I remember reading a little while ago that concepts such as honor and shame require an outside party to tell you that your actions merit praise or disgrace, whereas concepts such as right and wrong rely on an internal compass where we come to recognize our guilt or innocence. Much of the western world often misses the incongruity of valuing right and right when their theological basis is a book written with honor and shame language. As a result, we have mixed up the two concepts and equated honor with being right and shame with being wrong. That’s not always the case.
There are many categories of what is honorable and shameful in the Bible – there’s the things that are particular to Jewish beliefs, Roman beliefs, and Christian beliefs. Men and women lived in a world of honor and shame that was precariously balanced between the law of the land and the spiritual law. In general, patriarchy set the tone – that men were the representatives of their family in the public sphere and the women were to remain in their private homes and avoid public interaction as much as possible. The public served as the outside party whose collective opinion could mean the difference between earning honor or deserving shame. The rules were different for men and women; while men could attain honor – such a thing was unthinkable for women. Their only contribution could be to bring shame on the men of their family through their actions. To them, honor was everything. That’s why many of the institutional religion were threatened by Jesus, who constantly seemed to win the favor of the crowd and he won every challenge, earning for himself honor while his opponents were simultaneously dishonored.
Christianity flipped the script on the ancient world’s concept of shame and honor. Honor demands satisfaction, whereas Christianity commands humility. Our example is not that of a powerful, popular, and wealthy man, but of one who was powerless, forsaken, and poor. Yet when I consider the various sorts of Christians who represent his name, I see powerful, popular, and wealthy people who make disciples in their own image. This is what we honor and we deem as right and honorable to attain. It’s opposite, then, must be nothing less than a personification of shame and that which is wrong: weak, unpopular, and poor people. But aren’t these the very people that Jesus declared were blessed? According to Romans 10:11: “As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” While referring to Isaiah 28:16.
We need to choose which thing we will believe in – that honor and shame are a timeless truth or that right and wrong will be the thing we trust in. If we chose the former, then we cannot trust our own consciences – we would need others to tell us whether or not we are honorable people. If we chose the latter, then we will recognize that things done in the name of honor are not always right. When we read the Bible, we have to pay attention to the heart of the message when we see words like shame, honor, dishonor and figure out what applies as written or what was meant.
Some of the honor/shame language was to use the concepts the original readers would have understood – that their actions in His name reflect upon him just as much as their own actions reflected on their families that it is not to say that we dishonor God in the same way they did as we operate by another set of concepts. I’m not sure how Paul would equate that message in right/wrong language – but we do know that he wrote this in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” We should not be quick to embrace concepts of honor and shame without fully understanding the many layers involved in those teachings. So when people tell you that the Bible says something is shameful or honorable – just be glad that we’re freed from all of that in our right and wrong society and Paul would not want have us wanted to live as if shame and honor were the pedestal upon which the things of God were founded upon.