It all began with the arrival of a letter. A hand-written note, it was a novel surprise in these days of online texts and emails. The note came from a friend I hadn’t spoken to in many years. We had been college roommates, but our lives had gone in very different directions that took us far apart. Yet, despite many years of relative silence, she wrote to me to ask if something she had done had caused me offense or if she had hurt my feelings. As soon as I read her reason for writing to me, I was right back to those days when we were in college together.
Shame followed me around like my shadow in my early college years. Plagued by insecurity, I compared myself to others and always fell short. By contrast, my friend seemed positively carefree and confident. And while she never deliberately tried to upset me, there were the inevitable squabbles that contributed to hurt feelings because my hidden insecurities were brought right out into the open. I felt that I was not thriving at college, but clearly, she was. So she caused me no offense, but her very presence heightened my sense of shame. I was ashamed of everything I was not in comparison to her.
To suffer shame, psychologists tell us, is to feel that the true self—with all its defects—is exposed, naked and vulnerable before the watchful or superior gaze of others.(1) Shame is the feeling that arises from the core of one’s being. It is the thought that you are not good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough, or talented enough. It is that horrible thought that you are not enough.
In most Western nations, where the focus is primarily on the individual—and on the internal world of the individual—shame is often completely self-focused. And to experience shame is to experience an internal sense of worthlessness without necessary reference to, or repercussion on, family, community, or society. More often than not, shame points its judgmental finger at one’s core identity and compels those on the other end of its boney prodding to hide who they truly are even from those who love them.
But in many other parts of the world, shame goes far beyond individual experience. The experience of shame includes dishonor to one’s family and one’s community. Shame, therefore, is not just an individual burden to bear, but a collective burden of responsibility for others. Honor killings are stark and sober examples of the consequences of bringing shame on the collective family or social unit; the victim is killed by members of the family or social group because the perpetrators’ believe that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or community.
The ancient world of the Roman Empire was an environment of honor and shame. For hundreds of years, Greek language and culture had dominated the area, bringing a common language as well as significant foundational cultural schemas. Hierarchy was one such foundational schema in the ancient world. It framed and structured both society and the universe so that clear lines of status and power were drawn. Within this system, one’s status was measured by adherence to one’s role in society. Violation of that cultural role brought collective shame on the group.(2)
Within the Roman Empire, the Jewish world of the first century was strongly guided by an honor and shame code, as well. As a result, issues of honor and shame are recognizable throughout ancient writings, and in fact permeate the writings of the New Testament. Without the strict observance of religious and social norms the consequences were the same: separation from the community, including the worshipping community, which meant separation from God.
The story of the man born blind in John’s gospel is a fitting example of a more collective honor and shame culture: “Who sinned,” the disciples asked Jesus, “This man or his parents that he was born blind?” Here, the belief that someone else’s sins could be borne by another is striking. After Jesus healed this man’s blindness, the religious leaders question the blind man’s parents. His parents didn’t want to speak on his behalf “for fear of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus as Messiah, he was to be put out of the synagogue.”(3) To be put out of the synagogue was to be excommunicated from God, family, and society—and to bear the burden of collective shame and dishonor. The son was already in a dishonorable state because of his blindness. One false move by the parents and they would suffer the same fate.
Having been raised and shaped by this culture, anyone curious about Jesus should be amazed by his challenge to these ideas of honor and shame, just as he challenged many other religious and cultural assumptions of his day. Jesus brought honor to those deemed dishonorable. He extended hospitality to tax collectors and sinners by dining with them. He welcomed ‘sinners’ to touch him, even allowing them to caress his feet with tears and hair, and he brought healing and restoration to those who had been ‘put out’ of their social groups as a result of their physical deformities and limitations. As author David Bentley Hart states it, Jesus restored honor by giving a face to the faceless: “[E]ven Christianity’s most implacable modern critics should be willing to acknowledge that in these texts and others like them, we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history; the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value.”(4)
Shame, individual or collective, is something Jesus sought to erase. In its place, he offered restoration and healing even for those who were the most tragic and had reason to be most ashamed. To bring to light the beauty of the face for those who feel faceless, Jesus offers the same honor-filled invitation today.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Edward Teyber and Faith McClure, Interpersonal Process in Therapy: An Integrative Model, Sixth edition (Belmont, CA, Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning, 2011)137.
(2) Katrina Poetker, “Letters from the Ancient World,” Sojourners, March/April.
(3) See John 9:20-23.
(4) David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 166, emphasis mine.