By Chris Flanders
My assigned topic for this blog was the presence of honor and shame dynamics among various subcultures in the US and how the church needs to be aware of those dynamics if they want to be effective. But I’m going to change that up just a bit by making a bold claim- if you are ministering, particularly church planting, among any population in North America today, attention to honor and shame dynamics is essential. I want to argue this is so for two reasons- so we can be faithful to the gospel and so we can be effective in our contemporary contexts.
By honor I mean an expression of approval, based on a positive evaluation of some standard of excellence (the standard of excellence used to evaluate something as honorable can be almost anything- athletic, academic, moral, physical appearance, etc.). This can be both public and private (self-esteem and one’s personal sense of honor). One often feels pride (“I’m so proud of my son for all he has accomplished”) as the proper emotional response to honor.
Shame is the negative emotional experience that comes from being defective or failing to live up to a certain standard. It is about falling short. Face is that social phenomenon that occurs when we project any kind of social identity into our communication, which results in the possibility of us having that identity confirmed (honored, accepted, affirmed) or rejected (dissed, embarrassed, humiliated, shamed).
Guilt has two dimensions. First, guilt can be simply a synonym for culpability. In this sense, to be guilty means one has done something, whether they are aware or feel any personal responsibility. Second, guilt can be the negative emotional response to a personal experience of wrongdoing. It is possible to be guilty without feeling guilty.
Faithful to the Gospel
Recent writings have highlighted the significant role that issues of honor and shame play in Scripture. These include Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters, Honor, Shame, and the Gospel: Reframing Our Message and Ministry, and The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation. These have helped us see how much Western biblical interpretation has misunderstood and sometimes even ignored these important ancient categories of honor, shame, and face. Any reader of scripture would know that there is much more “said in the Bible about shame and honor than there is about guilt and innocence” (Chan, 2014, 83).*
Indeed, the prevalence of the notion of shame is even greater than the actual occurrences of the term shame as many biblical terms and stories carry strong shame connotations. For example, the Greek term elengcheo, which we often translate as “convict” or “show someone their guilt” actually means to make someone aware of their fault or failure through shame (see my recent article “Bringing Shame upon an Honored Missiological Paradigm: A Study of Conviction and Elenctics”). Even human sin, which many from the Western world simply assume relates to God’s law and guiltiness, is related to shame. The first reaction to sin when it entered human history was the embarrassment of nakedness, hiding, and scapegoating, all typical reactions of shame (Gen 3:6-13). Paul frames sin in terms of failing to live up to the standards of God’s honor (Rom 3:23). That is, our sin has left humankind in a state of shame before God’s incomparable honor (glory). The good news of course is that through Jesus we will never be put to shame (Rom 10:11). Like the younger son of Luke 15, the shame we deserve because of our shameful treatment of our Father and his good gifts has been erased because we have been (undeservedly!) re-honored by divine goodness.
Effective in our Contemporary Contexts
Nearly all anthropologists, social psychologists, philosophers, political theorists, and missiologists now accept that experiences of honor, shame, and face are fundamental to all human cultures, and not just those we might label “honor cultures” or “shame cultures” (Flanders, 2019, 145-65). These experiences differ across cultures and in the culturally diverse ways these dynamics get expressed in language, social values, and rituals, but all remain integral parts of all human cultures.
Yet, even the most casual cultural observer cannot miss the growing prevalence of overt public shame issues in contemporary Western cultures. Former Christianity Today executive editor Andy Crouch notes in his powerful article The Return of Shame how shame is growing as a dynamic of popular culture, aided by the power of social media and the internet. He summarizes: “From online bullying to twitter [sic] takedowns, shame is becoming a dominant force in the west.”
This phenomenon has fueled a massive surge of writings addressing the impact of shame on affective disorders and relationships (think, for example, of the tremendous popularity of the work of Brené Brown who writes about how to address toxic shame). In parts of the world that have for centuries been thought of as decidedly non-honor or non-shame cultures, many acknowledge an increasing relevance of these issues. As Crouch notes, “Some of the most powerful artifacts of contemporary culture—especially youth culture—are preoccupied with the dynamics of fame and shame.”
Several examples illustrate this shame “comeback”. One is the new phenomenon of doxing or doxxing. This is when people publicly reveal private personal information about an individual or organization, often through social media or the internet. “Doxing can be a drive-by prank on most anyone who draws attention. But more often its targets are singled out for humiliation.” This is particularly present among those who are accused of some wrong but for whom it is perceived there is little accountability or justice. So, for example, the doxing of certain Catholic priests when some Catholic bishops released names lists of priests who were “credibly accused of abuse”
Such can be serious business and have profound effects. Take the case of Andrew Dodson, who marched in a far right-wing rally and was doxed. He was eventually fired from his job and died soon after, some suggest by suicide. This type of public shaming can result in “brutal harassment campaigns, threats, ‘swatting,’ loss of employment, even, at its most extreme, death” (The Ethics of Doxing and the Politics of Public Shaming ).
THE ETHICS OF DOXING AND THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC SHAMING
The use of Twitter to praise and shame is also a growing tool for public motivator and effective punishment. Former President Donald Trump as a communicator was highly effective in his use of social media to praise and blame, to honor and shame. Trump even uses shame-laden language to reference his recent ban from these forms of social media- “Trump slams Facebook, Twitter and Google as ‘disgrace and embarrassment’ to US”.
There is also a renewed and increasing use of public shaming as a form of punishment, either reducing other forms of punishment (e.g., jail time) or even substituting for those punishments.
Other contemporary forms of degradation ceremonies or shaming rituals include the perp walk, which involves the humiliation of the suspects and victory congratulations to law enforcement (Boudana, 2014, 55-57). For many other powerful examples of this in contemporary American culture, see the recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The rise of social media and other forms of online communication have without a doubt made public forms of shaming more prominent and potentially more motivating.
But here is a critical point and why this conversation is critical for today’s church -planter or evangelist. The solution to guilt is forgiveness, pardon, or absolution. The solution to shame, however, is not forgiveness. The solution to shame is a transformation of the shamed self, often including a status change from one that was shameful to one that is honorable.**
This is why people often report understanding that they know they are forgiven but still feel bad. This is the classic condition of a self that is still living in some type of shame state. Forgiveness is important but it alone cannot solve the shamed self. If more contemporary North Americans are living with shame issues, the traditional modes of forgiveness, often framed in highly legal terms, may not be able to deal effectively with issues of personal struggle, discipleship, and evangelism.
What to do?
Since effective gospel work always pays attention to the culture of those to whom the message is being communicated (we often call this contextualization), I suggest digging into these resources to address effectively the honor, shame, and face issues in contemporary North America:
Missio Dei Journal (recent issue on honor and shame issues. In particular, read my introduction). Honorshame.com (the best single place to go for free honor-shame resources). See also Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures and Honor, Shame, and the Gospel.
Church planters should educate themselves well in both the biblical issues of honor, shame, and face as well as the contemporary manifestations of these universal human experiences. To do so is to be biblically faithful and culturally relevant. The good news of God’s love demands new attention to honor, shame, and face!
* Guilt 145 times in the OT and 10 in the NT; shame 300 times in the OT and 45 in the NT.
**Note this is exactly what Paul says about the new person in Christ- Eph 4:20-24 and Col 1:21-22.
Chris Flanders was born and raised in the midwest, ultimately finding himself in Minnesota. He came to ACU and did an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies, an MA in Missions, and an MDiv. He met Cara while she was doing her graduate work at ACU in Marriage and Family Therapy. Together they moved to Thailand where they lived and served for 8 years. They have two children, Autumn and Ethan, who were both born in Thailand. Currently, Chris’ research interests are in Stone-Campbell missions history and the theology and anthropology of honor, face, and shame. He is the assistant editor of Missio Dei Journal (missiodeijournal.com) and also serves on the executive leadership team of the Honor-Shame Network. He is an avid baseball fan and pays close attention to all University of Minnesota Gophers and ACU Wildcats sports teams. He also loves to cook (especially Thai food!), listens to jazz, and run.