Communicating the Gospel in a Shame Society
1Imagine the following scene: A man accidentally falls off his bicycle as he rides down a street. He hurts himself and damages his bike, but his first concern is to look around to see who might have seen him fall. His dearest hope is that there are no witnesses to his accident. But there is one. The lone witness, however, quickly looks away and pretends she did not see what just happened. The rider just as quickly stands up, picks up his bicycle, and nonchalantly rides off. Only when out of sight does he stop to examine his scrapes and the damage to his bike. Fortunately, neither is serious. Above all, he is relieved that his pride and honor have suffered no injury.
Jesus enters into our shame, experiences its destructive consequences, and then triumphs over its power in the resurrection.
The event described has taken place in a “shame society.” The rider feels most anxious not about his wounds or the condition of his bicycle but about the opinion of others. Their reaction to his fall will determine whether or not he will feel shame. The absence of witnesses to his accident will mean that his honor remains intact. Their presence will often mean its loss, which equates to shame. It happens that the lone witness in this case seeks to help the rider save face and avoid the mortifying experience of shame. A less considerate witness would not have bothered.
All first-century Mediterranean cultures were shame cultures. Gentiles and Jews alike were oriented from childhood to seek honor and to avoid shame at all costs. Although the types of behaviors that were deemed honorable or shameful varied and changed over time, 2 all ancient Mediterranean people were raised to be sensitive to public recognition or reproach. Indeed, instilling in the young a lifelong desire for honor and a horror of dishonor was thought essential to maintaining social control.
Modern-day descendants of Mediterranean peoples in Latin America have inherited their ancestors’ social sensibilities and continue in various ways to behave according to the conventions of the old shame culture. Those sensibilities have insinuated themselves into religion, with less than desirable consequences. In this paper I will argue that shame has shaped the Latin American understanding of sin in harmful ways by effectively externalizing and individualizing it. I will then review the central biblical themes and offer what I believe to be a more fully biblical and contextual understanding of sin in a shame-based culture.
First, some definitions and clarifications are in order. “Honor” is a sense of self-respect and recognition by one’s peers or the society of which one is a part. It is based on how well one embodies society’s values. Commonly in honor and shame societies, honor is either ascribed by virtue of birth or adoption, or it is earned by intellectual or athletic achievement. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, honor resided in one’s name (inherited from one’s father) and in certain public roles one might assume. It was expressed and measured by one’s possessions, which had to be on display (banquets, fine clothes, houses, and so on). Honor needed to be claimed, acknowledged, and defended against challenges.
Shame, on the other hand, could be imposed on a person by those in power (a king, judge, teacher, parent, or other authority figure), declaring him to be a person without honor. It could be earned by the refusal of a person to play the honor-conferring games. 3 More often than not, however, shame arose from inappropriate deeds, wrong or blameworthy actions by oneself or by someone under one’s authority. A child caught stealing would bring great shame upon the parents, since it would bring both their honor and parenting skills into question and cast doubt on their value to society. In all cases, shame was a painful feeling of being unprotected, exposed, vulnerable, and worthy of contempt.
SIN IN A SHAME SOCIETY
In Latin America, sin is closely connected with shame. Men and women are deeply concerned about what others will think if their misdeeds are discovered. But because shame is associated with the exposure of the action, something is only “wrong” when one’s actions become public. Morality therefore becomes eminently external and superficial. The terms “sin” and “sinful” are defined primarily by the public revelation of one’s “bad” actions. For this reason, people are more concerned about “losing face” than about the “bad action” itself and its consequences. Keeping up appearances is paramount.
This preoccupation with appearances manifests itself in religion. When one’s understanding of sin is closely associated with and shaped by shame, conceptions of forgiveness and related understandings of discipleship are likewise affected. In evangelical churches in particular, notions of shame and guilt have taken on the same strongly individualistic emphasis they have in the broader culture. This in turn has produced an ethic oriented toward personal dignity rather than social justice and peace. 4
The understanding of sin in evangelical churches has been prone to two kinds of distortion. The first is moralism. Strict adherence to a moral code is presented as a way of avoiding shame. Creating and following rules have become necessary and important “regulators” of behavior in most evangelical communities. These rules provide clearly defined “do’s and don’ts” that are supposed to help a Christian avoid shame and sin. This way of thinking promotes a discipleship of superficiality and at the same time categorizes certain actions as more sinful than others. “External” actions and deeds, those that are easily noticed (e.g., drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes), are viewed as more sinful than “internal” vices such as greed, envy, and lust.
On the other hand, as in our bicycle story, avoiding or minimizing shame is central to Latin culture. The actions of both protagonist and witness are designed to diminish shame. Looking the other way at the scene of an accident is intended to lessen the shame for the protagonist. But in the church, the etiquette of shame-avoidance often translates into avoiding even redemptive confrontation of a brother or sister when their sin becomes public. To be sure, concern for the wellbeing of one’s fellow Christian is evident in such avoidance, but it fails to go deeper than the surface of the behavior to the motives of the heart. As a result, there is a marked absence of mutual accountability based on grace and forgiveness, which is an essential element in our participation in God’s community.
But what is the character of “God’s community”? Indeed, what is the character of God and our relation to him? What does God desire for us? How does Jesus enable us to receive what God seeks to give? Closer attention to the biblical witness is essential to answering these questions. A healthy understanding of sin and shame can only emerge once solid answers to those basic, foundational questions are given.
GOD AS ENCOUNTER
Both the Old Testament and New Testament present us with a relational God who relentlessly seeks to establish a relationship with us. Indeed, the Christian affirmation is that God still looks for people willing to enter a solemn covenant with God and with one another. For God desires that we live as the authentic human beings we were created to be.
In the biblical texts, God is a presence from the very beginning of creation. This personal God has taken many “steps” and created “space” to encounter us. The Bible is the story of a God who is present and who seeks to establish an encounter with his creation. This ongoing process of disclosure reaches its climax in Jesus Christ. One can argue that in the incarnation God’s presence is so complete that it overshadows every presence recounted earlier in the biblical narrative. In Jesus, the invisible and intangible God has made himself visible and tangible. In Jesus, God made his presence so substantial that we saw, touched, insulted, and crucified God. The incarnation represents God’s total immersion in humanity’s history of conflict and oppression. It is part of the ongoing process of God’s self-revelation as a loving and caring God who is present and real among his people.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection demonstrate God’s solidarity with humanity. This solidarity reached its climax on the cross, which exposed our alienation from God, others, creation, and from ourselves. At the same time, the cross expresses God’s solidarity with our alienation. God’s victory over sin and death for us all is achieved in and through the resurrection of Jesus. In short, Jesus is the very presence of God in humanity. God encounters us (acts, suffers, and triumphs) in and through Jesus.
By his words and actions, Jesus showed us how to become true sons and daughters of God. Through his relationship with his father, he showed us a relationship of obedience and dependence that we need to imitate. Jesus is an example of someone who completely opened his life to the influence of the divine Spirit. He is our model of true human life lived in freedom and love. In Jesus, we can find both our meaning and our Savior.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus thus embodies God’s saving message. Jesus gives us the model of authentic humanity to imitate. Throughout his life, Jesus confronted both the roots of our problem and its consequences. His example and ministry are testimony to the unmasking of personal and social structures that promote and perpetuate our alienation. Indeed, Jesus suffered and accepted our alienation and its consequences so that we can live as authentic humans.
Alienation, according to the Scriptures, is the basic problem of humanity, a condition for which it uses the word “sin.” Specifically, our alienation consists of a broken relationship with God, which is expressed when we distrust our neighbors, abuse our spouses, pollute our environment, cheat on our taxes, and detest ourselves. Alienation thus has concrete social, political, economic, environmental, and personal consequences. 5 Unbelief, disobedience, exclusion, 6 injustice, “grasping and hiding,” 7 and the creation of other “gods” are other expressions of our tragic distance from God. As Paul reminds us, sin permeates every aspect of our personal and social life (Rom. 8:22).
The “solution” to sin needs to repair the broken relationship with the Creator and thus enable a reversal of the personal and social consequences of our alienation, so that the conditions under which we live can be restored to their divinely intended state. God’s salvation in and through Jesus Christ does exactly that. It is a dynamic present reality, not simply a promise for the future. It has concrete and global, present and future, personal, public, and cosmic dimensions. 8
The relationship between sin and shame in the Bible is complex. Shame is a consequence or punishment for sin: “Let the wicked be put to shame” (Ps. 31:17; 35:4, 26; Rom. 1:24). On the other hand, sin itself is shameful. Genesis 3 is the classical text describing the dynamic of sin. 9 It presents sin as a complex phenomenon that has twisted and perverted our relationship with our Creator, our neighbors, our environment, and ourselves. A humanity created for mutuality and reciprocity now is characterized by fearfulness, self-justifying behavior, and fault-finding.
Note that the shame of Adam and Eve was not due to their nakedness, for they were naked and unashamed before eating the fruit (Gen. 2:25). I believe Mark Biddle is correct to suggest that “the first pair’s shame at their nakedness typifies . . . the essence of shame—discomfort at the complete exposure of one’s creatureliness.” 10 Adam and Eve consumed the fruit to express their disdain for the idea of being merely human. Scripture and our own experience teach us that we have an irrepressible urge to be more than lowly human beings, to overcome our finitude, vulnerability, and interdependence. In Margaret Alter’s words, “We have invented an unnecessary obligation to be as God.” 11
EMBRACING OUR HUMANITY
In the context of finitude, vulnerability and contingency are essential to extending grace and forgiveness toward oneself and others. Forgiveness “creates (and is) the gift of beginnings” 12 and it “is essential because without it we are dangerous” 13—to ourselves and to others—because we mask our authentic humanity by hiding, pretending, and blaming.
Embracing our humanity as modeled by Jesus’ kenosis and incarnation 14 prepares us to engage and accept our finitude and dependence and surrender our shame. Kenosis communicates the idea of “emptying” or “dying to” our “obligation to be as God,” and incarnation represents the embracing of our finitude. Biddle observes that “God values authentic humanity enough to create it and affirm it in the incarnation.” 15 Being authentic, having a “healthy self” (in social sciences language), will be expressed, first, by acknowledging the limitations of being human without doubting its fundamental worth, and, second, by celebrating and affirming achievements and our potential without succumbing to the temptation of grandiosity. 16
God incarnate in Jesus, however, embraced humanity in the fullest sense, affirming that there is nothing bad in being human, nothing to be ashamed of in being man and woman and needing others. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection confirm the authentic humanity that God intended since creation. Further, Jesus unmasks and frees us from our enslaved imaginations. As Garret Green put it, “sinners are unfree . . . they cannot imagine what it would be like to live in conformity to the will of God.” 17 Raymund Schwager expresses the same idea: “For, as long as people are trapped in sin, they can perceive everything only from the perspective of their own closed worlds. . . . Only after genuine conversion does their capacity to see things alter, and thus also their picture of God.” 18 In addition, Jesus’ life empowers us to live fully in our humanity by giving us an honest and realistic view of the limitations and potential of others and ourselves. As Alter says,
In Genesis 3 human beings overreach themselves in a desire to be in control . . . experience shame without external provocation. Adam and Eve’s story illustrates ubiquitous human fear of exposure and humiliation; without instigation they seek hiding. . . . The story in Genesis gives the experience of shame a twist because it represents human resistance to finitude itself, our profound shame in being limited creatures. 19
JESUS AND SHAME
While the Scriptures we have looked at regard shame negatively, as a sign of rebelliousness at our finitude, other passages recognize that shame can also be culturally induced, becoming an integral part of conducting oneself properly in society. This type of shame requires sensitivity and understanding on the part of preachers and evangelists. Even Jesus, it could be argued, respected the worldview of his time, in which honor and shame played such an important role. The story of the woman caught in adultery is a case in point.
In John 8:1–11 the teachers of the law bring the adulterous woman before Jesus. The accusers think they can trap Jesus, who is known to be partial to sinners, by getting him to advocate disregard for the law. Just as important, they want to humiliate the woman. (The man with whom she has committed adultery is not brought to be judged, likely because the sin is seen as the woman’s fault.) The Pharisees drag her out in public, ready to stone her. One does not need much sympathy for the woman to feel her shame, guilt, and condemnation.
Note Jesus’ response. First, he emphasizes love over justice. The actions of the Pharisees can easily be interpreted as an act of “justice” intended to promote the “moral standards” of the community. They bring the woman into the middle of the crowd to present her as a “bad example.” According to Mosaic law, they had a right—indeed, an obligation—to stone her. Jesus, however, is more interested in reconciliation based on compassion and love than doing “justice” as defined by the law.
It is interesting that Jesus does not refer to the absence of the male partner in the adulterous act. I suggest that there are two reasons for his silence. First, it was important to Jesus to emphasize love over humiliation. To mention the adulterer’s absence would only lead to a discussion of “justice,” which in this particular situation would require stoning both the man and the woman. Second, to speak of the male partner in the presence of the woman would add to her shame. Jesus’ primary interest is in restoring the woman’s dignity. Justice according to the law is blind to the conditions of restoration.
Second, Jesus’ public responses challenge both the judges and those accused. He confronts and challenges those who believe they have the right to “judge” and point an accusing finger. But he also challenges the woman, instructing her to leave her life of sin. Although the woman is not without guilt, there are situations where a person is a victim or “sinned against.” Our theological traditions and church practices have focused almost exclusively on the “sinner” and in most cases have ignored the victims of sin. These would include people who are suffering or have suffered abandonment by parents; sexual abuse; prejudice because of skin color, sex, religion, education; or stigmatization because of poverty, marital status, single parenthood, and so on. It is crucial that our communities of faith create room for therapeutic means (worship, symbols, retreats) that promote healing, restoration, and reconciliation to those suffering because of the sins of others.
Third, Jesus is interested in restoration (forgiveness of oneself and others). Jesus’ questions are intended to lead the woman to an awareness of her situation. Both Jesus and the woman would have noticed that the Pharisees had left. So why did Jesus ask, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (v. 10). The objective of these questions is to help her evaluate forgiveness (presence or absence) for others and oneself. Awareness that “the accusers” had left the scene did not automatically bring forgiveness, either to them or to her, but the woman’s initial answer, “no one,” communicates the first step toward restoration. Restoration (of one’s own sense of value, self-esteem, dignity, etc.) is an essential element in a shame-based culture, and these questions are crucial because they offer an opportunity to start the healing of relationships with others and oneself.
Fourth, “go, leave your life of sin” (v. 11). This phrase carries a powerful message: it communicates walking, transition, process, and reconciliation. In addition, it is an invitation to restore previous relationships (with neighbors, families, spouse, etc.), to return from our rambling and to walk on the road of discipleship. It is an invitation to reconciliation based on love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Lastly, Jesus is sensitive to the shame-honor context of the situation. When Jesus “bent down,” he could have been communicating indignation, or he might have been avoiding direct visual contact with the woman, which would bring more shame upon her. It is likely that the woman was sitting on the ground with her face down. Jesus bent down to her level and shared her position of humiliation and shame. On the other hand, when Jesus answered the Pharisees’ question he “straightened up” and then again “stooped down.” With these gestures Jesus demonstrates that we should deal with our shamed brothers and sisters on their level, not from above looking down on them. Further, Jesus appeared to be sensitive to the shame of the Pharisees as well: after he challenged them, he bent down again and waited until they had left the scene, possibly to avoid bringing more shame on them.
An urgent question in this context is how best to help our brothers and sisters live as authentic human beings in contexts twisted by shame and guilt. The reflections offered above suggest some principles. The first is to recognize our humanness. In contexts where the common problem is fear that others will discover who we really are, where people struggle with feelings of shame and inadequacy, it is refreshing to hear God’s view of what it means to be human. God has created us to live in a relationship of mutual dependence in the context of our finitude, vulnerability, and contingency. God, embracing humanity in the fullest sense in Jesus, has re-affirmed that it is OK to be a man or a woman and need others. Even more, the crucifixion reveals a God who is willing to be vulnerable, who chooses to bear the pain of shame and rejection. On the cross, God meets us in our shame. Jesus enters into our shame, experiences its destructive consequences, and then triumphs over its power in the resurrection. Jesus’ life empowers us fully to dwell in our humanity, with honest and realistic expectations of others and ourselves. He empowers us to be and let others be authentic humans. He invites us to proclaim and unmask personal and corporate power structures that keep us from living as authentic humans with God, creation, others, and ourselves.
Second, extending grace and forgiveness is essential in communities of faith, whether they are shame- and guilt-oriented cultures or not. The resurrection is a call to every shamed, oppressed, hopeless, and fearful person that “He is risen!” Through the resurrection, we have the opportunity to live as authentic human beings. Through the resurrected one, we can extend the grace that marks the beginning of our healing. Grace is the gift of being accepted before we become acceptable. Grace overcomes shame by accepting us without conditions.
A third principle is that communities of mutual accountability acknowledge the shame factor (or guilt or both) and are characterized by a profound respect for the brothers’ and sisters’ dignity based on love. In John 8:1–11 Jesus gives us a model of confrontation that is sensitive to shame as understood in that culture. It is a model that gives priority to reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness. People are not to be used as scapegoats or “bad examples” in order to promote and perpetuate the status quo and the reputation of the community. This community does not seek to cause more shame; instead, it seeks to relieve it and offer opportunities to restore previous relationships on the road of discipleship.
We have suggested the importance of defining sin as alienation from God, others, creation, and ourselves. Because shame and honor are twisted by sin, we need to carefully read our particular context in order to be sensitive, embracing, and constructively critical. In Jesus we see God’s response to our alienation and its manifestations. Jesus is our model of an authentic human being, for he who knows and experienced shame offers us an example of restoration and reconciliation rather than condemnation.
Considering the reality of what we are as human beings, the cultural factors that shape our beliefs and sensibilities, and Jesus’ model of confrontation, approaching sin in a shame-based culture must be conducted in the context of a therapeutic community that recognizes that we are incomplete, imperfect, in progress, and “under construction.” People in this type of community can live differently because the Spirit of the resurrected one empowers and provides them with hope for transformation in their present lives as well as in the future.
- The author wishes to express appreciation to Mark D. Baker, who read earlier drafts of this essay and offered helpful suggestions, and to Katharine Enns for her writing assistance.
- In the first-century Mediterranean world there were competing groups (Roman Hellenists, various philosophical schools, Jews, Christians) whose definitions of what behaviors were honorable differed significantly. See D. A. deSilva, “Honor and Shame,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 519–20.
- Jerome H. Neyrey, “Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative,” Semeia 68 (1994): 115–18.
- For further explanations on these topics, see Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1982), 33ff; Mark D. Baker, Religious No More (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 56ff; Alfred Neufeld, Contra la Sagrada Resignación (Asunción, Paraguay: El Lector, 2006), 139; Pablo Deiros, Historia del Cristianismo en América Latina (Buenos Aires: FTL, 1992); and Pablo Deiros, El Protestantismo en América Latina (Miami: Caribe, 1997).
- On sin, see Mark E. Biddle, Missing the Mark: Sin and Its Consequences in Biblical Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2005); R. P. Knierim, “On the Contours of Old Testament and Biblical Hamartiology,” in The Task of Old Testament Theology, ed. R. P. Knierim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 416–67. For a summary of the use of “sin” and its implications in the Old Testament, see Claus Westermann, “On Judgement and Mercy,” in Old Testament Theology, ed. Ben C. Ollenburger (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), 210–21; and in the New Testament, see Green and Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 201–9.
- On exclusion, see Miroslav Volf, “Difference, Violence, and Memory,” in Irish Theological Quarterly 74 (2009): 3–12 and Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 72ff.
- For more concrete examples and metaphors on grasping and hiding, see Mark D. Baker, “The Saving Significance of the Cross in a Honduran Barrio,” n.p. [cited 16 Feb. 2009]. Online: http://www.mbseminary.edu/baker/articles and Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, ed. Mark D. Baker (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 122ff.
- Costas, Christ Outside, 38.
- An excellent source on this topic is Biddle, Missing the Mark.
- Mark E. Biddle, “Genesis 3: Sin, Shame and Self-esteem,” Review & Expositor 103, no. 2 (2006): 361–62.
- Margaret Alter, Resurrection Psychology: An Understanding of Human Personality Based on the Life and Teachings of Jesus (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1994), 17.
- Ernest Daniel Carrere, Creating a Human World: A New Psychological and Religious Anthropology in Dialogue with Freud, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2006), 197.
- Alter, Resurrection, 17.
- See Carrere, Creating, especially chapter 9, 149–65.
- Biddle, “Genesis 3,” 368.
- Carrere, Creating, 19–38 and Biddle, “Genesis 3,” 363–65.
- Garret Green, Imagining God (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 88–91.
- Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, tr. James G. Williams and Paul Haddon (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 196.
- Alter, Resurrection, 16.