Christianity and Honor

Christianity and Honor

Apologies to everyone who has been patiently waiting for the newest book. It is still undergoing some edits, which is taking longer than I expected. I am no longer comfortable giving promises about publishing dates; whenever I do that, it seems to go awry.

I would like to share excerpts from the edited sections, however, at least to show that progress is being made and we’re moving towards publication. The following is an excerpt on the incompatibility between Christianity and honor:



Christianity inclines its believers away from honor by devaluing all relationships other than that between the believer and God.

Honor is a complex subject, so this will take a bit of unpacking.

In his book Why Honor Matters[1], Philosopher Tamler Sommers argued there cannot be honor when there is no accountability to others around us. Honor can be a difficult concept to define, but all definitions of honor revolve around one’s relationship with a group. The Greeks had three different words for honor: gera, or material manifestations of honor, such as trophies; tîmê, the intangible worth or esteem in which one is held by the group; and kleos, or “glory,” fame that gives one immortality through stories. In all three cases, the “honor” is conferred and validated by some group.

For example, an Olympic Gold Medal is not objectively valuable, beyond whatever raw worth the gold itself may possess. But subjectively, an Olympic Gold Medal is worth far more than its mere materials. It represents skill of an elite caliber and the value that it brings to its owner is not from the medal, but from what that medal represents. This representation only exists if the medal was conferred to the recipient by the International Olympic Committee. If such a medal were simply purchased, the value is not the same and it would not be recognized in the same way. The honor conveyed by the medal is given and validated by the group.

If we were to break it down to its most basic level, honor is about caring what other people within your honor-group think of you. It is a concern for reputation. To be “honored” is to be held in high esteem by your group. To be thought dishonorable is to be held in low esteem by your group.

The opposite of an “honor culture” is a “dignity culture.” In the honor-culture, the value of an individual is based upon their honor. It is tied to their honor-group and it is highly personal. In a dignity culture, the value of an individual is accepted as a given — all individuals have intrinsic worth which cannot be taken away. This makes dignity cultures highly impersonal, because your worth is not based upon anything specific to you as an individual.

But “honor” and “dignity” are not merely moral and cultural worldviews. Perhaps even before they took on this role, they represented differing methods for resolving disputes. In an honor-culture, conflict was resolved between the parties in question. If Bob claims that he has been wronged by Allen, then Bob’s honor depended upon his willingness and ability to confront Bob and make things right. If Allen really did wrong Bob, then his own honor suffers in the eyes of the group. But if Allen admits his fault and makes amends, or can prove that he didn’t wrong Bob, then he will be seen as a fair and honorable man. A reputation for honesty and fairness goes a long way in being believed if you are accusing someone else of wrongdoing, or if you are accused, but are innocent.

In a dignity-culture, conflict is not to be resolved between the respective parties, but between the accused party and the state. Indeed, to by-pass the state and resolve things at a lower level is its own kind of wrong, because the state is responsible for protecting the dignity of its citizens. A wrong against a citizen, then, is not just a crime against that individual: it is also a crime against the state. If Charles robs David, then David would be wrong to go and steal his own valuables back from Charles; that right belongs to the State alone. But Charles is not just the enemy of David now: he is an enemy of the state. He must make amends to the state, not to David (although the state will likely return David’s stolen belongings).

One of Sommers’ main arguments in his book about honor was a case for “restorative justice.” Sommers believes in the necessity of the state, but also thinks that something has been lost by allowing the state to intervene on our behalf in matters of conflict-resolution. Because the state jumps in, the possibility of reconciliation is mitigated. But worse than that, the possibility of justice itself evaporates.

Let us imagine that a hypothetical man rapes a woman. For the sake of comparison, let us imagine only two hypothetical outcomes. First, after the rape, the woman reports the incidents to the authorities, the man is arrested, and then tried for first-degree rape. In the second hypothetical outcome, the woman shoots the man.

Which one of these outcomes is “just?”

We have been well-trained to imagine the former as more “just” because it is legal. It is the dignified thing to do. But many people cheer on the inside when the wronged party gets to play some part in righting the wrong—when the woman gets to shoot the rapist herself, rather than leaving it to “the authorities.” It feels more just because it is. Most people understand that true justice requires the feelings and opinions of the victim to be considered in righting some wrong, and perhaps to participate in the righting, should it be appropriate. When that righting is taken from the injured party and given instead to some “objective” third party, the victim is twice-wronged: first, by the initial injury, and second, by the denial of justice that the state imposes in a dignity culture.

Dignity cultures are not more just than honor cultures. They are only more practical. Classical honor societies could, if left to their own devices, spiral into horrific blood feuds that blow up small disagreements into all-out wars.

But in the 20th and 21st century, we have learned that dignity cultures can also start wars that cost tens of thousands of lives, motivated by the compulsion to preserve the dignity of peoples all over the world.

Where does this concept of dignity come from?

It comes from Christianity.

Specifically, it comes from Christian theology. Without the idea that all individuals are “image-bearers” of God, there is no justification for belief in the intrinsic and unalienable dignity of all people. For most people, a genocidal psychopath, a child-rapist, or a serial murderer and cannibal would have given up any and all value they possess. They are not merely worthless, but worse than worthless: they are a drain and a threat to society, worthy of destruction. Is it “just” that such people might find their way to heaven if, later in life, they discover Jesus and develop a relationship with him? I don’t think such an outcome would be just, nor would it be honorable, although it might demonstrate the dignity of human life imparted by God to all of his creation.

There are historical cases of the concept of dignity emerging prior to Christianity – in Ancient Greece, for example. But dignity was always a compromise. It was acknowledged as a dilution or even foregoing of justice in favor of a less violent and more pleasant outcome. In these cultures, honor was retained, but some of its less desirable side-effects (namely the blood-feud) were at least mitigated.

Anyone who has seen The Godfather will understand this pragmatic kind of dignity. When Don Corleone hears of Sonny’s death and calls for a truce with the other five families, it is purely out of a desire to protect his other son, Michael. There is no illusion that the peace has anything to do with “justice.” It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

In Christianity, all of this is inverted, even including the word “honor” itself.

A whole-hearted relationship with God requires the complete rejection of care for your reputation among other people. It requires caring only for what God thinks of you, because in the end, that is all that really matters if you believe in the Christian heaven and hell. For this reason, Christianity rejects honor, and sets its own spirituality firmly against honor and the sense of justice that humans innately have—the sense that if a hell exists, rapists would go there, and decent people would not. Instead anyone who has a relationship with God goes to heaven, regardless of what they have or haven’t done. Anyone who does not have such a relation goes to hell.

Christianity also extends its dishonorable nature into conflict resolution. Like the intervening judicial system that Sommers complains about, the Christian God intervenes in conflicts between individuals, denying the right of vengeance, not because vengeance is wrong, but because is it not the individual’s right, but God’s:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

– Romans 12-17-19

Notice how “honorable” is used in this passage. In all honor-cultures that have existed, honor begins by hitting back when hit. This is how “reputation” develops, and expands outward from this primordial necessity of reciprocal violence. Honor begins with fighting back. But in this passage, Paul uses the term “honor” to describe the exact opposite spirit of honor. Paul’s words are in line with Jesus’ admonition from the sermon on the mount: turn the other cheek when struck, love your enemies and pray for them. But this is not honor.

Honor can be thought of as the group-given right to pride. The honorable person may or may not show the pride that he has earned, but for the honorable person, the privilege exists, and may be exerted without censure or disapproval (so long as the pride does not extend beyond one’s honor). It necessarily follows that an ethos which forbids pride also forbids honor, even if the honorable man might choose not to boast of his accomplishments. But within Christianity, no such right exists. All pride — all acknowledgment of self-worth belief in a right to boast of one’s accomplishments — is repeatedly denounced in strong language:

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

– James 4:6


Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

– Proverbs 16:18


When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.

– Proverbs 11:2


One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.

– Proverbs 29:23


Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.

– Proverbs 16:5


For all that is in this world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.

– 1 John 2:16


This denunciation is what we would expect from the theology. If God is responsible for all good in the world, and if we are all deserving of damnation, what right would we have to be proud? If no one else’s opinion really matters, what would be the purpose of honor? Would honor not be a dangerous distraction?

Notice again how, in the Proverbs 29:23 verse, the word “honor” is used, but in a manner which reverses its meaning. Here, “honor” seems to imply “God’s favor” — this is the closest thing to “honor” that could be valued within the Christian worldview, but it is not honor.

In The Way of Men, Jack Donovan distinguishes “deficient honor” from “flamboyant dishonor” in the context of male groups:

Flamboyant dishonor is not a failure of strength or courage. Men who are flamboyantly dishonorable are flagrant in their disregard for the esteem of their male peers. What we often call effeminacy is a theatrical rejection of masculine hierarchy and manly virtues. Masculinity is religious, and flamboyantly dishonorable men are blasphemers. Flamboyant dishonor is an insult to the core values of the male group.

Flamboyant dishonor is an openly expressed lack of concern for one’s reputation for strength, courage, and mastery within the context of an honor group comprised primarily of other men.[2]

While Donovan’s description specifically deals with male qualities and virtues, the principle of flamboyant dishonor can be applied in a broader sense to mean any ostentatious disregard for the opinions of your peers.

This rejection of honor and embrace of flamboyant dishonor is not just biblically sound, but a biblical imperative:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

– Galatians 1:10


The fear of man leaves a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.

– Proverbs 29:25


It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.

– Psalm 118:8


Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

– Luke 6:26


Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.

– John 12:42-43

Two archetypal examples of dishonorable Christians come to mind.

First, there are those who we might call the “Proud Weakling.” I have not chosen this label to be demeaning, but to match the character here with a particularly relevant scriptural passage:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

– 2 Corinthians 12:9

The Proud Weakling is often a former gang-member or drug-addict. Perhaps they were a former prostitute, or merely a loser. Whatever the case may be, the Proud Weakling has moved on, and credits Christianity with their rebirth. They hate their older, pre-Christian self. But because they believe that Jesus has taken that hated, worthless, older self and transformed them into their loved-by-God present self, they cannot help but brag about their weaknesses.

“I used to be a gang-member, but Jesus helped me out of that. Nobody is beyond saving!”

“I was homeless and an addict. No one loved me, not even myself. But Jesus never gave up on me.”

The Proud Weakling shares their shortcomings and failures with shameless, flamboyant dishonor. They take pride in their lowness. They have read their Bible.

These Proud Weaklings can sometimes be very uncomfortable to be around. A number of times, I have heard them telling their sad story of early abuse or sex or drugs or crime, and then they say how God saved them and made something of their life, and how nothing else could have achieved that (how do they know?). And somewhere in there, they attack all the social standards that condemn these behaviors — if not explicitly, then implicitly. After all, if they are loved by the one true God, then who am I to judge them for my failures and poor decisions? Who is this world to have a negative opinion of them, and why should they care? They think that instead, I should listen to what they have to say about God!

The second archetype of the dishonorable Christian is what I will call the “Willful Alien.” The Willful Alien may not have done anything shameful early on in their life, but this seems to bother them. They understand that the approval of the world is associated with disapproval from God, and so they go out of their way to flagrantly trespass upon societal norms of what is considered decent, polite, or acceptable behavior. Perhaps they hold picket signs, proclaiming the coming end of the World. Perhaps they aggressively confront strangers on the street. Perhaps they choose offensiveness as their medium for social disapproval, arriving at funerals or parades to tell everyone that God hates America, or the military, or homosexuals. These Christians often make other Christians cringe, but who is to say who the truer Christian is? To the non-believer, authentic faith may be indistinguishable from insanity – not according to me, but according to the Bible:

If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.

– 2 Corinthians 5:13

The Willful Alien takes pride in others’ perception of their insanity. They reject honor like the Proud Weakling, and because of this, both have a stronger claim to be a disciple of Christ than the average “Christian.”

At its core, the faith attacks honor and promotes dishonor.

[1] Sommers, Tamler. Why Honor Matters. Basic Books, 2018.

[2] Donovan, Jack. The Way of Men. Dissonant Hum, 2012.

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