The Shame of a Shameless Society

deSilva HonorI’m currently reading David A. deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. It’s a fascinating read, and not too dense or pedantic for a scholarly work, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand the New Testament.

I’ll have to do a full review sometime, but at the moment, I’d like to just highlight one passage that struck me as apropos for the Days of Awe, as we prepare ourselves for Yom Kippur:

One psychologist who has brought the academic discussion of shame in psychology to popular attention, Robert Karen [“Shame,” The Atlantic Monthly, February 1992, pp. 40-70], distinguishes between three kinds of shame. The first is the “feeling” or “experience” of shame (the warmth under the skin and extreme self-consciousness that overtakes an individual when he or she has done something that provokes public disapproval or ridicule); the second is a “sense” of shame, the “healthy attitudes that define a wholesome character,” the predilection for avoiding certain behaviors that bring shame. . . 

The third kind of shame, however, is what Karen describes as “repressed but hounding shame, something activated to the level of gnawing self-doubt, occasionally reaching the intensity of fully inflamed self-hatred,” a kind of shame about who we are that “drives people towards perfectionism, withdrawal, diffidence, combativeness,” “a festering negative self-portrait against which one is repeatedly trying to defend.” . . . (p.89)

It is this vague, self-hating shame that is the target of psychologists, who rightly affirm that this kind of shame is prevalent even in a time when shame in its other senses appears to be so much in a recession (witness the immodesty that leads people to “expose their sexuality on TV, howl obscenities at those who would once have been considered their betters, cling to elective office despite the revelation of serious breaches of public trust, and greedily pen books about their misdeeds”). (p.90)

That pretty much sums up the entirety of the spiritual sickness pervading the West. When we see people acting in a shameless manner regarding, for example, their sexual addictions–and more than that, demanding that the rest of us celebrate those appetites–it is ultimately because they are suffering from the third, pathological type of shame. They erroneously take it for the first (societal disapproval) type of shame and think that it can therefore be destroyed by reshaping society.

And that’s really nothing new. Unwilling to suppress their sexual appetites, the pagans of old created the idea of “sacred prostitutes” in order to attempt to sanctify their sin–and then lashed out at the women who took part to cover their own shame (note the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38). The healthy internal shame that is a restraint on violence always has to be placated with some rationale: “We’re just avenging some sin against us.” “We’re just bringing civilization to them.” “They hate us and want to destroy us, so we have to destroy them first.” “They’re worshiping a false god/God in the wrong way/a god weaker than ours.” Then, when the self loathing hits, violence itself is sanctified through the worship of violent gods.

The solution for the Talmidei Yeshua (Disciples of Yeshua, whether they call themselves Christians or Messianics) is not to placate those feelings of shame, nor to allow ourselves to be shamed (in the public disapproval sense) into approving of sin. Rather, it’s to lead them to the One who can take away their (Type 3) shame and bestow upon them the necessary honor. As J.P. Holding notes:

The person who is ashamed cannot come into the presence of God, but would indeed be driven away from it by the very nature of the dialectic, seeking to get as far away from the presence of the greatest glory and honor as possible. Literally speaking, “Hell” would be a life on the lam — always trying to get yourself further and further from God’s holiness, but because God is omnipresent, and because in Him all things move and have their being, never being able to succeed. . .

[I]t was not the pain, but the shame and degradation (of which, the pain, and the shedding of blood, was of course an integral part) that was the “payment” for our sins — and that this makes much better contextual sense of the doctrine coming out of an honor and shame setting. . . Jesus’ divine identity made him a personal being due the highest honor by nature (what Malina and Rohrbaugh call “ascribed” honor, such as that one has by being born into a noble family) — not infinite of necessity, but the highest.

The reversal of this value upon Jesus, and the experience of status degradation — his public humiliation in the eyes of others, and thereby loss of ALL honor status — undermines and makes irrelevant the question, “Could he have suffered enough for all sins?” As my good friend among the Skeptics, Kyle Gerkin, puts it, the experience allowed people “to recognize that Jesus was undergoing something extraordinary (a god willingly being shamed) in their stead.”

"I am not ashamed of the Gospel" takes on a whole new meaning when you realize that the whole point of crucifixion was to ultimately shame the victim."
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel” takes on a whole new meaning when you realize that the whole point of crucifixion was to ultimately shame the victim.”

Crucifixion was a ritual meant to strip away every single vestige of honor the criminal had, to show him to be completely shameful so that no one would ever follow his example. Yeshua willingly accepted the shame of all of our sins upon himself so that he could bestow the robe of his honor upon us, enabling us to stand in the presence of a truly holy and honorable God in this world and the next. The Resurrection demonstrated the Eternal One’s reversal of human judgment, so that the King who “endured the cross, despising its shame”–not it’s pain (Heb. 12:2)–was raised to sit at the right hand of the Almighty forever. Therefore, those “having been buried with him in immersion” are likewise “raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12)–raised not just to life, but to eternal honor.

Sometimes we think that it is our job to shame the world. There is no need–it is already fundamentally, pathologically shamed, as much as it would like to deny it. We need to provide the cure, not more of the symptom. However, within our own fellowships, honor to those who live rightly according to Hashem’s precepts and shame towards the behaviors (not the individuals, unless there is no other corrective means left, as deSilva notes on p.90) that dishonor God should be used to motivate the Disciples of Yeshua towards and ever-growing, ever-maturing, ever-strengthening relationship with the Holy One.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s