Shame and Guilt: Biblical Culture-Hopping

So I’ve been reading an introduction to Biblical interpretation over the last wee while, just while I’m waiting for Pseudo-Dionysus to arrive. It’s really surprising how much literary theory they’ve started throwing around in there – you can thank the post-modernists for that. Anyway, one sort of throwaway point referred to the shame/honour culture of the time, and it caught my attention, because it affects how we go about interpreting the Bible. 

The basic idea is that Jewish culture dealt in terms of shame and honour – so we know what shame and honour are, right, shame is when you’re publicly humiliated, and honour is when you’re publicly respected. The key thing to note here is that both options revolve around the public sphere. In our contemporary setting, we work more in terms of guilt – so it’s not that you’ll be publicly humiliated (necessarily), but more that you’ll feel bad for doing a bad thing. Guilt, of course, is primarily an internal emotion, which is where it contrasts to the external shame. These are both forms of social control employed by different cultures.

Okay, so let’s haul up the verse. There’s a bit in Matthew where Jesus is talking about prayer, and he slams on people who pray loudly and publicly in the square:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matt 6:5-7)

On one level, this seems to be simply saying ‘If you show off about being pious you won’t get nothing’. That’s how we might initially interpret it in our cultural context. However, when you chuck it back to the Ancient Hebrew context, and into the shame/honour culture, it actually takes on more significance. If shame and honour are public and social phenomena, then your value is linked into how you’re seen by the community. That’s how shame works, right – if there’s nobody shaming you, there’s no shame. The flip-side of that sentence is that if there’s nobody honouring you, there’s no honour. That means there’s a culturally valid reason to be seen praying – if people see you praying, they know you’re a religious person, and you’re honoured as a religious person. What Jesus is saying, then, is that if you’re interested in being seen and honoured as a religious person, that’s all the reward you’re getting.

So here’s the question: is Jesus just advocating a shift from shame culture to guilt culture? He’s saying ‘Don’t pray publicly, go and do it quietly at home, and “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” It feels like a shift from placing value in the external community to the internal, individual realm of the mind. You’re rewarded for not evaluating your relationship with God based on the approval/honour given by other people. Further, if God rewards that which is done in secret, He’s also watching the secret bad stuff. In shame culture, secret evil is only naughty if you get caught out. In guilt culture, God is watching you all the time, so the social aspect is eliminated. Maybe Jesus is saying that, in order to be Godly, we should all just shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture.

That’s one reading, and I think it’s a reading I object to. I don’t think guilt culture is inherently any better than shame culture. It breaks up punishment onto an individual level, which means that if you don’t care about doing something bad, ain’t nobody gonna make you feel bad, but it also breaks up self-worth onto an individual level. If you don’t feel like you’re a worthwhile person, ain’t nobody gonna make you feel like a worthwhile person. There’s kind of this existential weight that rests on each individual, and, to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if a percentage of suicides stem from people who lack the internal fortitude to say ‘I am a good and valuable person’.

And that’s sort of the point, really. In guilt culture, the individual rests the validity of their personhood on their own self-affirmation, rather than locating it in the community. That’s fine if you’ve got the chutzpah to say that your existence is important, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s not what Jesus was getting at. Here’s my hypothesis: basically Jesus said “Don’t evaluate your relationship with God based on how much honour you get from the community.” In our modern society, I think it’s easy to infer the logic of “Instead, evaluate it based on your own internal feeling of self-worth”. I feel like that’s displacing the issue, rather than actually resolving it – my suspicion is that Jesus is suggesting we value ourselves based on the fact that God values us. It’s not “I am honoured and therefore worthwhile”, or “I believe I am worthwhile and therefore I am worthwhile”. It’s “God says that I am worthwhile and therefore I am worthwhile.”

It makes sense when you follow the logic of the story. Jesus says ‘Don’t try and get honour by engaging in the honour culture. Instead, reject that culture and pray to God, and He will honour you because you have located your value in Him, rather than in the world.’ The caveat for us, when we read it, is a little implied bracket: “Instead, reject that culture (and don’t just switch it out for another one, you fucking walnut)”. This is where the doctrine that we’re all sinners comes in handy – it means that when we come before God, it’s with a sense of our own insufficiency. We don’t pray with a sense that we’re justified or good enough in and of ourselves – so that individualist self-worth thing doesn’t block us from God in the same way as praying loudly on the corner.


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