I am deeply grateful to Jack Collins and Matthew Wiley for organizing this Sapientia symposium on my book Defending Shame. I am also thankful for the thoughtful responses provided by the contributors. May my brief notes here further the conversation sparked by their comments.
I appreciate Andrew King’s question regarding the scope of honor and shame in Scripture. Given its pervasiveness, King asks whether honor and shame can “serve as a ‘controlling paradigm’ with explanatory power for all of Scripture.” I am resistant to the idea of a controlling paradigm as the word “controlling” suggests the imposition of a rigid edifice that confines Scripture within a straightjacket. Paradigms should arise organically from the text. Given that caveat, can honor and shame function as a dominant paradigm to explain all of Scripture? I do not think so.
Honor and shame are significant categories within Scripture, intimately connected to the motifs of sin, judgment, redemption, and resurrection. God created humanity for his glory (Isa 43:7), making them in his image (Gen 1:26–27). As image bearers, they are to reflect God’s glory and honor (Ps 8:5). Nevertheless, humanity became mired in shame as a consequence of their sin (Gen 2–3). God however redeems his people. He takes away their shame, for those who trust in the Lord will never be put to shame (Ps. 25:3; 34:5; Isa 28:16; 49:23). He replaces their shame with honor and allows them to share in the glory of the risen Christ. As believers contemplate the Lord’s glory, they are transformed with ever increasing glory (2 Cor 3:18) until they attain a glorious body like Christ through resurrection (Phil 3:21). At the eschaton, that which is sown in dishonor will be raised in glory (1 Cor 15:43). They will be able to enter the Holy City—a city in which “nothing impure enters it, nor anyone who does what is shameful” (Rev 21:27). God’s people are not the only participants in this glorious transformation. Creation also participates as it shares in the glory of God’s redeemed people (Rom 8:21).
It is reductionistic to posit honor-shame as the only or the central hermeneutical lens to read Scripture. Despite the preponderance of honor-shame language in Scripture, it is reductionistic to posit honor-shame as the only or the central hermeneutical lens to read Scripture. Other motifs such as exile-restoration or holiness (clean and unclean) can and should be utilized. King alludes to this when he asks whether honor and shame can help us understand the food laws in the OT. This is an interesting question which I have not previously pondered. My current assessment is that honor-shame studies can only help us understand part of the food laws, for many of the themes in Scripture do interact and interweave with each other. It is however inadequate to help us appreciate the entirety. Let me elaborate. Scripture does not consider unclean food to be shameful things; they are detestable or abominable things (Deut 14:3).The Palestinian Talmud however remarks, “A swine is like a moving latrine” (y. Ber. 2.2, 4C). Nonetheless, the one who willingly eats or associates with unclean food debases himself in the eyes of a community that considers such food detestable.The Babylonian Talmud remarks, “It is cursed for someone to raise pigs” (b. Menaḥ. 64B). Thus, in Luke’s parable of the prodigal son, Jewish readers readily understand that the son, who feeds pigs and longs to eats the pods which these unclean animals eat, signifies one who has reached the nadir of shame and degradation. Honor and shame categories cannot directly explain the nature of the food laws. They however do interact with the food laws, especially as it pertains to people’s behavior and proclivities. As King suggests, honor-shame categories function as boundary markers that circumscribe the communal life of God’s people.
In summary, honor-shame categories can help us understand the central biblical story of God’s redemptive work. It is however not the only lens to read this story, nor is it capable of explaining all the intricacies of Scripture.
J. Nelson Jennings
I value J. Nelson Jennings’s comments. As a missiologist and practitioner, he brings important cross-cultural perspectives. Let me address his three comments as follows.
First, Jennings wonders why my work did not mention the “Honor-Shame Network” that is affiliated with the website. Furthermore, he is surprised that my work did not interact with any of the Network’s authors or works. In doing so, he comments that my book has succumbed to typical blind spots in New Testament scholarship that fails to note how honor-shame is the primary operating system for the majority of the world.
I am aware of the “Honor-Shame Network” and am appreciative of what they are doing for Kingdom of God. I am also aware that the gospel can be presented in honor-shame categories. When I teach a survey of the Pauline letters to my seminary students, I emphasize how Romans is replete with honor-shame language. My book, however, does not center on Paul’s understanding of honor and shame. It is an investigation into Paul’s use of shame for moral formation. In doing so, I examine shame not so much as a social value (which is typically done in honor-shame studies), but as an emotional experience. In other words, I examine Paul’s moral psychology. The field of biblical studies is replete with monographs and articles that examine texts using honor-shame categories.See the works by David DeSilva, Robert Jewett, and Jerome Neyrey. Less common are works that analyze Paul’s use of emotions. My work is an attempt to fill this lacuna. I thus focus on Paul’s use of subjective shame (shame as an emotion) rather than objective shame (shame as a social value). Subjective and objective shame are clearly interrelated. Thus, any discussion of Paul’s use of subjective shame must consider his understanding of objective shame. Nonetheless, the emphasis of my work is on the former rather than the latter.
Second, Jennings writes that my discussion correctly notes the corporate and communal aspects within the Pauline vision of shame. He however wishes that these aspects were emphasized more throughout the book. In particular, he believes that more attention should be given to “Paul’s understanding of how the body of Christ—not just as interconnected members but as a unified whole—ethically matures through shame.”
My focus on shame as an emotional experience naturally puts the spotlight on the individual. Jennings is however right that Paul does not just want individuals to mature; he also wants the church to mature as a communal entity. I thus could have given greater emphasis to this aspect of maturation. I could also have emphasized the social function of emotions in the Pauline congregations.For a recent discussion, see Ian Y. S. Jew, Paul’s Emotional Regime: The Social Function of Emotion in Philippians and 1 Thessalonians, LNTS 629 (London: T&T Clark, 2021). While the communal aspects of Pauline ethics are clear, I am hesitant to overemphasize them; for I want to maintain the tension between the individualistic and collectivistic dynamics that are present in the texts. Paul does emphasize the individual at times. The individual is not assimilated and swallowed up by the collective (as in the Borg collective of Star Trek). For example, he remarks that “each one (ἕκαστος) will have to carry their own load” (Gal 6:5). Moreover, he builds up the Thessalonian believers by nurturing “each and every single one” (εἷς ἕκαστος) of them, as a father trains his own children (1 Thess 2:11). This verse is illuminating, for it is one of several We thus see that both the individual and the community are important in Paul’s thought.examples where Paul emphasizes the individual by adding the numeral “one” (εἷς) to “each one” (ἕκαστος). Despite the individualistic focus in some texts, we also see collectivistic tendencies. This is especially true when Paul addresses churches that are rife with division. For example, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church collectively because they, as a whole, have not disciplined the man who is sleeping with his father’s wife (1 Cor 5:2). We thus see that both the individual and the community are important in Paul’s thought. There is one body, but many parts (1 Cor 12:20); and both body and discrete members relate directly to God. Thus, Paul envisions a tripartite interrelationship between the individual believer, the church, and God.
Third, Jennings notes that the common perception of “shame culture” is woefully inadequate and misleading; for people within shame cultures are not just not intent on saving their own face, they are also concerned about preserving the honor of others.
I heartily agree with Jennings’s assessment. I suspect that there are at least two reasons for such gross caricatures: (1) Definitions for “shame culture” present an anemic understanding of shame. For example, Jennings notes that a common understanding of “shame culture” is “a culture in which conformity of behavior is maintained through the individual’s fear of being shamed.” Such an understanding presents only a simplistic aspect of how traditional shame cultures understand shame. Confucian thought, for example, understands shame not only negatively (constraining us from doing that which is wrong), but also positively (prompting us to correct our own wrong behavior). Thus, a Confucian text remarks that “a sense of shame is nearly tantamount to courage” (Zhongyong 20.10). It is the courage to recognize one’s error and to make the necessary corrections. (2) There is a common tendency to pit “shame cultures” vis-à-vis “guilt cultures,” coupled with the propensity to assign value judgments regarding the validity of shame and guilt. Given the reality that all people experience shame and guilt and the fact that both feelings interweave, it is important to remember that there is no pure shame or pure guilt culture. Every culture experience both shame and guilt, and the difference between cultures must be one of degree and emphasis rather than of kind. At the same time, we must recognize that shame and guilt culture labels are imperfect tools. They may capture a noticeable feature of a culture and present it in understandable terms. Nonetheless, such labels cannot portray the subtlety and complexity of the reality that it seeks to represent. Some therefore think that the distinctions between shame and guilt cultures are unhelpful. See Douglas L. Cairns, Aidōs: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 27–47; Simon Cozens, “Shame Cultures, Fear Cultures, and Guilt Cultures: Reviewing the Evidence,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 42.4 (2018): 326–36.
In response to my book, Jackson Wu raises several critical questions, not least those that pertain to the moral transformation of the contemporary church. Let me summarize and extend his questions as follows. How can we implement Paul’s vision of shame in the church today? How can we meaningfully employ Paul’s understanding of shame in a culture that is averse to shame?
How can we implement Paul’s vision of shame in the church today?Questions that deal with praxis are difficult, and I certainly do not have all the answers. But let me provide some initial thoughts that may hopefully advance the conversation. I believe that the best practice of implementing a Pauline vision of shame is to adopt a strategy that begins with the preemptive rather than the corrective task. Confucius is helpful here, for the Confucian writings focus on developing a dispositional sense of shame rather than engaging in forceful correction. In other words, cultivating prospective shame as a deterrence against future sin is better than administering retrospective shame for present or past sins. If we begin with the corrective, shaming members of the church for their spiritual apathy without first laying the necessary foundation, we will inevitably hurt a lot of people. They will misunderstand our discipline, construing our rebuke as humiliating attacks on their identity and self-esteem. We must therefore begin with the preemptive task. We must first develop a dispositional sense of shame and cultivate a Christian conscience that is centered on the mind of Christ.
The preemptive task of developing a dispositional sense of shame comprises 4 parts.
1. Inculcate biblical values for honor and shame. The world typically grants status and honor based on one’s academic achievements, career advancements, eloquence, and financial net worth. Paul however overturns these criteria, as he considers the cross and the cruciform pattern of Christ to be the sole basis for honor. Rather than embracing the wisdom of the world where our worth and identity is dependent upon the college from which we graduated, Paul firmly states that our worth and identity is now wrapped up in Christ. Any true honor that we possess is fundamentally because of our identity in Christ.
2. Emphasize the divine court of opinion. Members of our church confront at least two different courts of opinion. The church must remind its members that the divine court of opinion is paramount. God’s esteem of us is so much more important than our faulty self-esteem, for all of us will have to give an account before God on the final day. Consequently, the church must emphasize the values of the divine court of opinion. The church must instill, perpetuate, reinforce, and maintain the plausibility structures that undergird the gospel worldview. Wu wisely asks, “How do we ensure that churches give expression to the divine court of opinion?” A complete answer would require more space than is available. But I would suggest that the answer must involve the church’s leadership. Church leaders must embrace and remind themselves of the importance of the divine court of opinion. This then allows them to function as models for the community.
3. Present the biblical story and the gospel in honor-shame categories. As I noted in my response to Andrew King, Scripture can be read through multiple lenses. Nonetheless, it is imperative that the church presents the biblical story and the gospel in honor-shame categories. I recently wrote an essay on this topic, presenting a short biblical theology of shame. As it will hopefully be available soon, I will not elaborate further on this topic. See G. K. Beale et al., eds., Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, forthcoming).
4. Strengthen the social bonds within the church. The Pauline vision of shame works best in collectivistic communities that are composed of strong interdependent relationships. Modern churches, especially those in the West, are at a disadvantage in this regard. Not only do they tend towards individualism, they are also generally large such that it is difficult to establish relationships that are marked by care, concern, respect, and mutual obligation. Nonetheless, it is not impossible. Although individualism and collectivism are contrasting ideas, they exist to different degrees and within different contexts in the same community. In other words, a community can tend Although individualism and collectivism are contrasting ideas, they exist to different degrees and within different contexts in the same community.towards individualism within a particular context, but towards collectivism in another.Craig Ott, Teaching and Learning Across Cultures: A Guide to Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 205–07. Moreover, collectivism is not foreign to the American people. Let me give two examples (one past, the other present) where collectivism can be seen: (1) Although the beginning of the Declaration of Independence celebrates the inalienable rights of every individual, the end contains statements that show the signers collectively pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to each other. (2) In the 2012 song We Take Care of Our Own, Bruce Springsteen pleads for a greater communal spirit to prevail over America. He writes, “From Chicago to New Orleans . . . wherever this flag’s flown, we take care of our own.” These two examples show that collectivism strikes a chord within the American psyche.
When the preemptive task is done, when the church has done the hard work of laying a proper foundation, when the church has instilled the ethos that the wounds from a friend can be trusted (Prov 27:6) . . . then they are in a position to say hard things to an individual who has done wrong. The corrective process begins with gentle rebuke and escalates when it is not well received by the offender. The principles laid forth in Matthew 18:15–17 are helpful here. Nonetheless, retrospective shaming must be employed with great care. It should be employed only by those who know the offender well and by those whom the offender knows to be trustworthy and sincere. It should only be employed by those who are painfully aware of their own weaknesses and frailty. Such discipline must also be bathed in prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit, for it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who convicts people of their sin.
Richard Winter’s comments are indeed helpful. As a trained counselor and psychotherapist, Winter brings a decidedly clinical perspective to the issue of shame and guilt. He helpfully shows how there has been a change in perception regarding the positive valence of shame. In the 1980s and 1990s, writers considered shame to be helpful towards developing one’s self-awareness. In the 2000s, things took a turn. Ever since June Tangney and Ronda Dearing published their research on shame and guilt, psychologists generally distinguish between shame and guilt on at least two axes: (1) Shame focuses on who I am; guilt on what I have done. (2) Shame arises from the public exposure of one’s fault; guilt from one’s internal conscience. Apart from these two axes, psychologists also consider shame to be maladaptive for moral progress as it destroys one’s identity and self-esteem; guilt, on the other hand, is adaptive as it conveys greater empathy towards others. These differences between shame and guilt are fairly entrenched in the minds of psychologists and counsellors. Winter however suggests that there is a need to reexamine how these differences cohere with Scripture. I think so. Let me give two reflections.
1. Pauline shame and the contemporary understanding of shame and guilt. Emotional lexemes in one culture may not map exactly into that of another culture. Hence, we must remember that Paul’s understanding of shame may not map exactly to our contemporary understanding of shame. When we examine Pauline shame within its own cultural framework, we see that it encompasses elements of both our modern conceptions of shame and guilt. It addresses both the identity and the action of the individual as he or she stands before God. Moreover, it is closely tied to honor and reverence, not only for ourselves but for others and for God. Pauline shame is therefore rich and complex. We make a categorical mistake if we simply equate Pauline shame with our modern understanding of shame and dismiss it without further thought. The complexity of Pauline shame has a distinct advantage, for Winter rightfully questions the possibility of separating shame and guilt. He notes that shame and guilt interweave with each other. Consequently, we must appropriately respond to both of them. Pauline shame, with its holistic understanding of the position of humanity before God, addresses not only the objective shame and guilt of humanity, it also addresses their subjective shame and guilt. Through the creational power of God, Paul presents us with the possibility of forging a new core identity with new patterns of behavior. When believers are united with Christ, “there is a new creation. The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Cor 5:17).
2. Pauline shame is redemptive. Modern shame involves a negative evaluation of the global self and attributes failure to the entire person. Winter wisely demurs and suggests a moderating stance. Although toxic shame may envelope the totality of one’s character, healthy shame need not be so all-embracing. He notes that we can feel shame concerning only one aspect of our character without calling into question the totality of our identity.
Winters’s perspective is helpful when counsellors seeks to improve the mental well-being of their clients in a secular setting. But what does Scripture have to say concerning this? What is the scope of Pauline shame? Is it global or is it partial? Does it encompass the totality of one’s character or just only one aspect of a person’s character? From a theological perspective, it is both. It may impinge upon the entirety of a person’s character or only a portion of it. When an unbeliever confronts the righteousness of God through the work of the Holy Spirit, the shame that he experiences should be global; for there is no iota of goodness in an unredeemed person (Rom 3:9–20, 23). However, when a believer sins and recognizes his Pauline shame is ultimately redemptive and salvific.failure to live a life that is pleasing to God, the shame that he experiences should only be partial; for his true identity is still that of a son of God, an heir of God, and co-heir with Christ that will one day share in his glory (Rom 8:15¬–17). In either case, the shame that is evoked through the work of the Holy Spirit is meant to be redemptive. Regardless of whether the scope is total or partial, Pauline shame draws us towards God in contrition and repentance, as we seek forgiveness for our sins. In this way, Pauline shame is ultimately redemptive and salvific.
We live in a culture where shame is widely misunderstood. All too often, we see its destructive impact on social media. Yet, God has created us with the ability to feel shame for a particular purpose—so that we might recognize how far we have fallen short of his glory and that we might turn towards him in repentance. Let us then rehabilitate and reframe our understanding of shame according to Scripture. It is an enormous, but important, task.
In closing, I want to express my heartfelt appreciation again to each of the respondents. Thank you for your insightful comments; thank you for challenging and expanding my understanding of shame. I am truly sorry if I did not address every concern that you raised in this short response. Nonetheless, I will continue to reflect on them in the months to come.