I consider it a distinct honor to reflect on Dr. Te-Li Lau’s excellent book in this symposium. Lau makes a careful and compelling case for the recovery of shame, properly understood, in Christian formation. The project itself is a constellation of fields, encompassing biblical-theological studies, Greco-Roman philosophy and literature, contemporary psychology, criminology, sociology, and Confucian thought, to name but a few. Lau ably brings these subject areas together under one roof as an excellent example of the value and rich potential of interdisciplinary research. I found his exegetically-driven proposal to be both interpretively sound and pastorally helpful. Due to the limits of space, my comments here will center on two areas: 1) The value of a communal understanding of shame; and 2) Open questions regarding the scope of the honor-shame category in Scripture.
Communal Nature of Shame
After surveying competing conceptions of shame, Lau explores shame as a moral emotion, defined as “the painful emotion that arises from an awareness that one has fallen short of some standard, ideal, or goal” (p. 29). Implicit in this definition is the presence of another who sets or embodies the standard from which one has departed. While Lau does not view the presence of an audience as constitutive of shame—a role he attributes to the self-evaluative component—he does maintain that an “other” is required for the occurrent feeling of shame. In other words, shame is public. There is always a real or imagined “other” associated with feelings of shame. This is true even if the audience is internalized. For, as Lau says, “one can be an other to oneself” (p. 21).
While the public nature of shame may seem obvious, it is significant for the formative role of shame in Scripture and for the people of God today. We all derive our sense of self from our social group memberships. Being a member of a particular institution or denomination, for instance, affects the way we behave and understand what it means to be “us.” Lau’s proposal appreciates the social nature of our sense of self. When discussing the “Jewish” construal of shame, Lau identifies the “other” in terms of two courts of opinion. These courts set the standard or ideal for honor and shame. Shame results from the failure to maintain the values or norms of the respective court of opinion. Conversely, honor entails acting in way that demonstrates the internalization of the norms of these courts.
Shame results from the failure to maintain the values or norms of the respective court of opinion.
At one level is the human court of opinion. In addition to the revelatory aspect of the OT laws and statues, Israelite society employed shame to maintain the boundaries of the covenant community (p. 67). Lau notes that social shame functions both prospectively (delimiting and guarding group boundaries) and retrospectively (when social deviance occurs). Together, these aided Israel’s social cohesion as a people. Labelling a certain behavior as perverse, for instance, stigmatizes the practice, ensuring a stronger social bond by its aversion. Knowing, for example, that sex with your neighbor’s wife defiles a person (Lev 18:20) makes it easier to say “no” to this. Shaming punishments serve a similar function. The public execution of an idolator prescribed in Deuteronomy would lead to all Israel hearing, fearing, and never again doing such wickedness (Deut 13:11). This retrospective punishment would serve as a deterrent against future idolatry, providing societal cohesion centered on the exclusive worship of YHWH.
Yet more significant for the biblical authors, Lau notes, is the divine court of opinion. This higher level supersedes any human court of opinion: “Yahweh is the ultimate source and giver of honor, and he alone determines how shame and honor are to be defined, measured, and distributed” (p. 85). Lau traces the import of this divine court of opinion for Pauline ethics. By the work of the Holy Spirit, Lau says, “Paul uses shame (both retrospective and prospective) as a pedagogical tool to transform the mind of his readers into the mind of Christ so that their identity and behavior are rooted in the crucified Messiah” (p. 161). Thus, Paul attempts to inculcate in his readers a sense of honor and shame as defined by the divine court of opinion. Conformity to the norms of the group thus means conforming to the expressed will of the Triune God. This is primarily seen through the counter-cultural message of the cross, which inverts the honor-shame dynamics of the world. Rather than avoiding association with the scandal of a crucified messiah, the people of God are instead defined by it and by affiliation with his people (cf. 2 Tim 1:8). To be ashamed of the cross is to therefore forfeit the honor of being named among the redeemed people of God comprised of both Jew and Gentile (Rom 1:16). This underscores that honor and shame are not a universally “neutral” reality, but one that is determined by the group to which one belongs. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The same message is perceived differently by believers (i.e., “those who are being saved”) and unbelievers (i.e., “those who are perishing”). Thus, the Christian life and ethic is founded on what it means to be “us” as the people of God.
To be ashamed of the cross is to therefore forfeit the honor of being named among the redeemed people of God.
Lau makes the important point that for Paul, the church functions as the earthly counterpart to the divine court of opinion (p. 152). In one sense, similar moves date further back in antiquity. Every Assyrian king would claim divine election to legitimate their rule and conquests. But for Paul, the church’s role as the counterpart of the divine court of opinion is not for the sake of establishing power for the leadership, but distributing it for the good of the community. As the practices and norms of the church, in so far as they are faithful to God’s revealed will, embody the divine court of opinion, Christians grow in conformity to Christ only in proximity to the church. This means that believers need the local church to message, model, and maintain this divine court of opinion. Within the context of the church, shame, both prospective and retrospective, serves to guide believers away from sin and towards Christlikeness. Or, put differently, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7).
Lau is clear that shame is not the primary, or the only, mechanism for Christic formation; but it remains an important one, as demonstrated by its pervasiveness in Paul’s letters. Lau also makes clear that shame among the people of God should be restorative. The Corinthian man sleeping with his father’s wife, for instance, is to be handed over to Satan (i.e., excommunicated, which involves public shame) “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). This man is not to be “cancelled,” but converted back to the truth through this shaming experience. Appreciating the social shape of the Christian community allows Lau’s proposal to have its full redemptive impact. In proximity to the people of God, shame is not a toxic behavior that is nameless and faceless. It is the saints together “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that they may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
Lau also makes clear that shame among the people of God should be restorative.
The Scope of Honor and Shame in Scripture
In addition to the social nature of shame, Lau convincingly demonstrates the pervasiveness of shame throughout the Old and New Testaments. This prompts the question as to how honor and shame should factor into our biblical interpretation more broadly. Can honor and shame serve as a “controlling paradigm” with explanatory power for all of Scripture (a claim, to be sure, Dr. Lau does not make)? Two examples from the book will illustrate the point.
Following a brief but helpful discussion of the covenantal blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28, Lau says, “The above suggestion shows that the covenant relationship can be understood in honor-shame categories” (p. 74). Lau make a good case for the blessing and curses, but how do the other aspects of the covenant fit? For example, how can the honor and shame category help us understand food laws in the Old Testament? Is it that shame functions prospectively and retrospectively as boundary markers of Israel’s communal life? Or does shame have any explanatory power for the nature of the laws themselves? Moreover, how should we understand honor in relation to the food laws? If shame as a moral emotion is defined as “the painful emotion that arises from an awareness that one has fallen short of some standard, ideal, or goal,” how should we understand honor here? Some of this may be mitigated by Lau’s distinction between objective and subjective shame.
A New Testament example Lau engages is Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians for withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentiles (pp. 94–98). Lau rightly notes that the public nature of this confrontation—it occurs “before everyone” (Gal 2:14)—bears the sting of shame. Yet within an honor-shame paradigm, what does honor look like for Peter? Is repentance sufficient? Is public restoration required? Or are these questions irrelevant, as the event is recorded purely for the sake of the audience? While not addressed in Galatians, if shame is to have its redemptive function, such questions are not unimportant.
If honor and shame serve a central hermeneutical function in Scripture, the above questions, though outside the purview of Lau’s project, become material for interpreters. Part of the issue may be Lau’s broad definition of shame, and, presumably, of honor. Essentially, any sin or transgression can lead to shame. Since Scripture is the story of God’s redemptive dealings with sinners, all of Scripture can be said to be about shame and its reversal. One may wonder if such a broad understanding may actually work against Lau’s argument for a redemptive function of shame for the people of God. It may be analogous to saying that God is the central theme of the Old and New Testaments. Well, of course! But how does this help us make sense of its parts? This is not to question Dr. Lau’s proposal, which I find sufficiently nuanced and persuasive. It is simply to raise questions for those who seek to give more weight to honor and shame in interpretation.
This book shows that shame is a thoroughly biblical concept that can be a means of forming the people of God into the mind of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, I commend Dr. Lau for gifting us with a carefully argued and innovative book. Not only is his approach exegetically rich, but he also wisely anticipates many objections that readers may raise (e.g., guilt vs shame, toxic shame). I expect future work will build upon this foundation to explore other biblical texts and adjacent issues. One area that may be interesting for further treatment is the shaming of non-believers in the OT and NT. While Dr. Lau touches on this (pp. 170–71), the extent of it in the Prophetic Literature, for instance, may provide fertile area for exploring the constructive nature of shame for the people of God. Additionally, future work may work to provide a clearer understanding of “honor” within Dr. Lau’s framework.
As Dr. Lau notes, our world has a fractured understanding of shame. Either shame is a weapon wielded on social media against our ideological opponents, or it is something toxic and to be rid of altogether. Yet, this book shows that shame is a thoroughly biblical concept that can be a means of forming the people of God into the mind of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is not merely an individualistic process, but one that necessitates the church. As the outpost of the divine court of opinion, the church, in so far as it is shaped by Scripture, both messages and models what it means to be the people of the King of the ages, to whom belongs all honor and glory forever and ever (1 Tim 1:17).