Selfless Love: The Missing Middle in Honor/Shame Cultures

by Alex Toorman

Seeing salvation as a shame-to-honor story will open up the possibility of finding redemptive analogies in honor/shame cultures.

Christians are often accused of corrupt motives when reaching out in love to the needy, especially in honor/shame cultures. Why is this and can it be avoided? When a relational, loving God is missing in one’s worldview, it affects how people respond to crises and the good news.

Our actions and words are interpreted according to the worldview of the recipients, but they are also the medium God wants to use to lead them through the paradigm shift needed in their worldview in order to be open to receive the good news. Our understanding and sensitivity to this will facilitate and help develop ways for effective communication of the message.

When conflict comes between two parties in a society, there are a variety of possible responses. Ken Sande describes these in what he calls the “slippery slope of conflict resolution” (Sande 2004, 22; see Table 1).

Table 1: Slippery Slope of Conflict Resolution
The Slippery Slope
of Conflict Resolution

 Type of Response

Purpose and


Attack responses
(self-vindication instead of
more peaceful alternatives)

Restoring honor;
focus is self


Peacemaking responses
(expecting give and take)

Peacemaking; focus on
both parties; responses
requiring love of others

Escape responses
(increased level
of despair)

Response of shame;
focus is self

In many Western, guilt-based cultures, the attack and escape responses are usually seen as responses of despair and should be avoided. However, in honor/shame societies, these responses are accepted and even encouraged. Examples are the hara-kiri or seppuku suicide in Japan or the honor killings and blood feuds in other cultures. Believers from a Muslim background are looking for protection from persecution by family members who feel their clan has been shamed by their becoming believers. In the East, law and order would tolerate and even favor this persecution.

The responses considered best in the traditional West are in the middle: give and take and make it a win-win situation. If need be, there is the use of a third party to provide counsel and to mediate. These middle responses are viewed much less favorably in honor/shame societies. They are a “missing middle” in the honor/shame society and require a selfless aspect. Law in an honor/shame society provides leniency (to a greater extent) toward attack and escape responses, while in Western societies these are punishable or looked down upon.

What if the “conflict” comes from the outside in the form of a disaster (an “act of God”) or an economic downturn? A simple spectrum of responses may look something like that presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Simple Spectrum of Responses to Crisis
Response Attitude Purpose and Characteristic
Helping oneself Self confidence Fix it; restoring honor
Help from within the same group Shame within group, but not to outsiders Restoring honor from within group; avoiding external shame; solidarity
Recipient of (outside) aid Helplessness of whole group; receive aid Receiving love in action
(from the outside)
No help: fatalism
and despair
Helplessness of whole group; can do nothing; no options; suffer Shame

When resources are available, people will help themselves. In honor/shame societies, they will help each other to restore the honor of their clan or family (often by being in debt to each other as a result). But if resources are not available from within, help will need to come from the outside. Other societies or groups with “selfless love” in their worldview will be willing to provide such help (although there may also be selfish motives for helping).

Cultures where selfless love is missing in the middle will be less inclined to respond selflessly. When disaster strikes in an honor/shame society, an attitude of fatalism is often prominent. It is “God’s will” and “we cannot do anything about it” is often a first reaction. Later on, it may be considered some kind of omen or punishment from God. People then become more ardent and fanatic in their religion. A critical time to show God’s love is before they come to this conclusion.

This was seen, for example, in the response of the world to the tsunami which devastated the coastal areas of Sumatra and killed hundreds of thousands of people in December 2004. The Acehnese, who are 99.9% Muslim, were desperate, and an attitude of fatalism prevailed in their trauma. Help came, selflessly, from the outside world. The United Nations and many organizations spearheaded relief work. Western nations (considered Christian by Muslims) and Christian organizations were on the forefront. Islamic relief groups came as well, but were much slower and fewer in number. Many Acehnese openly asked why.

Another common example is holistic outreach among Muslims who live in urban slums. In many such places, few Muslim groups are involved. When a Christian outreach begins with micro-credit programs, education, and healthcare geared toward the whole community, it is usually received gladly. When people begin to recognize and hear about Christ, some will begin to follow him.

This is typically when persecution starts. However, this persecution usually starts not from fellow Muslims in the community, but from outside, pious Muslims who are shamed that other Muslims have left their faith (considered treason) and feel the need to restore that honor for Islam and its ummah (community) through persecution. There is no middle love response possible in their worldview. Freedom, a gift of love for people to change their loyalty, does not exist.

Honor/Shame in the Worldview of Islam

Since I am most familiar with the Muslim worldview, it may be good to mention some of the relevant differences between the Islamic and biblical worldview. See Table 3.

Table 3: Differences in Muslim and Christian Worldview
Islam Christianity
Human beings: sin is humanity’s weakness that one is able to overcome by effort. One needs to know the right things to do. These are revealed.

God: One, no relation within himself; a remote God we cannot get to know intimately and who can do anything he desires.

The unity in the community of believers means uniformity: religion = culture = law = society

God’s rule is external through sharia law.  External deeds signify true religion.

Human beings: made in the image of God. Sin has tainted this image to the core, unable to be done away with without an external savior.

God: Trinitarian oneness, relational within himself, loving his creation, immanent, intimately and lovingly involved in our lives, always with integrity.

Unity in diversity, which can be expressed within any redeemed culture. Individuality of person or group is acknowledged. A culture does not represent a religion.

God’s rule comes from within the believers through the Holy Spirit, overflowing outwardly. External deeds are necessary, but are the result of true religion.

In day-to-day life in Islam there is no active provision for God to express his love. In its view, human beings are not in relationship with God and are not created in the image of a God relational within himself.

Since God is not intimately involved and loving toward humanity, this love is also not widely expressed between people. Nor do people have a Holy Spirit to guide them in this. Expressing love and compassion (by God or human being) has little theological foundation in the Islamic worldview. God is neither active nor a source of power for day-to-day living. Hence, many Muslims seek this power and meaning elsewhere, such as in secularism, religious extremism, or animistic practices in folk Islam.

Islam assumes that human beings are given ability in the flesh to overcome sin by obeying the commandments of God (such as the five pillars of Islam). It also believes that Islam has been given an external system of sharia law to impose right rule in society. As a result, Muslims believe it is fully possible for people, by strict adherence to these principles, to live life and structure society correctly as God wants it, with the reward of acceptance in heaven in the afterlife. Doing this is the honor of the Muslim and the Muslim community. When this is not possible, by failure or externally-imposed conditions, shame is felt before God and fellow men and women. When things go wrong, the power to set things right will not come from God, for God is not intimately and lovingly involved in their worldview.

Suffering is a sign of weakness. Suffering is shame. It means that God is not blessing and is therefore a reason for shame. A suffering Christ on the cross (or any other suffering prophet of God) shames God and is thus impossible for theological reasons. Islam begins with the hijra or flight from suffering in Mecca (and its shame) and building political and military power in Medina to establish itself.

Christ (and thus the beginning of Christianity) refused to go this way and chose lovingly and strategically to suffer. Jesus’ disciples themselves had to go through this paradigm and worldview shift. They had to shift from a view of a secular (political military) Messiah to a suffering Messiah. Muslims need the same shift.

Muslims look back on the shame and suffering of the Crusades (when Christians themselves were more after honor than love) or on the shame of the Western (seen as Christian) world ruling as colonizers over most of the Muslim world in the first half of the twentieth century. This is still a painful and shameful memory for the Muslim, and one over which no good vindication has yet been won. There are therefore only two options for the Muslim: Christ’s redemptive love and satisfying this or restoring honor by striking back at the “Christian” West.

Although a worldview and its followers may not recognize it, people are still created to love and be loved and will always have that need. Love in Islam shows up, for example, in the popular name of Allah the All-merciful, or in the pillar1 of almsgiving, or in the tradition of hospitality. But without a worldview where love is central in God and humanity, Allah as a merciful God has little practical implication, and almsgiving and hospitality are easily skewed toward gaining merit or fulfilling acts of self-honor.

When Love Comes
When Christians come to help, heal, develop, and bring relief because Christ is reaching out to them, a worldview clash occurs. What Christians do is interpreted from the Muslims’ point of view, for selfless love is not understood. It is not recognized because it is not known. What is done must have a meaning, and that meaning is sought from within their framework of assumptions (i.e., worldview).

All kinds of reasons are assumed as to why Christians reach out to the needy: to make converts (it is a way of bribing), to gain power over people, to earn favor with God, to earn money, or to show off superiority (Bendor Samuel 2007). There is no category for Christ’s compelling love as it is not part of the worldview. Thus, a first interpretation is a priori mistaken and will almost always engender conflict. To love selflessly in reaching out is always a risk due to the worldview clash, but it is a risk we must take, having our eyes fixed on the Sender. The persecution that comes is usually based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what is done.

But we must go on in faith, trusting the Holy Spirit to open the hearts of the people. The worker must pray, pray, pray. At the same time he or she must avoid any unnecessary pitfalls, such as culturally insensitive acts, which would further exacerbate the misunderstanding of the action of love. This is the contextualization issue. Deep inside everyone is something of the image of God which, opened up by the Holy Spirit, can respond to true love. And once understood and received in a flood of grace, it can be passed on (with similar risks) to others within the culture. This true love will also be experienced as God honoring them in a way unrealized before.

Sometimes such love is accepted only because of the personal gain of material goods. And although this is a risk certain to exist, it should not deter us from reaching out. We must exercise wisdom (something God wants us to ask for) in order to minimize this from happening. We can reach out in this or any way only in full dependence on him. Another risk is that some people will grasp grace, while others will not. Clashes and persecution will often result.  

Presenting the Message from an Honor/Shame Point of View
Most evangelical theological treatises today, and scripture itself, state that the overall purpose of the why and how of this universe and humanity is God’s glory. We are created and redeemed for his glory. Where God’s glory is shamed, God works to restore his honor and display an even greater glory. However, most of our evangelistic messages focus on God’s love. It is in that love that we as sin-guilty and sin-shamed beings receive grace.

We receive love and become acceptable to God again—his honor in our fallen creation is restored. In love, we are brought back to the eternal purpose for which we were made. Becoming satisfied in him emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually is experiencing and responding to his love. And satisfied in him, we bring him the greatest glory.  

Becoming captured by God’s love is the common focus of most of our evangelization methods.  “God loves you and…” But a loving God is a stranger to many societies where honor and shame are primary. We must learn to show that love and its message from their point of view. There are plenty of biblical starting points for this, such as telling God’s story (chronologically) from the point of view of the dishonor God experienced when sin came, and how God’s redemption story brings him the glory due to him (not just presenting his loving pursuit of us, which can make the salvation story so human-centered). People need to see that they are God’s people (created for that purpose) and how they have shamed him and his ummah. The Bible and history today is an epic story of God redeeming his honor.  

The Old Testament tells a story that takes place in primarily honor/shame environments. For example, we usually see Boaz the kinsman-redeemer as a type of the loving Jesus redeeming us out of our dire sin situation. But few recall that the word for the redeemer (ga’al) in other places in the OT is translated as the avenger (as in the avenger of blood)—the one who has to keep up the honor of the family. There is a great honor aspect at stake in blood sacrifices, and in the cross!

When we present salvation, we emphasize justification (freedom from guilt, being made righteous) and redemption (being set free from the slavery of sin), but we must also emphasize propitiation (God’s turning away from wrath, a restoring of honor) through the vicarious death of Christ. We now no longer fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Along with this, our message should explain and exemplify suffering.

Seeing salvation as a shame-to-honor story will also open up the possibility of finding redemptive analogies among the honor/shame customs and stories in the culture to which we reach out. Showing Christ’s love in action or enduring suffering without going in to attack or escape reactions (see Table 1) may be the first ways we are to show Christ in an honor/shame society. But with that, let us have the right ways to explain the message relevant to the people who primarily understand honor.

A king can be honored and “glorified” by his subjects doing all his biddings. He is shamed when they don’t. Honor/shame societies know that. However, he is more fully honored and glorified when his subjects love him and with gladness serve him (even to the point of suffering) and so do his bidding gladly—and where the king reciprocates this. Without this middle love, it just becomes an honor/shame situation. If something that causes one to lose face would happen to the king, an unloving community would not respond and shame and despair would follow.

Receiving external love in the middle would block this from happening. Love upholds rightful honor and prevents shame. Love complements and maximizes honor. It needs a correct worldview to see this.

In much of the above (biased by my own work among Muslims), the Western world is described as at least culturally Christian. This, however, is becoming less and less the case. The blessings in the West have become gods, and in many cases, any acknowledgement of the Lordship of Christ is being deserted. As a result “the love of many grows cold” (cf. Matt. 24:12), and love becomes a missing middle in many Western cultures (e.g., gang cultures thrive on honor and shame). Advertisements to high schoolers, for example, bank on the honor it is to wear or use name-brand clothing (or the shame for not having something like it) and is empty of love.

Does the desire to belong to a group without selfless love in its worldview result in an honor/shame culture? When the true image of God in humanity is no longer considered, worth and honor become based on abilities or features instead of love. This must also affect the way we present the good news at home.

1. Islam as a religion is based on five pillars: the creed, praying five times a day, almsgiving (usually 2½%), the fasting month, and the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca once a lifetime.

Bendor Samuel, Paul.  2007.  “Initial Reflections on Holistic Ministries in an Islamic Context.” St. Francis Magazine. Accessed November 10, 2010 from

Sande, Ken.  2004.  The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.  


Dr. Alex Toorman has been with OMF International since 1994. After fourteen years in Asia, he now networks, mobilizes, and prepares people and resources for the growth of the kingdom in Southeast Asia.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 160-167. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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