A new honor code to end honor-based violence

The Honor Code | Katy Chevigny from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

Thanks to HonorShame.com, I learned about this short video which artfully describes the problem of honor-based violence—and how it can be overcome. It presents a secular view on the subject, and has really worthwhile content.

Here’s the main idea: Honor-based violence can be overcome through a new honor code.

Now isn’t that what Jesus teaches? We have a new honor code as we follow Christ—as we pattern our lives after his.

Consider these two well-known passages about Jesus’ reversal of honor codes:

And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

Easy to say it, hard to live it

We all know this is not easy, even for those who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior.

How can we actually live out these new reverse-honor codes?

Here’s how: I believe the Bible teaches that God himself shares with us his honor and glory, so that we gain an “honor-surplus” … and build “shame-resilience”.[1] In turn, Jesus himself empowers us to live in a way that reflects his very love and servanthood. We can actually endure shame, and be “last of all and servant of all”—living out the reverse honor codes of Jesus.

We can do this because God has already shared with us his own honor and glory!

We can call a cease -fire! Because of Jesus, we are not compelled to defend our honor or engage in honor competition—because we are already so abundantly honored in Christ! We are literally peacemakers (Mat 5:9–10)—in the honor and under the reign—of King Jesus.

God shares his glory with his people

Consider these verses that reveal that God actually shares with his people his honor and glory:

How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (John 5:44).

… for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God (John 12:43).

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one (John 17:22).

In addition, these verses below show that followers of Jesus Christ are, in fact, to be given honor, to seek glory, and to be called glorious.

So the honor is for you who believe … (1 Pet 2:7)

To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life (Rom 2:7).

… that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom 8:21).

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory (1 Cor 2:7).

Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones (Jude 1:8).

Do you see it? We have a new source of honor in following Jesus.

The verses above are but a small sampling from Scripture which tell followers of Christ that God is sharing with us his glory and honor. (Click here to learn more about the believer’s honor-status reversal through salvation.) This abundant honor surplus in Jesus helps us overcome rivalry, conflict and violence in our relationships.

Oh, how we need to experience the glory and honor of God—our honor-surplus in Christ—to build peace-filled marriages, families, communities, churches, and nations.

A new honor code through following Jesus Christ—this ends honor-based conflict.

1. For more on the concept of “shame resilience”, see Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham, 2012).

Presenting the Gospel in Honor-Shame Cultures

Presenting the gospel in honor-shame cultures.fwThe interview (below) was published in the October 2015 issue of Anthology, a publication of Missio Nexus. Marv Newell, Sr. Vice President of Missio Nexus, has been an endorser and advocate for my book, The Global Gospel. Marv’s enthusiastic support is what led to this interview, which is posted here with permission. Click here for the PDF. Thank you, Marv! To God be the glory!  –Werner Mischke

Mission Nexus articleWhat do you mean by a culture that is embedded in “honor and shame?” Just how do you define and describe these terms?

In Jerome Neyrey’ s book, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, he describes honor as “the worth or value of persons, both in their eyes and in the eyes of their village, neighborhood or society”. He says the “critical item is the public nature of respect and reputation.”[1]  Brené Brown says this about shame: It is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. … It’s the fear disconnection.”[2]

What ties these two definitions together is the social, relational or public aspect of the dynamics. Western philosopher René Descartes coined the phrase, I think, therefore I am. And one African theologian modified it to describe people in honor-shame cultures this way: I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.

This idea shows that in an honor-shame culture, people are really immersed and completely embedded in their community, and their sense of individuality is far less than how we perceive ourselves in the West.

What’s the difference between cultures that emphasize honor-shame and cultures more like ours that value guilt and innocence?

In guilt-innocence cultures I would say we are more law-oriented and individualistic. Kids grow up in the West with the phrase, What do you want to be when you grow up? Many of us have been raised to value individual dreaming and pursuit with minimal  regard for the opinion of the extended family or community. This is far less common in an honor-shame
culture. They are so embedded in their extended family and community.

Now, to be sure, the West is not completely individualistic and guilt-oriented—neither is the Majority World is completely group-and-shame-oriented. But without a doubt, in guilt-innocence cultures, we are a lot more individualistic, whereas people in honor-shame cultures are more collectivistic. Sometimes anthropologists call group-oriented cultures dyadistic—meaning the individual is embedded in the group.

Consequently, laws are not as important as relationships in honor-shame cultures. In the West, our society is ruled by laws. Honor shame-cultures do have laws, but there is a greater emphasis on relationships and how one is perceived in their community.

What are some of the blind spots that we in the West have toward cultures that have honor-shame as their pivotal cultural value?

When Westerners observe honor-shame values at work in other cultures, we normally see them as unethical. In other words, we only see the dark side of honor-shame. Now, to be clear, there is a dark side. We have become familiar with the honor killings that have taken place in some of our own cities in the West as people from south Asia and the Middle East have come to North America. And when someone from an honor-shame culture shames their family, sometimes violence and bloodshed is the result.

So if we are aware of honor and shame, it is almost always the dark and evil aspect that we
notice. The Bible plainly describes the source and the results of that evil. There is, however, a bright and glorious side to honor and shame throughout the Scriptures, which I examine extensively in my book.

As Christians we don’t see the honor-shame dynamics in our own Bibles. We don’t realize that there are twice as many occurrences in the Bible of the word shame and its derivatives than there are to the word guilt and its derivatives.

When we read the Bible we’re not alert to the myriad honor-shame dynamics in Scripture
because Westerners do not normally use that language—and more importantly, Western
theology has a blind spot about honor and shame. We don’t live with this awareness of honor and shame nearly to the degree that the authors of Scripture did.

Give us some biblical examples of honor and shame that you advocate permeates the Scriptures.

I’ll mention just three of the ten honor-shame dynamics we describe in the book. The first
dynamic is called love of honor. And that’s simply the recognition that people in the Ancient Near East had as a primary motivation—the pursuit of honor and glory. Jerome Neyrey quotes Aristotle who says: “Honor is clearly the greatest of external goods. It is honor above all else that that great men claim and deserve.”

The Roman Empire was saturated with values of honor and glory, so this is the social context and emotional environment in which the New Testament was written. So we see this love of honor, and correspondingly the fear of shame, to be something that goes from Genesis to Revelation.

A second honor-shame dynamic is purity. We see purity codes in the book of Leviticus, for
example—who is included and who is excluded. As someone moves toward holiness, they gain honor. As someone moves toward being common or unclean or even an abomination, they move toward exclusion and shame. [See article: “The Gospel of Purity”.]

If you want to see an example of how shame equates with uncleanness, look at Ezekiel 16.
You’ll see that God’s unfaithful bride is described in crude shameful terms. Plus, the dynamic of purity is part of the atonement in Leviticus and Hebrews. So purity is a key honor-shame dynamic in Scripture which beautifully relates to the gospel.

There is also the dynamic of what I call honor-status reversal”. And by that, we mean
someone’s family, community, or people whose status is being reversed from shame to honor or from honor down to shame.

Consider the great stories of the Bible: Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the
Exodus, Job, David—all are examples of honor-status reversal. Whether in the books of Moses, the historical books, the prophetic books, many of the Gospel stories and parables, or in the epistles, we see this dynamic of honor-status reversal appearing again and again. The climactic example is the story of Jesus Christ. Look at Philippians 2:5–11. There it is—honor-status reversal! That’s why I call this honor-shame dynamic a motif—we see it repeatedly in the Scriptures.

What are examples of a gospel presentation in which guilt-innocence and honor-shame are the focal messages?

I think most of us are familiar with the gospel presentation called The Four Spiritual Laws, which was developed decades ago by Campus Crusade for Christ. God has used this presentation mightily. I’ve met numbers of people who have said, “Hey, that’s how I got saved.” We don’t want to disesteem what God has done in using this great resource to introduce people to Christ. However, the very name of this gospel presentation—The Four Spiritual Laws—reflects a legal framework for the gospel. But it needs to be pointed out that we don’t have to articulate the gospel using laws. We can also articulate the gospel using stories. We don’t have to rely exclusively on propositional truth.

The Four Spiritual Laws is geared toward individuals. It talks about you as an individual and how you must make a faith commitment to Jesus Christ. Furthermore it talks about forgiveness of sins. In other words, all of us have behaved badly and we have committed sins for which we need forgiveness.

This may be distinguished from needing forgiveness—not just from our sinful behavior—but also from our sinful being. Behavior is more about guilt whereas our being is more about shame. It is not just our behavior—but also our being—which dishonors God. You can see this emphasis on sin as the dishonoring of God in Romans 1:23, Romans 2:23 and Romans 3:23.

So a Western gospel presentation like The Four Spiritual Laws focuses on a legal framework.  And we certainly affirm that the gospel can be articulated using a legal framework that focuses on forgiveness for sin as guilt and based upon laws of Scripture, propositional truth.

The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet, the gospel in the language of honor and shameIn contrast, consider a gospel presentation called The Father’s Love Booklet which we
developed a couple of years ago. It’s the prodigal son story in words and pictures. It shows how the prodigal son’s descent into sin and shame alienated him from his father. Then his father—in his desire to have his son reconciled back to his family—went out and met this prodigal as he came back from his shameful exploits. The father covered his son’s shame and restored his son’s honor. He covered him with his favorite robe. He gave him a ring signifying his honored place in the family and his authority. He gave him sandals for his feet. With outrageous love, the father restored the honor of his prodigal son.

And then the booklet has a bridge to the gospel of Christ using verses from Scripture like, “He who believes shall not be put to shame” in Romans 10. We show how the work of Christ on the cross demonstrates that God is like a father willing to suffer shame for us that we may be reconciled.

In your book you say, “Shame is more likely to lead to hurtful behavior whereas guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior. The pathology of shame for individuals can be terrible and impact generations, but when that pathology of shame impacts whole societies and nations it becomes truly horrendous.” What are some examples you’ve seen of how that is played out?

This is an important distinction between guilt and shame. Social science research shows that guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior because people are motivated to apologize for what they have done. Consider the phrase, I did that horrible thing. For guilt-prone people the emphasis is on the words did and thing—the emphasis is on behavior.[3]

However, with shame-prone people, the emphasis is not on the bad thing I did—but on the bad person I am. So the phrase reads with an emphasis on “I”: “I did that horrible thing.” The research shows that whereas guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior, shame is more likely to lead to hurtful behavior. And when this is played out on the broad stage of human history, we see horrendous things happen.

For example, in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany was deeply excluded and shamed by the international community. They had to pay back billions in reparations. It was impossible. Consequently, Germany was in a place of profound economic dysfunction and humiliation. My mother had been a teenager in Germany during World War Two. She told me that after the First World War, “We couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread.”

Hitler rose in power because he tapped into that German humiliation and shame. He also found a scapegoat—which of course was the Jews or other non-Aryan people. Hitler rebuilt their military and satisfied the longing of the nation to have their honor restored. The nationalist desire to overcome shame led to evil and violence on a monumental scale.

Another prominent example in the last century and continuing into current events has been the rise of Islamic terrorism, which I believe is large-scale honor competition. The Arab Muslim world has been shamed by the Western world in many different respects—at least that’s how they perceive it—and so their honor must be vindicated.

I was reading about the Al Qaeda representative in Yemen who took responsibility for the
Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. He plainly stated that this attack was a vindication to restore honor. He said they denounce the unbelievers who “insulted the chosen Prophets of Allah” and caused Muslims to “awake and roar out of rage.” The “heroes,” the killers in Paris, were then “assigned” to attack the Charlie Hebdo office in revenge.

“Congratulations to you, O Ummah of Islam, for this vengeance that has soothed our chests. Congratulations to you for these brave men who blew off the dust of disgrace and lit the torch of glory in the darkness of defeat and agony.”

We must understand that honor-shame dynamics are at the very root of what is happening in this clash between East and West—between religious fundamentalism, Islamic extremism, and our own Western culture—or we will not address it effectively. We’ve got to understand the root causes. We’ve got to realize that shame leads to hurtful, sinful behavior for individuals, families, societies, even nations. Christian leaders and missionaries must learn to teach and preach a gospel which speaks to honor-based violence.

You conclude that the gospel is already contextualized for honor-shame cultures. Would you explain that?

I agree with my friend Jackson Wu from China: “The gospel is already contextualized for honor-shame cultures.” This comes from our observations of honor-shame dynamics in the Scriptures that plainly overlap with verses concerning the gospel, salvation, Christ’s atonement, the resurrection, and what it means to follow Jesus.

This is exciting because when we think about the unreached and unengaged peoples of the world, when we think about the multitudes who have yet to receive the blessing of Christ—so many of them are from honor-shame cultures.

We can build on the legal framework of the gospel by including the honor-shame dynamics that are woven into the Scriptures. We can connect with the thought forms and honor-shame motivations of the people who have yet to receive the blessing of the gospel. We can discover that for many in the Majority World, their honor-shame values overlap with the pivotal cultural value of honor and shame in Bible societies—and that this overlap can be used to powerfully communicate the gospel.

This gives us fresh hope as we continue our work in the world Christian community to bless all the peoples of the earth and make disciples of all nations.

1. Jerome H. Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 15.

2. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham, 2012), 69.

3. See June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, Shame and Guilt (New York: Guilford Press, 2002).

Did shame lead to the Holocaust?

Bergen-Belsen was a concentration camp for Jews between 1940 and 1945. According to Wikipedia, “The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses lying around the camp unburied.”

I did NOT want to go to a concentration camp memorial while on vacation in Germany in early August.

But my wife Daphne insisted. My cousin’s daughter Stephanie said it was a good idea. Onkel Udo especially agreed.

So on Thursday, August 6, 2015, we all drove from Hanover to the memorialized concentration camp in Germany called Bergen-Belsen—all seven of us in my cousin’s VW minivan.

I did much research about honor and shame my book The Global Gospel. One of the insights I gained concerns the pathology of shame. Here’s the principle I learned:

Guilt tends to lead to healing behavior,
whereas shame tends to lead to hurtful

It is one thing to see the effect of shame on a personal level. But when the pathology of shame impacts whole societies and nations, it becomes truly horrendous. James W. Jones writes,

The two greatest group humiliations of the modern age produced the two greatest movements of genocide and terrorism in the modern world: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire along with the imposition of European colonialism on the Arab world leading to the rise of the jihad; and the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War and the appeal of Nazism in Germany.[2]

So let’s look at the second of these “two greatest group humiliations” in a little more detail. For it is a fact of history that a shamed Germany after the First World War contributed to the rise the Hitler and the Nazi party, which led to the horrors of the Second World War and the Jewish holocaust.

“Hier Ruhen 5000 Tote” — “Here Lie 5000 Dead”, April 1945
Shame as fuel for genocide in Nazi Germany

Concerning the humiliation—the shaming—of Germany following World War One, Jones writes:

The Treaty of Versailles removed all of Germany’s colonies from its control, laid on Germany the worst sanctions that decimated the economy, and demanded its disarmament. All of these had been sources of pride and their loss was a total humiliation for the Germans. These humiliations along with the virtual collapse of the weak Weimar government and the German economy laid the groundwork for Hitler’s rise to power. German veterans returning to a defeated and destabilized nation reported “as a Front-fighter, the collapse of the Fatherland in November 1918 was to me completely incomprehensible,” or “I had believed adamantly in Germany’s invincibility and now I only saw the country in its deepest humiliation—the entire world fell to the ground.”[3]

Jones continues, describing the longing of the German people to regain their honor:

People holding such sentiments became the core of the Nazi movement. National humiliation caused by military defeat, internal political weakness, and economic collapse had at least two disastrous results for Germany and for the rest of the world: it set off a furious search for scapegoats, for someone or some group to blame and to punish for all this suffering; and it unleashed a ferocious drive to undo the humiliation by defeating those who had humiliated Germany. Many citizens were vulnerable to someone who could explain which group was to blame and could offer a way to Bergen-Belsen3overcome the humiliation. That person was obviously Adolf Hitler who pointed the finger of responsibility at Jews and other “non-Aryans” and had a plan to restore German prominence through military conquest.[4]

It is ironic that the national shame that fueled World War Two and the Holocaust ended up giving Germany the reputation as the most barbaric of civilized nations—shaming the German people for generations for their descent into such horrible evil.

My father was a soldier in the German army. He only survived because he was captured by the Allied Forces. He became a prisoner of war in Poland for four-and-a-half years. After he was freed, he came to America with his father, mother and two brothers. I am therefore a second-generation American from a German family. The ‘German guilt and shame’ of which I have written above has touched my life and other members of my extended family in deep and enduring ways.

Of course, what my family experienced is nothing compared to the mammoth, murderous humiliation and shame suffered by the Jews of Germany and Europe—at the hands of the nationalistic honor-seeking Nazis and Germans.

Oh, how we need to understand and overcome the dark and devilish side of honor and shame.


  1. What can we learn from the anemic response of the German church to the horrors of the nationalistic Nazi political machine? To explore the relationship between so-called “German Christian movement” and the Nazi party, see Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany.
  2. Consider the campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”. To what extent does this reflect the longing to recover our national honor in America’s current political climate? How might this be healthy or unhealthy, godly or ungodly?
  3. Does the gospel of Christ cover our sin and shame, and answer the human longing for honor? For a gospel presentation that speaks to these concerns, see The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet. Or, see a more comprehensive treatment of the subject in THE GLOBAL GOSPEL: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World.

Note: Portions of this post have been excerpted
from my book,
The Global Gospel.


1. See June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, Shame and Guilt (New York: Guilford Press, 2002).

2. James W. Jones, “Shame, Humiliation, and Religious Violence: A Self-Psychological Investigation,” in Jewett, Robert, Wayne L. Alloway, and John G. Lacey, eds. The Shame Factor: How Shame Shapes Society. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, p. 41.

3. Jones quotes an article by David Redles, “Ordering Chaos: Nazi Millennialism and the Quest for Meaning,” in The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History, ed. Charles B. Strozier et al., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 156–74.

4. Jones, 41.

Shame is more pathological than guilt—here’s why, and why it matters

shame vs guilt pathologyShame is more pathological socially

I was stunned. In my learning journey about honor and shame I knew I had to read extensively. And as I got into the first chapter in the book by Tangney and Dearing, Shame and Guilt, I was not prepared to discover this stunning truth:[1]

Guilt is about what behavior; it’s about what I’ve done.

But shame is about being; it’s about who I am.

Consider, for example, this sentence: I did that horrible thing.

The guilt-prone person says, “I did that horrible thing.” My behavior was bad.

But shame is different. The shame-prone person says, “I did that horrible thing.” The emphasis is not on my behavior, but on my core identity—hence, I am bad. Tangney called this “global devaluation”[2]—the idea is that one’s whole identity is corrupt, not just one’s behavior.

Tangney and Dearing unpack the significance of this in society. It’s based on more than 40 years of university research. Over and over again, the research points to this fact:

Guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior.

But shame is more likely to lead to hurtful behavior.

With guilt, there is a “desire to confess, apologize, or repair”. But with shame, there is a “desire to hide, escape, or strike back”.[3] This is what the research showed—forty-plus years of research, again and again.

Here’s how Tangney and Dearing describe  the difference.

The tension, remorse, and regret of guilt causes us to stop and rethink, and it offers a way out, pressing us to confess, apologize, and make amends. We become better people, and the world becomes a better place.

In contrast, shame appears to be the less “moral” emotion in several important regards. When people feel ashamed of themselves, they are not particularly motivated to apologize and attempt to repair the situation. This is not an emotion that leads people to responsibly own up to their failures, mistakes, or transgressions and make things right. Instead, they are inclined to engage in all sorts of defensive maneuvers. They may withdraw and avoid the people around them. They may deny responsibility and blame others for the shame-eliciting situation. They may become downright hostile and angry at a world that has made them feel so small. In short, shamed individuals are inclined to assume a defensive posture rather than take a constructive, reparative stance in their relationships.[4]

Shame is more pathological spiritually

From a theological and spiritual perspective, we believe as Christians that our guilt and condemnation before God as sinners is a vitally serious matter (John 3:18). Thus, we offer the gospel of Jesus Christ—forgiveness of our sins and hope of eternal life—as a cure for humanity’s condition of sin and guilt.

But the Bible says much more about sin. Sin is a more expansive and more personal problem than being guilty of breaking God’s laws. Consider just three verses in Romans 1,  2, and 3:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom 1:21).

Here in Romans 1, sin is not defined as breaking God’s laws, but as dishonoring God’s Person. Therefore, sin is not abstract; it is a personal problem. Consider also …

You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law (Rom 2:23).

In this Romans 2 passage, Paul is addressing Jews and says that, yes, sin is “breaking the law”. But Paul amplifies the seriousness of sin by saying that in breaking the law, they “dishonor God”. God’s people were dishonoring God’s Majesty. Sin is disregarding God’s royal Kingship and regal authority. In an ultimate sense, we can rightly say that sin is shame.

One more verse—it’s one that many Christians are familiar with.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23)

Once again, sin is not defined as breaking God’s laws, but as something more expansive, personal, serious: falling short of God’s glory.

Here’s why this matters

Of course, humanity’s guilt before God is real. But the shamefulness of sin—its dishonor toward God—makes sin worse than we think. It’s not merely a violation of a divine moral code. Sin dishonors the One who is God Most High over all the universe, the holy King of all creation—the very Person who made us to enjoy him and live for his glory.

Moreover, when we consider the fact that shame is more pathological than guilt in society—that is, shame produces more harm, more pain, more moral disease, more violence, more fractured families, more international conflict, more bloodshed—we are left with a compelling need:

Since shame is more pathological than guilt—both socially and spiritually—we must learn to communicate the gospel of Christ as more than a cure for sin-and-guilt, but also as a cure for sin-and-shame.

Yes, the atonement of Jesus Christ is the solution to the problem of guilt and condemnation from God. But what if the atonement was also the covering of our shame and the restoration of our honor before God?{5]

Wouldn’t this be more attractive for persons and peoples who are saturated by the cultural value of honor and shame—including multitudes in the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim worlds?

Wouldn’t this be a more global gospel?

 This blog post is excerpted in part from my book, THE GLOBAL GOSPEL: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World.

1. June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, Shame and Guilt (New York: Guilford Press, 2002), 25.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., p. 180.
5. How the atonement of Christ overlaps with ten different honor/shame dynamics is the subject of Section 3 of my book, The Global Gospel.

After the Adam Bomb

By guest blogger, Robert Walter

atom bombIn the early morning predawn of August 6, 1945, a Boeing B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay revved its engines at the end of the airfield. It would need every inch of runway to get aloft with its enormous payload, an atomic bomb code-named Little Boy.

After 6 hours of flight the bomb bay doors opened and Little Boy began its descent towards the target, Hiroshima. The detonation leveled 70% of the buildings in Hiroshima over an area of roughly five square miles. About 70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured that morning. Many continued to suffer the consequences of that blast for months and years to come.

The “Adam” Bomb

As destructive as the atomic blast was, it doesn’t compare to the devastation of another earlier event in human history. Only two lives, Adam’s and Eve’s, were affected that day, but the fallout from their disobedience in the Garden of Eden has affected every person in every generation since.

No one has escaped unscathed.

Pain has visited every woman in childbirth since that time. Work became toil. There was no mushroom cloud, but sin billowed up in an endless variety of self-centeredness, greed, depravity, and violence.

We don’t have to strain to see the impact of sin in our lives, yet some of the fallout from Adam and Eve’s disobedience remains largely unnoticed and unaddressed in Western Christianity. I’m referring to shame.

The Hiddenness of Shame

Before their sinful disobedience, the Bible records that “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Shame was foreign to Adam and Eve in the Garden before the Fall.

Unfortunately, shame remains a foreign concept to many Western pastors and teachers in the church today. This is not a personal criticism. It is a reflection of a blind spot we have inherited from generations of Western theologians before us.

In his wonderful new book, The Global Gospel, Werner Mischke notes that since the Bible grew out of a culture defined by the values of honor and shame, it is no surprise to find that the values of honor and shame feature prominently in the Bible. Yet that emphasis has largely remained hidden from the eyes of Westerners who are only conditioned to look for the pivotal values of guilt and forgiveness.

Werner Mischke illustrates this blind spot well by noting that the word shame is only listed in the index of two out of seven theological dictionaries published by Western scholars. This is a striking omission given that the word shame and its derivatives occurs 4–5 times as often in the New Testament compared to the word guilt and its derivatives.

The Epidemic of Shame

Shame may often be hidden from the eyes of Western theologians, but that doesn’t mean it is absent in the lives of Westerners. Not at all. Shame’s impact is broad and deep.

I first became aware of shame’s impact while working with survivors of sexual abuse during my years as a pastor. We are not surprised to learn that people who have been scarred by childhood sexual abuse suffer from shame – a gnawing sense that they don’t measure up and will never be worthy of love – but we may surprised to discover how wide this epidemic of shame has spread. Let’s look at some other examples of populations who are struggling with shame:

  1. The Unemployed
    Richard Wilton was a successful real estate developer who dedicated his work to God’s glory. However, when the economy tanked in 2008 he took it on the chin. Properties that once secured loans worth millions now were worth only dimes on the dollar. Unable to refinance, the bank took the opportunity to repossess everything. Richard not only lost his collateral, but he also lost his house and his sense of identity with it. You may like to think we are not defined by our net worth, but it’s tough to shake the idea that you are a loser when you are 55 and no one will hire you.
  2. The Disabled
    Tammy Thompson, a blind woman, shares how she’s struggled with her disability: I’ve spent many years on a mission to cancel out my disability by frantically stacking up achievements, hoping that someday I would find that final, magic accomplishment which would absolve me of the sin of being disabled. … I guess I thought that if I were successful enough, I’d escape from the ‘less than’ feeling that quivers in my guts.”
  3. The Depressed
    Teaching and preaching on the wonders of God’s love actually makes Jean Sorrento feel worse. “What’s wrong with me?!” she asks, “I should feel better.” She has confessed every sin she can think of but still can’t shake her shame or the depression that comes with it. Eventually she concludes she is spiritually dead and without hope.

Just as guilt affects every one of Adam and Eve’s descendants, so does shame. No one is immune. So far I’ve identified as many as 40 populations like the three above who are prone to struggling with shame: the divorced, the obese, the adopted, and the addicted are just a few of these. At some point shame touches us all.

PrescriptionsCure for the Epidemic

Prescriptions for shame tend to follow the pattern of prescriptions for guilt. However, failure to see the shame problem as a unique problem prevents us from seeing the unique solution.

Matt was born out of wedlock to parents who were not ready to marry or take on the responsibility of raising a child. In the heat of an argument his father tells Matt, “You ruined my life.” Matt learns beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a bastard and a burden. This identity mars his outlook throughout his life.  How does the repentance and forgiveness formula fit? While Matt can confess many sins of commission and omission, how does he confess the sin of being born out of wedlock?

If we don’t have anything but forgiveness to offer, we offer a deficient Gospel. But the Gospel itself is not deficient. Jesus took both our guilt and shame on the cross.

Two Arms of the Cross

The author of Hebrews writes this about Jesus, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (12:2)

In an honor and shame culture, the cross – designed to maximize both pain and shame – was the worst punishment. Yet Jesus willingly and joyfully took on our shame in order that we might share in his honor at the right hand of the Father.

So often we reduce the Gospel to a work of forgiveness only. When we do, we are guilty of preaching a one-armed cross. God’s forgiveness is clearly the only solution for our problem of guilt, but forgiveness has little to say to shame.

Fortunately, the cross has two arms. With one we are embraced by God’s forgiveness removing our guilt; with the other we are embraced by His love removing our shame.

Forgiven feel badFor more on the healing of shame get the free eBook by Robert Walter, If I’ve Been Forgiven, Why Do I Still Feel Bad?

Robert Walter is the training director for Leader Source, an organization that works with Christian leaders around the world to help them rise up the next generation of healthy leaders.

How shame fuels violence—get two free chapters from The Global Gospel

Blood and honorWith the horrific events in Paris, many are wondering WHY? Even from a distance, the culture clashes we are dealing with are gut-wrenching and terrifying. How are we to respond?

The connection between honor/shame and violence, war,  and bloodshed is something I explore extensively in my book, The Global Gospel. I pull no punches concerning the truly dark and demonic side of honor and shame as it is explained in the Bible—and represented in world history and current events. (I also write in-depth on the gospel of Jesus as the cure.)

Cover.200I am offering a free two-chapter excerpt from The Global Gospel. These two short chapters will help you understand the connection between shame and violence. To download this excerpt, click here.

The two chapters are:

Chapter 5: Does It Hurt or Does It Heal? This chapter deals with the fact that guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior, whereas shame is more likely to lead to hurtful behavior. Plus … What does this imply for Christian ministry?  /  A missing piece in Reformed theology?  / Shame is experienced in different ways  /  The need to cure both guilt and shame

Chapter 6: The Pathology of Shame in Our World: This chapter explores the incredibly significant role of shame in world history and current events …  Shame as fuel for genocide in Nazi Germany  /  Shame as fuel for terrorism in the Muslim world  /  Honor-based violence in the family unit  /  Is all shame bad?  /  Nathanson’s Compass of Shame—four poles—1) Attack self, 2) Attack other, 3) Avoidance, 4) Withdrawal.

These two chapters are not all I have in The Global Gospel about the powerful link between shame and bloodshed—along with how the Bible addresses this sinful pathology. In fact, I estimate it is only about 20 percent of what I have to say on the subject. But this two-chapter excerpt will get you started.

To download your free two-chapter excerpt from The Global Gospel, click here.

To learn more about The Global Gospel, download other free resources, or discover various purchase options, visit the book website: Click here.