A New Shame and Honor Culture

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

The second influence impoverishing the modern practice of forgiveness is a rising shame and honour culture that some have called a new secular religion.

According to Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, the therapeutic culture has converted us into a collection of “self-actualizers,” whose primary concern is to get respect and affirmation of one’s own identity. But the therapeutic culture also taught us to think of ourselves as individuals needing protection from society and from various groups with power who oppress us. So, ironically, we have developed “a shame and honor culture of victimhood.” Greater honour and moral virtue are assigned to people the more they have been victimized and oppressed by society or others in power. So the further down the existing social ladder one is, the greater the possibilities for honour.

In the new culture, companies, institutions, and governing agencies are now tasked not with treating all individuals equally, but with the moral obligation to defend victims—those who have been oppressed by the powerful. This provides a second ring of honour in the emerging culture. While highest honour comes to victims, it secondarily comes to defenders of victims. So now there is no better way for a business, school, or government to gain honour (and, frankly, to divert attention from their own wealth and power) than to mercilessly punish anyone seen as a victimizer.

Forgiveness is seen now as radically unjust and impractical, as short-circuiting the ability of victims to gain honour and virtue as others rise to defend them.

Campbell and Manning’s critique is that this new honour society—also called “cancel culture”—ends up valuing fragility over strength, creating a society of constant, good-versus-evil conflict over the smallest issues as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of the victim. It atrophies our ability to lovingly overlook slights (cf. 1 Peter 4:8: “Love covers a multitude of sins”). But most of all, it sweeps away the very concept of forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is seen now as radically unjust and impractical, as short-circuiting the ability of victims to gain honour and virtue as others rise to defend them.

It’s no wonder that this culture quickly becomes littered with enormous numbers of broken and now irreparable relationships. Politics itself becomes a new kind of religion, one without any means of acquiring redemption or forgiveness. Rather then seeing some people as right and others as mistaken, they are now regarded as the good and the evil, as true believers or heretics.

Timothy J. Keller, “The Fading of Forgiveness,” writing at Comment

Keller’s analysis is worth reading in full.

I happened to be on a walk recently, and as Hondo and I made our way around the neighborhood I listened to Keller’s 1991 sermon “The Marriage Supper of the Lamb.” Keller remarked then that forgiveness was falling out of fashion because it was seen as making a person too vulnerable–those asking for forgiveness feared being exposed as weak; those willing to grant forgiveness were thought open to being taken advantage of by the person committing the wrong.

I hold the conviction that the Christian message has the hope of forgiveness and reconciliation at its center, first between God and human beings, made possible through Jesus and his atoning work, completed in his life, death, and resurrection. I also hold the conviction that that message works itself out in communities of forgiveness and reconciliation. The church is a place where enemies can become friends, a work that often begins within families, who, on the basis of proximity, inevitably wound one another.

A culture without atonement, without forgiveness, without a means of reconciliation will inevitably become one of violence. That’s why Keller’s analysis is so important. We need to understand why forgiveness is fading, why Christians are formed to forgive in light of core beliefs and doctrines, and why the Christian witness is so critical–it provides an alternative vision for how human beings can live in community with God and one another.