Monthly Archives: Nov 2013

Discretionary and Disgrace Shame

I promised a while ago to make some comments about different types of shame.  So here is a first stab at doing so. Authors talk about healthy shame being of two different types – discretionary shame and disgrace shame. Most of these notes are available in my MA Dissertation from 1999. You can find the references at the bottom of today’s post in the bibliography on the Dissertation page of this site.

Discretionary-shame “is a fundamentally positive quality.”[1] It “concerns itself with the protection of the private sphere of human activity so that public scrutiny is precluded,”[2] and “recognises what is the proper attitude, the fitting response.”[3] So, for example, it regulates self-disclosure; ensures the proper covering of nakedness; delineates appropriate boundaries in the care of the terminally ill. It protects development and growth:

“For what is sheltered is not something already finished, but something in the process of becoming – a tender shoot. Like a darkroom, shame protects against the premature exposure to light that would destroy the process. It functions like the protective cover during the period of gestation, until the embryo – whether seed or soul – has come to full term and is ready to emerge.”[4]

“Preoccupation with disgrace-shame has left the issue of discretionary-shame forgotten in the shadows.”[5] Most theological/psychological literature has focused on disgrace-shame.[6] Developing any understanding of shame requires both positive and negative aspects to be acknowledged.

Disgrace-shame “is about exposure of some discrediting fact or quality,”[7] “a painful experience of the disintegration of one’s world. A break occurs in the self’s relationship with itself and/or others. An awkward, uncomfortable space opens up in the world. The self is no longer whole, but divided. It feels less than it wants to be, less than at its best it knows itself to be.”[8] “Feelings of failure and violation of pride associated with shame are inhibiting and repressive and shake people’s confidence in themselves, their abilities, and their worth.”[9]

In most cultures disgrace-shame was/is the antithesis of ‘honour’.[10] It operated/operates as a social sanction controlling behaviour[11] – misdemeanours brought/bring shame on the individual/family/social group.[12] It could operate as an internal sanction through fear of disgrace,[13] or externally as a powerful disciplinary measure.[14] We will need to come back to the dynamics of shame and honour later in this book.

In the West disgrace-shame has been a more individual phenomenon[15] often associated with a narcissistic perspective.[16] A self-involving/self-focused anxiety[17] or an attitude of self-contempt.[18] Nonetheless, whatever its dynamics, disgrace-shame is painful and disorienting.[19] It involves contempt, disgust and a sense of inadequacy/failure.[20] It fears and/or results in desertion/ abandonment, dishonour/’loss of face’,[21] and loss of social position.[22]

Although often associated with guilt, disgrace-shame does not always have a moral content.[23] People experience shame within a society for being different/defective (physically, emotionally, socially, or even spiritually),[24] through defilement by others (particularly in cases of incest and rape),[25] and sometimes over other events outside their control.[26]


[1] Schneider:1977:p21.

[2] Albers:p14.

[3] Schneider:1977:p20.

[4] Ibid., p37.

[5] Albers:p8; see also Thomas J. Scheff; “Shame in Self and Society;” in Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 26. No. 2 (2003), p239-262.

[6] Bechtel:p48-53; Berke:p319f; Capps:1993:p84; Neyrey:p118; Stockitt:p112; Wong:p55f.

[7] Schneider:1977:p36.

[8] Ibid., p22.

[9] Bechtel:p49f.

[10] Albers:p47ff; Bechtel:p52f; Burnett:p112; Chance:p148f; deSilva:p433f; Matthews/Benjamin:p11;

Musk:p156-161; Oylan:p202,217.

[11] Bechtel:p48ff; Piers/Singer:p63ff; G.Taylor:p54.

[12] Burnett:p99,112; Stockitt:p113; Wells:p165f.

[13] Piers/Singer:p64ff; Wurmser:p68.

[14] Bechtel:p57ff; Piers/Singer:p63ff; Stockitt:p112.

[15] Capps:1993:p33ff,74; Wells:p167.

[16] Nathanson:”Shaming…”:1987:p250; cf.Note.8.

[17] Capps:1983:p85; Capps:1993:p74,79; G.Taylor:p67.

[18] Albers:p35ff; Capps:1983:p88; Piers/Singer:p28f; Schneider:1977:p35f.

[19] Lewis:p107; Rayner:p82; Schneider:1977:p22.

[20] Albers:p36ff; Rayner:p82.

[21] Albers:p42ff; Nathanson:”Shaming…”:1987:p250; Neyrey:p118; Wong:p18f.

[22] Bechtel:p50; G.Taylor:p54f.

[23] For an excellent discussion of the moral relevance of shame see, Jennifer C. Manion; “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2002), p73-90.

[24] Albers:p50ff; Berke:p319; Nathanson:”A Timetable…”:1987:p27f; Wells:p136ff.

[25] Albers:p63ff; Capps:1993:p95.

[26] Goldingay:1995:p8

James W. Fowler

The social shaming that Lewis Smedes talked about in yesterday’s blog, produces a culture of shame in some social groups. It takes on a life that is beyond the control of an individual, or even the social group to which she belongs. It can become in-built in generations that follow. James W. Fowler talks of Shame Due to Enforced Minority Status,[1]a form of shame which he suggests has largely been ignored in contemporary literature.[2] The capacity for experiencing shame develops as a child’s self-awareness increases and as the child begins to be aware of its social setting.[3] At around this time:

parents [and carers] transmit the qualities of their own self-esteem as they nurture the children in their care. Sadly, where social discriminations based on minority status have become part of a child’s familial identity, even before venturing forth into the world beyond the family the child will be impacted and will embrace a measure of shame due to enforced minority status.” [4]


“This transmission of parent and familial shame to children is a form of ascribed[5]shame. It has little to do with the personal qualities of the family or their children. It has everything to do with the social environment’s disvaluing of some qualities over which they have little or no control. Most potent among the forms of this type of ascribed shame are the distortions due to socio-economic  class, race, ethnic background, sometimes religion, and – most commonly – gender.[6]

Fowler goes on to recount a story from the first of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to illustrate this point. It “Discloses shame that combines childhood vulnerability with shame due to enforced minority status in terms of race, gender, and social class:”[7]

““What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay …

I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.

What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay …

Whether I could remember the rest of the poem or not was immaterial. The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists, and the sooner they accepted it the quicker I could let my hands open and the air would cool my palms.

What you looking at me for?  …

The children’s section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was wiggling and giggling over my well-known forgetfulness. The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.

As I watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cute little tucks around the waist, I knew that once I put it on I’d look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color.) I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world. Hanging softly over the black Singer sewing machine, it looked like magic, and when people saw me wearing it they were going to run up to me and say, “Marguerite [sometimes it was ‘dear Marguerite’], forgive us, please, we didn’t know who you were,” and I would answer generously, “No, you couldn’t have known. Of course I forgive you.”

Just thinking about it made me go around with angel’s dust sprinkled over my face for days. But Easter’s early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman’s once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn’t hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in the church was looking at my skinny legs.

Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke up out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about “my daddy must of been a Chinaman” (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs’ tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.

What you looking …

The minister’s wife leaned toward me, her long yellow face full of sorry. She whispered, “I just come to tell you, it’s Easter Day.” I repeated, jamming the words together, “ljustcometotellyouit’sEasterDay,” as low as possible. The giggles hung in the air like melting clouds that were waiting to rain on me. I held up two fingers, close to my chest, which meant that I had to go to the toilet, and tiptoed toward the rear of the church. Dimly, somewhere over my head, I heard ladies saying, “Lord bless the child,” and “Praise God.” My head was up and my eyes were open, but I didn’t see anything. Halfway down the aisle, the church exploded with “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and I tripped over a foot stuck out from the children’s pew. I stumbled and started to say something, or maybe to scream, but a green persimmon, or it could have been a lemon, caught me between the legs and squeezed. I tasted the sour on my tongue and felt it in the back of my mouth. Then before I reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into my Sunday socks. I tried to hold, to squeeze it back, to keep it from speeding, but when I reached the church porch I knew I’d have to let it go, or it would probably run right back up to- my head and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place. So I ran down into the yard and let it go. I ran, peeing and crying, not toward the toilet out back but to our house. I’d get a whipping for it, to be sure, and the nasty children would have something new to tease me about. I laughed anyway, partially for the sweet release; still, the greater joy came not only from being liberated from the silly church but from the knowledge that I wouldn’t die from a busted head.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.”[8]

‘Shameful’ can become the underlying self-assessment that holds people in prison. Shame of this nature runs so very deep and ultimately “cannot be healed without attention to issues of economic and political justice, equality, and the effective affirmation of inclusiveness in societies.”[9]

Can we, in any way, talk of the cross, the death of Jesus’, engaging with this sense of a group’s shame which may have become deeply engrained through the generations?

As Christians we believe that the Incarnation of Christ, the Cross and the Resurrection are the central acts of God’s redeeming love. We have found ways to speak about those essential elements of our faith that have brought hope to millions of people over the years. Until recently, we have had little to say about shame, beyond seeing it as something that is allied to guilt, and follows when we know we have done something wrong. What can we say to those who are shamed? What can we say to people who perceive the human condition in very different ways to those our theologians have engaged with in the West? What can we point to in the life and death of Jesus Christ that will assure the shamed of healing and salvation?

[1] James W. Fowler; “Faithful Change;” Abingdon Press, Nashville Tennessee, 1996, p118-121.

[2] Ibid., p121.

[3] More about this in a later blog!

[4] James W. Fowler; “Faithful Change;” p118-119.

[5] There’ll be a later blog about ascribed and acquired/achieved shame as well!

[6] James W. Fowler; “Faithful Change;” p119.

[7] Ibid., p119.

[8] Ibid., p120-121, taken from Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Random House, New York, 1970, p3-6

[9] Ibid., p121.

Lewis B. Smedes

Today we hear from Lewis B. Smedes and then in my next blog from James W. Fowler. At the end of yesterday’s blog about Lucy Grealy the last few words hinted that shame could have a strong social dimension.  Both Lewis Smedes and James Fowler have something to say about this. Shame is not just an individual thing. We’ve already noticed how one person’s shame can affect a family or a group in society. But shame can run even deeper than this and it can deeply affect the people of a particular group and propagate through the generations. Shame is a social phenomenon.

Lewis B. Smedes states that “we feel shame when our families are scorned by other families, our race by other races, our communities by other communities.”[1] The end result of this kind of despising is that “we are tempted to treat as despicable and disposable creatures [those who we despise]. If my ‘superior’ group believes that your ‘inferior’ group is the cause of our group’s troubles, we may exterminate you, as the German’s exterminated the Jews. If your ‘inferior’ group stands in the way of our ‘superior’ group’s manifest destiny, we may destroy you, as European Americans destroyed Native Americans. If your ethnic group is weak and we need you, we may make slaves of you, as Americans did to Africans. If your group is hungry and your very existence challenges the selfishness of our rich group, we will turn our eyes from you and treat you as if you did not exist. If your ethnic group threatens to corrupt the purity of our ethnic group, we will, one way or another, purify ourselves of your presence.”[2]

So, Smedes contends, slavery is the logic of social shame: “When I, in the pride of my group, despise another person simply because she is a member of a group that my group despises, I shame her. If I will not fellowship with you simply because you belong to a group that my group considers inferior, I shame you. When I will not allow you to have the same rights that I have simply because you belong to a group that I think threatens the privileges of my group, I shame you, I have reduced you; I have turned you into a non-person with no identity but the name of the group that my group despises. I have taken the first step that, in other days, could have made you a slave.”[3]

This social shaming produces a culture of shame in some social groups. It takes on a life that is beyond the control of an individual, or even the social group to which she belongs. It becomes in-built in generations that follow.

[1] Lewis B. Smedes; “Shame and Grace“; HarperCollins, New York, 1993, p58.

[2] Ibid., p58-59.

[3] Ibid., p59.

Lucy Grealy

I hope that my previous blog, along with this and perhaps two more blogs, will highlight the scope of shame and something of the depth of its effect on us. Today I want to point you to an autobiographical book by Lucy Grealy. In Lucy Grealy’s story, shame has nothing to do with morality. Nonetheless it comes as an overwhelming, overpowering, destructive force into her life. Her book, ‘Autobiography of a Face[1] is an account of her childhood struggle with cancer in her jaw. It is a poignant example of the power of shame.[2]

“Lucy Grealy describes classic signs of shame when she writes of her extreme sense of self-consciousness, her acute sense of herself as ugly, her sense of being an outsider and her desire to hide from the blatant stares of other children. With every uncensored stare, her head “dropped just a little bit further in shame,” for “their approval and disapproval defined everything for me, and I believed with every cell in my body that approval wasn’t written into my particular script. I was fourteen years old … The pain these children brought with their stares engulfed every other pain in my life.””[3]

“Searing shame characterizes Grealy’s experience and we sympathize with her pain-filled response, recognizing it as reasonable given contemporary standards of beauty, her apparent attitude towards these standards, and her failure to match them.[4] Yet, in feeling shame Grealy need not consider herself morally defective because of her judgment about her face. The point to press here is that people often feel shame about morally irrelevant features or actions and often mistakenly believe that their actions or features are morally salient when they are not.”[5]

“Shame often hits hard, reverberating deeply into our sense of self, and its effects are difficult to shake. Sartre compares the revelation shame affords with succumbing to a shudder so intense that it feels like an “internal haemorrhage.”[6] Lucy Grealy suggests that the pain of being ashamed of her appearance hurt more than the pain of her cancer. She also describes the way in which shame often saturated her entire sense of identity and worth. She writes: ‘I was my face, I was ugliness …. I began having overwhelming attacks of shame at unpredictable intervals … Out of nowhere came an intense feeling … that I was too horrible to look at, that I wasn’t worthy of being looked at, that my ugliness was equal to a great personal failure.’”[7]

“Gershen Kaufman describes more generally Grealy’s specific experience of the penetrating, sweeping reach of shame. He writes, “shame is the piercing awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some vital way as a human being …. Shame is an impotence-making experience because it feels as though there is no way to relieve the matter, no way to restore the balance of things … The excruciating observation of the self which results, this torment of self-consciousness, becomes so acute as to create a binding, almost paralyzing effect upon the self.””[8]

Does the cross have anything to say to Lucy Grealy? What does it say to Lucy and many others: people who have experienced damaging abuse; or who cope with what society perceives as deformity; people whose sense of self-worth has been destroyed through the experiences of life? The thing these people have in common is an overwhelming sense of their own worthlessness. This kind of shame is no mild dis-appointment, it is a devastating sense of self-negation, of being an utter failure. Does the Cross have something valuable to say to those of us who are trapped in this kind of shame? Can we legitimately talk of the Passion of Christ defeating this kind of shame in a person, or a community’s life?

[1] Lucy Grealy; “Autobiography of a Face;” Houghton Mifflin Company, New York: 1994.

[2] I am indebted to Jennifer C. Manion in whose article I encountered Lucy Grealy’s story, and whose words I quote here: Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2002), p73-90.

[3] Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” p74. See Lucy Grealy, “Autobiography of a Face;” pp. 4, 7.

[4] This claim about the appropriateness of Grealy’s shame simply acknowledges that her feeling shame in such a situation, about such a disfigurement is not an extraordinary, unexpected response.

[5] Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” p74.

[6] Jean-Paul Satre, The Emotions: Outline of a Theory (New York: Philiosophical Library, 1948), p261.

[7] Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” p78. See Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), p7, 185.

[8] Jennifer C. Manion, “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” p78. See Gershen Kaufman, Shame, the Power of Caring (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1985), p9. The italics are Kaufman’s.


In my recent blogs I have introduced the possibility that ‘shame’ needs to be addressed by the gospel and particularly when we answer the question, ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ I’ve done little more than introduce a few ideas. Perhaps this blog, and probably the next, will give some sense of the power ‘shame’ as it affects people in different parts of our world, including the UK. Today, I have focussed on a Wikipedia article. The details are in the references at the bottom of this blog.

Nāmūs [1]

Nāmūs is the Arabic word (Greek “νόμος”) for “’virtue’, it is now more popularly used in a strong gender-specific context of relations within a family described in terms of honour, attention, respect/respectability, and modesty. The concept of Nāmūs in respect to sexual integrity of family members is an ancient, exclusively cultural concept which predates Islam, Judaism and Christianity.”[2]

A man’s, or a family’s, nāmūs may be violated in a number of ways but most commonly through a failure of modesty or a failure of obedience by a woman member of the family. The woman’s actions or state of being shame the family and action has to be taken to restore nāmūs.

“According to those who adhere to this concept, a man is supposed to control the women in his family. If he loses control of them (his wife, sisters, daughters), his nāmūs is lost in the eyes of the community and he has to cleanse his (and his family’s) honour. This is often done by abortion, murder or forced suicide.”[3]

“In the Western world, such cases are especially visible in immigrant societies when a girl faces the conflict between her choice of the culture of the new home society and the traditions of the old home.”[4]

“In cases of rape, the woman is not seen as a victim. Instead, it is considered that the nāmūs of the whole family has been violated, and to restore it, an honour killing of the raped woman may happen (estimated 5,000 victims yearly and on the rise worldwide[5]). The raped woman may also commit forced suicide.[6] In Pakistan, acid is often thrown on the victim’s face to disfigure her as an alternative to murder.[7]

“In 2000, Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu (nicknamed Jassi), a Canadian Punjabi who married rickshaw driver Sukhwinder Singh Sidhu (nicknamed Mithu) against her family’s wishes, was brutally murdered in India following orders from her mother and uncle in Canada so that “the family honour was restored”. Her body was found in an irrigation canal. Mithu was kidnapped, beaten and left to die, but survived.”[8]

“In 2002 international attention was drawn to the murder of Fadime Şahindal, of the Kurdish minority in Sweden, who violated namus by suing her father and brother for threats made against her and then rejecting the marriage arranged for her.”[9]

“In 2005, 22-year-old Faten Habash, a Christian from West Bank, dishonoured her family by falling for a young Muslim man, Samer. Following their thwarted attempts to elope to Jordan, she suffered her relatives’ wrath after rejecting the options of either marrying her cousin or becoming a nun in Rome. She had spent a period of time in hospital recovering from a broken pelvis and various other injuries caused by an earlier beating by her father and other family members. Still fearing her family after her release from hospital, she approached a powerful Bedouin tribe, which took her under its care. Her father then wept and gave his word that he would not harm her. She returned to him, only to be bludgeoned to death with an iron bar days later.”[10]

“In 2007, 17-year-old Du’a Khalil Aswad of the Yazidi faith was stoned to death in Iraq for having a relationship with a Sunni Muslim. A video of the brutal incident was released on the Internet. According to the crowd she had “shamed herself and her family” for failing to return home one night and there were suspicions of her converting to Islam to marry her boyfriend, who was in hiding in fear of his own safety.”[11],[12]

Perhaps instances from the UK will drive home the significance of this issue. … In December 2004 the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK organised a conference “to address the problem of ‘honour killings’. In 2004 alone, 12 people were prosecuted for honour killings in the British Asian community; 117 women … disappeared in the [previous] decade. In West Yorkshire, a young Asian woman disappeared, presumed murdered, simply because a romantic song was dedicated to her on a local Asian radio station.”[13]

In all of these examples the perceived need of the family is to restore honour (nāmūs). They have been shamed and that single fact is enough in their eyes to overcome all other ties. Honour (nāmūs) must be restored. In these circumstances, shame is a very powerful motivator. Has the cross something pertinent enough to say. Does the cross really address shame and its power?


[1] “Namus.” Wikipedia:The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 3rd November 2013. Web. 14th November 2013.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid; and see A Matter of Honor, Your Honor?, by Rhea Wessel, the first article in her series about the rights of Muslim women in Europe, particularly Turkish women in Germany.

[5] ibid; and see, “Ending Violence against Women and Girls“, a UNFPA report.

[6] ibid; and see,”UN probes Turkey ‘forced suicide’“, a BBC article, May 24, 2006.

[7] ibid; and see, Hillary Mayell, “Thousands of Women Killed for Family “Honor”” National Geographic News February 12, 2002. retrieved 5-1-07

[8] ibid; and see, Brown, DeNeen L.; Lakshmi, Rama; Post, Washington (October 5, 2003). “Mom gave long-distance order for honor killing, police say”. The Boston Globe.

[9] ibid; and see, Shahrzad Mojab and Amir Hassanpour In Memory of Fadime Şahindal: Thoughts on the Struggle Against “Honour Killing” retrieved 5-1-07.

[10] ibid; and see, Guerin, Orla (May 7, 2005). “Killed for the family’s honour”. BBC News.

[11] “The moment a teenage girl was stoned to death for loving the wrong boy”. Daily Mail (London). May 3, 2007.

[12] “AIUK: Iraq: ‘Honour Killing’ of teenage girl condemned as abhorrent”. 2007-05-02. Retrieved 2012-09-09.

[13] David McIlroy; “ Honour and Shame;” Volume 14 No. 2, Cambridge Papers, The Jubilee Centre, Cambridge, June 2005. Web. 18th November 2013.



Shame Around the World (again)

One of the books that I have just been reading is Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker.[1] They relate a story told to them: “In 1981 a Japanese church leader in Hokkaido asked a missionary, ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ The Japanese man immediately clarified that he was quite familiar with the standard explanation missionaries gave, that Jesus had to die to pay the penalty for our sins required by God, but he added, ‘To be honest, I don’t find that explanation satisfactory’”[2]

Norman Kraus was this missionary. He had just arrived in Japan. He discovered in the first few months he was in Japan that the traditional way of explaining why Jesus had to die for us failed to engage with Japanese people. Green and Baker write:

 “In the West, the image of justice is of a blindfolded goddess impartially weighing someone’s guilt or innocence based on the evidence and a set standard of law. In contrast, the Japanese image is of a male judge with his eyes wide open, observing the situation so that he can do whatever will best preserve human relationships. Kraus told his group of Japanese colleagues that in the United States we talk of criminals serving time and paying their debt to justice. He then asked if they had used similar phrases or ideas. They reported that these concepts and phrases sounded quite strange. Japanese criminals are imprisoned as a shameful act of exclusion from society. The lengths of the sentences are measured according to the enormity of their social scandal.

As Kraus pondered what he had learned, and as he continued asking questions, he came to realise that Japan was a shame-based culture very much unlike the guilt-based culture in which most North Americans live. The result is a very different concept and practice of justice. Understandably … Japanese church leaders would not find a penal substitution theory of the atonement satisfactory, for it was built on a penal approach to justice alien to them. During his years in Japan, Kraus worked to understand better this shame-based culture, then began to think about how he might answer the question ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ in a way that would make sense and be heard as good news in Japan.”[3]

Norman Kraus’s work is contained in his book, “Jesus Christ our Lord: Christology from a Disciples Perspective.”[4]  I am waiting for my copy to arrive!

Does the cross, and the death of Jesus engage with the shame which is so much a part of the experience  of people in every culture in our world?


[1] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker; “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross”; Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2000.

[2] This incident was reported to Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker by Norman Kraus on 12th May 1999.

[3] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker; “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross”; Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2000.

[4] C. Norman Kraus, “Jesus Christ our Lord: Christology from a Disciples Perspective;” (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald, 1990)

Shame Around the World

Approaching Easter in 2010 Prof. Joseph Hellerman wrote a short blog entitled ‘Jesus the Shame Bearer’. In this blog he relates this story:

“After some fifteen years of church ministry and a bit of adjunct teaching, I made the transition to academia in an official capacity in the Fall of 1994. I took a part-time but permanent position with the New Testament faculty at Talbot School of Theology. The plan was to bring me up to full-time when I finished my doctoral program a couple years later. The two years came and went, and I was itching to get back into full-time church ministry. I told my dean at Talbot to give the job to someone else, and I jumped on board as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, in February, 1996. I will never forget the reaction of one particular group of students at the seminary.

For a variety of reasons, related to the expansion of Christianity in the Pacific Rim and to our own history as a school of theology, Talbot has had the privilege over the years of training large numbers of pastors for the church in Korea. These young men and their families make tremendous sacrifices to come to the States, learn a new language and culture, and get a top-rate theological education to take back to their homeland. They are some of our hardest working students. They have to be.

One day in early 1996 I announced to my classes that this was my last semester as a professor at Talbot. I was going back into full-time church ministry. The reaction of my Korean students took me completely by surprise. They suddenly began to act quite uncomfortable around me. As I probed a bit, it became clear that these international students felt deeply sorry for me. They were somehow ashamed for me, as well.

Traditional Asian culture, you see, is wedded to honor and shame in much the same way as people in Jesus’ world were. Instead of military victory and public office holding, however, today’s Koreans regard educational achievements and vocational status as the key criteria for honor in the public sphere. Additionally, and also characteristic of an honor culture, my Korean students view Christian education and ministry in markedly hierarchical terms. At the top of the pecking order is the seminary professor, with his august educational degrees and pedagogical authority. A local church pastor, although still a big fish in a small pond, doesn’t even come close.

The Korean brothers who heard my announcement in class that day couldn’t imagine that a seminary professor would willingly trade a position at the top of the spiritual pecking order for the lesser job of a pastor. They could only assume that someone else made that decision for me, against my will. So these dear Korean students, sympathetically sharing in the shame they assumed I was experiencing, did not know quite how to respond to their now former, demoted professor.”[1]

Around 80% of the population of our world live in cultures very different from the West. Some people have described these cultures as shame-based, whereas Western cultures, they say, are guilt-based. I’ll need to address those assertions as time goes by. However, we might possibly already agree that while our Western culture is very individualistic, other cultures are not so. That too will need to be addressed. But there is a significant question which arises from this story. If what matters to many people in our world has something to do with avoiding or dealing with ‘shame’ rather than a sense of feeling guilty; and if ‘shame’ has little to do with guilt (another matter I’ll have to consider). Then how can we talk about Jesus’ death, about the atonement, the saving work of Christ on the Cross, in a way that means something to people for whom ‘guilt’ is not their main concern, but ‘shame’ is?

Does the cross address shame?

[1] Joseph Hellerman; “Jesus the Shame Bearer;” in Hellerman’s Blog, 25th March 2010. Web. 9th June 2013.

Shame and the Cross

Here’s a first reason why I want to spend time thinking about ‘shame’ and in discovering what Jesus’ death has to say to the shame so many people have or encounter.

In a short article in Re:generation Quarterly, David  E. Eagle writes about ‘Shame and the Cross’. He relates his own experience of shame and abuse and then talks of his conversion:

“I finally did ‘accept Jesus into my heart’ the year after high school. I was longing to fit in and be accepted by the group of Christian friends I had met. Yet the cross, as they explained it to me, did not seem to address my deep experiences of shame and my fear of intimacy. The significance of the cross, … was as a payment for human sin, which offends God’s holiness. According to the rules of divine justice, “the wages of sin is death.” Jesus paid our death penalty, offering himself as a sacrifice in our place—a sacrifice he was qualified to make because of his life of perfect obedience. God’s anger was turned away from our sin and poured out on Jesus, thus enabling us to be in relationship with God. In ways I only vaguely understood then, this relationship had its limits. If my shame-filled memories had to be “covered by the blood of Jesus” before God could know me, then God wasn’t in the business of truly knowing. God had to kill Jesus because God couldn’t stand me as I really am. God’s plan for salvation seemed to mirror my plan for dealing with shame: (1) Dig a really big hole and bury it. (2) Present a shiny, perfect exterior and hide the mess. It’s as if Jesus were saying, “Take up your shovel and follow me. If you let others see you as you truly are, they will reject you, and so will my judgmental Father in heaven.” Those shame-filled experiences—the ones that Jesus’ blood supposedly covered—didn’t feel covered. I had “accepted Jesus,” but shame continued to cripple me, and I could never fully believe that God had accepted me” [1]

Here is the significant question: Does the cross address shame?

David Eagle’s felt experience and the concerns of his friends suggest not. However, he goes on to say that as he reflected on Jesus’ death, he discovered that on the Cross, God meets us in our shame. … “Roman crucifixion was explicitly designed to bring shame upon its victims”[2], and it was on that cross that Jesus uttered his cry of abandonment, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ “Jesus’ cry brings back the dark, painful memories of times when I have screamed heavenward at God, “Where were you?” 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.”[3]

He then asks, “Does the cross mean God can save me from the effects of my shame? I’ve been tripped up repeatedly by the way I was taught to associate the cross with the need to repent of specific sinful acts. I have repented more times than I care to think about, ‘God, I’m sorry for the abuse I suffered. God, I’m sorry for the way the abuse cripples me. God, I’m sorry that I feel so worthless.’ Certainly, I do things that require repentance. But God doesn’t ask me to repent of the sexual abuse I suffered as a child—nor does he leave me to suffer its consequences alone. Instead, on the cross Jesus enters into my shame and experiences its destructive influence, and then he triumphs over its power in the resurrection. The resurrection is our hope that God will wipe every shame-filled tear from our eyes. The resurrection is a call to every shamed, oppressed, hopeless, scared, messed-up person out there: ‘He is risen!’”[4]


So is David E. Eagle right? Does the cross address shame?

[1] Eagle, David E. “Shame and the Cross.” Re:generation Quarterly, vol. 7 no. 2 (June 2001): p6-7.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

Shame – My Good Old Friend

I want to introduce you to a good friend of mine. You might not have seen him around much over the past few years, but nonetheless he remains my good friend.

He’s the kind of friend that when you meet,  even though you have not see them in years, you seem to be able to start up with just where you left off. It is a comfortable friendship that seems not to have been dulled by the passing of years or by the period of separation. In that sense ‘Shame’ is a little like my good friend Steve, who was my best man, or Nick and Katherine who have been good friends over the years. We have not seen Steve and his wife Vicky very much in the past few years, yet whenever we see them or stay with them, as we have recently, we feel welcomed, comfortable, and at home.

‘Shame’ is another good friend, just like Nick and Katherine, or Steve and Vicky! … Perhaps I need to explain.

First, it has been quite a while since I spent a bit of time with ‘Shame’.  It has been over 14 years since we really spent any time together. That was in my MA dissertation at St. John’s College, Nottingham! There have been a few days, here and there, over the years that we have been able to spend together,  but this Autumn has been the first time for many years that we have been able to spend a decent amount of time in each others company. Yes, there was a few days on retreat two or three years ago but nothing like the amount of time we have had in the past few weeks.

‘Shame’ has led me on a merry old dance once again. I’ve been able to meet lots of new friends who seem to have got to know ‘shame’ since I last spent any time with him. He’s introduced me to social anthropologists, theologians, psychotherapists, psychiatrists – some of them really down to earth, easy to understand people. He’s taken me to meet a few famous names along the way as well.  If you ask me sometime, I’ll tell you about a few of these. Name dropping is good fun! ‘Shame’ has helped me too to do a bit of thinking about Jesus, his death and resurrection. He’s talked with me too about his past and his travels around the world. It would be good to tell you about some of these experiences. Perhaps I’ll get round to that over coming days.

If you meet my friend ‘shame’, give him my regards. Tell him that you have heard of him through me.

A word of warning, however, ‘Shame’ is a great guy, but don’t get too entangled with his estranged cousin. Confusingly this more difficult character, the black sheep of the family, has the same name – ‘Shame’, although if you encounter either of them, my friend or his estranged cousin, abroad in Europe or in many other countries around our world, they’ll be a little easier to tell apart.

You see, in Great Britain we only have the one word for ‘shame’. Whether we are talking about a healthy sense of shame: which teaches us about our limits; that sets appropriate boundaries; that protects us from rushing to place ourselves in the public sphere when it is inappropriate or before we are ready; that helps us to be discrete, to respect other people’s privacy, to judge when our actions are inappropriate – we might call that ‘discretion’. Or talking about an unhealthy sense of shame which overwhelms us, leaving us feeling utterly worthless, wanting nothing other than to shrink into nothing and never be seen again, a sickness of the soul, an intense feeling of being utterly exposed to others – we might call that ‘disgrace’. Shame’s estranged cousin ‘shame’ is not nice, he is predatory and intrusive, he will hold onto you with a strength that is surprising! So learn to tell them apart if you can. One is to be embraced and welcomed. The other …, well the less said the better!