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.

2 thoughts on “Shame Around the World

  1. Pingback: Christians Are to Have Family Oriented Community | Bear Veracity

  2. Pingback: Christians Are to Have Family Oriented Community – Ron Rodriguez

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