Identity in Community

It was All Saints Sunday, so we shared the peace by addressing each other by name with “saint” in front of it – so people were calling me “St. Tyler.”

In the Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, by Malina and Rohrbaugh, to which I refer quite a bit in my sermon-preparation, a definition of “Honor-Shame Societies” is given in the glossary (“Reading scenarios”) at the back of the book…
Unlike our Western, guilt-oriented society, in the Mediterranean society of the first century (as in the traditional societies of that region today) the pivotal social value was honor. Concern for honor permeates every aspect of public life in the Mediterranean world. Honor is the fundamental value. It is the core, the heart, the soul. Philo speaks of “wealth, fame, official posts, honors and everything of that sort with which the majority of mankind are busy” (Worse 122). He complains that “fame and honor are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Abraham 264). Note Rom 12:10, where Paul admonishes Jesus group members to outdo one another in showing honor, thereby acknowledging the value placed on honor among Jesus groups as well.
Simply stated, honor is public reputation. It is name or place. It is one’s status or standing in the community together with the public recognition of it. Public recognition is all-important. To claim honor that is not publicly recognized is to play the fool. To grasp more honor than the public will allow is to be a greedy thief. To hang on to what honor one has is essential to life itself.
It is likewise a relative matter in which one claims to excel over others, to be superior. It thus implies a claim to entitlements on the basis of social precedence. As a result, honor and shame are forms of social evaluation in which both men and women are constantly compelled to assess their own conduct and that of their fellows in relation to each other. The vocabulary of praise (kalos) and blame (aischros) can therefore function as a social sanction on moral behavior. It is perpetuated by a network of evaluation, the gossip network, which creates an informal but effective mechanism of social control.
Honor is likewise a limited good – related to control of scarce resources, including land, crops, livestock, political clout, and female sexuality. Being a limited good, honor gained is always honor taken from another. Legitimate honor that is publicly recognized opens doors to patrons; honor withheld cuts off access to the resources patrons can bestow. In a very pervasive way, then, honor determines dress, mannerisms, gestures, vocation, posture, who can eat with whom, who sits at what places at a meal, who can open a conversation, who has the right to speak, and who is accorded an audience. It serves as the prime indicator of social place (precedence) and provides the essential map for persons to interact with superiors, inferiors, and equals in socially prescribed or appropriate ways. (pp.369-370)

An honor-shame society is one where one’s identity is found in relation to others.  We are “saints” in relation to others.  As we shared the peace, we would say “St. Dorothy,” “St. Jim,” and I heard several people saying, “no, no” – we may not think of ourselves as saints.  We know what goes on behind the scenes – we know we’re not perfect (as we hope saints would be).  But we strive for something better, and we work together as a community, and our contributions to the collective good can place us among the saints.  That’s really what it’s about: being a part of something, acknowledging the whole and contributing to it.

In a movement away from an individualistic-orientated society, we can reclaim some of what our ancestors in the faith knew from their honor-shame cultures (in and of themselves, not a perfect system either) – we can reclaim the notion that identity is found in community.  Our “saint-hood” is acknowledged and bestowed by the gathered group to which we belong.


Posted on November 8, 2011, in Tyler's occasional web log. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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