Shame, Guilt, and the Church: Part 1 – An Introduction

[This is part one of a series that I am doing about the place of shame and guilt in our lives. This is an introduction. I will eventually get to talking about the place of shame and guilt in the church as well. ]

I have a notebook in which I reflect on things about culture, society, and worldviews. It is a compilation of personal thoughts and reflections, as well as notes from various lectures and dialogues I have been a part of. I do this because I am preparing to move to Japan within the next few years. I plan to serve in some kind of helping and advocacy role, whether it be counseling, pastoring, or more of a social work type of role. I’m not going as a white westerner come to fix all of Japan’s problems, but I want to learn how to be a bridge — a culture broker, so to speak. There are aspects of Japanese culture that are absolutely incredible. There are many things that Westerners can learn from their culture. But as in any culture there are also blind spots which inhibit growth and health within their society. And let me reiterate, the same is true for the American culture, as well as any other culture.

Oftentimes we hear cultures dichotomized into “Western” and “Eastern” cultures. And as frequently described, Western cultures come with values of individuality and democracy. With Eastern cultures come the values of honor and shame, and the importance of family. And then once we have neatly categorized these two, we can better compare and contrast.

Living in a modern and post-modern (and post-post modern?) society we like to reflect about ourselves. And when we do, we like to think we have things figured out. Something like a culture or society can be summarized neatly and understood once we have analyzed and precisely labeled things. But I would argue that every culture and society throughout the world is too complex to think we can have it all figured out. It might be nice to think we can. It makes it easier to sound smart and write doctoral dissertations at least.

Reflection is good, don’t get me wrong. (Isn’t that why blogs exist?) But I just don’t like it when we act like we have entire cultures or societies figured out. I dislike thinking that we can pinpoint why people act the way they do. Human beings are incredibly complicated. Put a whole bunch of us together and we become even more complicated. Let’s not be so arrogant as to say or think that we can understand ourselves and why we do what we do. We can postulate as to why things are the way they are, but let’s just try to be honest about what we can really know and what we can hope to understand.

Anyway, as I started off saying, I keep a notebook with various thoughts and notes about culture, society, and worldviews. I like to write down thoughts and questions that help me prepare for the cultural and worldview differences that I’ll experience when I get to Japan. And oftentimes these reflections help me understand that even though value systems might differ in many ways, generally speaking, there is much overlap.

Japanese culture, as well as many Eastern or Asian cultures, is often described as being an “Honor/Shame” culture. American culture is rarely, if ever, described in that way. I would argue that even though white Americans don’t necessarily have the same values, traditions, or expectations surrounding family and their community, it’s not like honor and shame don’t play a significant part into how and why we do what we do.

I think by labeling other cultures as being “honor/shame” oriented we for some reason conclude that we do not operate in the same way. But I think we do also operate in similar ways, but we just don’t talk about it in the same way, or recognize that we do.

I believe we Americans (and when I say we, I am speaking as a white, middle-class American) have a hard time explaining what shame and guilt are. We don’t really understand the differences between what shame and guilt are. This could also be in part because the topic of morality and ethics is so complex. I think when we try and define or describe what shame is, we are often thinking of guilt, and maybe vice-versa.

But just because we can’t define shame and its nuanced differences from guilt doesn’t mean that is we don’t feel shame as Westerners. We do. But we often ignore and overlook the importance of understanding what shame is, and how it impacts us as individuals, as groups of people (such as families or churches), and as a society at large.

So I have taken some notes over time, helping me understand what shame is and how it impacts us. I want to share some of these things, showing how shame differs from guilt, and how Americans, and especially the white American Church, have really dropped the ball on this.

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