I first heard the term “culture of honor” a few years ago. A priest friend began using it, after listening to sermon podcasts by Ian Carroll, pastor of Greater Chicago Church. Carroll credited Bill Johnson, senior pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, with the term. Tom, my friend, discovered a book on the topic by Danny Silk, also from Bethel. Tom read it, loved it, and passed it along to me.
The term and the book resonated deeply with me. As I read, I had the feeling that this was not something new, but something that had always been there, something always in my heart, that I had never put into words.
Simply put, honor means relating to someone according to his or her God-given identity. Honor looks for the gold in people. Honor refuses to reduce people to the “aliases” that hide their true dignity and worth. Danny Silk says that honor – accurately acknowledging who people are – will position us to give them what they deserve , and to receive the gift of who they are in return. Honor relinquishes the desire to control, accepting risk and trusting freedom. Honor leads with love and creates zones where people feel safe and important. Through honor, masks come off, walls come down, and hearts come out. People’s gifts are revealed, affirmed, and released. “Life flows through honor.”
Honor and Jean Valjean
An example that always comes to mind as I reflect on honor is the story of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. “You are a man who has come from a very sad place,” says the kind country bishop Myriel Beinvenu to his unexpected guest, an ex-con hardened by life’s injustices. After welcoming the shunned Valjean into his home for food and shelter, Bienvenu repeatedly calls him “Monsieur.” No one ever addressed Valjean that way; each time, his head rises a little higher. After he later ignobly steals the bishop’s silverware and escapes into the night, he returns in police custody. He expects judgment but instead receives, to his utter surprise, mercy and love. Bienvenu makes true the lie, that the silver was a gift. Valjean is forgiven, blessed, and sent off – with the silverware, plus the candlesticks. The contraband silver becomes the price paid for his redemption. “I have bought your soul for God.”
Valjean is shaken to the core. He repents and changes his life, vowing to become the man the bishop saw in him. The next thousand pages chronicle his heroic journey of self-emptying love. Valjean was converted by honor, changed by an atmosphere of such love that faith became the only reasonable response.
Jesus was honor incarnate. His love softened hearts and evoked wonder and change. Peter, Matthew, Zacchaeus, Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery: all bore fruits of our Lord’s honor.
Pope Francis has been warming hearts through honor, exhibited in such quotes as this:
I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else – God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human
life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always
a space in which good seed can grow.
Unfortunately, honor is not always the basis of our church culture. This calls for repentance and change. I am convinced that the degree to which the church is a culture of honor, is the degree that we will see lives change and the Kingdom advance. A church without honor is a church without Christ. All we will have is law, dogma, and the schemes of men– an institution to be protected, not a movement to be advanced. Unable to warm hearts, we will be reduced to participant, and ultimately casualty, in the culture wars.
I like the word “honor.” It’s a fresh and positive word. It’s perhaps more suited to carry and convey gospel realities today than overused words like love. Mercy is a beautiful word, but it can be demeaning to people who associate it with pity. Tenderness is good, but in American culture it sometimes carries erotic connotations.
As for the word “culture,” look into any successful business and you will see that it’s an organizational imperative. Culture is built when values and behavior transcend individuals and become institutionalized, as it were, hitting critical mass to the point of becoming self-correcting and self-sustaining. Dorothy Day wrote of it in her longing to see a world “where it easy for men to be good.”
Building and maintaining a culture of honor has to be a priority for Christian leaders. Without honor, we will not win hearts. The shrillness of ideology and battles of life have left people cold and weary. As Pope Francis says, today’s church needs to be first and foremost a “field hospital” during battle – a place where hearts are warmed and wounds are healed.
Below are some traits...
that characterize the culture of honor (along with their opposites):
- Grace-driven – not law-driven
- Identity is redeemed child of God – not orphan
- People approached according to God-given identity – not aliases of culture, others
- Looks for gold – not dirt
- Faults addressed personally with gentle correction, then encouragement – not gossip
- People celebrated for who they are – not judged for who they are not
- People identified by their glorious future promise – not by troubled past, mistakes
- Place of safety and security – not fear
- Worth based on who we are in Christ – not what we do
- People given benefit of doubt – not rash judgment
- Willingness to love trumps desire to control
- Reveals God – not conceals him
- Heals wounds – not inflicts them
Fruits of Honor
Thomas Merton once wrote that the “true self” is like a very shy wild animal that hides in the protective cover of the woods and only comes out for the “lure of divine freedom.” I like to think of honor as this lure. It cannot be faked or manufactured, however. People detect self-serving, counterfeit honor; especially the very wounded.
Romans 2:4 says: “The goodness of God is meant to lead you to repentance.”
Wisdom 11:23 says: “You overlook mens’s sins so that they can repent.”
Honor leads to repentance. Honor creates a sinner-safe environment (which is not the same as a sin-safe environment): one that does not condone sin, but relativizes it by affirming the sinner as a deeply loved child of God. Honor eradicates sin at its root through facilitating an encounter with the love of Jesus that melts hearts, affirming the deepest goodness at the core of every person. Counter-intuitively, repentance is seldom generated by condemnation, which breeds defensiveness and further hardens hearts.
I pray that through honor, the church will be the house of Bishop Bienvenu: where, after every other door has been closed, Valjean finds a welcome from the very sad place he has been; where a convict is called ‘Monsieur;’ where a hungry man is fed; where a hardened man is softened; where a broken man is mended. I pray that through honor, the church will be the house where treachery is met with mercy; where contraband becomes ransom; where gold emerges from mud; where slavery gives way to sonship; where a life of tragedy is transformed into as beautiful a story as Les Miserables.
What Honor did for Jean Valjean: