War was looming on the horizon, armies the world over were beginning to step up training young men to send to the front lines. One young Spanish airman was quite nervous about his first jump. When it came time to actually jump, he balked. When his trainer asked if he was too afraid to jump, the young man found the courage and jumped out of the plane. His parachute, on the other hand, was left behind on the plane. The young man lost his life, but his honor remained intact.
Honor is weird. It’s like good peer pressure. In which case, shame would be like bad peer pressure. Think about it – say a person saved several hundred people from being murdered by a political power but never ever told anybody. Or say a person was a thief who stole from a several hundred people and was never caught. The first would be an honorable individual, but he would never be honored for his actions because nobody knew about them. The second person would likewise be shamed if it were to be discovered, but if not, then there’s no reason to treat him shamefully. Honor and shame, then, are collective in nature to have their full effect. Honor is desirable because it’s the approval of one’s group, one’s family, and one’s community. Shame is unwanted because it’s disapproval of one’s group, one’s family, and one’s community. Therefore the logic is this: anything honorable is right, anything shameful is wrong. Any action that restores honor is right, any action that destroys honor is wrong.
In the Bible, we see a picture of an ancient honor / shame society. One of it’s commandments was to “honor your father and mother” which meant not only to treat them well and with respect, but see to it that your action reflect honorably upon them. (Somewhat unrelated though interesting is the Klingon beliefs regarding honor. In one of their scrolls, the sins of the children can condemn their parent’s souls to Gre’thor / Hell if the children are without honor even if their parents were honorable. Only honorable Klingons go to Sto-vo-kor / Heaven.) We also see that at banquets there are places of honor – nearest the host at the head of the table. There are also places of less honor – furthest from the host at the foot of the table. But ultimately, we don’t always get the depth of meaning when they’re talking about honor and shame. We’re a very individualistic society and we define right and wrong differently, based on guilt and innocence. Guilt is shameful, it’s honorable to be innocent.
Perhaps we somehow evolved into a society that Paul could only dream of, one where the rules of honor and shame were not written by the Roman Empire; but a society that moved into a more natural Christianity as it would have and should have been were it completely free to say what needed to be said without cloaking important information in metaphor so that his jailers would not impede the message.
So next time you come across a passage talking about honor, put yourselves in the shoes of a first century believer who seeks honor like a boy scout collecting badges to increase his status. Next time you come across a passage talking about shame, put yourselves in the shoes of a first century believer who is fearfully and desperately trying to keep the secret that would cast them out of their very homes to get an idea of what that sort of meant to them. Then ask, what does it mean to me now? Since what is shameful in the Bible is not necessarily shameful here and now, should we uphold the Bible’s standards of shame and honor? Or should we continue to write or own story without shame and honor being the driving force behind what’s acceptable?