Saturday, May 3, 2014

Honoring graduates- a culture of honor

A Culture of Honor

Graduation ceremonies ripple across the landscape as waves of rented robes trimmed in colored cords declare that a mark of honor has been achieved.

On Sunday 27 April, 2014, two men were declared saints by the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. They weren’t just any two men. They were former popes. They met the criteria for sainthood and are now known as Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.

On 2 May, 2014, Evangel University newly retired president, Robert H. Spence, was honored with applause as he spoke at the school’s commencement following 40 years of service—the second longest tenure of an American University President. The celebrations began at Homecoming in the Fall and culminated in several events a week ago.

People of many religious groups honor their leaders for consistently living according to character traits such as faithfulness, humility, loyalty, kindness, and so forth. Protestants don’t recognize saints as Catholics do. But Protestants do honor people for saintly behavior. 

In this post, I look at honor from the perspective of moral psychology. Religious people often feel blessed when attending an event honoring a person they agree deserves to be honored. It’s being a part of history. It’s being a part of a movement bigger than us. It’s not rational. But it is part of being human. And honor is important to upholding the values of our culture. For Christians, it is part of honoring scriptural values.

As in former posts (for example, Whose side are you on?) I will use the six dimensions of moral foundations articulated by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Haidt and others have found that conservatives draw on six dimensions when forming a multivalent base for morality.


Care/ harm- honoring those who care
Caring for others is a value shared by the world’s religions. Christians are often admonished to love others by reference to Jesus’ teaching and examples. To be honored, leaders must show that they care about all persons their decisions affect. And the honoring process shows that the community cares about the leaders and their families.

Criticisms will come from those who were abused or harmed by the action or lack of action by a candidate for honor. Several Christian leaders are vocal about those who are sinful. They make it clear those who are not welcome in a Christian community. And leaders will be criticized when their actions result in harm. For the most part, if leaders care about their own people, their people will care about them. There is a reciprocity norm.

Liberty/ oppression- honoring heroes
Like Jews, Christians often refer to biblical heroes who acted to liberate God’s people from oppression. Moses liberated his people from enslavement. David slayed a giant who threatened the Israelites. And Jesus liberated people from illness and spiritual destruction—although the people preferred a leader that would have liberated them from Roman oppression. As an antihero Jesus liberated the poor and social outcasts- people not in much of a position to elevate his position amongst religious or political leaders.

Contemporary Christian leaders offer freedom from many ills. Those who are successful are honored in television appearances and via book sales. Others get plaques and certificates. Some garner newspaper headlines with page placement indicating their level of worthiness. What liberty can today’s leaders offer? Some focus on the stuff of life—food, sickness, poverty. Some rescue organizations from financial ruin. Some offer a return to respect and a restoration of honor following church scandals. Others offer a version of personal liberation from addictions and destructive lifestyles. Criticisms will arise toward those who offer religious and spiritual oppression in exchange for liberation from a common catalog of sins. Some religious leaders seem to offer the bondage of religious rules in place of the bondage of a perceived harmful lifestyle.

Fairness/ cheating- honoring just leaders
Honorable leaders are people known for treating people in a fair and trustworthy manner. They are concerned about social justice—at least in their community. They did not draw unjust salaries or privileges. Honorable leaders don't take advantage of the poor who support their leadership position. In the honoring events, the community symbolically returns honor in exchange for years of service. It’s hard to decide what constitutes a fair amount of applause, awards, meals, ceremonies, parties, and gifts that should be given to show appreciation for honorable service. Surely they have been paid for their work. But honor goes beyond pay. Each community decides how to show their appreciation. And each person decides on how many events they will attend.

Criticism will come from those who feel the honoring events were too little or too excessive. Event planners will do well if they please the honored leaders and their families and the majority of those who wish to show their honor. It is easier to spend lavishly in good times. It seems unfair—unjust—to spend lavishly in bad times. A fair and just leader receives a fair and just response contextualized not just based on a career but on the current economic and social context.

Loyalty / betrayal- honoring loyalty
The dimension of loyalty and betrayal is relative. Jesus upended some old traditions—
“You heard it was said of old time… but I say…” (Matthew 5)
Don’t put new drinks in old cans- or something like that. (Matthew 9: 17)

Change can seem like betrayal. New leaders must be wary—old traditions become tests of loyalty.

Years matter. In general, we seem to honor people who have served their country or organization for a long time. We also consider the quality of that service. How did they advance the cause? How did they contribute to the well-being of the country or organization? We want to know how much they invested in the mission.

People aren't perfect. Long-term leaders and their teams can be honored as a way of getting them out of the way. Offer a suitable reward for loyal service. Let followers feel good about the transition. Then the new team can move forward—full steam ahead. But a new team could be viewed as disloyal if they betrayed the people’s trust in the former leader. Loyalty is tricky. And people hurl criticisms when new leaders want to do things differently than former leaders did. Legacies live on beyond the lives of former leaders. An honorable leader with an honorable legacy constrains a new leader.

Authority/ subversion- honoring those who respect authority
Anyone familiar with the Christian gospels knows Jesus challenged the authority of the religious leaders. And the trumped up charges of the week leading to his crucifixion tried to frame him as a subversive-- one who would challenge the authority of Rome. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said.

Christians are big on obedience to authority. Even in America – a country begun by insurrection and built on principles of democracy (think, “We the people”) – respect for authority is required of any leader. The self-righteous version for Christian leaders who want to disobey a law is to declare obedience to God’s authority rather than man’s authority. This is pretty convenient when one wants to ignore a law in favor of one’s view of some choice verses from scripture. Sometimes I think Christians don’t like Romans Chapter 13 except when they agree with the government.

Nevertheless, to avoid criticism and garner honor, Christian leaders must obey the authority of the guiding principles set forth by the founders of their religious group or the directors of their board. And the honor granted to secondary leaders will depend on how well they submitted to the authority of those above them in the hierarchy. It’s called being a servant-leader in the language of evangelical Christianity. This is not an easy task. To be honorable a leader must be both strong and humble—commanding authority yet submitting to a higher authority.

Sanctity / degradation- honoring sanctified lives
In the biblical era, people followed purity rituals and thereby honored God and the temple—a holy place. Jesus saw the falseness of the religious leaders of his day. Those who focused on washing rituals but were spiritually unclean. He attacked those who sought to make a profit off the poor in the temple and were thereby degrading the holy place. What is a sacred place? What is degradation?

It’s pretty hard to get away from following religious-cultural rules when it comes to meeting the sanctity requirements of honor. There’s all the little stuff like the clothes you wear, closing your eyes during prayer, bowing your head, and maintaining a high attendance rate at religious services. Do these things regularly for years and you will meet the sanctity requirements for honor as judged by observing humans.

But there’s another aspect too. Christians are very concerned about sexual purity. Any violations of the expectations will result in dishonor. There is an inverted hierarchy of sexual sin. Some sexual sins are worse than others. You may be forgiven but you will lose any honor credits you may have earned. And you will likely lose your job—unless you have special connections.

Culture of Honor: Reflections

Honoring people in any culture has moral overtones. And honor is a big part of religious and spiritual practice. I wanted to see if the six dimensions of morality put forward by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues would provide a useful framework for looking at honor. I think it does.

And I hope this year's graduates enjoy an honorable life.

I would be interested in your comments—especially since this is a new application of moral thinking. I will accept most comments except those obviously dishonorable.


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Reference Note

I took the phrase, culture of honor, from the title of a research article that examined the influence of a culture of honor on aggression. Here's the reference:

Cohen, D., Nisbett, R.E., Bowdle, B.F., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An “experimental ethnography”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 945-960.

Haidt summarizes his work on moral psychology in the following book:

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.

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