Shame and Honor: How Asian Americans Perceive Christianity
Hear my plea
Help me not to make a
Fool of me
And to not uproot
My family tree
Keep my father standing tall”
- Honor To Us All (from Disney’s “Mulan”)
I and other second generation Asian Americans live at the crossroads of the guilt-innocence culture in the U.S. and the shame-honor culture subconsciously transmitted to us by our Asian parents. As the lyrics to “Honor To Us All” cleverly illustrate, Asians belong to a shame-honor culture in which honoring your parents, and entire family tree is expected of every child. Failing to honor one’s parents and ancestors leads to an unavoidable feeling of shame and even, ostracism from one’s kin. This contrasts sharply with the Western guilt-innocence culture which emphasizes the individual conscience, a feeling of guilt, and expectation of punishment.
To delve deeper into the historical roots of Asian filial piety, many Asian societies have practiced "ancestor worship,” such as is featured in Disney’s “Mulan.” In China, ancestral veneration has been practiced since 1045 BCE, in which living family members honor and pay homage to their deceased family by burning paper offerings ritually. In Chinese and other Asian society, honoring one’s family and ancestors is a way of life. Those who dishonor their parents and ancestors are considered shameful. This concept is both based on tradition and the collectivistic roots of many Asian cultures, in which the needs and goals of the group supersede the needs and desires of the individual. In contrast, the individualistic cultures of the West emphasize the individual’s needs over the group’s needs, and value characteristics such as assertiveness and independence.
What do shame and honor mean? How is shame different from guilt?
To explain shame-honor cultures in a nutshell, “people are shamed for not fulfilling group expectations and seek to restore their honor before the community” (Honorshame.com) What exactly do shame and honor mean?
Shame: a feeling of isolation, rejection, pollution
Honor: inclusion, acceptance, cleansing (taken from Cru’s “Honor Restored” booklet)
Although shame is central to Asian cultures, it is a human universal. Dr. Brené Brown, an American vulnerability researcher, defines shame in her book Daring Greatly as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame and guilt are different in that shame is a feeling of intrinsic worthlessness, whereas guilt is felt in response to behavioral mistakes. Dr. Brown put it this way in her famous TED talk: “Shame is, ‘I am bad.’ Guilt is, ‘I did something bad.’…Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”
How Shame-Honor Cultures View Christianity
Guilt is central to Christianity, as the Bible teaches us that we are fallen human beings guilty of sinning against a holy and perfect God. Our guilt is removed, however, when we place our faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lived a sinless life and suffered the consequences of sin on our behalf through his death. His resurrection signifies a conquering of death, and promises that all who believe in Him will likewise conquer death and attain eternal life. Through Jesus, we are made righteous and our sins are forgiven. Our saving faith in Christ essentially removes our guilt for our sins—both past, present, and future—and makes us holy, pure, and righteous in God’s sight.
“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” (Ephesians 1:7)
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
For Western guilt-innocence cultures like the U.S., it is eas(ier) to grasp the concept of being guilty for our sins against God and our need for a perfect Savior to remove our guilt through His sacrifice. Our salvation is not dependent on us, but solely on the grace and mercy that God chooses to bestow on us through Christ Jesus. However, for shame-honor cultures in Asia, it is much harder (albeit possible) to understand the gospel of grace and mercy. For Asian societies, shame and honor are central tenets for how people live and conceive their purpose in life. Asians feel shame when they fail to meet the expectations of their families, and attempt to amend for their shame through honorable acts. These acts may include caring for their elderly parents, achieving career goals and financial wealth, and attaining a high-power status in society. When Asians hear the gospel, they can be baffled by the idea of receiving a “free gift” of grace. It is one thing for Asians to understand the concept of guilt, but it is another for them to relinquish their need to work for honor and cover their shame.
This is because Asians are accustomed to working and achieving their honor. This cultural notion is largely responsible for the model minority status of Asians and Americans. Asians are stereotypically hard-working and diligent because anything less would lead to shame and dishonor. They bear the burden of their entire family’s hopes and dreams, not just their own—which makes them all the more driven to succeed.
What does this mean for Asian American believers?
As a second-generation Taiwanese American Christian, I have come to gradually realize and accept the ways in which my Asian roots have made it harder for me to stomach the gospel message. Although I could never quite articulate why I worked so hard for my parents’ approval and felt an intense filial piety to my parents and grandparents, I now recognize that my actions were motivated by a feeling of shame and desire for honor. Even after receiving Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I still struggled with the need to prove myself—not only to family, but to God.
I somehow couldn’t shake the lie that I needed to earn my love and acceptance from others, and that my worth was solely based on my performance. Although I understood logically how my guilt and shame were now removed in God’s sight because of Jesus’s death on the cross, it was still difficult for me to accept my new status in my heart. In response to this, I felt a need to perform—through serving, evangelizing, and other actions—in order to be be loved and accepted by God. But as I began to read and reflect on scripture, I quickly realized that my actions have nothing to do with my salvation.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
I do want to quickly note that works are still expected of believers, although not as a means for salvation. As James writes, faith without works is dead because works are a natural fruit that comes from true faith.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
I believe the lack of understanding of the shame-honor perspective of Christianity has led to the proliferation of false gospels, namely the Prosperity Gospel—which promises believers in Jesus health and wealth in this life. The reason for the success of the Prosperity Gospel in Asian countries is that it supports and encourages the pursuit of material possessions and worldly success—both of which hold value from a honor-seeking point of view. As such, many professing Asian believers unfortunately still place their security in idols such as career, family, and wealth. They miss out on the true freedom that comes from salvation—which releases us from need to perform and achieve by the world’s standards and frees us to live selflessly from an eternal and kingdom-building perspective.
How to Understand the Gospel from a Shame-Honor Perspective
I recently attended the EPIC Cru Leadership Conference in Pennsylvania. EPIC is the Asian American student ministry branch of CRU, an umbrella Christian ministry organization. At the conference, one of the speakers—an experienced missionary to places like Southeast and East Asia, handed out booklets with a helpful outline for how to evangelize to shame-honor cultures. Here is an outline of the booklet:
The Problem: We rebelled against our Creator. We sought glory apart from God and dishonored him. By cutting ourselves off from the source of true honor and life, we corrupted the world and brought death, the ultimate source of shame. We feel shame because we have dishonored God and our relationship with him is broken.
The Solution: God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to restore us from brokenness. Jesus Christ, God’s son, lived an honorable life and died a shameful death. His death and resurrection effectively removed our guilt and shame, and reconciled us to God.
Our Response: We must turn away from seeking our own honor and trust God. We must embrace Jesus with complete loyalty and trust, and allow God to be our source of honor as His beloved children.
The Result: We share in Jesus’s honor and have new life in God’s family forever.
After reflecting on the shame-honor perspective of the gospel message, I can now better understand and reconcile my shame-honor tendencies with my Christian faith. I also now understand how my works, although important, have no bearing on my salvation. It is a relief for me to know that there is nothing more or less I can do to remove my shame, and that my honor comes only from Jesus’s death and resurrection on the cross.
“Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.” (Isaiah 61:7)