The shame myth

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There’s a little myth that has gained currency over the last 30 years to the point where it is generally held as unchallengeable truth.  The theory goes like this:

Western cultures are all about guilt and retribution, Eastern cultures are all about honour and shame.  Reformed/Evangelical Theology has paid too much attention to the former and not enough to the latter. This means we are not talking to a world that has left behind that traditional western thinking.

According to such thinking, we should be spending less time talking about things like penal substitution and justification and more time talking about healing and victory.  For the record, I believe that the images of healing and of Christ’s victory are important and not to be understated. However, I believe that this shame/guilt cultural dichotomy is a myth and it has been misleading us and hindering our discipleship.

The first clue that we might be dealing with a myth is that most people seeking to attack penal substitution start by arguing that it was a medieval doctrine invented by an English theologian named Anselm.  The problem is that when you read Anselm (and he is worth a read), his approach is concerned with the need for “satisfaction.” He has the concept of chivalry in his head, of the knight who has suffered loss and needs satisfaction to restore … his honour! 

The second clue is that these doctrines arise not out of Western culture but properly speaking from Scripture, from people writing out of a non-Western, near Eastern cultural context.  What is possibly a little bit truer is that modernism has strongly attacked our understanding of collective and interconnected identity in the West so that we are much more individualistic.  And in fact, penal substitution and justification by faith with the focus on faith union and imputation are actually dependent on a more collective, interconnected understanding of human identity.  In God’s providence, whilst those aspects of our culture have been heavily damaged, they have not been completely lost.

Honour and shame matters very much in the West. It’s why we react so strongly to the behaviour of our leaders and how that means a country is seen on the World Stage. It’s why Brits in these past few weeks have gone from collective sadness and genuine pride as they’ve mourned the death of a beloved and respected monarch to the crushing embarrassment of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement. We could probably just about cope with things being a little tougher but the run on the pound and the rebuke from the IMF is something else.  It’s also why we see cancel culture feature so strongly. Cancel culture is a form of metaphorical honour killing. 

I think the point is this.  It’s not that our culture doesn’t get honour/shame. We are confusing culture and societal responses with the function of the legal system. The Law says that yes there is shame but that doesn’t help us deal in true justice. It doesn’t answer questions about guilt, blame and responsibility.  So, the Law chooses to answer those latter questions. It does so to protect lives and well-being. In fact, it is rooted in another Biblical concept Lex Talionis. That’s he principle of  ”an eye for an eye.” The aim of that rule is to ensure that we don’t simply lash out in shame but that punishment responds directly and proportionally to guilt and blame.

Here’s a final clue. Try preaching on shame and justification.  My experience is that when I talk about shame to Western congregations that there is something deep and emotional in their response. I’ve seen people suddenly switch on and engage, clearly moved.  Similarly, I’ve had the privilege of teaching in other cultural contexts including Hispanic and Middle Eastern.  My observation there is that when I talk about justification, there is also an electric like response. My experience simply does not fit with the assumptions of a lot of missiology.

Now, there is good reason for that. Sin causes a guilt problem and a shame problem. The Gospel covers both. At the Cross, Jesus deals with our sin. He forgives my guilt and he covers my shame. Let’s preach about both.

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