A significant awakening or realization is spreading around the globe. People recognize a major divide between how societies understand life, how they interpret the world around them, and upon what foundation they base their values and morals. The desire is there to understand and connect across this divide.
Two main issues create this divide between what can be called “Western Cultures” (which form Western Worldviews) and a “Non-western Cultures” (which form Non-western World views). These two issues can be labelled as follows:
- Collective Identity (Collectivism) differentiated from Individual Identity (Individualism).
- Honor/Shame values and morals distinguished from Guilt/Punishment values and morals.
Collective Identity and Honor/Shame values conjoin in Non-western Cultures.
Individual Identity and Guilt/Punishment values conjoin in Western Cultures.
Human beings are inherently blind to our deepest assumptions, gained unawares from early childhood through enculturation. These assumptions are so pervasive and integral they create blind spots and selective learning that colors most everything we do, even as we approach the Word of God.
Which Side of the Divide?
Research clarifies which side of the divide original authors and readers of the Bible functioned. Therefore, readers of the Bible who grow up on the other side must add an extra step to their study and interpretation of God’s Word.
The Bible expresses its messages almost exclusively in the vocabulary and thought forms of Collective Identity and Honor/Shame values.
Consider for a moment the book of Romans and its themes, then consider this statement:
“Did you know the words ‘shame’, ‘honor’, and ‘glory’ appear 40 times in Romans (while ‘guilt’, ‘innocence’, and ‘forgiveness’ appear only twice in Romans)?”
Yet, much writing and preaching on Romans in the western world emphasizes guilt and punishment with God as judge. Commentators and preachers of Romans present the gospel primarily as a forensic message, yet a brief vocabulary count doesn’t back this up. Let this be a wake-up call.
Understand the Divide
Every human being is born into things bigger than themselves. Everyone is born into a family, consisting of a nuclear family and a larger extended family. Each individual and their families are part of larger connections, perhaps a clan and a tribe, but certainly a community, a society, and a nation.
People in the majority world focus more on these bigger things – these connections – while the western world does less so.
Western societies place great focus on the individual. A child must learn to “think for themselves.” Know right and wrong, good and evil, and how to be a good and productive citizen. They are being prepared to eventually “be on their own,” i.e., be independent, self-aware, and carve out their own unique identity and niche in life.
Individualism: People raised in an “individual oriented” family and society have within themselves a set of assumptions and outlooks-on-life (world view) that they may be unaware of and are dramatically different from the majority people on this earth. These people (the author being one of them) need to look over the fence and study those majority people and how they tick (Collectivism).
This is of great importance for someone studying Jeremiah (both the person and the book) because neither Jeremiah nor any of the people he dealt with were British or American or 21st century or individualistic. The writer of Jeremiah had no awareness of individualistic assumptions and values that Westerners now bring to his text. He addressed his writing to a population that shared his non-western assumptions and worldview and values and interests. We, as educated readers, are obliged to go the extra mile to bridge the gaps of time and culture and understand the ancient text as originally intended.
Understand Collectivistic (rather than Individualistic) Thinking
There are two parts to understanding the ancient world (and current majority world) who see and think collectively.
- Group-interest Outweighs Self-interest
People who grow up and flourish in collectivistic cultures are not self-centered; their ethics and values do not emanate from themselves. They are self-aware, but their awareness tells them they are a part of a larger group of people that is more important than themselves as individuals. Group-interest far outweighs self-interest. Their identity, focus, and confidence is gained as a member of their group.
- Two Audiences in View
It is within this strong Collectivistic thinking that Honor/Shame (HS) dynamics function.
Honor/Shame oriented people navigate each day not focused on their own happiness or welfare. They look outside themselves, to the whole group or groups (starting with the family) in which their identity rests.
They are ever aware of two audiences.
- The first and most important group watching them is the people within their own identity group. Each individual in the group wants to please and honor and strengthen their group through their behavior, words, and their physical and monetary contributions.
- The other group consists of everyone outside their group. Outsiders are constantly watching and appraising them. The HS person wants their own behavior and words to reflect well on the reputation and status of their group. Each individual wants to contribute favorably to their group’s honor, importance, and strength in the eyes of all outsiders.
These perceived audiences are very real and their influence goes deep to the core of HS orientated people. Awareness of these audiences directs the individual’s behavior and decisions constantly and such a lifestyle is normal in their eyes.
Children are not taught an abstract list of right and wrong, they are directed to bring joy and honor to their people. Moral accountability is found in this desire to honor and bring honor. HS ethics are not abstract, they are concretely relational.
Two Guiding Priorities
Honor/shame people are certain of two things:
- They belong to a group (or groups) of people and need that group more than the group needs them. The group will stand by them just as they must stand by all others in the group. Fulfilment comes in making favorable contributions. And the primary people appraising them is their group themselves, not outsiders.
- They know they represent their group in the eyes of all outsiders. What they do as an individual should always honor and strength the group.
Therefore, the priorities are this: 1, The group is imperative, and I am a small part. I increase my worth as a contributing member. I must always be loyal to my group. 2, My group must appear good and honorable to all those outside the group. The strength and health of my group is of prime importance to myself and everyone in it.
What this means for understanding Jeremiah
Jeremiah’s call to be spokesperson for the Living God caused an upheaval within him. Submission required a major paradigm shift. Namely, unquestioned loyalty to family and people must to be exchanged for unyielding allegiance to the Living God.
Jeremiah knew instinctively there would be clashes between these parties. Major clashes. He is impelled to speak against the entrenched behavior and attitudes of his family and people. They will view him with disdain; as disloyal, forsaking their group, shaming them in the eyes of others. Something their son or brother or uncle should ever do.
 These are broad categories with subgroups and variables, and only generalities are offered here.
 The focus in many circles of Biblical study is very much on this second issue, but it will be argued here that the first one (identity) is foundational and must be the starting point for bridging the gaps in understanding.
 Fortunately, Biblical scholars have been aware of this in recent times and have given concentrated study on the issues involved.
 This “two audiences” claim is overly simplistic, but it is used here for a purpose. There is elasticity (rather than rigidity) in these two groups/audiences.
 The strength of this social, relational “connectedness” is revealed in statements like the following. “Telling lies about others is as harmful as hitting them with an ax, wounding them with a sword, or shooting them with a sharp arrow.” Pro. 25:18. See also Jer. 18:18.
 This is the context and impetus behind Jeremiah’s “awkward” laments. They may be seen by us as self-pity, unfit for a man of his caliber and calling. “Oh, that I had died in my mother’s womb.” “Why was I ever born? My entire life has been filled with trouble, sorrow, and shame.” Jer. 20:17, 18. This is different from self-pity. It is grief over the seeming betrayal and failure in the eyes of those he cared about. It is frustration over knowing what his people need, but them not seeing it. “I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief.” Jer. 8:21.