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The Cross-Cultural Cross

How do you experience sin? What feelings do you experience when you have done something wrong? Do you feel fear, shame or guilt or a combination of these?

When we look at Adam and Eve’s reaction to their first sin against God we see all three operating. They recognized they were naked and covered themselves with leaves sewn together to hide their shame. They hid from God in the garden when they heard him coming, out of in fear. They blamed each other to try to shift the guilt away from themselves.

They recognized they were naked and covered themselves to hide their shame. They hid from God in the garden out of in fear. They blamed each other to try to shift the guilt away from themselves.

For some years, mission workers have been pointing out to us these three reactions to wrongdoing occur in cultures too. Different societies use different motivations to regulate moral behaviour – inculcating sensitivity to fear, honour or guilt in their children from a young age. (eg. Roland Muller, ‘Honor & Shame: Unlocking the Door’). In broad terms, there are fear-power cultures, honour-shame cultures and guilt-innocence cultures.

Western culture, for example, is a guilt-innocence culture where people are taught individually to be sensitive to their conscience and have a strong sense of fairness and justice.

The Middle East and much of Asia are dominated by honour-shame culture where people are sensitive to how others perceive them. Children are taught to be sensitive to the group and to be careful to honour their family, social groups and nation as well as those more senior to them.

Polytheistic and animistic societies scattered through Asia, Africa, America and the Pacific are generally seen as fear-power cultures. Children are taught to observe rules and rituals that will avoid offence to the spirits, gods and ancestors. They will also learn to do rituals, give sacrifices and use magic to gain favour and power from the spirits.

With our world becoming increasingly mixed and multicultural, we need to be thinking about these different cultural attitudes. Understanding them can help us explain both human sin and the work of Christ.

Understanding the Western Legacy

In the West, (especially since the Reformation) centuries of Bible reading and gospel proclamation have in-grained guilt-innocence thinking. Common law was largely built out of biblical principles of love and justice. The reformers worked hard to show how God’s Law was key to helping people understand their obligations to God and to one another. Individuals were continually challenged to remember that their lives were lived before God.

Compare this with Confucius’ approach to the law for an honour-shame society in China. In Analects 2/3, Confucius says:

Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously.

Note that Confucius recognises only two ways to get citizens to behave themselves: fear of punishment (essentially a fear-power approach) and social pressure (the shame-honour approach). Confucius commends the latter as more effective.

An honour-shame system loses its coercive power as soon as people can break the law without being seen by other humans. But people who fear God have nowhere to hide—no status or tribe to protect them

But biblical Christianity told people to look to God and conscience rather than man. And, as we should expect, this was far more effective. Here are three reasons why:

  1. An honour-shame system loses its coercive power as soon as people can break the law without being seen by other humans (or as soon as potential accusers can be intimidated). But people who fear God have nowhere to hide—no status or tribe to protect them from judgement. Individual accountability and justice take precedence over group-honour. Being accountable to the perfect God of the Bible also raises moral expectations. Imperfect humans—not to mention the morally corrupt gods of most polytheistic societies—simply have lower standards.
  2. Honour-shame culture exalts group identity, fostering honour and allegiance to family, social group and nation. The Bible, however, depicts all people as made in God’s image and all being accountable to God. So we are to value and serve all peoples. Physically we are all one in Adam and for the church, we are all one in Christ. This unifying effect has brought great blessings across the world.
  3. For Christians, there’s more than fear at work: those who understand that God has saved them through the death of his Son and has adopted them as children want to respond with love and gratitude. As J.I. Packer puts it: “Augustinianism … embraces what Calvin called the third use of the law, namely its role as the family code that by setting ideal standards, spurs God’s children on to work as hard as they can at pleasing their Father.” (Keep in step with the Spirit, p108)

Guilt-Innocence and Western Decline

This is the social legacy of reformation Christianity. Yet, as time has progressed, Western guilt-innocence culture has become increasingly individualistic as people have abandoned God. Conscience cut adrift from God’s law, has become unreliable and changeable. With the addition of affluence, people have been less accountable to family and social group, so without God they are just accountable to themselves and their pleasures (see David Williams’ series on the rise of “pleasure-pain” culture).

Yet, decadent individualism is not enough to maintain a stable society. All societies require at least one of the three approaches to regulate moral behaviour and maintain law and order. The alternative is for “every man to do what is right in his own eyes” (the situation in Judges) and do whatever gives him pleasure. But this leads to a state of anarchy: no society can tolerate it for long before someone steps in to reimpose order through the old instruments of fear and shame.

We can surely see all of these patterns at work today as small special-interest groups attempt to leverage outrage culture (shame) and new legislation (fear-power) to suppress the opinions of people who disagree.

Guilt Innocence and Beyond

Of course, before it became social reality, guilt-innocence culture began as a theological commentary on the human condition. As the reformers searched the Bible they concluded that the best way to understand the atonement was that Jesus had taken the punishment for our sin and satisfied God’s justice—he was the substitute who took the penalty for our guilt (hence “penal substitution”).

Yet there are other aspects to the gospel, and other ways it has been understood historically. In the time of Jesus there was greater interest in the power of spirits (or ‘gods’) to bring harm or help. In this context, a significant part of Jesus’ ministry involved casting out demons—and it is noteworthy that early theories of the atonement often emphasised Christ’s victory over Satan (hence “Christus Victor”).

By 1000 AD European society had become more feudal and was dominated by kings and nobles whose behaviour was increasingly governed by honour and shame. In this context, Anselm explained the cross as God’s honour being satisfied by Jesus’ sacrifice.

In their historic presentation, both Christus Victor and Anselm’s approach could be misleading. But both point to real problems that Jesus actually overcame for us. If we combine them with the reformed approach they can help us present the gospel

In their historic presentation, both these approaches could be misleading—for example, some took Christus Victor to mean that Jesus had paid a debt to Satan rather than God, and Anselm’s model could lead to some strange ideas about merit. But both point to real problems that Jesus actually overcame for us. If we combine them with the reformed approach they can help us present the gospel to people who come from cultures dominated by fear-power and honour-shame. Let me explain why.

1. Fear-Power

We’ve lost God’s favour and should be afraid. By disowning God and opting for idols, we humans have made ourselves subject to God’s wrath. We are cut off from God and facing eternal death. Moreover, as rebels we have sided with the evil spiritual forces that stand against God. This leaves us open to spiritual and physical abuse by those forces. Without God, we have no one to protect us and so inevitably live in fear.

Jesus saved from this by redeeming us from the kingdom of darkness; releasing us from the tyranny of sin and saving us from eternal death. By his atoning death he destroyed the devil’s power over us (Heb 2:14 c.f. 1Cor 15:56). When we are in Christ, Satan can no longer rule over us because Jesus is our King and Protector and because we live under God’s favour.

2. Honour-Shame

We’ve dishonoured God and should be ashamed. We have refused to honour the most important person in our lives: our Creator and Owner. We have even refused to show him the respect we would to an earthly father. We have refused to fulfil his purpose for our lives, which is to bring him glory. We have rebelled against him and denied him our allegiance. We have betrayed him by giving honour and service to things and powers in opposition to him. The punishment for dishonouring and betraying our God is shame and death.

Jesus saved us from this too. He took on the shame that we deserved for dishonouring God. He was totally humiliated on the cross: abandoned, mocked, abused, stripped naked and crucified with criminals. And in return he shared his honour with us. When we come to Jesus he gives us the honour of being made sons and heirs of all things. He makes us share in his greatness and his glory—even when we are dishonoured by people (1Pet 4:14-16).

Sharing the Gospel                        

Being aware of these things can help us explain sin to people from different cultures. If we are talking to people from honour-shame cultures it can be helpful to begin talking about how we have dishonoured God and brought ourselves into a shameful state. With those from fear-power cultures we can talk about how Jesus bore God’s wrath, redeemed us from sin, death and Satan and brought us into his kingdom, family and protection.


Picture: Detail from Abreha and Atsbeha Church, Mek’ele (Fall of Adam and Eve)

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