By Kristie Mandel – CXI intern
As we encounter international students from cultures very different than our own, how can we be sensitive in how we communicate the Good News to them? One approach is to acknowledge that priorities from shame-based cultures can differ significantly from those of guilt-based cultures.
No culture is exclusively shame or guilt-based, but in all, one of these approaches will generally be more dominant than the other. Shame-based cultures are interested in maintaining honor and avoiding public shame. This approach features external accountability to the expectations of one’s community/group; loss of face is consequently public and corporate.
Guilt-based cultures rely on an internalized value system. The transgressing of one’s conscience results in a loss of innocence and a personal sense of moral failure.
While Western cultures are primarily guilt-based, cultures from the majority world (particularly Asian and Muslim peoples) are shame-based.
Much of the theology we are familiar with in the U.S. is filtered through the lens of Western culture. What we need to realize is that the Bible speaks to both guilt-based cultures and shame-based cultures. Dr. Timothy Tennent points out that while the Old Testament contains 145 references to guilt, it has nearly 300 references to shame. In the New Testament, there are 10 references for guilt and 45 for shame. Dr. Bruce Nicholls has noted that Western Christian theologians have “rarely if ever stressed salvation as honoring God, exposure of sin as shame, and the need for acceptance and the restoration of honor.”
Reading the Bible through a shame/honor lens results in numerous takeaways. We realize that as Jesus suffered on the cross, He bore not only our guilt, but also our shame. As we enter into a relationship with Him, we are invited to partake in not only His righteousness, but also His honor.
Tennent shares the following insight in his book Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology. “Missionaries who have worked in shame-based cultures frequently observe that the reason most Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists resist becoming Christians is not primarily because of specific theological objections to the Christian message. More often, there are powerful social and cultural forces that serve as the primary barrier to Christian conversion. People in a shame-based culture are more acutely aware of the surrounding opinions of the group and are constrained from taking individual action in isolation from the larger group. Our frame of reference is apologetically focused on convincing individual Muslims of the truth of Christianity. However, the major barrier is actually not theological or doctrinal, but social, cultural, and relational.”
As we share our faith with students from shame-based cultures, how might we tell the story differently? Can we find opportunities to encourage conversion in groups rather than expect individuals to respond in their own timing? When we share a text from the Bible can we point out how it speaks to shame/honor as well as guilt/innocence?
To learn more about this subject, visit www.honorshame.com. Check out the “Gospel Video” on their home page for some ideas on how the Good News might sound in a shame-based context. You can find a blog post specifically about evangelism at www.honorshame.com/simple-evangelism-method/.
 Much of the information in this article is gleaned from chapter 4 of Tennent’s book. The excerpt can be found on page 98.