False Honor vs. True Honor

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What happens when a whole culture views reputation and respect as supreme? Is there an alternative?

Dr. Ryan Brown looks in depth at the first question in his book Honor Bound: How a Cultural Ideal Has Shaped the American Psyche. It explores the common themes of “honor cultures,” where preserving reputation is king. Brown suggests that in America honor culture is especially prevalent in the South and West. So this includes Oklahoma.

An honor culture is one in which personal worth must be won, established, and protected. The (wrongly) honor bound man is strong, tough, and intolerant of disrespect (think: Wyatt Earp). A woman in an honor culture is then expected and conditioned to be virtuous and loyal above all else (think: “Stand By Your Man”).

While acting with honor seems like it should be a good thing, the problem comes when it serves as the supreme guiding principle for relationships and actions. Brown documents studies that have isolated this “honor syndrome” in individuals and groups. Statistically, such groups have higher instances of unsportsmanlike conduct, verbal one-ups, and reckless behavior. On a more somber note, they also statistically have higher instances of violent crimes, school shootings, homicides, untreated mental health issues, suicide, rape, and domestic abuse.

But there is an alternative. Brown says the opposite of an honor culture is a “dignity culture.” In dignity cultures, human worth is considered to be intrinsic and need not be won (and therefore can’t be lost either). While it was beyond the scope of his book to explore when and where dignity cultures arise, I kept thinking how the Gospel is what can transform an honor culture to a dignity culture.

In a dignity culture, a man of true honor places his worth in something other than his reputation and a woman can bring her gifts fully to the table. For Christians, when we remember that our identity is solidly based on Christ’s righteous life and sacrificial death, we don’t have to worry about whether someone else is or isn’t adequately respecting us. We can just be, and we can let the other person be. We can admit when we are wrong, say we are sorry, and give up our position for the sake of another.

The honor syndrome provides a helpful explanation for why some people do what they do and gives a framework for how a cluster of seemingly unrelated social ills may fit together. The common thread can occur when people put their identities into things other than the stabilizing, life-giving person of Jesus Christ.

Let’s remember our intrinsic worth as image bearers of God and look for ways we can affirm the same in others.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. — Romans 12:9-11

Julie profile pic   Julie Serven craves shalom for people and places. She enjoys writing for nonprofits, editing, helping people with literacy skills, hearing people’s stories, exploring all things OKC, yoga, NPR, and spending time with her ultracool family.