Guilt/innocence and honour/shame revisited – more on multi-cultural church

Here are a few more jottings about the challenges and opportunities of encouraging multi-cultural church life.

When people talk about cross-cultural challenges, one of the things that comes up frequently is the difference between honour/shame v guilt/innocence societies. It is true that some cultures seem to emphasise one more than the other. However, I have noticed that:

1.       Whenever I talk about either guilt or shame, those issues resonate across cultural boundaries.

2.       Historically western culture had a strong understanding of honour/shame and the old feudal systems were founded on it.

3.       Honour/shame is built quite strongly into our understanding of what it means to belong to particularly groups and clubs. The most obvious is the football team. If the team fail or a particular player does something wrong it brings shame not just on the 11 players who took to the field or the player that was guilty but on the whole club including its supporters. Given the clubs are associated with a particular town, city or community, there’s also a sense of pride in their success, grief in their pain and shame at their failings that is shared by the wider community.

So, what is happening? Here’s my immediate thoughts

1.       The primary issue is not so much about honour/shame or guilt/innocence as it is about whether we think mainly in collective or individual terms. It’s not just about whether I feel guilt and/or shame as whether I see my shame as falling on the entire community or just on me. Similarly, do I consider myself to be under the guilt/shame of others or just myself (do I share in the community’s status?)

2.       Western society is increasingly individualistic and fragmented.  This means that we are less and less likely to identify as part of a community/group. This will not just be true of western society but increasingly of other societies and is a by-product of secularisation and the growth of technology. We are increasingly remote from each other.

3.       There are still fragments of collective identity. This may include identity with our class (especially the working class -though this is also under pressure) or with a particular group or institution.  It will also include temporary and voluntary identity around a fashion, social identity, musical/artistic trends or coalescing around a particular person whether that’s a pop star or politician. It is in those case that collective shame and honour are most likely to be found.

4.       This means that first of all, fragmentation and distance means that we will find it harder to know where our collective identity is, where, what and who we belong to.  This links to an earlier conversation about justice.  Society is something remote and bureaucratic. When this is the case, then because I have less invested in it, I am less likely to identify with it.

5.       In so far as we do belong, it is something that we opt into and which is likely to be temporary.  This means that rather than carrying the consequences and bearing the burdens together, we are more likely to opt out when it no-longer is to our advantage or when the going gets too tough.  This may also work if there is greater “honour” offered by connection to someone or something else and so people will switch loyalties.

These are brief initial thoughts but I think they help us to think about some of the challenges we face in terms of communicating the Gospel and discipling believers. At the same time, it shows how the Gospel is the only true, lasting and satisfying solution.

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