Shame–Coming to the West

While in Sri Lanka I talked to Ajith Fernando about the culture of shame. He thinks it may be coming to the West, as our sense of absolute truth erodes.

Eastern religions—Buddhism and Hinduism, for example—have a different sense of the absolute than that shared by the Palestinian religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Lacking the guidance of absolute truth communicated from God, Ajith says, the individual’s sense of right and wrong is driven by his desire to avoid shame. Shaming your community or your family is unthinkable. Allowing your community or family to be shamed is impossible. And thus, commonly in Sri Lanka, you would lie to protect a family member, and carry out revenge when your community is attacked. Defending community reputation is far more important than defending the truth.

It seems to me, on reflection, that this shift has already begun to occur in American society. As younger people evaluate sexual behavior, for example, they are much more concerned for what their peers think than for what is actually right. They may actually lack the sense of anything being “right” in and of itself. Yet they have a very robust sense of what is shameful before their peers.

Related to this is the declining understanding of what, in Christian theology, the atonement means. Substitution and redemption are concepts that relate to objective debts, not to shame.

Ajith says that a major struggle for young Sri Lanka Christians is retooling their sense of ethics. Appealing to truth doesn’t stand up to their sense of family or communal honor. But Ajith notes that the Bible was actually written to a shame culture, and that much of its appeal to godliness refers to shame. “Do not let me be put to shame,” says the Psalmist. “No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.” (Psalm 25:2) “Whoever robs their father and drives out their mother is a child who brings shame and disgrace,” proclaims Proverbs 19:26. “God gave them over to shameful lusts,” says Paul in Romans 1:26, but “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” (Romans 10:11) To the Corinthians he says, “I say this to shame you.” (1 Corinthians 6:5) However, “We have renounced secret and shameful ways.” (2 Corinthians 4:2) Many more examples could be given.

New believers should not bring shame on their new family. Later on they may develop a deeper and more internal sense of sin before the eyes of God.

Stressing truth and decrying error may only irritate those who lack a sense of absolute. Rather, we should work toward new communities with a strong sense of communal shame. “I could never do that to my family. I could never do that to my church.” Of course, if our pastors and leaders show no sense of shame, it will be hard to inculcate such feelings.

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3 Responses to “Shame–Coming to the West”

  1. Greg Snell Says:

    sorry, this is a distorted view. Ajith is a great man and scholar but this is just not the main point of the Bible.

  2. Macon Stokes Says:

    10 years ago the college ministry I was on staff with began training it’s staff on ministry in post-modernity. One of the key pieces was this cultural move towards Shame. We could see that a big part of conversion events for new Christians had been because they’d been released from shame and now belonged to a family/community. Theyd get around later, well after their conversion, to understanding the relationship between the shame they’d been feeling to the sin they’d been living in. (see “Emerging Hope,” by Jimmy Long, IVP)

  3. David Graham Says:

    I found this article enlightening for better understanding ancient Israel (and the wider Ancient Near East) and appreciate the listing of the scriptures from the Psalms, Proverbs, Romans, and the letters to the Corinthians as good examples of the role of shame among the Jews.

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