Although most of this blog’s readers likely do not know/remember his name, this article was prompted by the death of C. Norman Kraus a year ago, on April 6, 2018. Kraus, who died at age 94, had a long and distinguished career as a Mennonite scholar, teacher, and author, but I am just writing about one aspect of his scholarly work here.
Guilt Cultures and Shame Cultures
Ruth Benedict (1887~1948) was an American anthropologist widely known for her seminal book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946).
Benedict’s book, written at the invitation of the U.S. Office of War in 1944, was influential in shaping American ideas about Japanese culture during the occupation of Japan after World War II. It popularized the distinction between what she termed “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.”
While there have been shifts in both Japanese and American cultures over the last 70+ years, it remains true that Japanese culture, as well as that of other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, place far more emphasis on shame/honor than do Western cultures.
Christianity in a Shame Culture
|Dr. C. Norman Kraus (c. 2015)|
In 1980, Norman Kraus and his wife accepted an assignment from Mennonite Board of Missions to work with Mennonite churches in Japan. After 18 months of language study in Tokyo, they moved to Hokkaido in northern Japan, and Norman taught there for six years.
During that time, he also wrote a two-volume Christology, the first volume titled Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective. The 12th chapter of that book explores “The Cross of Reconciliation: Dealing with Shame and Guilt.”
Since, from shortly after the publication of Benedict’s book, Japan had frequently been understood as a shame culture, I thought it was brilliant for an American theologian in Japan to relate the death of Jesus to the problem of shame.
Shortly after reading what Kraus had written about the Christian message for a shame culture, I mentioned his helpful insights to some Southern Baptist missionary colleagues—and I was somewhat chagrined when they scoffed at the idea.
It seemed to me then, and it still does, that Kraus was making a praiseworthy effort to contextualize the Christian message.
Dealing with Shame in Any Culture
There were those who later criticized Benedict’s bifurcation of guilt and shame cultures, and through the years, especially in Japan and the U.S., the differences have been much less obvious.
Still, there are cultures that are still rightly designated as shame/honor cultures. I am grateful to my granddaughter Katrina for introducing me a couple of weeks ago to a book titled Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (2012).
The fifth chapter of that book is “Have You No Shame” and explains the difference between contemporary shame cultures and guilt cultures.
However, shame does exist in American cultures—and even has benefits that must not be overlooked. In fact, one of the problems in the U.S. right now is having a President who seems to be shameless. (You might want to take a look at this link to “Trump and the shameless society.”)
There is, though, that which some psychologists call “toxic shame,” and that is a serious problem for everyone suffering from such a malady.
John Bradshaw popularized the concept of “toxic shame” in his 1988 book Healing the Shame that Binds You. That kind of destructive shame has been with humans from the beginning. In the Preface of his book, Bradshaw (1933~2016) wrote, “The Bible describes shame as the core and consequence of Adam’s fall.”
So, Kraus’s contention that Jesus died for our shame, as well as our guilt, is relevant for everyone, not just Japanese people.