Icon (Close Menu)

Honor, shame, and the Gospel in the American South: Part I

I recently read a guest post by Jackson Wu on Ed Stetzer’s blog The Exchange.

4 Keys to Evangelism in Honor-Shame Cultures” discusses the different approaches that might animate a presentation of the gospel in an honor-shame culture as opposed to a conscience-guilt culture. Most of the United States is dominated by a conscience-guilt culture. But scholars of the American South have argued that the culture of the region has been predominantly an honor-shame culture.

Most folks probably identify the cultures of Asia with the tendencies that define honor-shame cultures. However, Wu notes that “so-called “honor-shame” cultures exist in the East and the West.” Indeed, there are often subcultures within a society that maintain a contrasting paradigm to the dominant culture.

In the series of posts which follow, I plan to discuss the particular honor-shame dynamic of the American South, specifically how it is deeply bound with issues of race and class. Then I will take a look at a specific instance of a Christian challenge to injustice that seems to take into account the honor-shame paradigm of the region. Finally, I will look at Wu’s “4 keys” and discuss the ways in which they could be helpful for those of us ministering in the South.

Southern Honor, Southern Shame

In many ways, Southern culture is honor-shame based. Even as the culture of the region is shifting (and these notions may be giving way in favor of a more general American sensibility), they are not of passing historical or sociological interest. This is particularly so since the honor-shame paradigm is so entrenched in the history of racial and class conflict. This raises the question of whether Wu’s insights in regard to presenting the gospel in honor-shame based societies could be considered and fruitfully employed by those ministering in the American South. I believe that they can be helpful and that his insights might provide a way forward for Christians to address some of the lingering ills of race and class division in our region.

The social structure of the American South was determined in the antebellum years by the reality of race-based slavery, and in the postwar period by the reality of slavery’s fitful end and the slide into Jim Crow. The rise of the civil rights movement and all that has transpired since has left the South dealing with and reacting to these issues of honor and shame.

The most effective cinematic portrayal of the Southern honor and shame paradigm that I have seen recently is the movie 12 Years a Slave. I contend that it is a film that — along with Schindler’s list — should be required viewing at some point in high school or college.

The dynamic depicted so well in the film is the underlying violence and palpable sense of coiled tension running underneath the polite veneer of antebellum society. Throughout the  film, one gets the sense that, over and above the cruelty employed to maintain order, even greater violence was promised and close at hand. One clear example of the promise and requirement that dishonor be met with violence occurs  when Solomon Northup (the man whose journal the film is based on) offers what is perceived as an insult to a working-class white man. I don’t believe it is giving too much away to say that this perceived insult spawns a great deal of trouble for Solomon as the man in question seeks to expunge the shameful mark on his character — that is, to save face — so that he is not exposed and opened to violence himself.

This need was inspired in part because of the collective nature of Southern society, in the sense that it was who you were — by family relationship, social status, race — that defined you, and not so much what you did as an individual. This is a definitive part of an honor-shame culture:

Whereas Puritanism and capitalism conferred upon the northerner an innate sense of dignity, the southerner knew personal worth as socially mediated (Ayers 19-25). The honor that was accorded through interpersonal relationships was a complex function of Girardian doubling. Since honor meant that southerners beheld themselves as others beheld them, their self-worth lived in the look of the other. Wyatt-Brown recognizes how honor depended on such reflection when we describes it as “self-regarding in character. One’s neighbors serve as mirrors that return the image of oneself” (15). Honor made self-estimation into nothing but an imitation of how the southerner was esteemed by others. And since southerners desired such mimetic validation, they copied the desires of the other so that they would regard themselves as especially well-favored in the looking glass of communal approval. The result was that the community of honor was a network in which each member was at once a model for everyone else and a disciple of everyone else (Gary Ciuba, Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, 21, emphasis added).

In the honor-shame culture of the South, allowing a perceived inferior to best or embarrass you was to experience more than personal insult. It was to witness a hole punched in the myth that undergirded antebellum and segregationist society. Maintenance of the myth was paramount: face had to be saved and respect salvaged through the use of violence and intimidation, or else one risked becoming the subject of societal violence in turn, as neighbors sought to reestablish the equilibrium, to save the myth.

To put it another way, being shamed by Solomon meant that the white laborer was forced to see himself through Solomon’s eyes, not as a better, but as a fellow human being, and one that was actually less capable than Solomon himself. As Gary Ciuba explains, using Girardian terms:

Shame is described by Girard as “the most mimetic of sentiments. To experience it I must look at myself through the eyes of whoever makes me feel ashamed. This requires intense imagination, which is the same as servile imitation” (Scapegoat 155). Dishonor was a mimetic construction, for it depended on the imitation of the other as the very precondition for selfhood. Southerners who wanted to avoid such dishonor often sought out an equally mimetic alternative. They hoped that violence might deliver them from shame (Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, 22).

The honor-shame paradigm and the violence that supported it was especially overt in the antebellum South, but it was equally present later on. The “Religion of the Lost Cause” was, in many ways, an attempt at recasting the South as noble using sacrificial and heroic imagery. The South was seen as maintaining honor, even in defeat, and willing to do what needed to be done to align their own sense of honor and worth with the success of the whole nation, particularly the military success. An argument could be made that it was the very militarism of the South — which came to honor the fallen confederate dead as martyrs, but which also saw the honor of the region tied up in the success of American military adventures — that led to the reintegration of the former Confederacy into the broader fabric of the United States.

Rather than focus on another armed rebellion within the boarders of the US, southerners instead joined in American campaigns all over the world. This was particularly important in the narrative of Southerners fighting in the Spanish-American war (see Long Gray Lines: The Southern Military School Tradition, 1839-1915). But the high regard in which many white southerners have been brought up to hold the Confederate dead, along with the other aspects of the religion of the Lost Cause, meant that segregationists found it possible to call:

… upon ancestral obligations from the antebellum and Civil War eras to reinvigorate the concept of Southern honor. They hoped that a combination of honor and shame would galvanize white community consensus against integration and discipline southern whites with questionable allegiance to segregation. In the first half of the nineteenth century, a challenge to a southern white man’s honor was a challenge to his manhood, and such challenges often necessitated dueling. This rather brutal form of conflict resolution faded from southern society after the Civil War, but the concept of honor endured, retaining its association with militarism and a willingness to defend one’s good name or community with force (Steve Estes, I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement, 46).

All of this raises the question of where the churches have been as all of this has been going on. Christians have been in the thick of it for good and ill. Often, unfortunately, for ill.

If the mission of Christianity was to expose the culture of violence, southern Christianity failed because it was never sufficiently countercultural …. Yet in seeking to “curtail violence,” the upheaval that might come if churches undermined the social order, southern religion served as a bulwark for a culture founded on violence (Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, 37-39).

One might see this as the result of the South being Christ-haunted, without really being Christ-transformed.

How can a region of the country that the narrator of Percy’s The Second Coming calls “the most Christian part” of “the most Christian nation in the world” be so notorious for its violence? When Will Barrett drives down Church Street near the beginning of Percy’s novel, he glimpses from his car window a humorous assortment of signs pointing to the South’s omnipresent Christendom:

He passed the following churches, some on the left, some on the right: the Christian Church, the Church of Christ, Church of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of Christ in God, Assembly of God, Bethel Baptist Church, Independent Presbyterian Church, United Methodist Church, and Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church.

Two signs pointing down into the hollow read: African Methodist Episcopal Church, 4 blocks; Starlight Baptist Church, 8 blocks.

One sign pointing up to a pine grove on the ridge read: St. John o’the Woods Episcopal Church, 6 blocks.

Amid this wryly hypersectarian South, Will increasingly desires to imitate his father’s suicide, as if no church could keep him from killing himself (Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, 33-34).

If the negative aspects of the honor-shame paradigm are so present, explaining as they do, at least in part, the violence that has been representative of southern society, particularly in regard to race relations, are there any positives? Do we have any purchase from which to pull ourselves out of this spiritual malaise of constructed violence?

One possible method is to see the ways in which an honor-shame paradigm can be subverted for the good. In order to do so in a helpful way though, there needs to be a road map. I believe our roadmap is the gospel itself, and the way it can speak to an honor-shame culture. Before considering Wu’s four keys, it may be helpful to consider a point at which the honor-shame culture has been subverted to the good. I will do just that in my next post. Stay tuned.

The featured image is J. Stephen Conn’s photo (2007) of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial, completed in 1972. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I look forward to following this series, Jody. My home region of Central Florida is its own (southern?) species, but I identify many aspects of honor-shame culture in the world in which I live and minister. By the way, have you heard these two podcasts by Clark Carlton? “The Christ Haunted South” – http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/carlton/the_christ_haunted_south_part_1 and http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/carlton/the_christ_haunted_south_part_2


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

The Hajj: A Muslim Vision for the Interreligious Life

Community is a messy and wild business. As someone who loves her community deeply, sometimes my impulse is...

With the Grain of the Prayer Book

In early February 1685, King Charles II fell ill and clergy across the country, perhaps somewhat strangely, began...

Sent to Coventry, Called to Windsor

Having been “sent to Coventry” in 2008 to be Bishop of the Diocese of Coventry in the West...

The Gospel, Public Policy, and Coercion

The 81st General Convention of the Episcopal Church will be called to order on June 23. As always,...