The Upside of Shame

As national director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Asian American ministries, Joe Ho knows how honor and shame shape evangelism, fundraising, and family relationships. Ho, a Chinese American who grew up in Cincinnati, recently spoke with Andy Crouch about how honor–shame dynamics could shape ministry in the West.

What have you learned from ministry among Asian Americans about honor and shame?

It’s important to pay attention to the positive side of honor and shame. Honor is a kind of currency, strongly correlated with community and relationship. Majority-culture people don’t always pay close attention to that currency. In majority culture, much of life is guided by rules, and the rules describe reality. But there are times when you have to bend the rules in order to give honor to the right people.

For example, when a leader retires in majority culture, they are often expected to leave the organization and get out of the way. That’s the rule. But cultures that value honor often find ways to keep recognizing the departing leader—creating positions like “pastor emeritus.” It’s more important to keep honor intact than to follow a strict procedure of succession.

When considerations of honor bump up against rules, that doesn’t mean you automatically jettison a rule. But it’s good to take a second look. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien’s book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, is helpful. They observe that in one sort of culture, the authority is the one who makes the rules; in another sort, the authority is the one who makes exceptions to the rules.

Westerners tend to get frustrated in cultures that communicate indirectly. But are there benefits to an indirect approach?

Part of the motivation for being indirect is to avoid exposing someone else to shame. We’ve learned this in InterVarsity in how we train our staff to fundraise. There’s a spectrum of appropriate directness in asking for financial support. What matters is the comfort level of the potential donor. It’s possible to be so direct that you put someone in a position of shame if they don’t give. They may end up giving, but you will have undermined the relationship. You can win the ask but still lose currency in the system of honor and shame.

Asian students often seem responsive to leadership. As a leader, you can get Asian students to do a lot for you. But that may just be because they aren’t willing to violate the relationship. You may think the Asian students are incredibly committed, when in fact you are rapidly losing trust. There is a tipping point, and all of a sudden they are gone.

Does this affect evangelism?

Honor–shame dynamics are changing the way we call people to faith, especially in small groups. Rather than a direct call to conversion—where the response could be motivated more by concern for the honor of the leader—I’m seeing success in asking students to consider conversion in the context of listening prayer. Rather than a relational obligation to the speaker or authority figure, they may sense a direct relational obligation to God. And we actually want that. We just want obligation oriented in the right way, to the “first family,” to use a phrase from Stanley Hauerwas—God’s family, not just to a human community.

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