Sometimes we read of a young girl raped in a culture of shame and honor. We are shocked when the vulnerable and victimized female is killed for the sake of "honor," sometimes by her own family.[1]

We ask a host of questions: How can this happen in our modern world? Why does a culture have such practices? 

Shame is a dominant force shaping many cultures in Asia, Latin America, the Mediterranean, and the Islamic 'world'. What are these forces of shame and honor? 

What is honor?

Words that may be used to understand honor include respect, good reputation, esteem, valuable, admiration. 

In Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, David A. deSilva writes: 

Honor is a dynamic and relational concept. On the one hand, an individual can think of himself or herself as honorable based on his or her conviction that he or she has embodied those actions and qualities that the group values as "honorable," as the marks of a valuable person. This aspect of honor is really "self-respect." On the other hand, honor is also the esteem in which a person is held by the group he or she regards as significant others – it is the recognition by the person's group that he or she is a valuable member of that group. In this regard, it is having the respect of others.[2] 


So honor seems to be about conforming to the values and beliefs of a particular group or culture. 

What is shame?

Again, words that we may use for shame include dishonor, disgrace, disrespect, embarrassment, humiliation, indignity, ignominy. 

DeSilva states that "shame signifies, in the first instance, being seen as less than valuable because one has behaved in ways that run contrary to the values of the group."[3] 

So, Brazil's devastating (0-7) loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals attracts headlines such as "shame" and "disgrace."[4] And stoning a victimized young woman is apparently an "honor killing." 

On this basis, we conclude that the values, beliefs, standards, and perspectives of a person or a group are all important in determining what is "shameful" and what is "honorable." 

Stripped in Philippi

We return to Acts 16. Paul and his companions are bringing the Kingdom of God into Philippi. As a Roman colony, Philippi was a "little Rome" in its values, beliefs, standards, and perspectives. 

In the last blog, Paul's action of freeing a slave girl triggered a reaction from her owners (Acts 16:19-24). 

In this violent scene, Paul and Silas are accused of undermining Roman beliefs, customs and, practices. The resulting actions are calculated to shame Paul and Silas who were: 

  • seized and dragged into the marketplace
  • accused publicly
  • attacked by the crowd
  • stripped of their clothes and beaten with rods
  • thrown into prison
  • where they were put into the inner prison or dungeon
  • and their feet put in stocks which would have caused excruciating pain. 

From the Roman perspective, a public beating followed by imprisonment and chains was "a mark of reproach" and "descending to the lowest point of humiliation."[5] 

Singing in prison

In the dungeon, Paul and Silas turned Roman values and perceptions on their head. They acted in a way that displayed honor – and God vindicated them (Acts 16:25-26): 

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. 

Elsewhere, Paul interprets his many prison experiences, not in terms of shame from the Roman perspective, but in terms of honor from the Kingdom of God perspective. For him, his imprisonments were an identification with Jesus Christ  (2 Timothy 1:8-12, 16-18). On this basis Paul viewed his imprisonments, beatings, and other sufferings as opportunities to show solidarity with Christ and his kingdom. The results were joy – a joy that caused him to "sing hymns to God" in the stench, filth, and pain of prison – and people were watching, listening, and wondering

From shame to honor

We have not dealt with the jailer as yet. 

The jailer was, most likely, a retired Roman army veteran – toughened by years of battle and military life. Here's what happened (Acts 16:27-31): 

When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 

From all appearances, the jailer had failed in his duty. The jailer's reaction is one of shame reflecting Roman values.[6] By that standard his death is expected

In place of this bleak, desolate, hopeless way of living, Paul offers life, purpose, and hope in and through Jesus Christ. This is honor of a different kind – an honor flowing from God's values, standards, and perspective. This honor is consistent with the three absolutes of our humanity because it is the honor of the one true God revealed as Jesus Christ. 

There is more that could be said about shame and honor including the jailer's action of washing the wounds of Paul and Silas, and Paul's dealings with the officials' attempt to give them the "bum's rush" the next morning. It is clear that there is a huge difference between what honor and shame look like from the perspective of the Empire of Rome and the perspective of Kingdom of Heaven. 


Some connecting points 

Here are a four points for connecting with those who live in cultures dominated by shame: 

1.         Be assured that God's perspective of honor is directly related to Jesus Christ:

2.         Be sensitive to the three absolutes that are real and active in the lives of all other humans, including those with whom you seek to connect. Some of the standards of shame and honor will deny or contradict these absolutes, while others are aligned with them and can be used to reach into cultures for Christ. For instance, people from these cultures are often highly relational, and open to hearing about Jesus. 

3.         Be curious, yet respectful, of the standards or perspectives of how shame and honor are measured or displayed within a cultural group. For instance, what etiquette is practiced when greeting or speaking with one another (e.g., a man speaking with a woman may be inappropriate); when eating and showing (or receiving) hospitality (e.g., what kinds of food are permitted).

            A person I know who has had much contact with Muslim sailors related how they often ask him to interpret their dreams. He has been astonished at how often, and how easily, the dreams express the simple terms of the good news of Jesus Christ. 

4.         Be "walking as Jesus walked" (1 John 2:6). This means being a living and loving ambassador of Jesus Christ demonstrating by your life what the honor of God is, what the power of God is, and what the righteousness of God is. As stated before, this fits with the words of Francis of Assisi: "Always preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words."  

So, what do you think? How would you connect with a person living in a culture of shame?


Until next Friday, 

John, a brother


Previous blog in this series.

[2] David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship  Purity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 25.

[3] DeSilva, 25.

[5] See generally, Gregory S. MaGee, "Paul's Response to the Same and Pain of Imprisonment in 2 Timothy," Bibliotheca Sacra 165 (2008): 338-353.

[6] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 540-41.

Click "yes" to receive resource-rich newsletters.

Helpful resources provided to 'living theology' subscribers.


Want to follow Jesus more closely?

Get your FREE copy of "Listening Well to Matthew."