Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Shame, Shame, Shame

Okay, some thoughts about shame and it's possible implications for the Atonement:
Shame is an Eastern thing, an Eastern understanding of persons. Given that the majority of ancient literature still impacting Western society (Bible, Koran, etc.) was written in an Eastern cultural milieu, and that the majority of the world's population currently lives inan Eastern culture, it would behoove us sometime Western imperialists to understand it (and it would be good if we could start by admitting our imperialism).

Fundamentally shame is about who I am. I am bad. I am wrong. I am defective. To be shamed is to be "less than." To be honorable is to have status and value to both the self and the community. To be shamed is to be without honor. This is an Eastern understanding of persons. I either have shame or I have honor. I am either good or bad. I am either valuable or defective. I am either right or wrong. We are likely to quickly read a western understanding into these frameworks, but hang on. Shame goes to the core of who I am. Eastern societies still operate on the basis of shame as fundamental social capital. Consider Japan, or China, or an unsightly encounter with an Asian gang when one of them has "lost face." The power of shame is alive and well.

Western societies, America in particular, are organized around the idea of guilt. Guilt is our social capital. I did wrong. I did bad. I did something defective. Or, I did something well. I did something good. I did something valuable. I cheated on that test. I earned a bonus. On the surface, it seems a superior social capital. Enabling the dignity of persons while correcting and adjusting their imperfect performance. It certainly has been something of an enablement to capitalism--allowing for the "objective" improvement of performance. And capitalism is built on keen, efficient performance. But the reality that we all recognize in North America (at least, those of us with education and what I will call societal "tenure") is that our performance orientation has morphed into an obsession. Performance is the measure of value. And paradoxically, in it's effort to overcome the "inferior" shame-orientation, it becomes the new shame. I lose face when I fail to perform well. I become less than. But performance, despite our cultural disposition and unnoticed assumption of its superiority, is inadequate to a whole understanding of persons. To say that guilt is fundamental social capital is to assert that I am what I do. And if I am what I do, who am I if I can no longer do it? We have a cultural identity epidemic. It drives almost every sector of our society; business, education, religion. We are the sum total of our performances. Elegant defenses of this assumption exist, to be sure. A potential overgeneralization, but read almost any bestselling business book. Look at the titles of best-selling self-help books. They run around the issues of guilt/performance. How to perform better in relationships, on the job, in the family. How to do better. Best selling religious books aren't far behind (with notable exceptions). The Purpose-Driven Life, et al, press the issue that we are what we do. That the life of faith is the life of correct performance for the divine. Performance and guilt. Our performance orientation has done marvelous things for us as a culture. We are highly tuned and spectacularly empty.

Eastern wisdom would tell us that we are not what we perform. It crititques our addiction to performance. There is a core to us that goes beyond our performance, or lack thereof. It is a fundamental reality of what it means to be human. That's what that Eastern text, the Bible, refers to when it talks about "heart." The Western story does get it half right. We are guilty of things. We do things wrong. We fail each other in fundamental and basic ways. We do well by each other. We do well by our businesses. We do well by our religious communities. But this is not total. There is more to the human story. In order to do well by each other, we must be well internally and in our communities. Being is less measurable (and so somewhat detestable to Westerners)--it is written off as touchy feely, useless, of little value, of doing no good (notice the performance measurements). But unless I am well, unless I am good, unless I am valuable--I will not do well, do good, or do valuable things.

This may account for Jesus Christ's enduring appeal to Western society. Underlying our addiction to performance lies our created longing to be loved for love's sake. And Jesus' message, if it was anything, was one of the ultimate value of ultimate value over against the ultimate value of ultimate performance. Western theology (particularly theology of the evangelical stripe), it could be argued, has the propensity toward performance measurement and so has reduced Jesus to a religious figure who gave the perfect performance (in my place, because I couldn't). There is reality in this statement, but it is an Eastern reality. Of course I cannot--I am a human being with limitations and weaknesses, but I am a person with honor. Jesus honored my humanity by taking my form. He honored my life by living it. He honored my death by dying it. He honored my desires by feeling them. He was perfect--but this is what Divinity does, it expresses perfection. He was not man writ large, performing what man could not and thereby elevating performance. He was God writ man, filling and dignifying His own creation and elevating the goodness and value of his crowning creation. Jesus is God affirming our value and triumphing over our shame.

This sounds wrong to Western ears because we are so tied to performance. Jesus must DO SOMETHING. He did. He filled humanity with dignity and gave honor to us in place of our shame. His death, in addition to playing a part in his own conspiracy of redemption, is not a consumer good for people to "believe in" in order to go to heaven when they die. His death is "in our place" to be sure--because we are all bad enough, we are all shamed enough to deserve the humiliation of death.

More thoughts to come. The well is now dry.