Friday, April 5, 2019

The Problem of Shame

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.


  1. A few minutes ago I was very pleased to receive the following comment from Thinking Friend Ron Kraybill in Maryland.

    "Thank you for this tribute to Norman. It was in his Intro. to Protestant Christianity class at Goshen College that I got my first glimpse of an understanding of Christian faith that seemed intellectually credible to me. I have felt a lifelong gratitude to him for this. He was gracious and kind, and I remember him with a twinkle in the eye."

  2. Well, I haven't yet received many substantial comments on today's article. Here are some of the brief comments received:

    "I learned something, Leroy. Thanks." (A TF in Kentucky.)

    "The issue you deal with in your blog today is fascinating to me. Thank you for bringing it up for me to ponder." (A local TF.)

    "I found this most interesting but have no time to comment!" (A Canadian TF.)

  3. Dr. Robert Cox, whom I first met long ago when he was a 16-year-old MK (missionary kid) in Japan, is now a psychologist in Massachusetts. I much appreciate him sharing these learned comments about shame:

    "When I was at Harvard Divinity School, I was introduced by Dr. Hanson, Old Testament Theology professor at HDS, that the early Jewish community that Jesus belonged to suffered from shame, not guilt as modern Protestants are apt to assume. The NT good news is encapsulated in the brief summary, 'you are accepted, just as you are.' For someone feeling dis-ease at their core (shame), this declaration is freeing and healing in the same breath.

    "Developmentally, we now know shame is an earlier disruption than guilt which occurs later. Today’s clinical practice is inundated by people suffering from early attachment disorders (primarily from complex trauma, growing up with caregivers who are emotionally and/or physically abusive or violent). People experiencing a break in their early lives carry a deep sense of being 'not ok.'

    "The pastoral relationship that focuses on 'guilt' simply re-enacts the original attachment difficulty and the parishioner keeps their defenses intact. There is no healing. It is good pastoral practice to be able to distinguish shame from guilt. When 'I' is the fundamental problem, shame is the focus. When 'acts' are the fundamental focus, 'guilt' is the focus.

    "It is helpful to remember the first question that is presented in the story of Genesis. G-d asks, 'Where are you?' Adam replies for all of us when he says, 'I hid myself.' The good news as 'you are accepted' creates the context for Adam and us to venture out of our fundamental dis-ease in trust, knowing it is now safe to be who I am, good and bad.

    "In cultures where the group has precedence over individualism, wrong-doing is experienced as shame, not guilt. When I commit a wrong-doing in such societies, 'I' am shamed and I am cut-off from belonging to the group. This is early Judaism. In our present day American culture, this sensitivity seems almost foreign and we are apt to misunderstand the problem, both practically and theologically."

    1. Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comments, Bob.

      There are many ways in which Japanese society is more like the Jewish society of Jesus' day than mid-twentieth-century American society. Perhaps that is one reason Christianity has not spread more widely in Japan: the message most often preached by American and European missionaries was more guilt-focused than shame-focused. That is one reason I thought Dr. Kraus's insights were helpful--in spite of them being somewhat scoffed at by some of your missionary "uncles."

  4. Western Christianism is so different. And look at all the schism and splinters it has given. "Love one another" is forgotten.

  5. A few minutes ago I received the following (and, as usual, thoughtful) comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for introducing us (or at least, me) to C. Norman Kraus.

    "As with so many topics in your blogs, much could be said or written about shame and guilt, both of which are needed to enforce our moral values and behavior. What is sad is when shame becomes 'toxic' as you have mentioned in your comments. Some people are unfairly shamed for a condition or situation over which they have no control. Homosexuality comes to mind and many homosexuals have been driven to suicide on account of being unfairly shamed, which is particularly tragic."

    1. Thanks for your comments and the example you mentioned, Eric. Yes, it is a shame (no pun intended) that so many conservative evangelical (fundamentalist) Christians have emphasized the sinfulness of homosexuality, focusing on the guilt of the "sinners" rather than upon the way so many LGBTQ people have been shamed, causing many to choose the tragedy of suicide, as you point out.

  6. I wonder if when we use words like guilt, honor, and shame if we are entering a slippery mess of equivocation? The recent popular musical "Hamilton" reminds us how strong the shame/honor cult was (is?) in America. Dueling, suicide, and honor killings are all connected to shame. How many young women have been double victims of war, first raped by their enemies, only to fall to honor killing by their own families? By the time the Army-McCarthy hearings ended with "Have you no shame, sir?" we were off into a rather strained use of "shame" since the basis for that shame was profound personal guilt. The Bible tells us that people said, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." The prophets raged against that collective shame, and declared that each would be judged by his own actions.

    Shame and guilt can be toxic, or completely missing, in balance both have a role to play in achieving justice. I think shame is the more basic of the two, which is why it is the fallback when someone like Trump proves he has no conscience, the last shred of humanity is sought in "Have you no shame?" Beyond both, we seek Christian love and forgiveness, even as we strive to understand how to apply love to cases of shame and guilt.

    Christian shame has cast a dark shadow over victims of sexual assault and rape. At the core of our self-understanding is a dangerous Christian lie. Romans did not put elegant linen loincloths on their crucifixion victims. They were taken to the cross naked, crucified naked, and when dropping blood pressure caused an involuntary erection, the Romans were quick to call it out, accusing the victim of enjoying his own crucifixion! That piece of white linen carries a sad message of exclusion to some of the people who need Jesus most.

    1. Craig, I often learn new things from you--and I appreciate that. For whatever reason, I had never heard of what Wikipedia calls "death erection, angel lust, or terminal erection," defined as "a post-mortem erection, technically a priapism, observed in the corpses of men who have been executed, particularly by hanging."

      When Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus "endured the cross, despising the shame,” that may have involved more than I ever knew about.