Ways different cultures think about wrongdoing and righteousness

Mission Briefing: Ideas that shape world mission outreach today

Cultural responses to wrongdoing and righteousness

A century ago, early anthropologists routinely classified cultures according to their perceived development vis-a-vis Western cultures. The categories on that now-discarded developmental scale were savagery, barbarian and civilized.

Today, one way Christians anthropologists help people minister cross-culturally is by identifying the lenses through which cultures view wrongdoing or sin and right living or righteousness. Recognizing those cultural lenses and the way people respond as a result can help outsiders understand what people of a particular culture most need to hear from Scripture.

Three categories of cultural perspectives regarding sin and righteousness have emerged:

These categories -- and in particular the honor/shame one -- are talked about a lot today. Notwithstanding the fact that these three categories have only recently become a "hot topic," the idea has been around for a while. The three categories first appeared in linguist Eugene Nida's classic Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Witness, a book published more than sixty years ago.

People in cultures in which honor/shame responses are prominent feel strongly responsible for the corporate well-being of their group. Interconnectedness and solidarity are core values. An individual's actions are seen as bringing honor or shame on those connected to that person as well as on the person actually doing wrong or acting righteously. Such cultures abound in Asia.

On the other hand, guilt/innocence cultures tend to be individualistic with an emphasis on regulating behavior by rules. The individual who behaves badly is labeled "guilty" while individual who does what is right is "innocent." Many cultures in the West, including the USA, are predominantly guilt/innocence cultures.

In terms of fear/power responses, those predominate in tribal and animistic cultures where there is pervasive fear of evil spirits and all of life is thus seen as an ongoing spiritual battle. People in those cultures pursue spiritual power through rituals. Many of the fear/power cultures are on the African continent.

That doesn't mean that (1) only people in honor/shame cultures feel shame while (2) those in guilt/innocence cultures are the only ones who feel guilt with (3) fear being encountered only in fear/power cultures. No culture is limited to just one of those pairs. All six elements -- shame, guilt, fear, power, honor and innocence -- interplay and overlap in the people of every culture. Each cultural worldview is a unique blend in which one of the pairs dominates.

Canadian pastor Tim Challies has summed up well how Scripture speaks to all three types of cultural worldviews:

"The Bible describes how all three of these are consequences to human rebellion. . . The gospel addresses shame by telling how Christ was shamed on our behalf to restore our honor. The gospel addresses fear by telling how Christ has defeated every power and how He even gives His power to us. And the gospel addresses guilt by assuring us that Christ took our guilt upon Himself so He could give us His innocence. The gospel . . . restores honor, it restores power, it restores innocence."

    -- Howard Culbertson

This mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, an online monthly magazine.

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