Needed in the Court of Reputation—Alternative Voices


What compels us to do the right thing? In the more individualistic West, the answer would be: one’s conscience. In most of the rest of the world, it is the collective, the group. The evaluative gaze of others compels right behavior. In the first I do the right thing to avoid internal feelings of guilt; in the latter I do the right thing to gain honor and to avoid the shaming of my group, my family, and myself. In our recent book, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, Jayson Georges and I provide insights and tools for evangelism and discipleship in contexts that have a collectivist orientation. We give numerous examples of mistakes, including our own, that flow from a focus on the individual conscience in an honor-shame context. Yet, even in the West, to only focus on the individual conscience is problematic; it is an error to ignore the honor-shame dynamic even in individualistic contexts. Here too, communities and peer groups become courts of reputation. Although forming an individual to think correctly about Christian ethics is of fundamental importance in the individualistic West, that alone will not lead people to do the right thing.

I recently heard a person talk of turning his conscience off so it would not bark at him saying, “You’re doing a bad and evil thing.” Why was the ethical direction from his conscience not enough? What pushed him to turn it off? What implications does this have for the church? As you read this story of a Vietnam war draftee, note the presence of both the individual conscience and the honor-shame dynamic. 

Tim O’Brien, is one of the people interviewed in Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary series, The Vietnam War (episode 7). O’Brien grew up in Worthington, Minnesota, a farming community of about 8,000. He described it as a town where people knew each other, knew what was going on in others’ lives, who was doing well, and whose kids had taken a wrong turn. He was drafted in June 1968. His parents had both been in the Navy in WWII. He explains, “They had believed in service to one’s country, and all those values. On one hand I did think the war was less than righteous. On the other hand, I love my country. And I valued my life in a small town and my friends and family.  And so the summer of ’68 I wrestled with what to do. That was for me, at least, more tortuous, devastating and emotionally painful than anything that happened in Vietnam. . . Do you go off and kill people if you are not pretty sure it is right? And if your nation isn’t pretty sure it is right? If there is not consensus? Do you do that?”

“I was at Fort Lewis Washington, and Canada was what, a 90-minute bus ride away. I wrote my Mom and Dad and asked for some money and my passport. They sent them to me—with no questions. ‘What do you want this for?’ I kept this stuff, along with some civilian clothes, stashed in my footlocker thinking, ‘maybe I will do it.’ It was this ‘maybe’ thing going on all throughout training. As Vietnam got closer and closer and closer. . . In the end I just capitulated. . . It wasn’t a decision. It was forfeiture of a decision. Letting my body go. Turning a switch in my conscience, just turning it off so it wouldn’t be barking at me: ‘You’re doing a bad and evil and stupid and unpatriotic thing.’”

“What prevented me doing it [fleeing to Canada]? I think it was pretty simple and stupid. It was a fear of embarrassment, of ridicule and humiliation. What my girlfriend would have thought of me, and the people in the Gobbler Café in downtown Worthington. The Kiwanis boys and the country club boys in that small town I grew up in, the things they would say about me, ‘what a coward,’ and ‘what a sissy for going to Canada.’  I would imagine my Mom and Dad overhearing something like that. I could not summon the courage to say ‘no’ to those nameless, faceless people who, in essence, this was the United States of America. I couldn’t say ‘no’ to them. I have had to live with it now for 40 years. That is a long time to live with a failure of conscience and a failure of nerve. The nightmare of Vietnam for me is not the bombs and the bullets.” He pauses and with a quivering voice says, “It is that failure of nerve I so regret.”

O’Brien thought then, and thinks now, that the better option, the “right” thing to do was go to Canada rather stay in the army and go to Vietnam. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what he considered right, let’s reflect on the dynamics of the decision itself. The honor-shame dynamic of a small tight knit town overpowered his individual thinking on the matter. He opted to do what the town would consider the honorable thing to do in order to avoid the shame of people talking about him in a disparaging way.

What did he need? What might have led to a different outcome? He needed a counter community with a different honor code. He needed voices that would honor his decision to desert and neutralize the shaming voices of others in the court of reputation.

Let’s think of this in an analogous way. Imagine in a ministry setting you work hard to shape someone’s beliefs about a particular ethical stance that differs from mainstream society. They are convinced. Then, however, like O’Brien they are alone with only their individual conviction, they are surrounded by people and media pressing them to do the opposite. Individual conviction may be enough, but it very well may not be.

As we call people to radically re-orient their lives to the way of Jesus, we must work with intentionality at honoring them when they take steps that will bring scorn from the mainstream. This can be dramatic, as in this incident, reported by Bob Brenneman, that Jayson and I included in our book. Brenneman tells of a Central American gang member, Roberto, who converted and left the gang. For Roberto the church community became an important “alternate court of reputation,” as he sought to follow the way of Jesus rather than the way of the gang, and the broader society. There were many challenges, perhaps the most difficult was when his younger brother was murdered. Brenneman states,

Such events place a recovering gang member in a difficult position. According to the moral logic of the street, a “good brother” defends the honor of his fallen kin by avenging his death with “payback.” And indeed the offers for assistance in “making things right” came swiftly from Roberto’s former associates. But just as quickly came the support and reminders of his new “brothers in Christ.” “Violence only begets more violence,” his pastor told him. “That’s no way to respond.” Roberto decided not to seek out vengeance and to relinquish his “right” to kill his brother’s killers (Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 225).

Although not as dramatic, my friend with a position in a large big-city law-firm probably felt as much pressure to do the obvious thing and continue putting in the hours so he could become a partner and earn an immense amount of money. Yet, with encouraging voices from fellow Christians he did what his peers and others in society considered ludicrous. He quit his position and went to work for a small firm in a small city in order to have more time for his family, for ministry, and for other activities.

The value and importance of a church community honoring an individual’s Jesus-like actions is not just in relation to big and dramatic decisions, but in daily actions and decisions. I think of my friend Mario in Honduras. I once asked him how it was that he lived in ways so differently than other men and resisted the dynamics of machoness.

He first affirmed how strong the honor code of machismo is. For instance, one aspect of machismo is drinking. A commonly heard saying is “One who does not drink is not a complete man.” In his teen years his friends started pressuring him to “be a man” and drink. He already felt shame for being poor, so to avoid more shame he began to drink. Some years later [after another night of drunken brawling]. . . he started attending church and five meetings later accepted Jesus as his Savior. . . As Mario reflected on how he was able to step away from the ways of machismo. He mentioned three things. A man from the church, Hector, spent a lot of time with him offering support and affirmation. Secondly, the Christian men at work and the people at the church provided a counter chorus. Just as friends had shamed him into drinking, old friends around him began ridiculing him and shaming him for becoming a Christian; they pressured him to continue in his macho ways. Christians countered these shaming comments of Mario’s friends by praising him for his efforts to stop drinking. Lastly, as his new identity as a loved child of God grew he felt increasing security to step away from other aspects of the machismo honor code and walk in the ways of the honor code of the New Testament. His church continued to affirm and honor him as he took these steps. The shaming comments of other men did not stop, but they do not have the power over him that they used to (Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 223-24).

Although those of us in individualistic settings have tended to focus on the Bible providing ethical instruction, if one puts on honor-shame glasses, the dynamic described in these examples comes to light. For instance, looking at I Peter through these lenses we see that the Christians Peter wrote to were being shamed and scorned by their neighbors—pressured to abandon the way of Jesus and return to the mainstream. Repeatedly in the letter Peter affirms the alternative honor code of Jesus, and affirms them for following it. And he seeks to undercut the shaming voices of their neighbors. (See chapter 11 of our book to see the list of ways Jayson and I see Peter doing this.)

How might your community more actively support and honor those who seek to go against the current and live according to the ways of the Kingdom of God? I encourage you to pray and ask God’s Spirit to give you a heightened awareness for opportunities to honor others, an imagination for how to, and the initiative to do so. Let us become active members of an alternative court of reputation.

Posted on May 12, 2018 .