Many thanks to Dr. Te-Li Lau for his scholarly and multicultural project of examining “Paul’s use of shame for Christic formation” (pp. 22–23). Through this careful, multi-contextual, and exegetical study, Lau’s Chinese sensibilities in particular shed new light on Paul’s “Retrospective,” “Prospective,” and overall use of shame (chs. 4–6). Pauline studies and missiology, along with anyone involved in pastoral ministry or mission service, can be immensely grateful for Dr. Lau’s explorations of how the Apostle Paul constructively employed “shame” in the ethical growth of those to whom he ministered.
I suspect that I was asked to contribute to this Sapientia book symposium because of my twin experiences as a missiologist and as a mission scholar-practitioner in Japan. Indeed, those two areas inform the three areas on which I briefly focus here in what I offer as constructive and enhancing comments to Dr. Lau’s excellent study.
First, upon reading the book’s title, as a missiologist I inferred from the linking of “shame” and “Paul’s letters” that Lau’s work was a new biblical study associated with the “Honor-Shame Network.” I expected to find a study akin to the 2010 article by the Network’s recognized spearhead, Jayson Georges, entitled “From Shame to Honor: A Theological Reading of Romans for Honor-Shame Contexts.”Jayson Georges, “From Shame to Honor: A Theological Reading of Romans for Honor-Shame Contexts,” Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXXVIII, no. 3 (July 2010): 295–307. Given the increasing number of the Honor-Shame Network’s published works and traction in evangelical missiological circles, I assumed that Lau’s Defending Shame would interact with at least some of the several Honor-Shame authors and their available materials.The single-most representative book of the “Honor-Shame Network” is Jayson Georges, The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures (Timē Press, 2014)—now translated from English into eleven other languages. See also Christopher Flanders and Werner Mischke, eds., Honor, Shame, and the Gospel: Reframing Our Message and Ministry (Littleton, CO: William Carey Publishing, 2020). Those materials include what would appear to be a closely related book by Jackson Wu, Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).
Much to my surprise, however, Lau’s book makes no mention of any of the Network’s authors or works, thus missing potentially constructive inputs into any examination of Paul’s use of “shame.” Core to the Honor-Shame Network’s understanding is that “Honor and shame are inherent to the gospel and essential for Christian mission.”Jayson Georges, “The Good News for Honor-Shame Cultures: Uncovering a Core Aspect of God’s Mission” Lausanne Global Analysis, Vol. 6, Issue 2 (March 2017). The Network further claims, “Though honor-shame is the primary ‘operating system’ for 80% of the world, it remains a significant blind spot in Western culture, theology, and missiology.” Perhaps Dr. Lau and others will have to overcome those blind spots in New Testament scholarship that have not yet noticed the increasingly influential, mission-focused Honor-Shame Network.
A second area that delves more directly into the content of Lau’s Defending Shame is that of enhancing the communal or corporate aspects of Paul’s use of “shame.” In its comparisons of Pauline and Confucian ethical sensibilities, the book’s discussion constructively highlights the fundamentally important social and relational dynamics within filial piety (xiao, 孝), for example (pp. 178-179); the discussion then makes a specific connection with Paul by noting, “If filial piety in Confucian thought is not doing anything that would bring disgrace to one’s family name and parents, then Christian filialness in Pauline thought is not doing anything that would bring disgrace to our heavenly Father” (p. 182). Soon thereafter the discussion emphasizes the high value of relationships within Confucius’s teaching: “The self is not autonomous but relational. Individualism is frowned on; harmonious interrelationships are emphasized” (pp. 184–85). Moreover, the end of Lau’s summary of comparisons between Confucian and Pauline uses of shame points to how “the examination of Confucian thought in Chinese families also alerts us to the social and cultural dimensions of shame,” including in Paul’s vision of shame. A major contemporary issue thus arises from how “communitarian and interdependent communities are more receptive to the use of shame; individualistic communities less so . . . this issue presents a challenge for implementing the [social, communal, or corporate aspects of] Pauline vision of shame in predominantly individualistic cultures” (p. 187). In short, comparing Pauline “shame” with some of the indisputably social aspects of Confucian ethics supports the notion that Paul’s vision includes a strong corporate aspect.
Furthermore, the book’s earlier exegesis of Paul’s letters repeatedly refers to the social, communal, or corporate aspects of Paul’s use of shame and of his ethical vision as a whole. “Shame, as the premier social emotion, supports the communal nature of Pauline ethics” (p. 155). Again, “shame has a significant role to play in the moral formation of the community. It ensures that the whole community is aware of the ethical norms of the community, and it enlists the support of the community to bring about such conformity” (p. 155). Earlier in the exegesis discussion, Lau tackles various passages in 1 Corinthians (pp. 103–16), a letter sent to a corporate body fraught with internal divisions and tensions with Paul. Also, one major reason for why the discussion focuses on 1 Corinthians is because it “is the only letter in which Paul explicitly states his intention to shame his readers (1 Cor 6:5; 15:34)” (p. 104).
Lau’s entire discussion thus leaves no doubt that the Pauline vision of shame includes social, communal, and corporate aspects. I wholeheartedly agree—so much so that I wish these aspects were presented even more strongly and as more integral to Paul’s thought than the book’s discussion conveys.
Lau’s entire discussion thus leaves no doubt that the Pauline vision of shame includes social, communal, and corporate aspects.
As just noted, Lau’s discussion pays particular attention to 1 Corinthians 6:5 and 15:34, since in both verses Paul writes with identical, unique wording in speaking to the Corinthians “to your shame” (πρὸς ἐντροπὴν ὑμῖν). While it is understandable that the book’s discussion of this important phrase focuses on the import of “shame,” the plural character of the recipients is conveyed in the sense of their being a collection of individuals, e.g., “readers” (p. 104), “the Corinthians” (pp. 110–12). Elsewhere the designation “believers” is also used (pp. 156–60) in describing whom Paul has in view in his use of shame.
To be sure, Lau’s inclusion of shame’s corporate features, including the use of such inherently communal designations as “community” as described above, is operative as well. At the same time, the overarching backdrop painted by Paul’s letters within the entire biblical corpus—in which eighty percent of the “you’s” are plural—strongly emphasizes the primacy within God’s overall redemptive concern, including Christic formation, of the inherently corporate body, people, and family of God. In 1 Corinthians 6:5 and 15:34 (as in the rest of the letter), Paul was speaking to the Corinthian church as a body, i.e., “to your [as a corporate entity] shame” (emphasis mine). More explicit attention to Paul’s understanding of how the body of Christ—not just as interconnected members but as a unified whole—ethically matures through shame would be a complementary, welcome addition.
My point here is one of emphasis. Perhaps unwittingly and even unintentionally, the general sense that the book’s discussions can give is that, while community is vitally important for Paul and certain cultural contexts (e.g., Confucian influenced societies), the individuals making up communities are of primary importance in Paul’s letters. This relative primacy is particularly true in relation to experiencing “shame,” defined in the book as “the painful emotion that arises from an awareness that one has fallen short of some standard, ideal, or goal” (p. 37). Communities are also important in the discussions—but ultimately, only in a secondary sense. My suggestion is that Paul’s Spirit-inspired convictions about how shame functions in the growth of Christ’s body as a communal entity receive primary attention as well.Here, addressing the philosophical, specifically ontological but also epistemological, aspects of individual vs. communal identity would take the discussion too far afield.
I should also note here that my raising this second area likely stems from my own transforming experience in communal Japan, including in basic notions of individual/corporate self-identity. Such notions contributed to my hearing Paul’s communal stress, including his consistent use of plural “you’s,” more than I had noticed from my upbringing as an individualistic American in the US.See J. Nelson Jennings, “Paul in Japan: A Fresh Reading of Romans and Galatians,” in Brian M. Howell and Edwin Zehner, eds., Power and Identity in the Global Church: Six Contemporary Cases (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Publishers, 2009).
The third area is related to the second area concerned with community: namely, the nuanced, intricate, noble, and multifaceted operations of “shame” within so-called “shame cultures.” Let me state clearly that Lau’s explanations of Confucian thought and its “construal of shame” (pp. 176–86) is more intricate and detailed than any sort of analysis I could add. At the same time, I would like to address Lau’s readers’ possible inference, particularly after attempting to digest Lau’s impressive linguistic and historical discussion of Confucian thought, that their (the readers’) simplistic assumptions about how “shame cultures” operate can be left intact and unexamined—perhaps with an exotic notion of “Tiger Mom” (p. 176) tacked on. In other words, this third area about the intricate workings among “shame cultures” is directed primarily toward Lau’s readers rather than toward Lau’s study per se.
A typical operative understanding of a “shame culture” is “a culture in which conformity of behaviour is maintained through the individual’s fear of being shamed.”From the Oxford Dictionary. People thus behave in order to “save face,” i.e., to avoid being embarrassed before others. This common understanding likely stems from Ruth Benedict’s characterization of Japan as a “shame culture” in her widely influential 1946 anthropological analysis, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture.Ruth Benedict, Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946).
While such an understanding might make sense to a cultural outsider, it falls woefully and misleadingly short of what I articulated earlier as the “nuanced, intricate, noble, and multifaceted operations of ‘shame’ within so-called ‘shame cultures’.” I should add that my comments here come largely out of my family’s transformative years of living in Japan between 1986 and 1999. Certainly, traits peculiar to Japanese sensibilities will be present in my comments to follow; and, while informed by formal study and learning, what I offer here is based as much on lived experience as it is on scholarly research. Again, this third area of my essay primarily has Lau’s readers in mind.
One possible, thought-provoking entry point into the topic (a brief mention of which Lau could have included) involves the component parts or “radicals” of the Chinese character 耻 (chi, “shame”). While inferring meanings from characters’ elements can too easily lead to false conclusions, it is at least interesting to note how the two radicals in 耻, namely 耳 and 止, refer to “ear” and “to stop.” (It is also interesting that the Japanese character translated as “shame,” used along with but more commonly than 耻, is 恥 (haji); that character’s two radicals, 耳 and 心, refer to “ear” and “heart” (“heart” not as the physical organ but in a spiritual-emotional sense).) Again, great caution is needed in exploring Chinese characters’ meanings from their component radicals, but the presence of “ear,” “to stop,” and “heart” in these characters that refer to “shame” could lead to all sorts of fascinating considerations of interpersonal, corporate, psychological, and other shame-related nuances.
Perhaps the clearest and most representative example of intricate nuance and noble intention in how “shame” can operate is how people’s speech and actions (or lack thereof) can be constrained by protecting the honor of others (rather than simply “saving one’s own face”). This genuine, spontaneous, heartfelt constraint is no doubt tied to the carefully cultivated notion (at least in Japan) to avoid, at all costs, being or causing a 迷惑 (meiwaku, “bother”) to other people. Our family thus witnessed and experienced, for example, how someone might avoid sharing with the closest of friends an extremely difficult challenge, e.g., a fatal illness, so as not to bother that close friend by burdening them with undue concern. The unifying notion here is that what drives or motivates one’s speech and actions (or lack thereof) is the implications for others’ well-being, not for one’s own situation.
One recent, popular-level Japanese comparison of “shame culture” and “sin culture” describes certain elements of Japan’s “shame culture” mindset as follows: “Consciousness is always directed outward”Japanese original: 「意識が外に向けられている」; “In Japan, not disliking the other person, and thinking and acting with regard to the surrounding environment, is rooted from childhood in the thought of cooperation;”Japanese original: 「日本では子どものころから相手が嫌がることはしない、周りを考えて行動するといった、協調性のある考えが根付いています。」 and, “Isn’t it the case that something about a ‘culture of shame’ that can be treated as if it were a bad thing, namely a preoccupation with appearances, can be said differently to display the beauty of the Japanese heart?”Japanese original: 「世間体を気にする『恥の文化』はまるで悪行かのように扱われているものの、換言すれば、日本人のもつ心の美しさを表しているといえるのではないでしょうか。」 I would agree as well with how this popular-level comparison also points out possible downsides of Japanese “shame culture” behavior; I also concur with its suggestion, “Wouldn’t it be good to think through once again the ‘shame culture’ that has taken root in Japanese people?”Japanese original: 「日本人に根付いた『恥の文化』について、もう一度考えなおしてみてはいいのではないでしょうか。」 The relevant point here, though, is that so-called “shame cultures,” in this instance among Japanese people, involve much more than simply self-serving “face-saving.”
One of the most beloved and legendary stories in Japan, based on an actual historical occurrence in the early 1700s and illustrative of how an honor-shame dynamic can be other-focused, is “47 Rōnin” (「四十七士」, Shijūshichishi). To avenge the honor of their daimyō (feudal lord) who had been forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) by a shogunate official, a group of the deceased daimyō’s loyal samurai secretly agreed to disperse and forsake samurai lifestyles—some even resorting to debauchorous living and leaving their own families—in order to convince the shogunate official that there was no longer any threat of revenge. That group of samurai then stealthily reassembled and carried out their plot to assassinate the shogunate official, thus avenging their master’s honor, including through committing seppuku themselves for the murder they had committed. Even though some outsiders might recoil at the murders and suicides involved, it is the selfless, sacrificial passion to protect someone else’s honor that resonates so deeply within Japan’s so-called “shame culture.”
I do not know what else Lau might have included in his examination of Paul’s use of shame to help readers re-examine today’s prevailing, simplistic misunderstanding of how “shame cultures” operate. In any case, I offer this third area of comments at least to suggest that such re-examinations are needed.
Once again, I congratulate and thank Dr. Te-Li Lau for his painstaking, multicultural, and insightful examination of Paul’s vision of shame. I hope my three areas of comments at least provide some measure of helpful suggestions for enhancing the ongoing constructive impact of Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters.
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