that says that one’s importance is found in his or her role/function.)
Can We Measure Honor and Shame?
Whenever a person’s social worth is based on what one does, people will make efforts to quantify or measure their achievements. Whether in business, pastoring, or even on the mission field, one is recognized according to his or her numerical fruit. Inevitably, there is a marked temptation for people to start cutting corners or short-circuiting key processes in order to reach some higher level of success and to do so faster than others. “Bigger is better,” so the saying goes.
The motives that fuel this sort of ambition vary. Sometimes, the fuel is simply fear. Someone might ask, “What if I lose my job because I don’t get high enough numbers?” Western-style honor-shame uses quantifiable measurements to distinguish insiders and outsiders, particularly in the sphere of one’s work. In order to be considered for a position of leadership or influence, one must conform one’s approach so as to satisfy the collective’s measure of success.
In the long run, what happens? Let us not forget that many in a community (e.g., church, organization, company, etc.) make profoundly valuable contributions that cannot be counted or measured, yet they are critical to the group’s long term and holistic health. In a cross-cultural missions setting, for example, those who do theological education or social ministries may not be as publicly esteemed as a church-planting evangelist. It’s enough to say that there are those upon whom the collective may not confer value, worth, or honor, but whose vocational contributions are as essential to the good of a community as any other’s (cf. 1 Cor 12:22–26).
The Cost of Western Collectivism
I have only highlighted one particular way that honor-shame behavior is evinced in a Western culture. While non-Westerners tend to ascribe worth to people based on their family lineage and their conformity to established traditions, the typical American and many Europeans seek to be distinctive from others. Whether through conformity or distinctiveness, one will be praised and accepted by others as an insider. The objective in both Western and non-Western contexts is the same. Do what it takes to win public praise (i.e. honor, or “face”). Only the methods differ.
Collectivism itself is the not the real problem. That we have a collective identity is an inescapable aspect of reality. Our embodied finite existence situates us in webs of belonging, which can be a very good thing. In fact, whenever the Bible compares the Church to a body, we are speaking of a collective. Instead, the danger comes in how we define our groups. In other words, tribalism is the wrong sort of collectivism. This way of thinking splinters people into countless subsets based on various conditions other than Christ.
C.S. Lewis aptly captures the essence of what I mean. In an essay from his The Weight of Glory collection, Lewis speaks of “the Inner Ring,” which represents a special circle of people within a larger social context. The value of belonging to such a small group hinges on its exclusivity. Andrew Cameron summarizes what Lewis called “the great permanent mainspring” of human actions:
But the “great permanent mainspring” to which [Lewis] refers is a disordering of our proper desire for human relationship, expressed as the obsession to have it at all costs, the anguish when we are excluded, the dark side of that “delicious sense of secret intimacy” that inclusion gives us, and the pleasure of excluding others in their turn.
By contrast, Christ’s Church is the one “collective” who by its very nature exists for the sake of inclusion––the inclusion of all tongues, tribes, and nations.
Western versions of honor-shame can be just as destructive as non-Western expressions. Seeking honor in this manner fosters a culture that is manifestly competitive. Or, a jealous public could turn against someone who gains too much prominence. What then can one do? One approach is to use empirical measures to secure and safeguard their status. A number can be publicly verified.
Unfortunately, such honor becomes our shame in the long run. The constant chase for face undermines group solidarity. It is also makes it much harder to achieve and maintain an exalted position. Humans are inherently collectivistic. Therefore, when the seeds of individualism are planted in the human heart, the consequences are both ironic and tragic.
Who Do We Want to Please?
Let me offer an example of how these insights might apply to a typical business or governmental organization. Mid-level managers can play a critical role in mitigating the negative effects of Western collectivism. This group serves as the bridge between the organization’s highest leaders and the typical, lower-level employee. But these managers are especially susceptible to the “inner ring” temptation. Many are ambitious to rise in the ranks and join the higher leadership within an organization. They might relish in the fact that others are “below” them. Their ambition to get “face” causes them to make sure lower-level workers stay in their place.
Still, middle managers can make a special contribution to a healthy group ethos. They can make a special effort to identify and honor people whose work particularly concerns improving and protecting the quality of the organization’s mission. Those people whose work can be measured quantitatively need to humbly rejoice in the labor of their co-workers. In this sort of environment, organizations will suffer far less from the effects of jealousy, naked ambition, and rivalry.
As long as people want to be accepted by others, honor and shame will be important values in any culture, whether Eastern or Western. For those who long to have Christ transform the way honor and shame work in their own lives and in their communities, let me conclude by posing a few practical questions:
Who do you want to accept you or praise you?
What must you do to get their approval?
How do you (and those around you) measure “success”?
The answers to these questions will show the type of honor you seek.
 For an exceptional analysis and application of Lewis’ idea of “The Inner Ring,” see Andrew Cameron, “C. S. Lewis: Inner Circles and True Inclusion,” in The Trials of Theology: Becoming a “Proven Worker” in a Dangerous Business (ed. Andrew Cameron and Brian S. Rosner; Scotland: Christian Focus, 2009), 75–93.
Jackson Wu (PhD, Applied Theology) teaches theology and missiology for Chinese church leaders. He has published Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (2013). In addition to his journal articles, he blogs regularly at www.jacksonwu.org. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
Photo: Mihai Eustatiu