Three different types of culture

April 22, 2013

Traveling always gives you opportunities to learn. The more I travel the more I realize I don't know about other cultures but continue to be enthralled by other customs and habits. I dearly love the Middle East and am always humbled by their hospitality, for one. I have sat in the tent of a poor Bedouin Arab family and experienced generosity at its best. This week I am enjoying the hospitality of a couple who have lived in the Middle East for many years although originally from the United States. They truly exercise the local customs here and I am a grateful recipient.

I've noticed that when we meet another person whose system of beliefs is different, we tend to interpret that system according to our own framework of understanding. I've learned that you can not fit everything into nice neat packages, especially here. One area that I am especially intrigued by is the differences in worldviews of honor/shame, guilt/innocence, and fear/power. If we go back to the Garden of Eden, we see that when man sinned, three great conditions came upon mankind. When man broke God's law, he was in a position of guilt. When many broke God's relationship, he was in a position of shame. When man broke God's trust, he was in a position of fear. As cultures and worldviews developed over time, they have gravitated towards one of these conditions. This polarization has created these three trends in worldview. What I'm learning though is that many cultures draw equally from two or all three worldviews.

When I have traveled in the Middle East or in Asia, I am reminded how I perceive the world through a 'right versus wrong' lens. It's hard for me to not imagine the rest of the world operating under this basic principle. But they don't. It's a very Western world view. The American founders attempted to establish a nation built on the Roman principle of a republic, and on the early church's understanding of right and wrong. Yet here, a shame culture is one in which individuals are kept from transgressing the social order by fear of public disgrace. The cultures of the Middle East are filled with thousands of tiny nuances that communicate either shame or honor. In our western society, shame is closely identified with a lack of self-esteem. Shame often stems from some form of abuse where children fail to learn trust. Young people in a Muslim setting are different. Wherever they go, they represent their families and tribes, not free to act as they want. They must always act honorably, so that the honor of their family and tribe is upheld.

In the Middle East, people don't think of lies as being right or wrong. The question is, "Is what is being said, honorable?" If a lie protects the honor of a tribe or nation, then it is fine. If a lie is told for purely selfish reasons, then it is shameful. Before you are quick to judge this type of behavior, it is good to note that during the last fifty years, western civilization has begun a steady shift towards the shame/honor paradigm. Today young people are reluctant to label anything as right or wrong. Instead, things are assigned the label as "cool" or "not cool." In the eyes of many high schoolers, being cool is equivalent to being honorable. Being not cool is the equivalent of shame.

All cultures are made up of a mixture of all three categories. North American native cultures are made up of a mixture of shame/honor and fear/power worldviews. So are Hinduism and Shintoism. Even Russian culture. Tomorrow I'd like to take a closer look at honor and shame in the Bible.