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Face and the Loss of Reputation in the Korean Protestant Church

For decades, the rapid growth of the Protestant churches in South Korea has been touted as a success story in mission studies. And it is true, up to a point. How shall we now explain that the growth curve has plateaued and the Korean Protestant church is even showing signs of decline in membership? The standard answers include the impact of changing times, degraded theologies, and twisted ecclesiologies. Globalization, secularization, and unsound biblical interpretation seem to be forces chipping away at church growth. However, studies show that, contrary to secularization, there is, so far, an increasing religiosity in South Korea. Even Christianity as a whole is growing when Catholicism is included. These outside forces cannot account for the decline in Protestantism while at the same time providing a positive explanation for the growth of Catholicism and Buddhism. So, the question remains: Why is there a decline in Protestant church membership in South Korea? Since Korea is an Asian country, and Asian countries are often cited as being heavily involved in honor/shame dynamics, perhaps there is another angle that we can take by extending the “face” discussion into new territory: corporate reputation theory. How might the discipline of business management help us understand the decline in Protestant church membership in South Korea?

Pew Research, among others, has documented the plateauing of growth in the Korean Protestant church: “Since the 1980s . . . the share of South Korea’s population belonging to Protestant denominations and churches has remained relatively unchanged at slightly less than 1-in-5.”1 Joon-Sik Park lays out the argument for a decline: “From the early 1990s, however, the growth rate of the Korean church began to decline. In 1995, according to the Population and Housing Census Report, 8,760,000, or 19.7 percent of the population, were Protestant Christians. During the following decade the number of Protestants declined slightly, to 8,616,000, a 1.6 percent decrease. During the same period, by contrast, Korean Catholics increased by 74.4 percent (from 2,951,000 to 5,146,000), and Buddhists by 3.9 percent (from 10,321,000 to 10,726,000).”2 What is behind this decline? Some have argued that it is just the times, that globalization spreads secularism and this accounts for the decline in religiosity worldwide.3 However, the resurgence of a conservative, even militant Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity in the twenty-first century has cast doubt on the idea of increasing secularization. Some blame the adoption of a defective theology, while others, including Park, place the blame on a hierarchical and self-centered ecclesiology. Finally, some suggest that there are too many alternatives available to people: sports, mass media, and psychological counseling, for example. There may be some truth in each of these explanations, but is there more to the story?

As we develop the story and look at some new research, let us establish up front that the whole Western social project is based on the assumption of the ontological priority4 of the individual. This assumption has put us in the position of not being able to see the forest for the trees. The majority of social science research involves studies of how ontologically prior individuals form an identity, develop relationships, join groups, make economic decisions, vote, or worship. These actions seem to be based on the unspoken assumption that the agent is a pre-existent autonomous person. It is clear, however, that that construct of an autonomous individual is neither ancient nor widespread in the world and certainly does not apply to Korea.5 Most people in the world, contra Decartes’s Cogito ergo sum, would claim, Vivimus simul ergo sumus (We live together therefore we are).6

We do not wish to rehearse the argument here but rather assume that individual selves are a modern construction,7 while the operation of face/honor/shame dynamics is ancient. That means that the dynamic has not involved only the effect of individual behavior on the group but also the effect of group behavior on the individual as well as on other groups around it. In other words, the group can be the agent.

Can a group feel or experience guilt or shame? Can a group do face work? There are some hints in this direction. Both Jesus (Matt 5:16) and Paul (1 Cor 14:23; Col 4:5; 1 Tim 3:7) were concerned about the effect of reputation on the spread of the gospel. An alternate translation of doxa or “honor” is “reputation.”8 However, even when this term is used, the discussion often remains at the level of an individual’s reputation. The only time the concept includes others is when an individual is confronted with the possibility of being tried in more than one “court of reputation.”9 Here the individual’s reputation is in view, not the group’s reputation.

Perhaps we have to go to an ancillary area to get a different perspective. In the discipline of business management, newly emerged reputation theory is not concerned about individuals, but begins with the concept of the group. Groups, that is, corporations, businesses, NGOs, and, we propose, churches or denominations, also have reputations that transcend the individual, and these reputations make a difference. An individual may act with honor in a business context, but the business itself might already suffer dishonor from a bad reputation. Examples: The effect on people’s decisions about making donations when the Wounded Warrior foundation was found to have misused money, the drop in reputation and income when Toyota had to make multiple recalls, and the loss of reputation when Volkswagen was found to have fudged diesel mileage ratings, a story which became a case study at the Reputation Institute.10 In the business world, reputation risk management is an emerging science.

Reputation, similar to “prestige,” is a type of externally conferred honor. It is social-esteem, not self-esteem. This paper will present the problem, present some original research about “church reputation” using a theoretical framework adapted from reputation theory, and suggest how church reputation might affect church growth.

The Korean Protestant Church

First, let’s consider the numbers. Table 1 shows figures from the national office of statistics for the last four decades:


Population (N)

The Component Ratio (%)









Total Population






















































One Buddhism


















The others









Table 1: South Korean Population Statistics11

As with all numbers, these require some interpretation. First, the numbers do not indicate an increase in secularism. Though there are some ups and downs, there is actually a decline in the category “nonbeliever” between 1985 and 2015. Thus, there has not been a decline in overall religiosity from 1985 to 2015. Second, the figures show that the percentage of the population who are members of the Protestant church in South Korea has, at best, been stagnant since 1995. We say “at best” because the percentage of members declined from 1995 to 2005 and then recovered in 2015, but only to the previous level.

Moreover, the figures for 2005 are suspect. A change in the form of the question about religion caused some confusion and likely exaggerated the decline in the Protestant church and rise in the Catholic Church figures. In the 1995 survey, the categories for (1) Buddhism, (2) Protestantism (Christianity), (3) Roman Catholicism, and (4) Confucianism are aligned vertically.

Image 1: A copy of the census survey showing the vertical alignment of the choices: 1, 2, 3, and 4, then in the next column 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9

In the 2005 survey, the categories were presented differently. The categories were (1) Buddhism, (2) Christianity (Protestantism), (3) Christianity (Roman Catholic), and (4) Confucianism. In addition, instead of being clearly vertical, the order is staggered.

Image 2: A copy of the census survey showing the staggered alignment of the choices

This staggered order presents the respondent with a vertical column of 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and a second column of 2, 4, 6, and 8. There is already confusion in Korean society about the relationship between Protestant and Catholic, and this order only made things worse. It is possible that some Protestants mistakenly identified themselves as Catholics.

In the 2015 census, the old order was restored.

Image 3: A copy of the 2015 census survey showing the vertical alignment restored

The 2015 numbers are not as radical as the 2005 numbers. For example, the Catholic Church’s own statistics did not support the apparent rapid growth of Catholicism by 2005. Still, the point is made that the South Korean Protestant church has stopped growing in terms of the percentage of society that belongs to the church.

In sum, the problem remains. Secularism is not growing, Buddhism is holding its own, Catholicism is growing, and Protestantism has been stagnant over the last two decades in South Korea. While theology or ecclesiology may contribute to the plateauing, let’s take a closer look from the perspective that the Protestant church is a competitor trying to increase its share in a marketplace of religions.

Reputation Theory

As is often true of a relatively new discipline, reputation studies have endured some definitional fogginess. Brown et al. give us a cumulative definition of reputation.12 When a corporation asks the question, “Who are we?” the answer is their “corporate identity.” When they ask, “What do we want others to think about us?” the answer is the corporation’s “intended image.” When they get feedback and then ask themselves, “What do we think that others think about us?” the answer is the “construed image.” But, when they actually do the research and gather data on the question, “What do stakeholders, that is, people with a vested interest in the corporation actually think of us?” then the answer is the “corporate reputation.” There is a sense, though, that all these things taken together constitute a corporate reputation because the employees also have a stake in the company. After all, there is a feedback relationship, which Brown et al. demonstrate with a chart,13 between what employees think about their company, what the general public thinks, and what clients and partners think about the corporation. Reputation, then, is the cumulative effect of what all stakeholders think about the corporation and, by extension, how they act toward the organization.

Reputation theory as an area of study emerged in three stages, according to John Balmer.14 In the 1950s and 1960s, corporations became aware of the impact of their “corporate image” on sales. In the 1970s and 1980s, corporations began to be concerned about “corporate identity” and how brand affected communication and marketing. Finally, in the 1990s, corporations began to think about “corporate reputation,” especially in the context of a competitive marketplace and a declining economy.

In 1997, the Reputation Institute was founded, along with a journal that introduced the concept of corporate reputation management. The latter became more important as social media began to dominate the Internet. News now travels so fast, and fake news even faster, that a corporation cannot wait until they hear second-hand about some attack on their reputation. By then, it is too late; the attack on reputation has already gone viral to a million customers. Hence, if one Googles “corporate reputation management,” a large number of the six million sites are entrepreneurs who are in the business of tracking and deleting false information about a corporation or organization.

There is an assumption here that beliefs and attitudes affect choices and behavior. While there is some room for nuance, this assumption is rather fundamental to the social sciences, so we will not try to prove the connection here in this paper. In addition to social scientists down through the ages, the people working in the area of reputation theory have also addressed it, and we defer to their conclusions.15

Reputation Theory has simultaneously developed in several disciplines. Charles Fombrun and Cees Van Riel survey the various literatures to gather up different views of corporate reputation:16

  1. From the economic perspective, reputations are perceived as corporate characteristics that external actors use to make decisions about dealing with the firm.
  2. From the strategic perspective, reputations are valuable intangible assets that establish and maintain a corporation’s place in the economic structure of a society. Reputations can be a benefit or a barrier.
  3. From the marketing perspective, a reputation is like a brand image consisting of a few pieces of information that, like a metaphor, give the external agent a quick picture of the corporation.
  4. From the organizational perspective, reputations are not just the images of external stakeholders but also the product of internal stakeholders (employees). In turn, employees’ sense of corporate reputation feeds into the external perception, both by employee beliefs and employee behavior. Corporate identity creates a “culture” that affects the performance of managers and other employees, and this rubs off on clients.
  5. From the sociological perspective, reputations are social constructs that arise out of corporation-client interactions. “Thus, corporate reputations come to represent aggregated assessments of firms’ institutional prestige and describe the stratification of the social system surrounding firms and industries.”17 A corporation’s reputation depends, then, not only on its own actions but also on its position in the larger field of similar firms in a particular market. A firm may be found wanting compared to other corporations in the field. We argue that the same is true for religions.
  6. From the accounting perspective, accountants themselves are calling for increased recognition of reputation as an intangible asset. They argue that managers have yet to figure out how to assign a financial value to reputation-building activities, but they should, just as they assign value to research and development activities.

With these research questions in mind, Fombrun and Van Riel offer the following definition: “A corporate reputation is a collective representation of a corporation’s past actions and results that describes the corporation’s ability to deliver valued outcomes to multiple stakeholders. It gauges a corporation’s relative standing both internally with employees and externally with its stakeholders, in both its competitive and institutional environments.”18

William Goode argues that there are consequences for reputation when “the increase in prestige is greater than the increase in achievement.”19 We would add that there are consequences when there is a decrease in reputation and especially when the decrease is warranted. Though most of his work is about prestige for individuals,20 Goode is aware that both individuals and groups are linked in society by the flow of esteem and by the flow of people from one group to another.21 In Goode’s terms, a loss of prestige leads to a new estimation of worth. Thus, groups have a reputation, good or bad, that makes a difference in people’s preferences.22

Others have categorized reputation and honor as peripheral to economics, but Goode argues that people’s behavioral response to changes in reputation “suggests again the weight of these ‘noneconomic’ factors. This is so for organizations, groups, communities, and nations.”23 Institutions, like churches, endure “mainly because people want to carry out the specific, concrete acts or tasks that make up those larger social patterns,” and they do so because they receive “rewards” in the form of honor.24 His work focuses on “the acquisition, accumulation, expenditure, and loss of esteem or respect, and how granting or withdrawing prestige or esteem controls the actions of both individuals and groups.”25

Goode’s model frames our work here: “Whether the differences are large or small, people are concerned about their reputations outside their intimate networks. So are corporations. Top people in the corporation hierarchy are interested in studies of their rankings. . . . Corporations with high prestige can more easily recruit the abler graduates of prestigious schools, or people who have already been successful in other companies. . . . The evaluations of individuals, organizations, groups, and members of social categories affect people’s decisions to enter or leave a group or organization if they have that opportunity.”26 We will apply some of these insights to the study of the reputation of the Korean Protestant church.

Face and Reputation in Korea

But, first, let us establish that Korea has a strong “face work” dynamic. The primary term for reputation, also translated as “identity” or “image,” is chemyon. Che (體) is “body,” and myon (面) is “face.” The dynamics of chemyon are those established by a particular reading of Confucianism. Under Confucianism, both individuals and groups must conform to society’s expectations.27 The key concept is the duty of a person or a group to others. South Koreans believe that the public reputation of a person, a family, or a company is of utmost importance. People turn their backs on groups and organizations when their reputation declines.

Chemyun is as significant a topic as Jeong “affection” or Han “resentment” in understanding South Korean culture and behavior in their daily lives.28 The most distinctive attribute of chemyun is “sociality.” Chemyun is more deeply related to the social self than to an individual one.29

Chemyun has a group dynamic that is linked to the individual dynamic. Loss of individual face affects group face, and loss of group face affects individual face. For example, where high school graduates attend college affects not only their chemyun but also that of their family and their high school. When a student is accepted at a prestigious university, her high school sports a banner out front with the news for all to read. If a corporation suffers a loss of face, so do its employees.

An example of the connection between individual and group reputation as well as the effect of the loss of reputation on consumer choices is the famous “Nut Rage Incident”:

On December 4, 2014, a Korean Air jet was taxiing from the gate at JFK International Airport. In first class a flight attendant was serving macadamia nuts in their original bags, as was company policy. On board, a Vice President of Korean Air, who was also a daughter of the CEO, took offense at not being served nuts in a bowl. She made a scene and berated both the attendant and the cabin crew chief. She forced them to kneel, struck the chief, and then ordered the plane back to the gate in order to throw him off the plane.

The company attempted to justify the VP’s behavior, saying that it was part of her job. Then they tried to sweep the incident under the rug. But, when it appeared that the employees would not get a fair shake during an in-house investigation, and when other witnesses began to tell their story, the cover-up backfired. When the incident went public, Koreans were outraged at yet another example of arrogant behavior by rich business families. The attendants’ claims were upheld, and the VP had to apologize and spend 5 months in jail.

The media had a field day with the incident and that empowered a recent Korean neologism: gapjil, which refers to how the rich and powerful get away with arrogant behavior. The result was that passenger rates dropped on Korean Air because people had choices and could fly other airlines, and in Korea, sales of macadamia nuts skyrocketed.30

Gapjil is a continuing problem in hierarchical honor/shame/reputation dynamics in Korea. Last year another story was reported:

The recent case of employee abuse by Yang Jin-ho, head of online data storage platforms, shocked the nation. However, statistics and reports show workplace violence by superiors . . . is not rare in Korean companies. Between January and August this year [2019], the Ministry of Employment and Labor received 515 cases of violence by workplace superiors—usually executives or those in managerial positions. . . . CEOs committed or were involved in more than 60 percent of the cases. Reports of workplace violence by superiors are increasing in number. . . .

Even if not involving physical violence, other forms of abuse and bullying by workplace superiors have been a pervasive problem. Koreans have a special term for hierarchy-based bullying, “gapjil,” which literally translates as “actions of the powerful.” In this work culture, executives, usually company owners, often violently lash out at employees who do not cater to their slightest wishes, expecting to be treated as kings of their economic empires.

Yang’s case is only the latest in a long history of Korean executives’ gapjil scandals. Just a few months ago, Cho Hyun-min, a Korean Air heiress, was accused of throwing water at PR officials from a subcontracted firm. She was later cleared of the charges because the officials did not want her to be punished.

Her sister Cho Hyun-ah is also infamous for the “nut rage” incident, in which she delayed departure of a plane because she was dissatisfied with the way an attendant served a packet of nuts.31

Reputation in Korea becomes a public matter that affects people’s evaluation of a corporation. Studies already show that a heightened sense of chemyun influences Koreans’ patterns of consumption and association.32 Something similar has happened to the Protestant church.

Korean Protestant Church Reputation

The Korean Protestant church gained chemyun or reputation by ministering to the people’s needs and supporting them through times of oppression. The Korean Protestant church lost reputation with the megachurch movement and the gapjil behavior of prominent pastors. Here is a brief review.

Protestant Christianity began in South Korea in 1874 and was, at first, resisted by the majority of Korean society. However, the arrival of missionaries followed just three years after Taewon-gun (1820–1898), the Prince Regent, had abolished all but forty-seven Confucian academies and thus greatly reduced the influence of Confucianism in the country. Christianity played an important role in modernization during the last years of the Chosun dynasty. While the old order was disappearing, Protestants built modern hospitals and schools, helped with Hangul dissemination, and championed equality in society, particularly for women. During the Japanese occupation (1910–1945), while Japan supported the reemergence of Buddhism, the Protestant church found a niche and developed a reputation of its own in support of nationalism and independence for the Korean people.

During World War II and the Korean War, Protestants supported South Korean efforts and offered aid to displaced and wounded civilians. Finally, during the period of rapid economic growth after the Korean War, the Protestant church supported people who suffered and were marginalized and demanded democratic reforms, human rights, and distributive justice. Christianity, as a whole, received good reputational reviews from people who were marginalized and oppressed.33 The other dominant religion, Buddhism, was early on associated with the Japanese, and later did not provide social justice projects until the 1980s.

But then, something happened. Economic success was matched by church growth and particularly the emergence of megachurches. By the end of the millennium, the reputation of the Protestant church was beginning to slide.34

Some scholars argue that while pursuing quantitative and external growth, the Protestant church has fallen into materialism, exclusivism, and self-centered individualism that leads to private faith without public service. By this theory, the Protestant church is collapsing from within. In addition, though, reputation suffers when pastors commit acts unworthy of a pastor or a series of scandals occur involving lay members.

For example, several controversies have arisen related to Rev. David Yonggi Cho, who is the founding and former senior pastor at Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in the world. Having been found guilty of breach of trust, corruption, and tax evasion, Rev. Cho and his eldest son, Hee-Jun Cho, were sentenced to two years and six months in prison with four years of probation on August 21, 2014. Hee-Jun has been married several times and is accused of being involved in sexual scandals with several women, including persons otherwise well-known to the public.35 Whether these accusations are true or not, their spread affects reputation.

These scandals and others involving Protestant ministers and prominent members have led to a loss of social face and public reputation for the Korean Protestant church. Won-Gue Lee argues that these problems have left a bad impression of the Protestant church with South Koreans, and he has warned that the church has been losing public trust in South Korean society since the late 1990s.36 It seems that his warning is now being realized.

A Korean Christian institution, Gi Yun Sil (Gidokgyo Yunri Silcheon Uoondong) [The Christian Ethics Movement], used an instrument called the “Church Trust Index” to evaluate the Korean Protestant church. A thousand people age nineteen or older were surveyed from 2008 to 2010. The results show that, in the first decade of the 2000s, before the worst scandals, there were already more people who did not trust the Protestant church than those who did. It would appear that a high level of distrust had been reached by 2000 and that the scandals did not cause the decline but certainly accelerated it during the two decades that followed.









Do Not Trust




Table 2. Church Trust Index of the South Korean Protestant Church37

In the 2010s, a series of scandals hit the media at a time when people were able to read news quickly as well as share their feelings. Korean neologisms arose in the religious realm as they had in the corporate world. The words are frequently used in conversation and online but cannot be found in the Korean dictionary because they involve abusive language. The words are Gae Dok and Muk Sa. The first involves word play with the term for Christianity: Gi Dok (基督), which originated from the Chinese characters representing Christ. The substituted term, Gae means “dog” in Korean, and it becomes an abusive word when mixed with other words. South Koreans change Gi to Gae in order to belittle the Protestant church today. This represents the loss of honor or reputation.

Another term, Muk Sa, is a play on Mok Sa (牧師) which means “pastor.” Mok means “to care for” or “nurture”, and Sa means “teacher” or “mentor.” This term of respect is dishonored by the shift to Muk Sa. Muk means “eat” in Korean, and thereby people have created a neologism for a “fat pastor” or “glutton.” These terms have become popular among netizens whose emails, tweets, and blogs use them regularly and sarcastically.

Reputation Research in Seoul

In order to test the reputation of the Protestant church among 20-somethings, I (Shinho) prepared a survey questionnaire with two categories: the first set of questions measures the reputation score for Protestantism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. These 20 questions were adapted from the Reputation Quotient model as a tool of measuring the reputation of religion.

Figure 1: Charles Fombrun’s Reputation Quotient Model38

Fombrun’s categories and questions were adopted and modified to fit Korean language and culture. To this were added questions to address religious reputation. The answers ranged along a five-point Likert scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

The other category included questions about basic demographic and religious characteristics of respondents such as age, gender, belief, church membership, and recent shifts in membership.

Data were collected by two researchers, a male and a female, at three sites where men and women in their twenties gather: Shinchon, Gangnam, and Daihakro. The survey was administered in April and May of 2013. A total of 700 surveys were circulated and collected; of these, 641 were filled out appropriately for this study. Analysis of the survey followed standard anthropological practice.39

The respondents can be described statistically. The gender composition of respondents was 276 males and 365 females. Over 90% attended college or had some higher education. The distribution of respondents according to monthly family income was fairly even across income levels (below $2000/month, $2000–3999/month, $4000–6999/month, and over $7000/month).

In terms of religion, 308 or 48% of the respondents checked nonbeliever, and this is in line with national statistics. Among the believers, 137 were Protestant, 83 Catholic, and 103 Buddhist. Of these 333 believers, 100 (30%) said that they had left their previous religion and joined a new religion. Remember that in Korean terms, Protestant and Catholic are different religions. These results suggest a steady flow of persons in a religious marketplace where people have free choice.

Interestingly, 54 of those who said they had left the old and joined a new religion, had left Protestantism. This compared to 19 Catholics, 22 Buddhists, and 5 Others (minority religions) who said that they had left their religion for another. Note the ratio between those who have left Protestantism to those who still claim to be Protestant (54/137 = 2 out of 5 who left). Compare this to the ratio of Catholics (19/83 = 1 out of 5 left); and of Buddhists (22/103= 1 out of 5 left). This suggests that the flow of persons out of Protestantism is twice that of those leaving Catholicism or Buddhism. Of course, more research would be needed to confirm this conclusion.

Further questioning reveals that 49% of people left their religion because of a bad reputation. Of these, 7 left Catholicism, 8 left Buddhism, 2 left other religions, and 32 left Protestantism. When asked why they left their previous religion, 36.8% of those who left Catholicism cited a bad reputation, 36.4% of those who left Buddhism cited a bad reputation, and 59.3% of those who left Protestantism cited a bad reputation. In answer to another question, the respondents who had recently joined a religion revealed that 7 had left their religion to join Catholicism, 8 to join Buddhism, and 3 to join Protestantism. Clearly, Protestantism is losing out in the flow of consumers in the religious marketplace.


Emotional Appeal

Program & Service

Religious Leaders


Financial Transparency

Social Responsibility


































Table 3: Religious Reputation Quotient of the Three Major Religions in South Korea

Table 3 shows the answers of all respondents (641) to questions about the characteristics of the Reputation Quotient model. Note that Protestantism ranks the lowest while Catholicism ranks the highest. In fact, in every category but one, Protestantism ranks lower than Catholicism and lower than Buddhism. In the area of Social Responsibility, Buddhism ranks only slightly, 0.03 points, lower than Protestantism.

While none of these scores is high, no religion scored even a 3 out of 5 overall, and the lowest score for all three is in Financial Transparency. The implication here may be that young people are suspicious about what these religions are spending their money on. And the lowest of these scores is that of Protestantism.

The next lowest scores are in Emotional Appeal and Program and Service. This lack of interest may be a hint that South Korean 20-somethings are on the cusp of doing what others have expected, turning away from religion toward secularism or No Religion.

When divided by gender and income, some conclusions stand out. One is that, relative to female responses, the score that men give is higher for Catholics than the other two. Second, as income rises, scores for Catholics rise and scores for Protestants fall. The scores for Buddhists were more uniform across gender and income lines.

























Table 4: Reputation Score Based on Respondent’s Religion

When reputation scores are separated by the religion of the respondent, an interesting outcome emerges. In short, the lowest scores on the table above are what Catholics and Buddhists think of Protestants. It is not surprising that each person thinks most highly of their own religion. What is surprising and perhaps disheartening is that nonbelievers think less of Protestantism (2.33/5) than they do of Catholicism (2.76/5) and Buddhism (2.61/5). In addition, Catholics think less of Protestantism 2.26/5) than they do of Buddhism (2.80/5). What has driven the reputation of Protestantism so low?





















Table 5: Reputation Score Based on Respondents’ Previous Religion

When we look at the same figures divided according to the opinion of people who have left their religion, another interesting outcome emerges. According to the table above, ex-Protestants think less of their former religion (2.22/5) than ex-Catholics do of their religion (3.18/5) or ex-Buddhists of theirs (2.78/5). In fact, ex-Catholics and ex-Buddhists think better of their former religion, and of each other, than either do of Protestantism.

We can take the results of the survey a step further. How does the reputation of a religion affect people’s intentions to behave toward that religion? The question was: “If you have been proselytized by some religion, then did you reject it because of the bad reputation of that religion?” Of the 308 Nonbelievers, 287 said that someone had tried to proselytize them to join their religion. Of these 287, 151 or 52.6% agreed that “bad reputation” was the reason that they refused to join.

People were asked to respond to the statement: “If people around me, such as my family, friends, and acquaintances, are intending to believe in a religion with a bad reputation, I will dissuade them.” Of all respondents (641), 144 checked “Agree” and 132 checked “Strongly Agree.” This means that 43.1% of the respondents say that they would actively dissuade a friend from joining a religion with a bad reputation. Remember that Protestantism scores the lowest on the RQ scale: thus, Protestantism suffers the most from this behavioral intention.

The statement was also presented in another way: “If people around me such as my family, friends, and acquaintances are going to believe in a religion of good reputation, I will recommend that they do so.” Of all respondents, 183 (28.5%) checked “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” while 217 (33.9%) checked “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree.” The greatest number, 241 (37.6%) checked “Neutral,” implying that Korean’s tendency is to not get involved. It would seem that a good reputation does not influence beliefs and behavior as much as a bad reputation. Once again, the influence of a bad reputation is the stronger factor in religious choice.

Finally, people were asked whether they were willing to invite others to join their religion.40 People were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “The negative reputation of the religion I believe in makes me hesitate to propagate it to other people.” Less than one-third (30.1%) of the Catholics (25/83) and Buddhists (31/103) checked the “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” box, implying that they would hesitate to proselytize if their religion were suffering a bad reputation (which they were not). At the same time, a full 60.1% of the Protestants (83/137) checked these boxes, implying that they would hesitate to proselytize if their religion were suffering from a bad reputation (which it was).

On the flip side of these answers, only 13.9% of Protestants (19/137) checked the “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree” box, meaning that only 13.9% of Protestants would proselytize if their religion were suffering from a bad reputation. On the other hand, 24.3% of Buddhists and 33.7% of Catholics said that they would proselytize even if their religion were suffering from a bad reputation. People are reluctant to join a religion if it has a bad reputation, people are even willing to intervene if others intend to join a religion with a bad reputation, and finally people are less willing to proselytize if they feel that their religion has a bad reputation.

These results bring the reputation story full circle: honor and shame play a significant role in people’s choices about joining or leaving a religion. As Goode tells it, there is little prestige to be gained by joining and only shame to be lost by leaving. People even seem to be willing to intervene if others intend to join a religion with a bad reputation. Finally, people are less willing to proselytize if they feel that their religion has a bad reputation.

In all these cases, the effects of a bad reputation are more telling for Protestants than Catholics or Buddhists. Protestantism has a worse reputation than the other two. Protestants who have left Protestantism tended to do so because of a bad reputation. People are reluctant to join Protestantism because of its reputation, and Protestantism has the weakest reputation score. Finally, Protestants, twice as much as Catholics and Buddhists, are unwilling to evangelize if they perceive that their religion has a bad reputation.

Based on this limited but significant research project, our conclusions bear out for the church the insights that William Goode offered years ago: “[People] are concerned with the evaluations of other groups and organizations about themselves, either as individuals or as a group. People are only rarely content to be totally self-enclosed within the system of evaluations in their own social groups. They bring their concerns, opinions, and pressures to bear on others. They are aware of the prestige [reputation] rankings that other people, groups, and organizations make and see the effects of those evaluations upon their own fate. One of these sets of consequences is the movement of individuals from one social group or organization to another.”41 The flow of prestige, the ups and downs of reputation, is certainly related to the flow of people through and in and out of organizations.

We have asked: How might the discipline of Business Management, particularly Reputation Studies, help us understand the decline in Protestant church membership in South Korea? We have suggested that part of the answer has to do with the reputational standing of the church vis-à-vis the Catholic Church and the Buddhist movement. How might the church repair this reputation problem? At the heart of the problem is the move away from a ‘good shepherd’ type of leadership that Jesus modeled for us. The church as a whole might consider reviving the kind of service for the oppressed and marginalized that it seems to have abandoned. As the Korean Protestant church considers its plight and the future of the church, more research from this perspective might offer evidence of a need to change.

Rev. Dr. Shin-Ho Choi is the senior pastor of Kwanglim Methodist Church in Canada, principal of Kwanglim Korean School, a board of trustee member of the SEED International Mission of Canada, and a board of trustee member of the All Nations Mission Center in the USA. He served the Byucksan Corporation in South Korea as a workplace missionary from 2012 to 2019.

Michael A. Rynkiewich is retired as Professor of Anthropology in the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary. Rynkiewich earned a BA in Anthropology at Bethel College in St. Paul, MN (1966), and an MA and PhD in Anthropology at the University of Minnesota (1968, 1972). He also holds an MDiv from Asbury (1994). He has served as a pastor and a missionary in Papua New Guinea. Among his publications in Anthropology and Missiology is the textbook: Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World (2011).

1 Phillip Connor, “6 Facts about South Korea’s Growing Christian Population,” Pew Research Center, Fact Tank: News in the Numbers, August 12, 2014,

2 Joon-Sik Park, “Korean Protestant Christianity: A Missiological Reflection,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 36, no. 2 (2012): 59–64.

3 The idea of secularization overcoming religion was developed in Harvey G. Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1965), and expanded in Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967). With the rise of fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam, both have rethought their thesis. Cox reconsiders in “The Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rise and Fall of ‘Secularization’” in The Twentieth Century: A Theological Overview, ed. Gregory Baum (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 135–43. Berger, in “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” The Desecularization of the World, ed. Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 1–18, admits the resurgence of religion. His closing thought is the famous quote: “Those who neglect religion in their analyses of contemporary affairs do so at great peril” (18).

4 Ontology refers to “the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being” (“Ontology” in Oxford English and Spanish Dictionary, By ontological priority we mean the existence of something before something else, in this case the individual before society. I (Michael) have been contributing to exposing this bias for years: “A deeply embedded part of that ideology is the foundational assumption that individuals are ontologically prior to society” (Michael A. Rynkiewich, “Person in Mission Social Theory and Sociality in Melanesia,” Missiology 31, no. 2 [2003] 156); “An implicit premise of Western ideology is that persons are ontologically prior to relationships (or, to put it another way, individuals are prior to society).” (Michael A. Rynkiewich, “What about the Dust?,” in What about the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, ed. Joel B. Green [Nashville: Abingdon, 2004], 140).

5 See Christopher L. Flanders, About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Mission (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), 46–56, for a discussion of the Western notion of independent face, then pages 90–91 for contrast with the Asian interdependent face.

6 This phrase, of course, plays off the South African theological movement that took up the Bantu (Nguni and Zulu) term ubuntu, which means “humanity” but can be translated as “I am because we are.” Desmond Tutu, Bishop in the Anglican Church, popularized the term, but it has a genealogy back to the nineteenth century. The Latin phrase is my (Michael’s) contribution to the discussion.

7 See Alasdair C. MacIntrye, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985) 31, 205; and Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) 113, 131.

8 David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 40–43; and H. Jerome Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 15.

9 deSilva, 55–61.

10 See Hope Hodge Seck, “After Public Crisis and Fall from Grace, Wounded Warrior Project Quietly Regains Ground,” Aug. 9, 2019,; Mark Trumbull, “Toyota Recall Having Big Impact On Company’s Reputation,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 2010,; Boyang Zhang, Jari Veijalainen, and Denis Kotkov, “Volkswagen Emission Crisis – Managing Stakeholder Relations on the Web,” in Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies, vol. 1, INSTICC Conference Proceedings (Setúbal, Portugal: SciTePress, 2016), 176–87.

11 South Korean National Statistical Office ( Social Index of South Korea (Seoul: KNSO, 1985); Social Index of South Korea (Seoul: KNSO, 1995); Social Index of South Korea (Seoul: KNSO, 2005); and Social Index of South Korea (Seoul: KNSO, 2015).

12 Tom J. Brown, Peter A. Dacin, Michael Gerard Pratt, and David A. Whetten, “Identity, Intended Image, Construed Image, and Reputation: An Interdisciplinary Framework and Suggested Terminology,” Academy of Marketing Science Journal 34, no. 2 (2006): 99–106. See also, Michael L. Barnett, John M. Jermier, and Barbara A. Lafferty, “Corporate Reputation: The Definitional Landscape,” Corporate Reputation Review 9, no. 1 (2006): 26–38.

13 Brown et al., 100.

14 John M. T. Balmer, “Corporate Identity and the Advent of Corporate Marketing,” Journal of Marketing Management 14, no. 8 (1998): 963–96.

15 See especially Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein, Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980), idem, Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research, Addison-Wesley Series in Social Psychology (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975); and Kevin Money and Carolyn Hillenbrand, “Using Reputation Measurement to Create Value: An Analysis and Integration of Existing Measures,” Journal of General Management 32, no. 1 (2006): 1–12.

16 Charles Fombrun and Cees B. M. Van Riel, “The Reputational Landscape,” Corporate Reputation Review 1, no. 1 (1997): 5–13.

17 Ibid., 9.

18 Ibid., 10.

19 William J. Goode, The Celebration of Heroes: Prestige as a Control System (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), vii.

20 Goode defines prestige as “the esteem, respect, or approval that is granted by an individual or a collectivity for performances or qualities they consider above average” (7). He uses prestige, esteem, honor, and reputation interchangeably.

21 Ibid., ix. The flow of honor “help[s] shape individual movement from one group to another.

22 Ibid., xii.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., 14.

25 Ibid., 15; emphasis original.

26 Ibid., 103.

27 The norm of reciprocal relationship is well known as the “Five Relationships (五倫)” in the Mencius, the most famous Confucian classic. There should be affection between father and son, righteousness between ruler and minister, proper distinction between husband and wife, proper order between elder and younger, and faithfulness between friends. See The Editorial Department of Confucian Studies and Eastern Philosophy, N Sedaileur Wehan Yougyochulhak Essay [Essay of Confucian Philosophy for N Generation] (Seoul: Sungkyunkwan University, 2001), 86–90.

28 Geun-Young Lee, South Korean Economy Growth, Development, and Reformation (Seoul: Dasan Books, 2000), 48.

29 Tae-Seop Lim, “The Structure of Che-myon and the Determinants of Che-myon Needs,” Korean Journal of Journalism and Communication Studies 32, no. 3 (1994): 205–47.

30 Anna Fifield, “Korean Air ‘Nut Rage’ Heiress Resurfaces as Olympics VIP While Her Former Target Scrubs Toilets,” The Washington Post, February 7, 2018,

31 Lee Suh-yoon, “Workplace Violence by Superiors a Serious Problem,” The Korea Times, January 28, 2020,

32 E.g., Jae-Hui Kim, Tai-Hoon Kim, and Jin-An Chun, “The Influence of Chemyun (Social Face) on Unplanned Upward Consumption,” South Korean Journal of Psychology 9, no. 2 (2008): 149–68; Eun-Hee Park, “The Influence of Social Face Sensitivity on Vanity and Consumption Behavior,” Family and Environment Research 51, no. 4 (2013): 413–24.

33 Joon-Sik Park, 60.

34 This was noted by Joon-Sik Park, 61–64. It was verified by Connor, “6 Facts.”

35 Shin-Young Lee, “Baeimhyumui Choyongki Moksa Hangsosimsu Gamhyung” [“Rev. Yonggi Cho, Who Is Charged with Breach, Is Reduced”], Chosun Ilbo, February 20, 2014,

36 Won-Gue Lee, “Hangukgyohwoi, Sai Heimangeul Malhalsu Yitneunga?” [Can the South Korean Protestant Church Say New Hope?], Shinhakgwa Sege [Theology and the World] 68 (2010): 176–78; 185–87.

37 Giyunsil, Survey of Church Trust Index of the South Korean Protestant Church (Seoul: Christian Ethics Movement, 2008); Survey of Church Trust Index of the South Korean Protestant Church (Seoul: Christian Ethics Movement, 2009); Survey of Church Trust Index of the South Korean Protestant Church, (Seoul: Christian Ethics Movement, 2010). Based on these sources, I (Shinho) reconstituted it.

38 Charles J. Fombrun and Cees B. M. Van Riel, Fame and Fortune: How Successful Companies Build Winning Reputations (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall Books, 2004), 86.

39 Validity and reliability of the survey data was verified. The reputation average score for the three major religions was compared and analyzed for each religious group as a dependent variable for each independent variable. Next, a frequency analysis was conducted to find out how religion’s reputation affects intention and behavior. In this process of analysis, SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Science) version 14.0 for Windows was used for descriptive statistics, exploratory factor analysis, comparison of average, and frequency analysis.

40 There were other questions and points that could be made, but these will suffice for this article. See Shin-Ho Choi’s doctoral dissertation, “A Study on the Reputation of Religion and Its Influence on South Korean Christianity” (DMiss dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2018),

41 Goode, 113; emphasis original.

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“Old Man” as Cipher: Humor and Honor-Shame Rhetoric for Reading Philemon in Mozambique

Among the Makua-Metto people of Mozambique, Africa, old age can be leveraged rhetorically by using the language of honor-shame, even humorously, to convince others to treat speakers with respect or follow their advice. Paul’s rhetoric to Philemon fits naturally into this mode of speech. This article investigates how the cipher (or rhetorical device) of “old man” highlights the elements of kinship and in light of both New Testament and African contexts.

“My Son, you can see that I’m suffering. . . . I’m an old man now, the age of your father. Don’t forget! And I need your assistance as a brother in Christ. . . . I know your heart is good and am confident that you will be sure to do all that you can to help me.”

His message was ringing in my ears as I stepped inside the house. I had known this man for over a decade, and as I considered his request, our relationship, and the way I should respond, my primary reaction was to smile and shake my head. His appeal was phrased in such a way that, while I was certainly happy to assist him, he had me “trapped.” He petitioned me with a smile, but that did not undermine the seriousness of what he was doing. My friend leveraged his age and the depth of our relationship to ensure my assistance. During my earlier years in Mozambique this conversation would have felt very manipulative, but now, after living in this region of Africa for so long, that sense has faded. I can now recognize and appreciate that his request was using the rhetorical device of an “old man,” or apwapwawe in Makua-Metto, which trades on aspects of honor and shame in order to elicit a favorable response.

My experience in Mozambique finds a compelling parallel in Paul’s letter to Philemon. John Barclay describes it as “the most intriguing and beguiling of all Paul’s letters, with its teasing historical allusions and its special rhetorical charms.”1 Paul’s “rhetorical charms” apply pressure in a variety of ways to convince Philemon to treat Onesimus, his slave, as a brother in Christ. Indeed, many Westerners “would find this letter highly manipulative,” but, as Ben Witherington reminds us, “what might . . . appear manipulative in one cultural setting might appear quite normal and appropriate in another.”2 When I read Philemon with my friends in Mozambique, for example, they could easily identify Paul as speaking like an apwapwawe, noticing the way he refers to himself as an old man (v. 9) and using humor, honor, and shame as part of his persuasion.3 In this essay I explore how reading in the context of Mozambique provides an interpretive perspective that helps decode Paul’s language.4 This aim entails that I first investigate the rhetoric of the letter to Philemon in its historical and cultural context, drawing helpful comparisons with two ancient sources, Pliny and Quintilian. Following that, two contemporary interpreters will help us appreciate Paul’s rhetorical approach and strategy by framing it in terms of game theory in an honor-shame and patron-client context. In the final section, I will consider how Mozambican cultural perceptions of honor-shame, humor, old age, intermediaries, and kinship are connected to Makua-Metto communication strategies. In many African contexts, as well as in other parts of the world today, honor-shame rhetoric is linked to kinship language and serves an important role in discourse and argumentation related to the good of the community. The overall argument will show how the Mozambican rhetorical cipher of “old man,” one that fits well within the communication strategies of Paul’s time, leads to a richer interpretation of Paul’s letter to Philemon. My hope is that bringing this reading from Mozambique into the conversation will enhance an understanding of the rhetorical cipher of “old man” and the sociological ciphers of kinship and koinonia in the letter to Philemon. I believe these ciphers are useful in helping us appreciate the way Paul’s complicated request can be interpreted in other contexts today.5

Pliny and Paul: Rhetoric in the New Testament Context

Pliny the Younger (61–113 AD), a Roman magistrate, corresponds with Sabinianus in a series of letters about a runaway worker.6 In the first letter, Pliny leverages his influence to act as a mediator on behalf of this man, encouraging Sabinianus to take him back. In the follow-up letter, Pliny states that while his first communication functioned sufficiently to mediate the dispute, in the future, Sabinianus should possess the proper virtues to be able to address issues like this without needing anyone to intercede. Pliny’s correspondences with Sabinianus provide an insightful point of comparison to Paul’s rhetoric in Philemon. In the following I note differences and similarities between Paul and Pliny in regard to the cultural and relational categories of mediation, honor/shame and patron/client.

Mediation in Pliny in comparison to Philemon

While some interpreters have suggested interesting theories regarding the backstory of Paul’s epistle, the most common reading is that a slave named Onesimus has run away and that this is an appeal for reconciliation.7 If that is the case, it seems reasonable that Onesimus may have enlisted a friend of his master to intercede for him.8 Since Onesimus is estranged from Philemon, Paul must first act as a mediator, asking Philemon not to treat Onesimus “as a disobedient and troublesome slave” deserves, but as “his Patron, Paul, deserves.”9 The apostle “intercedes but, contrary to the known case of Pliny the Younger . . . which makes its appeals to the exercise of the Stoic virtue of clemency, Paul appeals on the basis of Christian love and faith.”10 Paul’s strategy in the letter to Philemon seems to use both pressure and persuasion (elements Pliny mentions),11 but he leaves out mention of Onesimus’s contrition in relation to Philemon (elements Pliny mentions).12 He speaks only of Onesimus’s repentance and acceptance of the lordship of Christ. Paul’s main appeal is based on koinonia and kinship, elements absent from Pliny’s letter.13

The structure of the letter itself exhibits another major divergence from Pliny’s strategy.14 Paul frames his mediation in the context of the lordship of Jesus (vv. 1, 25) and the presence of Christ’s body, the church (vv. 2, 23–24),15 under whose “watchful eyes” this intercession is taking place.16 Paul’s “affectionate and authoritative claims” are made by means of his status as “apostolic paterfamilias.”17 This strategy places both Philemon and Onesimus in the category of his children (teknon) in order to take advantage of what Frilingos calls the “apostle’s τέκνο(ν)-ology of power.”18 In addition, some have suggested that Paul uses commercial, contractual language (for example, two terms in v. 18, “he owes” and “charge . . . to my account”) to reorient Philemon’s will.19 While the letters of Paul and Pliny have similar objectives and strategies, it is clear that they involve different premises and end goals. Paul’s mediation is aimed at Philemon receiving his runaway back not merely as a slave but as a brother in Christ.

Honor and Shame in Pliny in comparison to Philemon

Mediterranean society is “located at the crossroads of, on the one hand, honor and shame, and, on the other, patronage and clientage, each with both vertical and horizontal, human and divine dimensions.”20 Following these well-traveled paths, “the cultivation of patrons gave the client access to the goods, services, and protection necessary for a safe and fruitful life; the cultivation of clients gave the patron prestige and power.”21 The language of honor and shame was used in the Mediterranean world to define and “organize these values and motivate adherence to them.”22 Since considerations of honor and dishonor generally played a role in a given decision-making process during the time of the New Testament,23 we should be sensitive to how they and their connections to patronage would have shaped Philemon’s reception of the letter and our perceptions of it, as well.

Patron-client language peppers the epistle (vv. 1, 7, 13, 17, 22),24 and even Paul’s use of the word “grace” (v. 3, 25) is connected with patronage.25 While Pliny’s letter was sent to an individual, potentially keeping their interaction and juggling of status private,26 Paul’s epistle was to be read in front of the church; in effect, the public reading issued a challenge to Philemon’s honor (a challenge/riposte).27 In Greco-Roman culture, communication of this sort was something of a game wherein both parties had to consider the danger of losing face.28 The indirection in the epistle, thus, shows how Paul and Philemon “play the game” of not losing face in the interaction.29 Heard through the lens of honor-shame and patron-client, Philemon—who already owed Paul (v. 19)—is given “little room to refuse his request! If he is to keep his reputation for generosity and for acting nobly in his relations of reciprocity (the public reading of the letter creates a court of reputation that will make this evaluation), he can only respond to Paul’s request in the affirmative. Only then would his generosity bring him any credit at all in the community. If he refuses and Paul must command what he now asks, Philemon will either have to break with Paul or lose Onesimus anyway without gaining any honor as a benefactor and reliable friend.”30 In light of Pliny’s letters, given the dynamics of honor and shame, we can appreciate the ways that Paul was playing a more complicated communication “game” with higher stakes for all parties involved.

Quintilian and Paul: Rhetoric in the New Testament Context

While Pliny’s letters help us appreciate Paul’s larger rhetorical goal, Quintilian’s textbook on rhetoric adds two important perspectives on the micro-rhetoric of the letter to Philemon.31 First, Quintilian illustrates the connection between old age and authority. He comments on the way that good communicators will rely on stories, examples, and experience by saying, “It is this which gives old age so much authority, since the old are believed to have a larger store of knowledge and experience.”32 In a parallel fashion, Paul references his old age (v. 9) in the letter to Philemon to “induce respect and obedience,” an approach that resonated in that context as it still does in many cultures today.33 By designating himself as an old man,34 Paul hopes to leverage, in a positive, productive sense, both “shame” and “reverence” in his recipient.35 He is drawing on the pathos of an old, imprisoned, yet beloved apostle bearing a new child “born in chains.”36 The argument for a category change from slave to brother is “clearly a powerful gambit on Paul’s part, but one he could use once and only in special circumstances.”37 So he bases his appeal (v. 10) on his status as an old man who is now also in chains (v. 9), linked to their partnership in the gospel (koinonon, v. 17)—an important cipher for reading the letter to Philemon. The implied rhetorical question, then, looks something like this: “In comparison with the sacrifice I am making, is not the favor which I am asking you to grant a rather easy matter?”38

Second, Quintilian also addresses the use of humor and the stylistic value of irony.39 Irony, Quintilian suggests, makes things seem more trivial by framing them differently than expected.40 Orators “of good character and courtesy” can use the listener’s emotions, appropriating irony, to make their case.41 Quintilian notes that “all forms of argument afford equal opportunity for jests,” citing a few examples before asserting that “even the most severe irony is a kind of jest.”42 Even refutation, which “consists in denying, rebutting, defending or making light of a charge . . . each of these affords scope for humour.”43

Considering the serious subject matter at hand, it seems that Paul would agree with Quintilian, since the parallel clauses in v. 17 and 18 are “both full of rhetorical ruse.”44 The clauses question their partnership and Philemon’s material loss, playing with Philemon’s feelings, in order to poke and prod him sufficiently, propelling him to action.45 Witherington notes that “all this rhetorical finesse prepares for the final reiteration of the appeal in v. 20 with a further and even more transparent wordplay” on Onesimus’s name and the benefit or profit to be gained by Philemon.46 So, Paul, instead of wielding his authority like an iron fist, using humor, he opts for the subtlety of “a velvet glove,” crafting his request in a way that pushes Philemon to do what is right for the sake of the honor of all involved.47 The point of all Paul’s rhetorical art is to convince Philemon that for Philemon to maintain his position of partnership and koinonia with Paul, he will need to look through the lens of kinship and do what is right for Onesimus as a brother in Christ.48

Contemporary Approaches to Understanding Paul’s Rhetoric

In light of Paul’s use of honor-shame, patron-client relationship, and rhetorical strategies, two contemporary approaches add valuable insight into the interpretation of Philemon through the ciphers of kinship, koinonia, and “old man.” First, regarding the delicate balance of pressure and ambiguity in Paul’s letter, Joel White draws on game theory to show how the construction of Philemon advocates for mutual cooperation and allows both Paul and Philemon to walk away from the table with their honor intact.49 Instead of a “zero-sum game,” the “old man” Paul shrewdly sets up a game that is potentially a “win-win” proposition.50 White connects this to the idea of kinship: Paul creates the space for both Philemon and Onesimus to step into new roles as part of their family identity in Christ.51 Strategic politeness and indirectness cushion what must have been a sensitive issue in the church.52 In light of his situation and rhetorical strategy, much is dependent on Paul’s confidence that Philemon would “do even more” (v. 22) than was asked.

Second, Norman Petersen reminds us that Paul is not staging a direct assault against the system of slavery, but is limiting his aims to a contest he could win, attacking “only the participation in it of a believing master and his believing slave.”53 Paul asserts that Philemon cannot be both master and brother: the kinship system created by the cross trumps the master-slave and patron-client systems.54 The master-slave system is passing, and kinship is the new reality that defines both horizontal relations and vertical relationship with the divine.55 Petersen understands Paul as acting as the senior partner (koinonon) in relation to Philemon, using this letter to engineer “a crisis for his fellow worker in which he has to make a decision about which of two worlds are to be his.”56 His goal was to remind Philemon that “being in Christ is not just a good ‘game,’ it is the only ‘game,’ and one is either in it or out of it.”57 Paul has offered a move, a next play in the game, where everyone would win.

While many have wondered about the outcome of this letter, it seems reasonable to assume that Philemon did release Onesimus, since it is otherwise hard to imagine this letter being preserved.58 It may be appropriate, though, that this seemingly ambiguous letter is left with an ambiguous, “Did he, or didn’t he?” ending.59 In some ways, the letter to Philemon functions like the book of Jonah or Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. Paul’s powerful petition lingers in the air, asking readers: How do you respond? Will you allow the current economic powers (e.g., master-slave or patron-client systems) to define our relationships? Or will koinonia and common kinship in Christ be the cipher for the life of the church? Will you open your eyes and see that the slave is your brother?

Hearing Paul’s Letter to Philemon in an African Context

In this section, we will explore how an African cultural context both strengthens the interpretative insights considered in the previous sections and, importantly, further hones the understanding of the way the Scriptures were initially received and understood. Specifically, we examine first how honor/shame is linked to the idea of kinship. Secondly, we note the important role of mediators and intermediaries. Finally, we will see how age plays a role in upholding community norms of behavior in Africa. Along the way, we will connect these aspects of Makua-Metto culture to the above reading of Philemon.

Andrew Mbuvi insists that honor and shame are foundational values that undergird both African cultures and the cultures referenced in Scripture.60 While shame can unfortunately stigmatize people at the margins, it also can profitably reinforce collective values, such as correcting stingy or greedy behavior.61 Shaming behavior, in both constructive and destructive expressions, is normally used to highlight the interconnectedness of society even if it is applied for personal gain, and in the African context, “honor and shame are group values underlining strong kinship ties and giving high value to ancestry.”62 Kinship provides an important connection point where “African Christians could build the concept of the Church as the Great Family.”63 In the letter to Philemon, for example, kinship and koinonia are presented as values that should trump the master-slave relationship and the spirit of greediness or selfishness. As Paul attempts to persuade Philemon to do what is right for his brother Onesimus, he wisely does not level a direct accusation, assuming negative motives. Rather, he concentrates on reminding Philemon of the overall lordship of Christ, which calls him to be generous and honorable in his dealings with all his kin in the family of God.

Further, intermediaries play an important role in African cultures—they serve to reconcile human beings with the divine and with each other, acting as important, formal or informal go-betweens, as direct reconciliation would risk potential dishonor and shame.64 Mediators often are necessary to resolve financial disagreements,65 and go-betweens are “used between the offender and the group to lighten the shame involved in confession.”66 Among the Makua-Metto people, this hunger for intermediaries is connected to their own patron-client system,67 but it shapes everyday life and interactions—even among equals. These kings, queens, chiefs, uncles, aunts, and counselors hold communities together. “With concepts of mediators so important in the African heritage, African Christians have naturally interpreted Jesus in relation to such notions.”68 It is interesting to note that while the reconciling story of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection are not mentioned in the letter to Philemon, Paul himself functions in this capacity as an intermediary, working on behalf of Onesimus like an older relative who is intent on reconciling his children. In addition to his age, the apostle’s positional authority and relational authority make him the obvious choice to argue for a settlement between these two men. Within the kinship-layered African context, members of one’s age-set play an important role as they share “the serious responsibility of looking out for and protecting each other’s name and property.”69 Laurenti Magesa notes how, “between the different age-sets, relations closely follow the kinship structure, with similar social attitudes. Senior age-sets are to be respected as elders.”70

In a traditional setting of Africa, old age is valued and “longevity is a prized aspect of life;”71 this is seen in a popular Makua-Metto blessing: “may you grow old enough to walk with a crutch/walking stick (nttontto).” This word has a second meaning: nttontto is also the word for a scepter that a king would carry. There is a linguistic link, then, between age and authority; one’s elders are worthy of honor, and it would be shameful to not appropriately respect them.72 Citing examples from the Ashanti and Akamba peoples, Leo Simmons notes, “The prestige of the aged in death has been frequently enhanced by the significance attributed to their ‘last words.’ These final statements have often dealt with disposition of property, choice of successors, impartation of special knowledge or counsel, pledge of special favors from the spirit realm, and pronouncement of blessings—sometimes curses—upon close relatives.”73 So, the words of the aged, especially their last words, are powerful and formative.74

Paul’s usage of his old age (owuuluvala) in v. 9 as part of his appeal is a rhetorical device that our Mozambican friends often explicitly use when speaking as an apwapwawe. Apwapwawe is a label normally attributed by others, but it is not a title people will necessarily claim for themselves. In my interviews about this rhetorical mode,75 I was told that the words apwapwawe (for men) and apwiyawe (for women) could refer to someone who is merely old, but they are normally terms of respect because this person “speaks what is right/true/just” (“anahimya isariya”) in their role as counselors.76 An apwapwawe is often distinguished by dressing in accordance with their status and specifically not wearing clothes that a young person would wear, and people in this category are described as those who are good at conversation and at using their experience to give good counsel. Their age is a tool to convince people to listen to them and obey but often in a funny or seemingly light-hearted way. Though they may be purposefully vague or indirect, making use of traditional stories, proverbs and puns, they expect their words to be taken seriously.

Another relevant aspect of African culture for our understanding of Philemon is joking relationships. In these friendships, “the intention is to diffuse conflict from the very beginning through an institution whose purpose is precisely not to take offense. Thus, the coarsest insults are traded, property is confiscated, and menial services are expected and given between the individuals or communities concerned but all in good humor.”77 This joking behavior serves a serious function, stressing solidarity and sharing of material possessions.78 Paul’s reference to his old age may then be an important clue to the kind of communication pattern he uses in this letter. The apostle asserts his ability to comment on Philemon’s “property”79 (Onesimus) and uses this joking relationship to encourage Philemon to live well.80 This reading allows us to take seriously the comedic and ironic pieces of Paul’s letter. The pun on Onesimus’s name, for example, plays an important role in his argument, a clue that Paul is using humor as one of his main weapons against the power of slavery in this fraternal relationship. Even Paul’s promise to pay Onesimus’s debt can be seen as being said with a wink. From an African perspective, debtors are often not expected to pay what is owed until the financial situation of the creditor is worse than their own.81 From this vantage point, when would Paul, who is currently in jail, ever be in a better financial position than Philemon? Since “Paul inhabited the lower end of the Roman economic scale,” would he realistically ever be able, or even need, to pay Philemon back?82

From the context of Mozambique, we find a cipher for reading the letter to Philemon: Paul is acting like an apwapwawe, invoking his age and authority to call Philemon to base his actions on partnership (koinonia) and common kinship in Christ. Paul gives an obvious wink, using joking, puns, and irony to deal with a very serious matter. He challenges Philemon’s honor in a reading of a letter in front of the church meeting in Philemon’s own house. As the other members of the church nervously look to Philemon for clues to how he could respond, they might catch a smile on Philemon’s lips as he shakes his head. Philemon has only one way to respond, “‘Of course, Paul, you are right!’ Any other response would shame him.”83 Paul has given Philemon only one way to respond with honor in this shameful situation, one life raft to escape on. He will need to listen to the old man’s advice and treat Philemon not as a slave but as a brother in Christ.


A few years ago, I rode in the back of a flatbed truck packed with passengers and their possessions. The driver’s assistant was collecting our fares as we bounced along the road when an older man suddenly realized that he had paid too much. He proceeded to speak like an apwapwawe, exhorting the attendant to make it right and give him back his change. All of us smiled as he noted all the reasons why this man should not mistreat him. “I’m an old man. You need to forgive my failings and do what is right for me.” Passengers smiled and laughed, and noted their approval when, smiling, the attendant gave him the money he was due. This simple example of the power of “old man,” honor-shame rhetoric, leveraged humorously, even in a context of minimal relationship with the addressee in the presence of a temporary community, points to how even more potent this mode of speech can be in a situation framed by depth of relationship between the speaker, the hearer, and the committed community.

A reading of Philemon from the margins can help us develop a greater appreciation for its meaning.84 It can help us find ciphers for understanding the letter to Philemon. I believe that one of the reasons the cipher of apwapwawe, “old man,” works for the Makua-Metto people is that it reminds people of the familial duties of kinship, even fictive kinship, and koinonia. Lloyd Lewis borrows the language of pseudo-families to describe this dynamic in the New Testament, noting that “the 112 times that Paul describes members of the church as ‘brothers’ . . . he hardly ever uses this language to speak of actual blood kinship, (so) we can come to the conclusion that Paul’s intention was that within the church of Jesus Christ the primary relationship would be a pseudo-familial relationship among peers. Paul’s Christians call one another ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ precisely because they are children of the same Father.”85 That “dizzying display of family language” in Paul’s letters gives hope to claim Philemon as a text for working towards right relationships in the church and the world today.86

Alan Howell, his wife Rachel, and their three daughters resided in Mozambique from 2003 to 2018 as part of a team working among the Makua-Metto people. Alan (MDiv) is currently serving as the Visiting Professor of Missions at Harding University (Searcy, AR).

1 John M. G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, New Testament Guides (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 97.

2 Ben Witherington III, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 223, 222.

3 Africa has important parallels to the Greco-Roman world, and reading the Classics and the New Testament through that lens can give us a richer and fuller perspective of that time. See Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 252–55. And certain aspects of the cultures of the Bible make them more easily grasped today by Africans than by Westerners. See Ernest A. McFall, Approaching the Nuer of Africa Through the Old Testament (Pasadena, CA: William B. Carey Library, 1970), 1–3, 90–93. An appreciation of similarities should not cause us to overlook differences, though.

4 I will use the language of “cipher” throughout the article, not in a technical sense, but as a placeholder for the idea of “interpretive key or code.”

5 At different points in this paper, I will use the terms kinship and koinonia as separate, although, interconnected ideas. Kinship language normally is used to describe familial, blood relationships but can also be used in a fictive sense to refer to those in close relationship—that sense appears often in Scripture and in the Mozambican context today. Koinonia is a transliteration of a Greek word used often in the New Testament to describe communion or fellowship.

6 Pliny, Letters and Panegyricus, vol. 2, trans. Betty Radice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 9.21 and 9.24.

7 Wendy J. Cotter, “‘Welcome Him As You Would Welcome Me’ (Philemon 17): Does Paul Call for Virtue or the Actualization of a Vision?” in From Judaism to Christianity: Tradition and Transition: A Festschrift for Thomas H. Tobin (Boston: Brill, 2010), 188–89. N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 12 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1986), 171–2, outlines reasons why the alternative theories are unlikely. John Knox mentions the possibility that Philemon sent Onesimus himself. See his Philemon among the Letters of Paul; A New View of Its Place and Importance (London: Abingdon Press, 1959), 15. Sara C. Winter develops this idea of Onesimus having been sent to Paul. See her “Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” New Testament Studies 33 (1987), 1–15. For a “playful” reading of the letter suggesting that Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul initially, see Scott S. Elliot, “‘Thanks, But No Thanks’: Tact, Persuasion, and the Negotiation of Power in Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” New Testament Studies 57, no. 1 (2011), 51–64. Allen D. Callahan discusses the idea that Onesimus is not a slave but Philemon’s brother. See his Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 44–54.

8 Elliott, 52. For reasons why we don’t hear about Onesimus’s wishes or feelings on this subject, see Tobias Nicklas, “The Letter to Philemon: A Discussion with J. Albert Harrill,” in Paul’s World, Pauline Studies 4, ed. Stanley Porter, (Boston: Brill 2008), 219.

9 David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 125.

10 G. J. Steyn, “Some Figures of Style in the Epistle to Philemon: Their Contribution towards the Persuasive Nature of the Epistle,” Ekklesiastikos Pharos 77, no. 1 (1995): 67.

11 “I’m afraid you will think I am using pressure, not persuasion, if I add my prayers to his” (Pliny, vol. 2, 9.21).

12 “He begged my help with many tears. . . . He convinced me of his genuine penitence” (Pliny, vol. 2, 9.21).

13 Thomas R. Blanton, “The Benefactor’s Account-book: The Rhetoric of Gift Reciprocation according to Seneca and Paul,” New Testament Studies 59, no. 3 (2013): 413. Also see Chris Frilingos, “ ‘For My Child, Onesimus’: Paul and Domestic Power in Philemon,” Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 1 (2000): 92.

14 For an impressive “all-embracing textual ring construction” of the outline of Philemon see Ernst Wendland, “‘You Will Do Even More Than I Say’: On the Rhetorical Function of Stylistic Form in the Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 91.

15 Wendland, 95.

16 Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), 288.

17 Frilingos, 103.

18 Frilingos, 93.

19 Clarice J. Martin, “The Rhetorical Function of Commercial Language in Paul’s Letter to Philemon (verse 18),” in Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament Rhetoric in Honor of George A. Kennedy, ed. Duane Watson (Sheffield: JSOT, 1991), 321–37. For a summary and critique of sources that see Philemon in the context of journeyman apprentice contracts, see Nicklas, 201–20.

20 J. D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Fransisco: Harper, 1991), 73.

21 David deSilva, Despising Shame: Honor Discourse and Community Maintenance in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995), 20.

22 DeSilva, Despising Shame, 18–19.

23 DeSilva, Despising Shame, 17.

24 Elliott, 52. This patronage framework is used by some of the first interpreters of Philemon. Chris L. deWet, “Honour Discourse in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis of the Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 324—5, 329.

25 David deSilva, The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 11.

26 In the midst of all the patron-client language of the letter to Philemon, the tone points to a central question: who is the patron and who is the client? Elliott, 52, 54—55.

27 For an important survey of the criticisms against Malina’s model of honor and shame, focusing on the challenge and riposte contest, and a proposal for updating the way we understand its impact, see Zeba Crook, “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 3 (2009): 591–611. In light of the shift from focusing on the individual to a deeper appreciation of the role of the public court of reputation in honor-shame dynamics, Crook suggests replacing Malina’s terms “ascribed honor” and “acquired honor” with new terms: attributed honor (honor given by the public court of reputation at birth based on “family name, ethnicity, and gender”) and distributed honor (honor distributed by the public court of reputation “whenever someone outwits another, when a benefaction is made, or after any kind of public challenge and riposte” (593). We can see Paul’s letter here, then, as a challenge/riposte, “a sort of constant tug of war, a game of social push and shove” communication technique (E. Mahlangu, “The Ancient Mediterranean Values of Honour and Shame as a Hermeneutical Procedure: A Social-Scientific Criticism in an African Perspective,” Verbum et Ecclesia 22, no. 1 [2001]: 94). Mahlangu describes how these competitions for acquired honor happen in Africa and notes examples in the New Testament (Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees and Paul’s communication with the church in Corinth) (See Mahlangu, 85–101.). It seems that the letter to Philemon also fits this category as the response to the appeal has ramifications on the honor of each one, though the present argument will not consider it further.

28 “Graeco-roman society was to a great degree a shame culture. . . . The chief danger was that one would lose face” (J. E. Lendon, Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997], 41). Lendon not only comments briefly on the place of shame of slaves, the role of mediators, favors, clients, patrons (41, 66–67), but also includes a helpful appendix summarizing well “The Latin and Greek Lexicon of Honour” (272–79).

29 See Andrew Wilson, “The Pragmatics of Politeness and Pauline Epistolography: A Case Study of the Letter to Philemon,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 15, no. 48 (1992): 107–19. Relatedly, for the proper place of gift-giving and a discussion of whether Paul breaks the rules of etiquette, see Blanton, 396–414.

30 DeSilva, Honor, 125.

31 Witherington, New Testament Rhetoric, 10, calls Quintilian that “great summarizer and epitomizer of all things rhetorical both in the Greek and Roman traditions.” For a more general study on how Quintilian helps us understand the structure of Philemon see, F. Forrester Church, “Rhetorical Structure and Design in Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” Harvard Theological Review 71, nos. 1–2 (1978): 17–33.

32 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, vol. 4, trans. H. E. Butler. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922), 12.4.2; 12.5.1—2.

33 Jeffrey A. D. Weima, “Paul’s Persuasive Prose: An Epistolary Analysis of the Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 48–49.

34 While some have argued that this term means ambassador, a better translation is to read it as a reference to advanced age. For more on the debate over the translation of this term, examining lexical, rhetorical, and social conventions as solid reasons for translating this word as old man instead of ambassador, see Ronald F. Hock, “A Support for His Old Age: Paul’s Plea on Behalf of Onesimus,” in The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne Meeks, ed. L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 67–81.

35 John T. Fitzgerald, “Theodore of Mopsuestia on Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 361. While “shame” has both a positive and negative meaning, I believe that Paul here is using it as a positive force to stimulate proper ethical behavior.

36 Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 67.

37 Barclay, 110.

38 William Hendriksen, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, New Testament Commentary 9 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 209.

39 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, vol. 3, trans. H. E. Butler. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921), 8.6.54—57; 9.1.1—7.

40 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, vol. 2, trans. H. E. Butler. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922), 4.1.39.

41 Ibid., 4.2.6—19.

42 Ibid., 6.3.65—68.

43 Ibid., 6.3.71—72.

44 Peter Lampe, “Affects and Emotions in the Rhetoric of Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” in Philemon in Perspective: Interpreting a Pauline Letter, ed. D. Francois Tolmie (New York: De Gruyter, 2010), 72.

45 Lampe, 72–73.We should appreciate, then, that “deciphering rhetorical tone is crucial to determining meaning” (Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, 33).

46 Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, 85.

47 Lampe, 70. Wright, 174: “Paul’s method is subtle . . . like the artist or poet, he does some of his finest work not by the obscure clarity of direct statement, but by veiled allusion and teasing suggestion.” Could even his request for Philemon to prepare the guest room (v. 22) be seen as joking, given Paul’s current circumstances? Probably, this was a mix of humor and real hope for release.

48 So, “despite the turns of phrase and efforts to be charming, Paul keeps showing he thinks he must alert Philemon that they are not equal partners and Philemon may not do what he wishes. Paul wants him to do his duty out of love, but in the end Paul tells him what that duty is” (Cotter, 188). Is it correct, though, to say that everyone understood clearly what should be done about slavery? In fact, while some may accuse Paul of manipulation, others argue that Paul was not strong enough. Barclay, for example, notes “disappointment with Paul’s letter from a moral and historical point of view,” commenting that “one can only weep on behalf of those millions of slaves whose lives might have been immeasurably better had Paul been just a little less “poetic.’” Barclay, 124–25. For those who critique Paul for not taking a stronger, more direct stance against slavery, we must wrestle with the question of what else he could realistically do. See Wright, 174; Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, 61.

49 Joel White, “Philemon, Game Theory and the Reconfiguration of Household Relationships,” European Journal of Theology 26, no. 1 (2017): 32–42.

50 Ibid., 34.

51 Ibid., 39.

52 Wilson, 118.

53 Petersen, 289.

54 Ibid., 76.

55 Ibid., 257.

56 Ibid., 269. See 104–05 on koinonon. Petersen follows a translation of “apostle” over “old man” in v. 9. I believe “old man” fits better with the kinship language (father, brother, child) he highlights, and with the notion of “senior partner” as well, and would have made his case stronger (128, 260).

57 Ibid., 302.

58 See Barclay, 118, 119, 123–25; Wright, 174; Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, 80, 85–86.

59 Petersen, 287.

60 Andrew Mbuvi, “African Theology from the Perspective of Honor and Shame,” in The Urban Face of Mission: Ministering the Gospel in a Diverse and Changing World, ed. Harvie M. Conn, Manuel Ortiz, Susan S. Baker (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 281. While power-fear dynamics are rightly understood as important in shaping the Sub-Saharan African context, that should not “hinder us from seeing the significant presence and interrelationship” of honor-shame. Sandra Freeman, “Honor-Shame Dynamics in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Mission Frontiers 37, no. 1 (2015): 32–33. In addressing the topic of the atonement, for example among the Makua-Metto people it has been important to frame it in terms of both fear-power and honor-shame. For more on this see my “Through the Kaleidoscope: Animism, Contextualization and the Atonement,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 26, no. 3 (2009), 135–42 and “From Mozambique to Millennials: Shame, Frontier Peoples, and the Search for Open Atonement Paths” with Logan T. Thompson, International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 4 (2016), 157–65. For more on honor and shame in Africa, see Ruth Lienhard, “A ‘Good Conscience’: Differences between Honor and Justice Orientation,” Missiology 29, no. 2 (2001): 131–41. Her descriptions of how Jesus “played the game” of honor and shame are especially interesting (138).

61 On stigma, see Elia Shabani Mligo, Jesus and the Stigmatized: Reading the Gospel of John in a Context of HIV/AIDS Related Stigmatization in Tanzania (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011). On reinforcing values, see Laurenti Magesa, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 168–69.

62 Mbuvi, 287. Among the Makua-Metto people, for example, one of the worst insults is to call someone nlula (or “one who eats alone,” i.e. selfish).

63 Harry Sawyerr, Creative Evangelism (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968), 91.

64 John S. Mbiti, Concepts of God in Africa (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 220.

65 David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters, SIL International Publications in Ethnography 37 (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2001), 83.

66 Lienhard, 135.

67 For more on the impact of patron-client system in Makua-Metto context see my article with Robert Andrew Montgomery, “God as Patron and Proprietor: God the Father and the Gospel of Matthew in an African Folk Islamic Context,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 36, no. 3 (2019), 129–36.

68 Diane B. Stinton, Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 111.

69 Magesa, 107.

70 Ibid., 109.

71 Ibid., 154–55.

72 Ibid., 167.

73 Leo William Simmons, The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945), 241–42.

74 For more on the rhetoric of the “last words” in the Makua-Metto context see Alan B. Howell and Sam Pflederer, “The Last Word in Rhetoric: Ithele Traditional Singers/Storytellers, Meaningful Communication, and a Reading of 2 Timothy in Mozambique” in Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Practice 10, no. 2 (2019).

75 I did individual interviews (20 minutes) with five people and then discussed these findings with small groups or classes of mostly men (over 100 participants total at different stages in the development of these ideas).

76 If someone is old but acts shamefully (not acting like an older person should act), they would be called maciko. Other terms of shame related to proper behavior are luukhu and naathi—terms for a man and woman who has been initiated but acts like a child.

77 Magesa, 112.

78 Ibid., 112–13.

79 Ibid., 277–79.

80 Ibid., 271.

81 Maranz, 152. So, while Quintilian notes that oaths were not to be done trivially when advocating for someone else, the use of humor we noted earlier may help explain why Paul would do this under these circumstances. Quintilian, vol. 3, 9.2.98.

82 Blanton, 405.

83 Lampe, 73.

84 One example that uses a “postcolonial optic” to deconstruct the hierarchies in the story is Sung Uk Lim, “The otherness of Onesimus: Re-Reading Paul’s Letter to Philemon from the Margins,” Theology Today 73, no. 3 (2016): 215–29. Interpreting the end of Philemon in light of expectations surrounding African hospitality can open up windows of understanding. See, e.g., Batanayi I. Manyika and Kevin G. Smith, “Eschatology in Philemon: An Analysis of ‘ἅμα δὲ καὶ ἑτοίμαζέ μοι ξενίαν’ for a Southern African Context,” Conspectus 25 (Mar 2018): 92–105.

85 Lloyd A. Lewis, “An African American Appraisal of the Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), 236.

86 Lewis, 246.

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Figuring the Disfigured in Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark: A Comparative Analysis

By engaging in comparative textual analysis, this paper explores narrative and rhetorical elements related to the concept of shame in the Gospel of Mark and Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese philosophical text. I examine three stories from each work, all of which feature disabled people in some way, paying particular attention to how the characters function in the stories in light of broader themes. In this comparative exercise, resources from outside the Christian tradition thus contribute to Christian theological reflection on the topic of shame.

In recent decades, honor and shame have received increasing attention by Christian missiologists, particularly emphasizing their social nature within the cultural context of biblical texts. Notions of these terms as inherently social (in their various forms) from the field of cultural anthropology greatly influence this body of research among theologians.1 Though shame in popular English language usage more commonly refers to one’s feeling ashamed of personal behavior and relates to personal guilt, within the realm of cultural anthropology and, more recently, theological studies, scholars tend to emphasize the social aspect of shame.2 Shame is thus a categorical term, encompassing related social phenomena such as ridicule, humiliation, stigma, and ostracism.3 Given this semantic realm of meaning, it is often appropriate to point to shame as present implicitly, if not linguistically explicit, within the socio-cultural environment of a text. 4

With this backdrop of the cultural-anthropological category of shame in mind, I employ a comparative methodology to examine a trio of texts from the biblical Gospel of Mark with selections from Zhuangzi 莊子, a philosophical work from the Warring States period of Chinese history (475–221 BCE). All of the short episodes I analyze feature individuals with physical disabilities. In particular, I address the following questions with each set of stories: Why specifically include stories with disabled people? Who is speaking to whom in each episode, and how do they refer to disability within their dialogue? How do these individuals rhetorically function, specifically in light of the cultural framework of social shame? What are larger themes represented in the stories, and how does the representation of people with physical disabilities relate to the presentation of those themes?

In Zhuangzi’s “Symbol of Complete Virtue” (De chong fu 德充符) chapter, five of the six stories depict disfigured people, and the final account includes two philosophers debating the relationship of virtue, body, and wholeness, essentially summarizing the themes of the chapter’s previous stories. I look at three of the stories with disfigured characters in detail: Shen Tujia the Footless Man (Shen Tujia Wuzhe 申徒嘉兀者 ), Shushan the Footless Man (Shushan Wuqi 叔山無趾), and the Two Disfigured Counselors from Lu and Wei. I am especially interested in the rhetorical function of these characters and the relationship between their disabilities and shame.

In the biblical gospel accounts, much of the public life of Jesus involves healing sick people, some of whom had experienced disfigurement, similar to those portrayed in the Zhuangzi stories. I evaluate three such stories from the Gospel of Mark: the Leprous Man (1:40–45), the Man with the Withered Hand (3:1–12), and Blind Bartimaeus (10:46–52). Each contains a healing element and contributes to revealing the identity of Jesus gradually throughout the book of Mark.5 How does the text describe the respective characters and their healings, and how does this relate to shame?

After first analyzing each set of stories on their own, I then engage in comparative theological inquiry. Comparative theology’s growth as a distinct approach to theology in recent decades stems from the “problem and promise” of the increasingly pluralized world in which we live.6 Comparative theologians recognize the presence of wisdom in other philosophical and religious traditions and draw from these non-Christian resources to inspire and benefit Christian theological discourse. By learning from the texts, practices, rituals, and persons of other traditions on their terms and within their own frameworks, comparative theologians attempt to discover theological insights that are only possible through the uniqueness of the comparative encounter. This approach “leads us to notice and appreciate important areas of agreement—and difference—across different philosophical, cultural, and political traditions.”7 Finally, I briefly point to additional resources which overlap with the material in this paper, to which one might turn for further research.

Figuring the Disfigured in Zhuangzi’s “Symbol of Complete Virtue” Chapter

The purported author of Zhuangzi, Zhuang Zhou (369–286 BCE), lived during the Warring States period of Chinese history (475–221 BCE),8 though considerable debate exists surrounding authorship, dating, and textual development.9 The text of thirty-three chapters contains a hodgepodge of disconnected narratives and philosophical musings and includes diverse literary elements: myth, parable, poetry, didactic, polemic, and debate. Over the centuries, Zhuangzi became influential in the development of Daoist philosophy, Daoist religion, and Chan (Zen) Buddhism, and it is universally regarded as a classic of Chinese literature. Much of the text incorporates humor in its stories, at times irreverently so, poking fun at existing philosophical ideas and figures, as well as cultural and religious practices, of its own time.10 Though three terms for “shame” appear elsewhere in Zhuangzi,11 they do not occur in the stories I analyze below. Part of my task, then, is to develop “shame eyes,” to nurture the skill of seeing the social elements of shame even when not explicitly stated in the language of the text.

Zhuangzi Story 1: Shen Tujia the Footless (6.2)

The first story is the second episode in the “De chong fu” chapter and centers on the dynamic between two disciples studying from a master teacher. Their introduction reads, “Shen Tujia was one whose foot had been cut off [as punishment for a crime], and with Zichan of [the state of] Zheng, he studied with Bohun Wuren.”12 As in many of Zhuangzi’s stories, the names of the characters often serve to help the reader understand more about the characters themselves. In other words, characters’ names are not necessarily incidental. For the first student, Shen is a standard surname and can mean “to stretch out,” “to extend one’s meaning,” or “to warn/admonish.”13 The given name is more significant for his identity, as Tujia can refer to either a convict or disciple who is praiseworthy.14 Both possibilities are actually relevant to who he is, past and present, as we see more fully as the story continues.

The second student, Zichan (d. 522 BCE), is a known historical figure, a statesman and philosopher from the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BCE).15 His name itself is not as indicative of who he is and how he functions in the story as much as his status as an official. Status is at the very heart of the discussion between the two students. The name of the third character, the teacher Bohun Wuren, literally means “Earl of Confusion without people,” which does not exactly inspire confidence in his abilities as a teacher.16 He is mentioned only at the beginning of the story, and other than Shen Tujia appealing to how he has benefited from the master’s teaching and the years he has spent under his tutelage, the master himself does not feature in the story. The primary conflict is between the two students as they try to understand one another. In some sense, we might say that the master exists in order to provide the two students with a context, a setting within which to wrestle with the relationship between status and virtue.

The remaining meaningful introductory detail from the opening sentences is the fact that Shen Tujia, at some point in the past, had a foot removed. The text does not directly state the reason. It is possible that it was due to an accident or some other irrelevant, unknown reason. However, the word for footless used here (兀 wu) does imply punishment for a crime.17 And so, it is likely that Zichan’s attitude about their differences in status stem not only from Shen Tujia’s physical appearance, per se, but from Zichan’s assumptions regarding the cause of the missing foot and the stigma of being a convict.

Their conflict begins:

Zichan said to Shen Tujia, “If I go out first, then you stop and wait; if you go out first, then I’ll wait.” The next day, they again studied together in the same room, sitting at the same mat. Zichan [again] said to Shen Tujia, “If I go out first, then you stop and wait; if you go out first, then I’ll wait. At present, I’m about to go out, so are you able to stop and wait like I said or not? Moreover, if you see one [such as myself] who is a political officer and you do not defer to me, do you [presume to be] on the same level?”

Though they are both students, Zichan attempts to set some ground rules for how he and Shen Tujia ought to exit the premises. One could argue that Zichan simply proposes that they take turns. He does not initially suggest that he, as one of higher social status, should always go first. A reader can even imagine that he is merely politely considering the logistics of how Shen Tujia hobbles along cumbersomely and that they cannot both go through the teacher’s door at the same time. But then Zichan explicitly references his position as an officer, directly questioning whether one such as Shen Tujia ought to consider himself to be an equal. The latter does not take the question rhetorically.

Shen Tujia replied, “At our teacher’s gate, if there is certainly a political official here, is it really like this [as you have said]? You take delight in your being one of political office and others [needing to come] after you. I have heard it said, ‘When a mirror is clear, then dust and dirt do not settle [on it]; if they do settle, then it is no longer clear. When someone is together at the place of a virtuous person for a long time, then he has no error.’ Now you are one who seeks to be important, to be the teacher; but when you speak out like this, are you not also in error?”

After acknowledging Zichan’s focus on the outward respect due an official, Shen Tujia’s response points to the error in this way of thinking. His anecdote about a lack of dust “settling” on the mirror uses the character 止 (zhi), and it is likely that he refers back to Zichan’s earlier statement about who should “stop and wait” (also 止 zhi).18 Shen Tujia wishes to emphasize their similarities as they both strive for internal improvement in the company of the teacher. Zichan, however, cannot see past their outward differences. saying about Shen Tujia, “You are fully like this [in your appearance]; similar to Yao, you strive to be good. Appraising your own virtue is not enough as a means of self-examination, is it?’” Earlier, Zichan pointed to himself as a person of high social status in order to distinguish their relative positions. Here, he directly treats his fellow student condescendingly, simultaneously affirming Shen Tujia’s efforts to become virtuous and downplaying such striving as an insufficient endeavor. Shen Tujia’s final statement gets at the heart of how they intrinsically understand virtue differently.

Shen Tujia said, “Those who describe their own errors as not being their fault are many. Those who describe their own errors as being their fault are few. Only those who have virtue know there is nothing they are able to do about it, and yet they are still contented with it as their fate. If one wanders in the center of Master Archer Yi’s drawing a bow, in the exact center, the center is the target. As this is so, one’s not being in the center is due to fate. Because they have both their feet, people laugh a lot at my not having both feet. I [used to] become furious and get angry, but upon arriving at Master’s place, I [have been able to] discard [my anger] and return [to my old self]. I don’t know whether or not Master’s purifying me is due to my being good. I joined with Master, wandering for the past 19 years, and I did not yet experience knowing I was footless. Now you and I joined together to wander in the inner body, and you label me due to my outer body. Is that not wrong?”

The thrust of Shen Tujia’s argument rests on his understanding of what he can control and potentially change contrasted with what he cannot. After many years of guidance, he learned to accept the parameters of his existence (命 ming), the limits of his uniquely disfigured body, to the point that he no longer saw his lack of feet as something that mattered at all. His anger toward those that ridiculed him subsided as he became a person focused on internal development (形骸之內 xing hai zhi nei). As a result of Shen Tujia’s personal disclosure, Zichan appears genuinely convicted as the story concludes, “Zichan was astonished, changing his countenance and further his appearance, saying, ‘You do not have to defer to me after all.’”19

Though the text does not indicate that Zichan experienced inner transformation, it does specify that his outward appearance changed. This is interesting given how the story started, emphasizing the two students’ external differences in appearance and status. For Zichan, the ceiling for one’s becoming virtuous was predicated on their starting point. In his estimation, someone like Shen Tujia, whose external form was not “whole,” had a limited capacity for moral improvement. In hearing Shen Tujia’s actual experience of internal moral transformation, at a minimum Zichan chose to treat his fellow student more equitably.

The inclusion of this story serves to highlight different cultural understandings of virtue (德 de) as the characters rhetorically function as antithetical symbols in the narrative. Though this story does not define virtue, the concept plays a pivotal role in their disagreement. We observe that Zichan initially judged Shen Tujia’s potential for virtuous development based on outward appearance and their differences in social status. We also see an inner/outer dynamic present, revealing that there are existing conflicting ideas and practices of virtue with which the story’s participants are familiar. The following two stories similarly incorporate elements related to virtue within the context of disfigured characters’ experiences.

Zhuangzi Story 2: Shushan the Footless (6.3)

My second story to analyze, the third episode in the “De chong fu” chapter, shares some elements with the previous one. It begins with another disfigured individual who experienced a similar kind of mutilation as criminal punishment.

In the state of Lu, there was one whose foot had been cut off [as a punishment for a crime], Footless Uncle Mountain. He sought after the lessons of Zhongni. Zhongni said, “Because you were not prudent before, your violating the law caused a misfortune like this. Although now you have come [to study], what do you hope to learn?”

Footless said, “[Certainly] it is my own carelessness with my affairs and treating my body lightly that caused me to lose my foot. But now I have come [to study with you], as if possessing a respect for materially having feet and seeking to maintain what is still whole. There is nothing Heaven does not cover; there is nothing earth does not hold up. As I took the Master to be Heaven and earth, how could I know that the Master would [treat me] like this?”

As in the first story above, the characters’ identities are highly significant to the unraveling of this narrative. The first character’s name (Shushan Wuzhi 叔山無趾) literally means “Footless Uncle Mountain.” “Footless” is presumably just physically descriptive, not his original given name. It is telling, though, that as the story develops below, he is continually called Wuzhi, “Footless,” as a (pejorative) nickname. Though it was likely not his given name, physical appearance (and all of its associated assumptions related to his criminal behavior and therefore his enduring character) becomes his primary moniker. The foot imagery in these introductory lines collectively overstate the case in painting the picture of the first character as chiefly defined by his being footless.20

Two other characters are significant for how the story unfolds. Zhongni is a secondary name for Kongzi (Confucius).21 Here and elsewhere in Zhuangzi, the character Kongzi represents Confucian ideas, practices, and tradition, what the historical figure might have espoused, though often repurposed for the text’s own rhetorical goals. Lao Dan serves as a similar rhetorical face, though as a functional foil, one presenting an alternative to Confucius’ approach and teaching.22

As the story begins, Zhongni questions Footless’s past behavior, specifically his lack of circumspection which led to his punishment and current physical condition. Zhongni’s further query, where he asks Footless what he intends to learn, must have conveyed a sense of doubt in his capacity for learning. Or at least that’s how Footless received Zhongni’s words. Upon acknowledging his own culpability of past actions and referencing his body, he then states what he desired to learn from Zhongni, to go beyond the physical to preserve what is still whole (全 quan). The text does not state what exactly Footless means by “whole,” but he clearly does not merely mean his physical body. His disappointment in Zhongni’s treatment of him is precisely because the teacher initially and primarily viewed him as a person via his physical state. Footless then references Heaven and earth as taking care of all beings, the implication being that they do not judge, but foster the existence of all within their purview. When Footless equates his expectations for a teacher with this description of Heaven and earth, Zhongni fails Footless before they even begin.

The story continues, “Kongzi said, ‘I acted rudely. Why don’t you, Sir, come inside? I invite you to share what you have learned.’ Footless departed. Kongzi said, ‘Disciples, strive to do what is beyond your ability! Sir Footless, one without a foot, devoted himself in this way to retracing and mending what he did before and departing from crime. How much more should people of complete virtue [do likewise]?’” Zhongni, now called Kongzi, realizes that they did not get off on the right foot, so to speak, and he apologizes to rekindle their relationship. Footless, apparently offended beyond reconciliation, departs, leaving Kongzi with his other disciples. Hoping to turn the negative encounter into a positive pedagogical moment for the others, Kongzi praises Footless’ desire to overcome his criminal past and better himself. As Kongzi exhorts his disciples to go and do likewise, he continues to identify Footless primarily according to past mistakes. At the same time, he further reveals his thinking about wholeness by stating that all of those present are already “people of complete virtue” (全德之人 quan de zhi ren).

Kongzi’s praise of Footless to his disciples sounds good on the surface, but the reader benefits from an additional description of virtue as Footless goes to visit with Lao Dan.

Footless [had gone to] speak with Lao Dan, saying, “Kong Qiu has not yet arrived at being a completed person, has he? How do his disciples consider imitating you to be the same as [imitating] him? For a long time, he has sought the reputation of being unusually cunning, but does he not know that a completed person considers this to be the shackles and handcuffs of the self?”

Lao Dan said, “Why did you not straighten him out—to take life and death as being of one order and to take what is possible and impossible as united—to untie his shackles? Could you do it?”

Footless said, “If Heaven deformed him in this way, how could I undo it?”

As Footless vents his frustration to another teacher, Lao Dan, he directly claims that Kong Qiu (Kongzi) is not yet a complete person (至人 zhiren). In doing so, he also draws a distinction between the two teachers’ approaches, accusing Kongzi of being shackled (桎梏 zhigu) by the limits of his own thinking. This imagery is blatantly penal in nature, contrasting what we know about Footless’ history with how Footless and Lao Dan now discuss Kongzi, and their penal language persists throughout the remainder of the passage. Lao Dan speculates as to whether Footless could help Kongzi by untying him from this binding (解其桎梏 jie qi zhigu), by showing him a fuller understanding of virtue and what constitutes true completeness. In reply, Footless appeals to Heaven, contending that Kongzi’s current incompleteness is due to a kind of punishment from Heaven. His retort references penal mutilation (刑 xing), which acts as a rhetorical bookend with how he himself was described at the beginning of the story, culminating the whole episode with a rather unabashed declaration.

While the first story above includes two students debating virtue while their teacher is largely absent, this story spotlights a physically disabled student discussing virtue with two different teachers. The two teachers, then, represent two different ways of understanding and embracing virtue. Kongzi views Footless’ capacity for virtuous development (or lack thereof, from his perspective) as largely dependent upon physical ability. In Footless’s discussion with Lao Dan, they essentially conclude that Kongzi is, in fact, the one who is not “whole,” due to his limited comprehension of virtue. For Footless, though his physical disability stays with him via his nickname, he does not allow it to define the whole of who he is or who he can become. Both intrinsic value and intrinsic virtue lie beyond the physical.

Zhuangzi Story 3: The Two Disfigured Counselors of Wei and Lu (6.5)

My third story to analyze is stylistically different from the other two in that it briefly introduces two disfigured characters but then moves to more abstract philosophical discourse that continues to the end of the passage. In this way, the two individuals serve as brief examples of the kind of virtue possible according to the exposition that follows.

The narration begins, “A curved-toed, disfigured-limb man without lips counseled Duke Ling of the state of Wei. Duke Ling took delight in him, and when he looked at other “complete” people, he considered their necks to be lean and scrawny by comparison. Another man with a large goiter the size of a clay pot counseled Duke Huan of the state of Lu. Duke Huan took delight in him, and when he looked at other “complete” people, he considered their necks to be lean and scrawny by comparison.” The two individuals do not have names, only descriptions which vividly introduce them (and their most prominent physical features) to the reader. They each serve as counselor to one of the two different rulers mentioned, respectively. The two dukes come to the same conclusion regarding their counselors, namely that they begin to see the outward appearances of other supposedly “complete people” as incomplete or disfigured by comparison. Though the text does not directly tie this judgment of the respective counselors to their virtue, per se, it likely relates to their performance as persuasive counselors.23 Also, given that the remainder of the passage discusses virtue at length, one can deduce from these initial examples that it is the counselors’ virtue that allows the dukes to see them differently.

The text continues, “Therefore, when one’s virtue has a place to grow, the body itself will be something to overlook. When people don’t overlook what is [easy enough] to overlook yet do overlook what ought not be overlooked, this is called genuine obliviousness.” This section shifts to more abstract discussion on the interplay between virtue and the body, transitioning from the beginning of the story which merely alluded to this connection via the examples of the two disfigured counselors. Here, the passage asserts the body as both the place for a person to foster their virtue and as something to look beyond. When a person’s virtue matures, others begin to overlook their outward body and see the person based on their internal virtue. The word I translate here as “overlook” is 忘 (wang). Though it often conveys the meaning “to forget,” it can also refer to one being “oblivious to” or “indifferent to” something.24 I think these latter possibilities more fully arrive at the intended meaning, especially when one considers the final phrase “genuine obliviousness” (誠忘 cheng wang), implying that one who observes virtue inappropriately is one who truly misperceives reality.

Further description of such a person follows, “Therefore, when a sagely person has somewhere to wander, they [see] wisdom as a new shoot from old growth, pacts [with others] as immovable glue, favors as that which connect people, and a laborer’s skill as [something to be] peddled. If the sagely person does not make plans, what use is wisdom? If one [has no need] to carve away [something], what use is glue? If one does not keep up in connecting with people, what use are favors? If one does not buy and sell, what use are commercial goods?” The passage describes four aspects of human relations within which the sage “wanders” (遊 you): wisdom, pacts/agreements between people, favors, and a laborer’s skill. Upon listing the four, the overall argument expands by way of a matching rhetorical question for each, insisting that the sage does, in fact, rely on these four facets of human life in some way. Collectively, these examples create a collage of human culture, the realm where the sage develops virtue. Though the sage’s concerns may supersede those of the average person, they certainly come to fruition among the mundane aspects of human existence.

These four things are the nourishment of Heaven. This nourishment from Heaven is [a kind of] Heavenly food. If one fully receives this food from Heaven, what use are people [to the sagely person]? [One like this] has the bodily form of a person, but does not have a person’s inclinations. In having the body of a person, one is therefore [part of] the multitude of people [in the world]. Without having the inclinations of a person, though, the effects of disputing rights and wrongs do not gather in the body. So tiny are insignificant things [like the body] which one is dependent upon to be among people! So profound is the significance of uniquely becoming complete in what is from Heaven!

The sage “wanders” in pursuit of virtuous development while sharing human life with other people in three key ways: (1) culture; (2) bodily form; and (3) living among the throngs of other people. There is overlap between these three, as the passage’s larger claim maintains that something integral to sagely development takes place only within these domains of being human. Though the sage experiences limits given these parameters of human life, the difference for the sage rests in pursuing something greater (e.g., virtue, 德 de) than the base inclinations (情 qing) that most people cannot resist.

The two examples of disfigured individuals which begin this passage and the explication on virtue which follows may at first seem disjointed. The two counselors’ bodies are certainly part of who they are as people, a vital element of their being human, but their bodies pale in comparison to the more profound aspect of their existence, their internal capacity for virtue. As such, the two characters function as examples of living within and beyond the limits of human experience. Though the body is essential, it is not “significant.” It is the arena within which humans seek to fulfill the virtue that “Heaven” gives them. In this way, this third passage downplays the value of the body, disfigured or not, relative to the development of a person’s virtue.

The “De chong fu” chapter of Zhuangzi critiques important concepts within the philosophical milieu of its day. Though the text does not employ shame terms directly, the explicit assumptions presented by certain characters toward others, the themes discussed, and the cultural background all point to shame’s presence. Reacting to understandings of virtue, body, and completeness that the author(s) found problematic, the chapter presents physically disfigured characters as rhetorical devices to subvert the reader’s assumptions about what kind of moral growth is actually possible in the world. In doing so, the text challenges deeply held convictions about who can undergo such moral development, where it is located, and its limits. I now shift to the second set of stories to analyze from the Gospel of Mark.

Figuring the Disfigured in the Gospel of Mark’s Healing Stories

As one of the four biblical gospel accounts, the Gospel of Mark presents selected stories from the life of Jesus the Christ.25 In terms of literature, Mark contains elements of biography and history combined to form a new “gospel” genre, one which modern commentator Adela Yarbro Collins dubs “Eschatological Historical Monograph,” the purpose of which is to portray Jesus as a unique kind of prophet-messiah-teacher.26 The chief overarching concern of the book is presenting the divine-human identity of Jesus within the socio-cultural context of first century CE Israel. As such, as I examine stories of healing in light of shame, I must consider how they fit within the book’s larger purpose, particularly as the gradual revealing of who Jesus is occurs in the midst of conflict with various Jewish parties. Though there are numerous accounts of miracles and healing throughout the Gospel of Mark, I chose three representative episodes that match the disfigurement motif of the stories from Zhuangzi.

Gospel of Mark Story 1: The Leprous Man (1:40-45)

As my first story from Mark takes place at the end of chapter one, Jesus has already begun his ministry in Galilee, traveling around the region healing and casting out demons. As a result, his fame began to spread (1:28, 39). A man with a skin condition comes to Jesus, begs for his healing, and receives it. As a person with “leprosy,”27 his daily life would have been drastically different than others in his culture. Based on the instructions in Leviticus 13:45–46, those with skin diseases experienced expulsion from the larger society because of the contagion of the ailment. He likely suffered physically, emotionally, socially, and even religiously, the last being due to his prohibition from going to the temple. In light of a concern for “cultic purity,” commentator Joel Marcus contends that “sufferers were regarded as, in effect, corpses, and physical contact with them produced the same sort of defilement as touching dead bodies.”28 The text does not state anything regarding how the man became sick, nor does it provide us with his name. The man’s life experience certainly fits within the category of social shame I describe above.

The plea for healing strikes a nerve in appealing to Jesus’s compassion (v. 41). That Jesus touches the man in order to perform the healing act is significant, as this action in any other encounter would have deemed the toucher similarly ritually impure. In associating with the man’s impure status via touch, Jesus effectively reverses not only the man’s physical symptoms, but his social ones as well. Though it is perhaps easiest to marvel at the physical healing in this story, we must not neglect the social implications for the man. Jesus certainly does not do so as he commands the man to visit the priest for inspection (v. 44), which could result in his being cleared to return to his family, home, and temple worship. Jesus thus removes the leprous man’s social stigma, allowing him to return to a state of social wholeness.

The final aspect of this story I wish to highlight is Jesus’s insistence that the man not tell anyone about his healing (v. 44), other than the priest, of course. Ironically, the man does not heed Jesus’s instruction, taking full advantage of his newfound freedom to mingle socially and talk about his life transformation (v. 45). Though Jesus previously silences “unclean spirits” and “demons” (1:25, 34), this is the first instance of him explicitly telling a person not to share about their healing with other people. This odd paradox of “revealing” and “concealing” Jesus’s identity occurs throughout the Gospel of Mark, functioning as a rhetorical device known as the “messianic secret.”29 The ramifications of Jesus’ increasing notoriety are twofold. First, he interacts with growing crowds seeking his healing and teaching. Second, he must contend with Jewish groups in power who misunderstand, and feel threatened by, his identity as a potential messiah. This latter element is more pronounced in the next two stories.

Gospel of Mark Story 2: The Man with the Withered Hand (3:1–6)

This healing is the final of five “controversy stories,”30 in which Jesus’s actions throughout Galilee cause increasing friction with the local religious authorities. Their tension comes to a head in this episode as Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest, a day in which work of any kind (in this instance, the healing itself) ought not take place. The man Jesus heals has a “withered hand” (v. 1), which can mean that it is “dried up,” or alternatively, in a figurative sense as an “image of paralysis.”31 Either way, it does not seem that he deals with the same kind of social exclusion, due to his physical ailment, as the man with the skin condition. Jesus encounters him while entering the synagogue, and in such a public place, an unnamed group of onlookers, later identified as Pharisees (v. 6), curiously observe their interaction.

Unlike the earlier episode in which the man with leprosy begged Jesus for healing, the man with the withered hand does not speak in the story. Jesus speaks to him at one point, directing him to come to the center, presumably for all present to watch (v. 3), though the healing itself only serves as the narrative locus for the larger standoff between Jesus and the Pharisees. In this way, though we may extrapolate that the man’s social circumstances change as a result of being made physically “whole,” the text adds nothing by way of describing the man’s situation, before or after the healing. In regard to shame’s presence in this story, we must look to the other two parties present.

This story harkens back to the immediately preceding verses (2:23–28), which also feature Jesus and the Pharisees debating the keeping of the Sabbath requirements. In that story, as in this one, Jesus appeals to something that supersedes strict Sabbath observance: in the former, to Sabbath being created for humanity’s benefit (2:27); in the latter, to doing good and saving a life (3:4). Sabbath law permitted the saving of a person’s life on the Sabbath day, but scholars point to the fact that the man’s condition was not necessarily life-threatening as an argument that Jesus was not simply legalistically following the Sabbath law in healing the man.32 Rather, he intentionally engaged the Pharisees in debate in order to put them in their proper place. As a result of Jesus’ actions and words, then, I do not think it inappropriate to say that Jesus shamed them. They lost face in a very public way through the exchange, exemplified by their remaining silent (v. 4).33 This added fuel to the already stoked fire of their desire to “destroy him” (v.6). This story serves to highlight the two different visions for Israel of the Pharisees and Jesus. The Pharisees plotting also foreshadows the passion events still to come.

Gospel of Mark Story 3: Blind Bartimaeus (10:46–52)

Occurring several chapters later than the other two stories, my final healing account to examine functions as a transitional narrative which concludes the middle section, begun with a similar healing of a blind man (8:22–26), and paves the way for the shift to events in and around Jerusalem in the remaining chapters. The two stories of healing blind men thus bookend the middle section, one in which Jesus teaches repeatedly on sacrificial discipleship, reveals that he will soon die, experiences transfiguration, and summarily instructs the disciples who witness it not to tell what they have seen. Throughout this portion of Mark, the theme of “sight” related to faith is pervasive.

The man who receives healing at the conclusion of chapter ten is an active participant in his story, calling out to Jesus and an entourage (his disciples and a “large crowd;” v. 46) as they leave Jericho. Three details about his identity are important for consideration here: his name, his blindness, and his begging. That he has a name is unusual for healing stories of this kind,34 and commentators suggest different theories as to the significance of the name Bartimaeus, pointing to possible connections to Hebrew and Syriac/Aramaic cognates for “unclean” and “blind,” respectively, as well as to Plato’s Timaeus, a story about the son of Timaeus with strong themes on the relationship of sight and insight.35 It is difficult to know precisely the reason for the name, though the fact that the blind man possesses the name he does—particularly as one considers the themes of sight and faith in this story and the larger section of the book—seems significant and would likely have been evocative for the original hearers of the story.

That the story mentions Bartimaeus’ blindness and begging together is a symptom of the larger culture’s stigma toward someone with his physical disability, forcing him to the fringes of society spatially and socially (to the edge of town).36 His dismissal from his culture is also present in how Jesus’s disciples treat him upon calling out to Jesus as they attempt to “rebuke” him into “silence” (v. 48).37 They cannot quell his desire to be healed, as he calls out again to Jesus, who, in the end, restores his sight. Bartimaeus’s blindness, while very real to him, is also important for how the story rhetorically contrasts his “sight” with that of the disciples. Jesus’s question to him, asking him what he wants (v. 51), recalls a similar question Jesus presented to James and John in the immediately preceding story (10:35–45), who reply that they desire the status of sitting next to Jesus in his “glory,” though the text indicates that they do not really comprehend the fullness of what they seek. Though Bartimaeus is physically blind, he understands Jesus’ identity via his faith (v. 52) far better than the other disciples.38

In summarizing these three healing stories from the Gospel of Mark, we observe repeated demonstrations of Jesus’s compassion and signs of a slowly developing revelation of Jesus’ identity. Though each of the stories explicitly portray physical healing, we miss the larger transformation taking place if we do not also notice the underlying presence of the socio-cultural dynamic of honor and shame. As such, just as Jesus knows his own path leads towards physical and social suffering in the passion events he would soon face, his compassion compels him to see and heal the whole person, to alleviate others’ physical ailments while also overcoming the social shame they experience.

Comparative Theological Reflections

In this last section, I tease out essential similarities and differences between the two sets of texts from Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark. In doing so, I hope to help the reader think through some potential theological implications for such a comparative analysis. Beginning with the similarities, three in particular stand out. First, both groups of stories serve to rhetorically subvert cultural expectations of honor and shame. In the Zhuangzi stories from “De chong fu (德充符),” the disfigured characters are the true exemplars of virtue, not because they are disfigured, but because, in spite of their physical disfigurement, they each are still uniquely capable of and demonstrate virtuous growth. In Mark, Jesus goes against cultural norms, touches someone unclean, flirts with breaking Sabbath laws, and pays attention to a blind man that others wanted to silence and ignore, all of which reflect his willingness to risk cultural impropriety for the needs of people he met face to face.

Secondly, the two sets of stories, each in their own manner, serve to humanize those whose physical disabilities have caused them shame in some form or another in the larger society. The Zhuangzi texts attribute the capacity for moral development to those with disfigured physical forms, extending the definition of what it means to be human beyond, though still contained within, the body. Similarly, as Jesus heals those with various physical ailments, he simultaneously restores their respective social places among family, culture, and temple, thus helping them maintain a fuller version of their human selves than they were previously allowed. Finally, the texts highlight the interdependent relationship between the physical, social, and moral realms of human life as they pertain to honor and shame. In both sets of stories, individuals’ physical bodies (disabled and non-disabled alike) unfairly dictated social status, perceived moral capacity, and social conduct.

Though the episodes from Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark share common motifs, it is in pointing to one specific feature of difference that I intend to offer constructive suggestions for theological reflections on shame. The Zhuangzi stories present compelling notions in regard to how to understand body and wholeness, ideas which are not incompatible with Christian theology and which are certainly critical for how we interact with and treat all people. In the stories of disfigurement from Zhuangzi, the larger point is that physical disability and the general limits of the human body are not inherently setbacks for one to be a “whole” or “complete” person. One is capable of being whole via moral development, seeking virtue while living within the body, regardless of its condition.

On the surface of the healing stories we examined from Mark, one could come to understand that Jesus physically healing various people is what makes them whole, that bodily wholeness equates to human wholeness. This thinking certainly pervades the Jewish culture of that day, informed by Hebrew Scriptures, and similar theology and resulting treatment of those with physical disabilities is also common throughout church history. Yet, even in the details I observed above about the social nature of shame and the social implications of the healings, we see that physical wholeness is not the entire picture in these Markan stories. Jesus interacted with those of society that others rarely did, overcoming social barriers and extending honor in the process.


As a result of the insights gleaned from my comparative analysis above, I believe Christians must address the following questions. What is human wholeness in relation to the body? What is a healthy Christian theology of the physical body? What is the relationship between our physical bodies and our resurrection bodies? How does our answer to the previous question influence how we perceive physical disabilities now? How can we understand “wholeness” in light of physical disability? Should our primary concern toward those with disabilities be solely confined to medical healing? Or, are there alternative ways of thinking and being which consider disabled people as already “whole,” just as they are? Fortunately, others have already grappled with these questions in ways relevant to our modern concerns (e.g., medical ethics, disability rights) and which have the potential to impact practices within the church.

I suggest two resources Christians might draw from in order to contribute to a better understanding of the body, particularly in light of the literary motif of disfigured individuals and their social shame as observed in the stories of this study. The first is the field of disability studies at large, interdisciplinary by its nature, combining areas of study as varied as law, medicine, ethics, psychology, philosophy, and religion, all with the aim of developing better theory and practice in regard to issues affecting those with disabilities of various kinds.39 Becoming familiar with the ways that people discuss disability and the body outside the church is crucial for beginning to think about them theologically. Secondly, one theologian who has spent a considerable portion of his career working in this area is Amos Yong.40 His work critiques long-standing attitudes, behaviors, and thinking as he reinterprets many biblical passages with a “disability hermeneutic,” one which has profound implications not just for those with physical disabilities, but for understanding the message of the Christian gospel as a whole.

Travis Allyn Myers is a current MA student in Chinese Literature at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He holds degrees from Lipscomb University (BA in Biblical Studies) and Abilene Christian University (MDiv, MA in Missions). Travis previously lived, worked, taught, and studied in mainland China for 7 years in two different cities, Wuhan (Hubei province) and Kunming (Yunnan province). His research interests include theological anthropology, religious pluralism, ritual, and spiritual practices and formation, especially with regard to comparative approaches in theology, philosophy, and ethics.

1 Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 15–19; Jackson Wu, Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, 2013), 46–48.

2 Stockitt emphasizes the corporate, social, and relational nature of shame in Robin Stockitt, Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 28–41.

3 Ibid., 7, lists some of the same shame “pseudonyms,” such as “disgrace, ridicule, humiliation, unworthiness, contempt, condemnation.”

4 David A. deSilva, The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 1–34, emphasizes the need for recognizing the presence of honor and shame in the larger Greco-Roman background of the New Testament, as well as in Jewish culture. His book’s introduction on this topic is informative for understanding how these phenomena function.

5 Zorodzai Dube, “Reception of Jesus as Healer in Mark’s Community,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 74, no. 1 (2018): 1–5.

6 Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 1, employs this phrase to describe the concurrent “problem” of the reality of pluralism in the world and the “promise” it provides via new opportunities for interaction and learning from those of other religious faith traditions. Knitter’s book provides an overview of different historical Christian approaches to developing a “theology of religion,” including the most recent, comparative theology. Though comparative theology as a distinct method of theology has developed considerably in the past three decades, Clooney thoroughly charts its various academic roots, some of which go back several centuries. See chapters 2 and 3 in Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Another helpful work of introduction to comparative theology, relating the nature, method, and breadth of the current field is Catherine Cornille, Meaning and Method in Comparative Theology (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2019). See also James L. Fredericks, Faith Among Faiths: Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions (New York: Paulist Press, 1999).

7 Erin M. Cline, Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 6.

8 The fracturing of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE) gave way to numerous vassal states, which, in time, built up their own autonomy and began vying for power. As the more powerful states conquered weaker ones, the total number shrank, ultimately resulting in Qin Shihuang unifying ancient China through conquest in 221 BCE. It was thus within this backdrop of centuries of constant warfare and political instability that literature such as Zhuangzi began to take shape, much of which concerned itself with the nature of people and how to govern them and espoused competing notions for each. As nobility in positions of power trained to be effective leaders, they sought teaching from wise masters. In fact, the first two stories I analyze below have as their setting students studying with a master teacher, one who they hope will provide ways of understanding human virtue and governance. The third story includes two counselors serving rulers in respective independent states.

9 Harold Roth, “Chuang Tzu,” in Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. Michael Loewe (Society for the Study of Early China: University of California, 1993), 56–58. The only extant recension comes to us via Guo Xiang’s (d. 312 CE) commentary, though Roth outlines that other commentaries and sources point to earlier recensions with different numbers of chapters and unknown differences in textual content from Guo’s version. This indicates that the only received version of Zhuangzi underwent considerable editing by Guo Xiang. As a result, modern scholars attempt to reconstruct the various strands of compilation prior to Guo in order to determine earlier compilers and contributors. Due to this complex textual history, about much of which we must speculate, it is imprecise to speak of Zhuang Zhou as the sole author of the whole text we now possess.

10 One modern philosopher, Van Norden, describes this thread of polemical satire in Zhuangzi as a kind of “therapeutic skepticism,” seeking to relieve us from the anxiety of the certainty of knowledge. See his introduction on Zhuangzi in Bryan W. Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011), 142–62. Elsewhere, Moeller and D’Ambrosio trace scholarly studies on humor in Zhuangzi, contrasting it with a relative dearth of humor in other ancient Chinese literature of its time, in Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio, Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 71–76.

11 Three such Chinese characters in Zhuangzi fit within the shame semantic realm: 愧 (kui, “ashamed, shame-faced, lose face,” 5 occurrences), 恥 (chi, “shame, ashamed, humiliate/d,” 11 occurrences), and 辱 (ru, “disgrace, dishonor, insult,” 14 occurrences). See A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese, rev. ed., ed. Paul W. Kroll et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 248, 52, 391; hereafter I refer to this work as SDCMC.

12 All translations of the Chinese texts are mine with reference to the following: Brook Ziporyn, trans., Zhuangzi, The Essential Writings: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2009); A. C. Graham, trans., Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters (London: Unwin, 1989); Victor Mair, trans., Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang-Tzu (New York: Bantam Books, 1994); Burton Watson, trans., The Complete Works of Zhuangzi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). The Chinese text I use comes from Zhuangzi jishi 莊子集釋, comm. Guo Qingfan 郭慶藩 (1844–1896?), ed. Wang Xiaoyu王孝魚 (1900–1981) (Taibei: Sanmin shuju, 1993).

13 SDCMC, 406.

14 Ibid., 191, 460.

15 Ziporyn, 34.

16 SDCMC, 26, 177.

17 SDCMC, 482.; Ziporyn, 35, for example, translates the term in an explicitly penal sense.

18 SDCMC, 607.

19 An alternate reading is possible for the final phrase, 子無乃稱 (zi wu nai cheng), as with other translators. “Don’t tell anyone about this!” (Ziporyn, 35) and “Mention no more about it, sir,” (Mair, 45) are two good examples. I use “defer to” here for 稱 (cheng) as it connects back to Zichan’s concern with Shen Tujia deferring to him, based on their relative social status.

20 Three separate words in the first two sentences relate to feet: (1) Shushan’s being one who is footless (兀者 wuzhe); (2) “without a foot” as his nickname (無趾 wuzhi), as the “foot” also can refer to the foot of a mountain, a type of word association pun on his surname, Shan (山) (mountain); (3) and his “following” (踵 zhong) a teacher is connected to the “heel” of a foot or “following after one’s heels.” See SDCMC, 482, 607, 612.

21 On how Zhuangzi parodies Confucian emphasis on social change through external ritual (禮 li), see Kim-chong Chong, Zhuangzi’s Critique of the Confucians (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016), 3-4. “Kongzi” elsewhere (and below in this story) also has the name Kongqiu. Thus in this text, the names Zhongni, Kongzi, and Kongqiu all refer to the same individual, Latinized as Confucius in English.

22 See Ziporyn, 23n8, for explanation of the development of Lao Dan as a literary figure. When this text was still in its nascent form, Daoism had not yet experienced the centuries of development and growth that would make it the philosophical and religious tradition that we know today.

23 An alternative interpretation is translating the two individuals as “pleasing” (說 yue) the respective dukes due to their deformities or some unstated reason. If so, they are not counselors, those who persuade or lobby (說 shui). If one chooses the former interpretation, it is the dukes who come across as the virtuous exemplars of the story for “seeing” the two disfigured individuals differently than most see them. See SDCMC, 426.

24 SDCMC, 470.

25 The Gospel of Mark comes from the first century CE (ca. 68–69). See Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 1–14.

26 Ibid., 15–84.

27 Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 205, points out that the man’s condition could have been one of a number of different skin diseases, from something temporary and easily treatable, to what we commonly refer to today as leprosy, called Hansen’s disease, medically curable today but not at the time of the text. The term in the text, lepros, as used at the time, is imprecise, conveying only that the man had some kind of skin condition.

28 Ibid., 208.

29 Cf. Mark 1:34; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9. Collins, 170–72, explains this phenomenon and traces its historical development within biblical scholarship.

30 Marcus, 250.

31 Ibid., 247; Collins, 206.

32 Marcus, 248; Collins, 207–08.

33 Face as a way of earning or losing respect in social interactions is intrinsically related to a discussion of honor and shame. Christopher L. Flanders, About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Mission (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), presents a study of face in Thai culture with far-reaching implications for developing contextualized soteriology in any culture.

34 See Collins, 506–08, on the rarity of him having a name.

35 Ibid., 508–09, outlines these and other theories on the background of the name.

36 See Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 208.

37 Though the text here does not describe any of the characters ascribing blame of the man’s condition to his own alleged actions, the assumption of connecting a disabled person’s physical condition with their own doing is not absent from Jewish culture at the time. For example, see John 9:1–34. Assumptions and prejudices of this kind toward those who are physically disabled lead to the kinds of behavior we see in this story, the disciples’ attempts to dismiss the man outright and silence him.

38 Moloney, 210, for a fuller description of the relationship between faith and sight.

39 Barnes’s theory-oriented work of social philosophy is a helpful introduction to disability studies, covering a wide spectrum of issues which should benefit those unfamiliar with the field. Elizabeth Barnes, The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

40 The book I refer to here and recommend as a starting point is Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). An earlier, more exhaustive and theory-focused volume covering many of the same concerns is Amos Yong, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007). Two additional works of biblical studies which incorporate disability studies into their methodology are: Jamie Clark-Soles, “Mark and Disability,” Interpretation 70, no. 2 (2016): 159-171; Disability Studies and Biblical Literature, edited by Candida R. Moss and Jeremy Schipper (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

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Romans 8 and the Conception of Chinese Shame and Guilt

The Chinese conception of shame and guilt is different from the traditional Western understanding. Olwen Bedford and Kwang-Kuo Hwang argue that Chinese shame and guilt are not clearly distinguished and can co-exist. In light of their cultural insight, Robert Jewett’s honor-shame reading of Romans can be characterized as a dichotomous view of shame and guilt—a view that does not adequately address the Chinese experience of shame. This paper focuses on Rom 8:1–17 and presents a multifaceted salvation message to Chinese shame. I contend that a believer’s new life in the Spirit involves a three-fold transformation: personal forgiveness of sin, communal adoption into God’s family, and participation in Christ’s eschatological era. This salvific message builds on the truth of forensic realities and invites the believers to experience the Spirit’s work within the broader community. This multifaceted message calls the Chinese people to a fuller understanding of the Christian gospel.1

According to Philip Jenkins, during the third millennium Christianity will change from a predominantly Western religion to a global religion.2 Theologians should therefore seek to construct theologies that are able to address the needs of a local setting. Chinese theologian Simon Chan contends that theology that responds to the needs of the local community should be reflective of the experiences of grassroots communities and the primal cultural worldviews.3 Psychologist Phillip R. Shaver et al. found that shame emerged as a distinctive basic-level emotion for Chinese people when compared to the psychological data collected from American participants.4 Since shame is one of the core emotions for the Chinese people, there is a need to deepen our understanding of Chinese shame so that we can effectively communicate the gospel message to them.

Western and Eastern understandings of shame and guilt are different. According to the traditional Western understanding, guilt is associated with violating a moral responsibility, and shame describes an inner sense of unworthiness, which is related to one’s identity.5 Guilt and shame are clearly separated. However, in Chinese culture, shame and guilt are not easily distinguished from each other. By analyzing the vocabulary used by the Chinese people to describe shame, Bedford and Hwang point out that in Chinese culture, shame includes both the inner sense of unworthiness and the responsibility to achieve a moral standard.6 Shame is even considered beneficial for maintaining social harmony.

Biblical scholar Robert Jewett has read the New Testament within an honor-shame framework.7 He argues that Paul’s idea of the gospel has relativized the first-century Mediterranean cultural understanding of honor-shame and that believers are honorably adopted as the sons and daughters of God. However, it seems that Jewett’s argument is based on a traditional Western dichotomous view of shame and guilt. Thus, Jewett’s conceptualization of honor and shame does not adequately address the issue of shame in the Chinese context.

Building upon a non-dichotomous view of Chinese shame and guilt, the purpose of this paper is to offer a contextual re-reading of Rom 8 for the shame-based Chinese people. This paper argues that according to Rom 8:1–17, new life in the Spirit involves a three-fold transformation that effectively addresses the issue of shame in a Chinese context. The three-fold transformation includes personal forgiveness of sin, communal adoption into God’s family, and participation in Christ’s resurrection life and the eschatological era. In contrast to Jewett’s argument, I argue that the answer to Chinese shame is not to relativize the cultural understanding of honor-shame. Rather, the description of salvation in Rom 8 points to a broader understanding of believers’ new life in the Spirit—an experience that includes both the forgiveness of sins and participation in the eschatological era.

Traditional Western Understanding of Shame and Guilt

Traditional Western understanding of guilt is associated with the feeling of wrongdoing or violation of moral responsibility that may result in negative consequences.8 In the West, moral guidelines are based on an objective standard, and a person is judged when he or she falls below the standard.9 Western ethics then focus on negative duties, such as “do not steal” and “do not cheat.”10 Following the relationship between guilt and moral responsibility, guilt includes three necessary elements: recognition of the possibility to have acted otherwise, acceptance of punishment, and hope for atonement.11

Shame in this Western framework is thus a feeling resulting from transgression against one’s identity, such as the feelings of exposure, inward anger, and alienation. Shame is experienced when one fails to live up to community expectations, in which case, shame entails the feeling of losing status before significant others, such as family members.12 Shame also results when one fails to live up to the ego ideal, that is, the conviction that an individual is not as good as the individual ought to be.13 Different theologians further support the claim that shame is a relational concept with God. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains that “shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.”14 Thus, in the traditional Western understanding, shame is primarily associated with feelings related to one’s self-identity and has no necessary connection with moral responsibility. In experiences of guilt, the major concern is one’s violation of objective moral standards, yet one’s self-image remains intact.

Shame, Guilt, Identity Formation, and Moral View for the Chinese

The above Western understanding of shame and guilt may be different from the experience for Chinese people. In China, group-oriented behavior is highly valued over individuality. Confucian culture defines a person’s identity in terms of the system of relationships in which he or she is involved. These relationships are conceptualized as the “great self” (da wo), and people are obligated to protect this “great self” against any threat from the outside. Additionally, expectations will be placed on the person to impart the values of the community to the next generation. When the person fails to meet these expectations, his or her communal status is adversely affected.15

In particular, participants in traditional Chinese culture are required to take on positive duties, which aim at maintaining a harmonious relationship with other group members. For example, Confucius emphasized the importance of mutual respect and avoiding confrontation.16 Harmony is thus an important element for the Chinese relational identity, and harmony becomes the basis for evaluation of proper behaviors and the conceptualization of individual rights. Proper behaviors vary with different situations and are dependent upon the relationships involved. People are expected to act according to different behavioral codes. Personal identity also depends on the continuing relationship with the group.

The above identity formation and moral view largely affect how shame and guilt function in the traditional Chinese culture. Shame becomes an effective means for maintaining harmonious relationships in a society. Shame is associated with one’s fear of inadequately fulfilling one’s expected moral responsibility within the community, which may result in expulsion from the community.17 As a result, participants in Chinese culture tend to be deeply concerned about what others might think should their misdeeds be exposed. Thus, the relational identity of Chinese people is connected to situational morality, and shame is used as means for maintaining harmonious relationships. Furthermore, the relational nature of the Chinese conceptualization of the self makes it difficult to confer guilt according to any objective standard. This is because a person’s identity is not contained within a person; rather, it is extended beyond the individual to the relationships in which he or she is involved.18 As a result, one’s ethical obligation is determined by the context of a situation and the relationships that are involved. Right and wrong are not objectively defined in Chinese contexts, and they vary with different situations.

Thus, in contrast to the traditional Western view of shame and guilt, shame is not only concerned with one’s self-identity in Chinese contexts but also entails one’s moral responsibility. There is no objective moral standard to confer guilt, and one’s understanding of moral transgression can vary in different contexts. A further analysis of Chinese terminology helps illustrate the distinctive features of Chinese shame.

Ethnographic Research: Vocabulary Used to Describe Chinese Shame and Guilt

Bedford and Hwang have conducted an ethnographic study to identify the Chinese vocabulary used to describe shame and guilt.19 Their purpose in doing so was to study the elements associated with these expressions, including values highlighted by these emotions, patterns of behaviors, and the conception of self. They have identified three words for guilt (nei jiu, zui e gan, and fan zui gan) and four terms for shame (diu lian, can kui, xiu kui, and xiu chi). Regarding the terms for guilt, nei jiu refers to the failure to fulfill the positive duties that one imposes on oneself. It happens regardless of whether other people consider a failure to have occurred or not. It should be noted that nei jiu originates from self-demands and self-expectation, which varies with different people. It is felt when one fails to uphold the obligations to other people, and it happens even if one does not have the capacity to fulfill the obligation.

Second, zui e gan arises from the violation of negative moral duties. It involves the feeling of having done something that leads to a disastrous effect, leading one to take personal responsibility for the result. However, the central concern for zui e gan is not the harm that has been done to the other person, but the harm that has been done to oneself. Thus, the central focus is transgression against one’s personal identity.

Last, fan zui gan is the Chinese conceptualization of the feeling associated with breaking the law. It is similar to the traditional Western understanding of guilt when one commits crime, breaks a rule, or violates a negative moral duty. Thus, while nei jiu is experienced in relation to internal feelings of obligation, the experience of fan zui gan is related to externally and objectively defined obligations.

Regarding the terms for shame, diu lian can be literally translated as “loss of face.” Diu lian entails the feeling of not having lived up to the standards of one’s community. It is related to the moral responsibilities that have been placed on a person, which are directly dependent on the relationships in which a person is involved. Diu lian may also be experienced when the reputation of one’s family member or friend is affected.

Second, can kui results from the failure to attain one’s ideal standard. Can kui is comparatively not a strong feeling because it is about a lack of action rather than the actual transgression of a standard. Can kui happens when one does not have enough time or resources to attain the best standard. It should be noted that the feeling of can kui does not necessarily call one’s identity into question. It is only when can kui happens too often that a greater shame will be experienced.

Third, xiu kui is a stronger feeling of shame and is related to self-identity. It happens when one has discovered a negative aspect of oneself, which has caused harm to other people. In this case, there will be a heavy weight brought upon a person. It is not just the feeling of oneself, but also the recognition that one has harmed another person.

Finally, xiu chi is the strongest emotion of shame in Chinese cultural contexts. Xiu chi is tied to the fear of how other people will evaluate oneself, and xiu chi can reach a point at which one feels inadequate as a human being. As a result, when experiencing xiu chi, a Chinese person avoids contact with other people. Xiu chi is thus directly related to transgression of one’s self-identity and is similar to the traditional Western understanding of shame.

Shame / Guilt


Transgression Issue


Nei jiu 内疚

Obligation to fulfill positive duties


Zui e gan 罪惡感

Violation of negative duties or self-identity


Fan zui gan 犯罪感

Violation of a law or rule


Diu lian 丟臉

Obligation to fulfill community responsibility or community reputation


Can kui 慚愧

Failure to attain one’s ideal standard


Xiu kui 羞愧

Personal identity


Xiu chi 羞恥

Personal and shared identity

Table 1. Summary of Different Chinese Terms for Shame and Guilt

The Distinctive Features for Chinese Shame

Outlining the various terms used to describe Chinese conceptualizations of shame and guilt illuminates four primary ways to understand Chinese notions of shame and guilt, as well as how they differ from the traditional Western view.

First, similar to the Western traditional framework, all three types of Chinese guilt include a sense of moral responsibility, though the sources of feeling may differ. Nei jiu originates from internal feelings of obligation, whereas both zui e gan and fan zui gan are related to the external, objectively defined obligations. However, nei jiu is aroused irrespective of one’s capacity to achieve moral responsibility. This is different from the traditional Western understanding, in which guilt does not arise when one is considered as not having the necessary moral capabilities.

Second, for the traditional Western view of guilt, one’s self-image remains intact even when a violation of the moral standard occurs. However, nei jiu is a feeling of failure experienced when a person has failed to uphold one’s responsibility for other people. Similarly, in the case of zui e gan, the concern is focused on what the self has done to the other person. Thus, both nei jiu and zui e gan will result in a transgression of self-image.

Third, similar to the traditional Western view of shame, the central issue of shame is self-identity: shame is experienced when one’s self-identity is threatened. However, unlike the traditional Western view, Chinese shame is closely connected to the moral responsibility to fulfill positive duties. For example, both diu lian and can kui relate to one’s inability to live up to the moral standards of one’s community.

Fourth, it seems that in some situations, Chinese shame would be labeled as guilt by the traditional Western view. Bedford helpfully argues that shame is an egocentric emotion focusing on self-image, whereas guilt is an allocentric emotion focusing on other people.20 Can kui, which is related to one’s failure to attain one’s ideal standard, could then be easily mislabeled as guilt. It is because unlike other forms of shame, can kui entails a sense of personal responsibility to resolve issues for the others.21

To summarize, the actual experience of the emotion differs between Chinese and Westerners. In the Chinese experience of guilt, there is no objective standard. One’s feeling of violating the moral standard depends on the context and the relationships that are involved. Also, Chinese guilt is not only concerned with wrongdoing but also entails the transgression of one’s identity. In the Chinese experience of shame, it is not only about one’s self-identity. It is also about the moral responsibility to fulfill positive duties. Chinese shame may even be mislabeled as guilt by the traditional Western view and vice versa. As a result, shame and guilt co-exist within Chinese people, and they may not be easily distinguished from each other, as in the traditional Western experience.

Robert Jewett’s Reading of Romans

According to Jewett, a culture of honor and shame dominates the ancient Mediterranean context in which Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans. Thus, for Jewett, the overarching aim of Romans is to repudiate dominant conceptions of honor and shame and to elicit support for Paul’s mission to the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain). Paul’s purpose in Romans is “to gain support for a mission to the barbarians in Spain, which requires that the gospel of impartial, divine righteousness revealed in Christ be clarified to rid it of prejudicial elements that are currently dividing the congregations in Rome.”22 Jewett’s reading of Romans therefore focuses on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Rome’s congregations.23 Jewett argues that Romans emphasizes the universal reach of the gospel and the impartiality of God’s righteousness that is revealed in Jesus Christ.

Four primary features provide an adequate outline of Jewett’s reading of Romans. First, Jewett argues that competition for honor was ubiquitous in the ancient Mediterranean world and that cultural competition played a crucial role in Paul’s writing. According to Jewett, honor and shame language is prominent in Romans, and this is evidenced by the image of the arrogant Jews (2:17), Paul’s defending of the weak (8:35), and the emphasis on sharing needs (12:13).24 For Jewett, correctly conceptualizing the honor and shame culture of Paul’s context “is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end.”25

Second, Paul declares that the power of the gospel has relativized believers’ understanding of honor and shame. By using the word “all” (1:18), Paul contends that both Jews and Gentiles are held responsible for their sins.26 Thus, no one can claim to be more honorable than others. Instead of appealing to the privileged and the honorable members of the society, the gospel appeals more to the powerless, despised, and shamed members of society. Thus, the salvific power of the gospel relativizes believers’ understanding of honor and shame.

Third, Paul’s indebtedness “to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1:14) led Paul to proclaim that God alone is merciful to all people. God would not abandon God’s own people even if they reject God (10:2–3). God would evoke harmony and reconciliation in a world that was torn by competition and exploitation (5:10–11; 15:5–6). This boundless mercy of God, then, becomes the basis for Paul’s mission to the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain). God would not abandon the Spanish who were considered to be shameful barbarians by the Roman people (11:32).27 The climax of the letter is located at the exhortation, where Paul encourages mutual welcoming between those who are in competition with one another (15:7).

Finally, Jewett redefines several key terms in Romans. Specifically, he defines the “works of the law” as “achieving superior status through performance,” which he frames as a universal phenomenon for human beings.28 Jewett’s focus is not on one’s failure to perform the law, but on the competition that aims at status acquisition and the deprivation of such status for others. Furthermore, “being justified” for Jewett is described as “being set right” with God, which entails the “restoration of honor.”29 To be “righteous through faith,” then, means to accept the gospel of Jesus’s shameful death, in which all people are equally honored. The “righteousness of God” is thus the power of God to overcome cultural enmity, to dispose of the unjust system of honor and shame, and to proclaim that God equally loves all people.30 To conclude, for Jewett, Romans’s central thesis is to provide an alternative for the Ancient Mediterranean honor-shame social system, in which people try to secure superior status through competition of honor.

Evaluation of Jewett’s Reading in Relation to Chinese Notions of Shame and Guilt

The strength of Jewett’s reading lies in his sociological focus. Jewett attempts to interpret Romans in its first-century honor-shame cultural context, illumining Jewett’s sensitivity towards the context of Paul’s argument. Furthermore, Jewett reminds us that God is holy, righteous, and impartial. God has power to overturn the unjust system of honor and shame, including discrimination and cultural imperialism. Indeed, to be set right with God entails the responsibility of mutual acceptance of others. Thus, the gospel offers “tolerant co-existence” and a “new relationship in communal settings to all on precisely the same terms.”31

At the same time, however, Jewett’s reading cannot adequately address Chinese conceptualizations of shame and guilt. Three primary issues demonstrate that this is the case. First, the underlying problem of applying Jewett’s reading of honor-shame is that he follows the traditional Western dichotomous view of shame and guilt, which is different from the Chinese understanding. For Jewett, shame is the antithesis to honor and is understood in the context of competition for superior status or the claiming of ethnic status. For him, shame is about self-castigation and is not directly related to the violation of moral responsibility. In fact, Jewett even argues that Romans has nothing to do with the Augustinian idea, which focuses on justification by faith and the forgiveness of sin.32 However, in China, shame includes both the violation of moral responsibility and transgression of one’s identity. Shame is not only the result of competition for superior status but is also highly correlated with one’s moral responsibility to fulfill positive duties. As a result, Jewett’s description of shame in Paul’s first-century context and contemporary Chinese understandings of shame are fundamentally different.

Second, Jewett’s conceptualization of sin cannot adequately describe the problem of sin in Chinese contexts. In his reading of Rom 7, Jewett offers a redefinition of sin as zealous competition that aims at status acquisition and deprives others of honor.33 However, his redefinition turns sin from an act into an attitude: from the failure to obey God to a motivation to deprive others of honor. Indeed, Paul’s conception of sin illuminates a bigger issue—that both Jews and Gentiles are incapable of keeping God’s commandments because they are under the cosmic power of “Sin.”34 This cosmic understanding of sin is in fact essential for Chinese people. Among Chinese, sin should be understood in this much broader conception, which includes structural and social problems.

Finally, Jewett’s description of the gospel message in the book of Romans narrowly focuses on the restoration of one’s honorable status. Jewett argues that God’s grace transforms the unjust honor system of Paul’s world and creates a new basis for honor in Christian communities.35 His interpretation of the gospel message thus focuses on status changes for humanity in the contexts of their social relationships but ignores other dimensions of the power of the gospel (1:16). In particular, believers can have “newness of life” (6:4), in which there will be a new, enabling moral capacity through the Spirit (8:4). If it is to adequately address Chinese notions of shame and guilt, the message of salvation must focus on both the honorable restoration of one’s status and radical freedom from guilt. As John Barclay rightly argues, “[If] one has a broader sense of the corruptive and destructive power of Sin, it is not sufficiently good news if God merely ‘honors sinners of every culture in an impartial manner through Christ.’”36 Jewett’s idea of the gospel message thus addresses some aspects of Chinese shame, but not all.

In summary, Jewett follows the traditional Western dichotomous view of shame and guilt—a view that is different from a contemporary Chinese understanding. Stemming from this fundamental difference, Jewett’s analysis of human sin and the gospel message do not adequately address Chinese cultural contexts. While many theologians point out that Chinese people are deeply affected by their shame-based culture, they should beware not to impose Jewett’s readings of honor-shame on Chinese cultural contexts. In what follows, I offer a contextual re-reading of Romans 8:1–17 through a lens that seeks to address a traditional Chinese understanding of shame.

Exegesis of Romans 8: New Life in the Spirit

In the opening section of Romans, Paul reveals his central concerns for writing the letter (1:11–15). Paul’s central purpose in writing Romans is to “share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you,” so that “we [both Paul and believers in Rome] may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (1:15; 1:12).37 This spiritual gift that Paul wishes to share is his understanding of the gospel, which is that in Jesus Christ God has included both the Jews and the Gentiles as the “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” by their faith in Christ apart from the Torah (8:16–17).38 The central theme of Romans, then, is to explain this spiritual gift, the Christ-event, to the readers in Rome.

Romans 8:1–17 is a fuller explanation of the believers’ new life in the Spirit. The new life in the Spirit is brought by the Christ-gift, and it includes personal, relational, and participatory dimensions. The new life includes: (1) the absence of condemnation for those who are in Christ (8:1); (2) the new life that is in Christ Jesus and in the Spirit (8:2–8); (3) the presence of “Christ by his Spirit” in the believers (8:9–11); (4) the leading of the Spirit in ethical matters (8:12–13); and (5) the experience of being adopted by God into God’s family (8:15). This multifaceted understanding of the new life calls believers to understand the Christian gospel in a broader sense, beyond the traditional forensic understanding and Jewett’s reading of Romans. Rather, it is building on the truth of forensic realities, and invites the believers to move forward to experience the work of the Spirit. In what follows, I will explain the personal, relational, and participatory features of Paul’s new life in the Spirit in Romans.

Personal Dimension: The Forgiveness of Guilt

Some commentators place the division of the first eight chapters of Romans at the end of chapter four. Thus, these commentators argue that 1:16–4:25 is about sin and justification, whereas 5:1–8:39 concerns sanctification.39 Some also argue that the first section contains judicial and forensic language, while the second section contains more mystical and participatory language. However, while it is true that in Rom 8, believers can be liberated from the bondage of sin to participate in a new life in the Spirit, this participatory experience is not exclusive to the traditional understanding of justification. In this section, I will argue that believers can experience the forgiveness of sin because of the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus.

Paul begins by introducing the language of God’s judgment (Rom 8:1–4). Paul thus claims that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1). Regarding the word group condemnation (κατάκριμα), the majority of its cognates’ appearances in LXX suggests an idea of penal judgment (Wis 4:2; Esth 2:1 LXX).40 In the New Testament, the use of this word or its cognate suggests that those to whom this word or its cognate applies would either receive the penalty of judgment or be delivered from the judgment.41 Thus, in relation to the just requirement of the law, “condemnation” here means that God has passed judgment on those who violate the precepts of the law.

Following the language of God’s judgment, Paul suggests that Jesus’s death is a penal substitution that satisfies the just requirement of God. Paul explains the reason why there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ by referring to the sacrificial death of Jesus (8:2–3). By using of this phrase περὶ ἁμαρτίας, scholars argue that Paul alludes to the Old Testament’s imagery of a sin offering.42 Schreiner points out that this phrase refers to a sin offering in 44 out of 54 occurrences in the LXX (e.g., Lev 5:6–11, 9:2–3; 23:19).43 Thus by using the phrase περὶ ἁμαρτίας, Paul highlights that Jesus’s death is a penal substitution (8:3). Paul’s judicial language (κατάκριμα, κατακρίνω), as well as Jesus’s death as sin offering (περὶ ἁμαρτίας) suggests that Jesus’s death is a penal sacrifice for the atonement of sin (8:1, 3). These two images combined together align with the instruction in Lev 4:1–35, which states that the sin offering must be offered before God as an atonement for sin. Jesus thus becomes the sacrificial victim by which God condemned the sin. Jesus took upon himself God’s righteous judgment and God’s wrath against those for whom he died.

While some scholars do not endorse the penal substitutionary framework to understand atonement, the penal substitution is still a relevant and effective metaphor in the Chinese cultural context.44 As mentioned before, Chinese shame is not only about the transgression of self-identity but also entails the failure to fulfill moral responsibility. In response to their sense of failure, believers need to be reassured that their sins have been forgiven because of the work of Christ.

Paul’s use of the phrase “in the likeness of sinful flesh” further supports the penal nature of Jesus’s death (8:3). This phrase signifies Jesus’s “full identity and resemblance with the sinful humanity.”45 Jesus’s taking up of sin does not mean that Jesus commits sin but that Jesus functions as a sinner by bearing sin. Jesus fully identifies with sinful humanity by becoming a man, going to the cross, and taking upon himself God’s penalty for human sin. Then, for God to condemn sin in the flesh, Paul connects Jesus’s participation within the realm of sinful humanity with God’s condemnation of sin in Jesus’s death. God sent Jesus in the likeness of sinful humanity and judged Jesus unto his death on the cross. Jesus paid the penalty for human sin. God’s condemnation of sin is actually both God’s judgment of human sin and God’s defeat of the power of Sin. However, unlike Adam, Jesus is sinless, and his death on the cross could deliver those who are in him and fulfill the righteous requirement of the law (8:4).

In conclusion, forensic language is intertwined with Paul’s description of believers’ new life in the Spirit in 8:1–4. Believers’ participation in the new life of the Spirit implies that they can experience the forgiveness of their wrongdoing. Jesus’s death paid the price for those who are in Christ (8:1–4). God could then fulfill the righteous requirement of the law by means of his condemnation of sin in Jesus’s flesh. In speaking to the Chinese people, the solution to shame does not simply lie in the fact that God will honor those who suffer from shame. The salvific message to shame also needs to focus on its forensic aspect, because Chinese shame is not only about the transgression of self-identity but also the failure to fulfill moral responsibility. Chinese people’s moral responsibilities may be implicitly imposed by the society and may exceed their own capacity. Hence the new life in the Spirit ensures that their sins are forgiven because of the sacrificial death of Christ.

Communal Dimension: Participation in the Family of God

In Rom 8, Paul mentions that those who receive the spirit of adoption will cry “Abba! Father!” (8:15). According to Joachim Jeremias, the word abba (father) implies a sense of intimacy with God.46 However, in the NT, the term abba only appears three times (Mark 14:36; Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15). Interpretations for these passages are indeed unduly shaped by Jeremias’s interpretation regarding Jesus’s use of abba in his Gethsemane prayer.47 When people borrow Jeremias’s interpretation and apply it in Rom 8:15, the focus becomes believers’ sense of intimacy in relationship with God. Jesus’s experience in the Gethsemane prayer is also applied to the believers. However, the main reason for using the word “adoption” is that God has made Jews and Gentiles together the “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (8:16–17). Through the Spirit, believers are now adopted into the family of God.

Adoption is one of the major themes of Rom 8. This is evident in the frequent repetition of related terms: υἱός (son) appears twice (vv. 14, 19); τέκνον (child) appears three times (vv. 16, 17, 21); υἱοθεσία (adoption) appears twice (vv. 15, 23).48 In Greco-Roman culture, adopted children are taken out of their previous situations and placed in a new relationship with an adopted father.49 We should thus understand Paul to be borrowing the word υἱοθεσία from the Greco-Roman culture to describe the relationship between God and God’s people (8:15).50 The adopted son would start a new life in the new family and was considered no less significant than other biologically born sons in the family.51 The adopted son would then have a changed status—his old relationship and obligations were canceled, and a new name was given.52 Thus, Paul borrows this Greco-Roman household practice to communicate the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. In contrast to the Jewish understanding that they alone are God’s elected people, Paul’s language of adoption redefines God’s children to include both Gentiles and Jews (8:14). Because the Gentiles have been adopted into God’s family, the Spirit testifies to their status as God’s children (8:16). As the children of God, they belong to the family of God, and enjoy the same eschatological glory as the Jewish people.

Paul then goes on to relate believers’ cry of “Abba, Father” to the work of the Spirit (8:15). The meaning of the word κράζω (cry; NRSV) is highly debated. For Dunn, it refers to the “deeply emotional or enthusiastic character of earliest Christian experience and worship.”53 In contrast, Marianne Meye Thompson argues that the word κράζω may not necessarily refer to the interior emotional state of a believer.54 In the NT, κράζω is only found in Galatians and Romans (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15, 9:27). In Gal 4:6, the subject of the word is the Spirit and not the believer.55 In Rom 9:27, κράζω refers to Isaiah’s Spirit-inspired prophetic speech and is used interchangeably with προλέγω (to predict or foretell; Rom 9:29).56 Based on this analysis of Paul’s use of the word in Gal 4:6 and Rom 9:27, Paul’s use of κράζω in Rom 8 is not so much about an individual believer’s inner sense of intimate relationship with God. Instead, we should understand the work of the Spirit in relation to a larger redemptive plan of God, in which both Jew and Gentile are in the one family of God, so that both can cry out to God with the same word, “Abba, Father!” Three indications further signify that such a communal understanding for Paul’s use of abba should be preferred over an individual inner sense of intimacy for three reasons: (1) most pronouns and verbs in Rom 8 are plural (e.g., the reception of the Spirit in v.15, 23; the indwelling of the Spirit in v. 9, 11; and intercession of the Spirit in v. 26–17); (2) the word υἱοθεσία is family imagery and points to a larger, communal reality; (3) Paul uses communal language to describe believers’ status as God’s children through Christ (8:17).57 Thus, Paul’s use of the word κράζω alludes to the greater fact that God has abolished the division between Jews and Gentiles, so that Gentiles are now adopted into the one family of God.

To summarize, in Rom 8:1–17, Paul’s use of the word υἱοθεσία and description of believers’ calling out to God the Father as “Abba” points to a corporate and communal reality rather than the subjective experience of believers’ sense of intimacy. The evidence that God has adopted Gentiles into God’s family together with Israel lies in the work of the Spirit, by which believers can cry out to God the Father. When Chinese believers are adopted as God’s children, they can begin to understand themselves as belonging to God’s family and as participants in God’s larger redemptive plan. This belonging is the work of the Spirit and is given with no regard to worth. God is the divine Father in this family. Jesus is the “first born of many” and the high priest, who was sacrificed on their behalf so that they may become “holy brothers” (Rom 8:29; Heb 3:1–2). The Holy Spirit is the bond of love between God and Jesus, and between Christ and the church. The Spirit also effects the communion and love among the church. This communion is anticipated in the church’s sacrament, fellowship, liturgy, and mission.

Participatory Dimension: The Eschatological Era

Paul also sets his argument within a larger cosmic framework in Rom 8:1–17. According to Paul’s cosmic framework, God has liberated us from the power of Sin, so that we can participate in the resurrected life of Christ. Beverly Gaventa explains that in Romans, sin can also be interpreted as the uppercase power of “Sin” that enslaves humankind and stands against God.58 Robert Ewusie Moses also helpfully describes “the power of Sin” as the “comprehensive features of reality spanning the whole gamut of existence . . . [which] permeate all aspects of the cosmos and human existence . . . [and] operate across all levels simultaneously—cosmic, personal, political and social.”59 Sin not only entered into the world (5:12–21)—it became an enslaving power (6:6, 17–18), seized a base of operation (7:8), brought death (7:8–14), and even took the law of God into captivity (7:7–25).

Furthermore, by describing the law as the “law of sin and death,” Paul points out that the law is used by Sin as a snare to trap believers (8:2). While the law continues to function as God’s measuring stick for the believers of what God requires of them, it is controlled by the power of Sin and death. Also, in v. 15, the human dilemma is described by using the imagery of the bondage of slavery, and this cannot be isolated from the study of Sin and death. In the first-century Greco-Roman world, slaves had no legal rights and were subject to the absolute control of the master.60 Aristotle defined a slave as “living property,” and the legal status of a slave was that of “a thing.”61 The slaves are bound by the legal code that requires them to remain in servitude. Believers may experience being a slave to their fear and anxiety of failing to fulfill the righteous requirement of the law.

However, by using the words “therefore, now” to introduce his discussion in Rom 8, Paul seems to signal the beginning of a new era (8:1). Through the work of Jesus, God has defeated the power of Sin on the cross and set believers free from their bondage to Sin (8:3). This victory is achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection. Believers can now participate in new life in Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit (8:9–11). Their new conduct is made possible, not only because of their identification with Christ but also by the power of Christ’s resurrection life (8:11). To be in Christ is not simply an abstract concept. In this way, Christ’s death both condemns sin in the flesh and enables us to fulfill the just requirement of the law (8:4).

Furthermore, the freedom for all creation made available by Christ should be understood in the context of eschatological hope. While Paul writes, “we are children of God,” he also mentions the groaning believers’ experience “as we wait for adoption” (8:16, 23). This implies that our present experience of God’s adoption is an anticipation of God’s full adoption in the future. Through the work of the Spirit, believers will participate in God’s liberation of all creation. God’s promise of “the glorious liberty of the children of God” will have its final fulfillment, in which “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay” (8:21).

To conclude, believers’ new life in the Spirit should be understood in a larger cosmic and eschatological framework. The work of Christ has defeated the power of Sin and set us free from its bondage by participating in the life and death of Christ. When believers become part of the one family of God, we also look forward to the eschatological redemption of all creation. Citing Rom 8, Schwartz rightly states that “the consummation of the world . . . is not primarily destruction . . . [but] rather universal incorporation into the creative and transforming act of Christ’s resurrection.”62 In addressing the Chinese conception of shame, the power of Sin in China may include personal sins such as idolatry and love of money. It may also refer to the formation of a punitive self, which happens when a person has repeatedly fallen short of the community standard and the person experiences self-condemnation, self-punishment, and even isolation.63 However, Jesus’s resurrection has defeated the power of Sin and has accomplished a new reality in God for the church. Through the Spirit, God enables us to lead a righteous life. In the words of Jürgen Moltmann, this new reality in Christ is “non-analogous, [and] transcendently new.”64 Our present life is “unfinished,” and serves as a foretaste for the new creation of God’s promised future.65 The death of Jesus also points towards the righteousness of God, who provides our opportunity for new life. As a result, Chinese people can know that their experience of shame will not be the final situation, as there is hope for a future in Christ.


This paper started by arguing that Chinese shame is different from a traditional Western understanding of shame. By employing recent psychological studies and analyzing the vocabulary used by the Chinese people to describe shame, it argued that Chinese shame and guilt are not clearly distinguished and can co-exist. Shame includes both an inner sense of unworthiness and the responsibility to achieve a moral standard. Chinese shame may even be labeled as guilt within the traditional Western framework that tends to dichotomize shame and guilt.

In light of this difference in the understanding of shame, Robert Jewett’s reading of Romans cannot adequately address the Chinese experience of shame. Jewett understands shame in relation to competition for superior status within one’s community. Thus, for Jewett, sin is zealous competition for status and honor, and the impact of the salvation message is its transformation of such an unjust honor system. While it is true that there are sinful competitions among Chinese society, Jewett’s reading is nevertheless insufficient for addressing crucial aspects of the complex Chinese conception of shame.

This paper offered a contextual re-reading of Rom 8:1–17 in light of Chinese shame. When compared to Jewett’s reading, the message of salvation in relation to Chinese shame offered in this paper is more multifaceted. According to this reading, believers’ new life in the Spirit consists of three-dimensional transformation: personal forgiveness of sin, communal incorporation into God’s family, and participation in Christ’s resurrection life and eschatological hope. Based on the fact that Chinese shame includes both the transgression of self-identity and the responsibility to achieve a moral standard, the salvation message offered in this paper calls believers to understand the Christian gospel in a broader sense, beyond the traditional forensic understanding and Jewett’s reading of Romans. This salvation message contains both the forgiveness of sins and participation in the eschatological era. It builds on the truth of forensic realities and invites believers to experience the work of the Spirit.

In explaining the believers’ new life in the Spirit, this paper builds on the conception of sin as both the human act of disobedience (sin) and the cosmic power (Sin). To participate in the eschatological era does not negate the traditional understanding of justification. Communal cooperation in God’s family also alludes to God’s overarching redemption plan to include both Jews and Gentiles in the one family of God.

Chan Yi-Sang Patrick is a PhD (New Testament) candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA).

1 This paper was presented at SBL’s unit of Asian and Asian-American Hermeneutics in 2018.

2 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2.

3 Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 10.

4 Phillip R. Shaver, Judith C. Schwartz and Whelley Wu, “Cross-Cultural Similarities and Differences in Emotion and Its Representation: A Prototype Approach,” Review of Personality and Social Psychology, no. 13 (January 1992): 175–212.

5 Cf. Paul W. Pruyser, “Anxiety, Guilt, and Shame in the Atonement,” Theology Today 21, no. 1 (1964): 15–33; Rebecca Thomas and Stephen Parker, “Toward a Theological Understanding of Shame,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 23, no. 2 (2004): 176–82; Millie R. Creigton, “Revisiting Shame and Guilt Cultures: A Forty-Year Pilgrimage,” Ethos 18, no. 3 (1990): 279–307.

6 I adopt Olwen Bedford and Kwang-Kuo Hwang, “Guilt and Shame in Chinese Culture: A Cross-Cultural Framework from the Perspective of Morality and Identity,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 33, no. 2 (2003): 127–44, as my key reference. Their work is also widely cited by psychologists. See Bongyoung Choi and Gyseog Han, “Commentary: Psychology of Selfhood in China: Where Is the Collective?” Culture and Psychology 15, no. 1 (2009): 73–82.

7 See Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006); Robert Jewett, “Honor and Shame in the Argument of Romans,” in Putting Body & Soul Together: Essays in Honor of Robin Scroggs, ed. Virginia Wiles, Alexandra R. Brown, and Graydon F. Snyder (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).

8 Joseph Derivera, “The Structure of Emotional Relationships,” Review of Personality and Social Psychology 5 (1984): 116–45.

9 Bedford and Hwang, 131.

10 Ibid, 131.

11 Ibid., 127.

12 Creighton, 279–307.

13 Pruyser, 23.

14 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Neville Norton Smith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 24. See also Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 50.

15 Jin Pang Leung, “Emotions and Mental Health in Chinese People,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 7, no. 2 (1998): 123–24.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Bedford and Hwang, 134.

19 The information in this section is from Bedford and Hwang, 127–44.

20 Ibid., 140.

21 Ibid. They also argue that when some Western psychologists mislabel certain types of shame as guilt, this fosters a positive image of guilt.

22 Jewett, Romans, 1.

23 John M. G. Barclay, “Is It Good News that God Is Impartial? A Response to Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31, no. 1 ( 2008): 91, argues that Jewett’s analysis relies too much on the Wiefel hypothesis.

24 See Jewett, Romans, 49, 223, 546, 764–5.

25 Ibid. 49.

26 All Scripture quotations are from the NRSV.

27 Jewett, Romans, 49.

28 Ibid., 49, 296.

29 Robert Jewett, “Honor and Shame in the Argument of Romans,” 270.

30 Jewett, Romans, 275.

31 Ibid., 142, 233.

32 Jewett’s social vision goes beyond the Lutheran focus of individual justification, and carries a new social and political implication. See Jewett, Romans, 450.

33 Ibid., 449.

34 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition,” Interpretation 58, no. 3 (2004): 229–40, 231–37.

35 Jewett, Romans, 614.

36 Barclay, “Is It Good News,” 107.

37 With Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 486–89, I hold that Paul is referring to the divine gift of Jesus Christ, through whom God extended the salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.

38 See John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

39 See C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 151–53; C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Limited, 1975), 341–47.

40 Jarvis J. Williams, “Violent Atonement in Romans: The Foundation of Paul’s Soteriology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53, no. 3 (2010): 592.

41 See Rom 2:1, 8:1, 34, 14:23; Matt 12:41, 20:18, 27:3; Mark 10:33, 14:64; Luke 11:31; 1 Cor 11:32; Heb 11:7; 2 Pet 2:6.

42 See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 220–25; Douglas J. Moo, Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 114.

43 Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 401–3.

44 See Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 41–49.

45 Williams, 594.

46 See Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), 20–24.

47 See Marianne Meye Thompson, “‘Mercy Upon All’: God as Father in the Epistle to the Romans” in Romans and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. Sven K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 204.

48 Cf. vv. 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 29.

49 Richard N. Longenecker, “The Metaphor of Adoption in Paul’s Letters,” The Covenant Quarterly 72, nos. 3–4 (2014): 71–78.

50 Michael Peppard, “Adopted and Begotten Sons of God: Paul and John on Divine Sonship,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73, no. 1 (2011): 94.

51 Peppard, 72.

52 Ibid.

53 James D. G. Dunn, Romans (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988) , 453.

54 See Thompson, 211–15.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid., 213.

58 Gaventa, 231–37.

59 Robert Ewusie Moses, Practices of Power: Revisiting the Principalities and Powers in the Pauline Letters (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 207.

60 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 56.

61 Ibid., 56.

62 Hans Schwarz, Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 389.

63 Ibid., 389.

64 Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 27.

65 Ibid.

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An Honor-Bearing Gospel for Shame-Fueled Crises

“The desire for recognition is the motor of history.” This has been a recurrent theme across decades of work by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama.1 This article assumes that the desire for recognition is equivalent to the longing for honor; it is the unquenchable thirst for dignity, even glory. This desire is observable across time and across national and ethnic boundaries. Under this historical and anthropological rubric, we will propose insights and biblical truths to address global crises and pathologies: the refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism. These problems have in common the concern for security and dignity. The security issue is marked by the question: How do we prevent hostility or violence? The dignity issue is marked by the question: Who are we—to whom do we belong? This dual concern—first, for our survival, and second, for our honor, the recognition of our identity—is, as mentioned above, an unrelenting force in history. Shame writ large is at the crux of these historical forces. Is the gospel robust enough to offer a cure? Yes. One, the gospel deals with group-based violence (addressing the security question). Two, the gospel offers to re-glorify humanity by removing sin’s objective shame (addressing the dignity question). Three, the gospel creates a new humanity—a new divine way of being human—by relativizing all forms of social capital and robustly answering the question: To whom do we belong? Christ himself through his body is the cure for pathological sin-and-shame as Honor writ large, Word made flesh. The gospel is first embodied and then proclaimed by the church: a gospel of hostility-killing peace and shame-covering honor.

Four Preliminary Comments

This article examines the gospel frameworks of innocence-guilt and honor-shame: Section 1 of this article briefly describes three massive, interrelated global pathologies: refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism. Section 2 offers a diagnosis: objective and subjective shame. Section 3 proposes a gospel cure. While there are at least four value binaries (innocence-guilt, honor-shame, power-fear, and purity-pollution), this article focuses on two: innocence-guilt and honor-shame.

This article addresses theory, not practice. Obviously, the practice of reconciliation and peacebuilding by professionals who are devoted followers of Christ is much needed in our world. Though I comment very little on the practice of peacebuilding, in no way do I wish to under-estimate the challenges of this ministry. Still, reconciliation practitioners who engage with this article may wonder about several issues that, for them, are major concerns left unaddressed. I suggest practitioners read this article as a proposal for a gospel framework inside of which reconciliation can be practiced, rather than an examination of specific reconciliation practices themselves.

This article recognizes Christianity’s problematic history with violence. The Christian’s Savior is Jesus Christ, “the Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6). However, critics of the Christian faith point to the last 2,000 years of Christianity’s history and see a myriad of bloody conflicts. Various theologies and institutions of Christianity have been co-opted to support division, bloodshed, and war. The Crusades, the 30 Years War, or the American Civil War can be understood as problematic examples of violence writ large intertwined with Christianity. In this article, space does not permit me to explore this problematic history.

This article has an underlying tension concerning “individual versus group.” Does the cross of Christ only reconcile individuals to God? Or does the cross of Christ also provide for reconciliation between groups of people in conflict? In this article I examine Paul’s staurocentric vision in Ephesians 2. This is a vision of Christ’s body “making peace” to “create in himself one new man” (Eph 2:15), “thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:16).2 Notably, this peace seems to be between human groups in conflict—Jew and Gentile, insiders and outsiders. Please note: In exploring the truths of Eph 2:13–16, I am not precluding the necessity for individual persons to repent, be discipled, and be transformed. I hold a both/and view.

1. Humanity Is Sick: Three Acute, Global, Social Pathologies

Refugee Crisis

The global refugee crisis is the business of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency. UNHCR states: “An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.”3

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is Filippo Grandi. In a February 2018 address, Grandi summarized the causes of the migrations of people around the world. People are motivated to flee because of “state repression and persecution—moving in search of safety and a solution to their plight. Others are propelled forward by a complex mix of factors—poor governance, deep-seated inequality, resource scarcity, food insecurity, social and economic exclusion, stalled development, a collapse of traditional livelihoods, and the consequences of climate change—which in combination are driving migration in search of better opportunities, as well as fueling the conflicts that lead to refugee flows.”4 Grandi identifies two priorities: “What, then, are the fundamental considerations that should shape our response to all people on the move, and especially those traveling in today’s ‘mixed’ migratory flows? First and foremost, protecting the lives and dignity of all must be at the centre of the response.”5

Note Grandi’s emphases: life and dignity, considerations that those who would serve displaced peoples must prioritize. The word life speaks of physical security—the need for protection from hostility and violence, plus adequate food and shelter. The word dignity speaks of the need for recognition, belonging, citizenship, identity: honor.

To address this problem, UNHCR has sponsored a hashtag, #IBELONG, to raise awareness about the need.

I Belong: In this simple declaration, one sees honor-shame dynamics. That’s because “not belonging” is a near-universal characteristic of shame. Social scientist Brené Brown writes that shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”6

The fear of hunger, homelessness, hostility; the loss of belonging, identity, honor—for millions of refugees are the concerns. It is vulnerability and shame writ large.


Shame often fuels violence. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has worked extensively in American prisons, makes this observation: “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated. . . . The secret [violent men have] is that they feel ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed . . . over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them, so that they are ashamed even to reveal what shames them.”7 Gilligan’s comments on shame and violence serve as a bridge to the topic of violence en masse—terrorism.

Paris, January 7, 2015. At about 11:30 a.m., two brothers, armed with rifles and other weapons, forced their way into the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killed twelve people, and injured eleven others. Al-Qaeda took credit for the murderous assault. One week after the attack The Telegraph published an article quoting Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, a senior figure in Al Qaeda: “Ansi denounces the ‘dissolute kuffar’ who ‘insulted the chosen Prophets of Allah.’ . . . ‘Congratulations to you, o ummah of Islam, for this vengeance that has soothed our chests. . . . Congratulations to you for these brave men who blew off the dust of disgrace and lit the torch of glory in the darkness of defeat and agony.’”8 Honor-shame also characterizes the propaganda of other Islamic terrorist groups. In bin Laden’s “Letter to America” the honor-shame dynamic is plain: “You are well aware that the Islamic Nation, from the very core of its soul, despises your haughtiness and arrogance.”9 The ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq recruited soldiers using the language of honor-shame and heroism: “The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, . . . after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect—the time has come for them to rise. . . . The time has come for [all Muslims] to . . . remove the garments of dishonor, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace . . . the dawn of honor has emerged anew.”10

Political theorist Yara Damaj writes, “[ISIS] claims to offer the disenfranchised—who see no way to live in honor in the West—a chance to reinvent themselves as heroes. . . . It does so by concocting fantasies of belonging.”11 The motivation is plain: honor and shame.


We turn to an example of violence that embodies both terrorism and racism.

Christchurch, February 16, 2019. A man armed with automatic weapons entered Al Noor Mosque during Friday Prayer and, later, the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack killed 50 people. It was designed for a social-media-networked world.

This attack was fueled by racism (white supremacy), revealing that the refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism are integrated pathologies. Two days after the attack, an ISIS spokesman recorded a 44-minute audio, calling for revenge: “The scenes of the massacres in the two mosques should wake up those who were fooled, and should incite the supporters of the caliphate to avenge their religion.”12 Christchurch was a terrorist attack, fueled by racism, against Muslim refugees, linked historically to other Islam-versus-the-West conflicts, calling for further terrorist attacks, which, in turn, invite revenge attacks.

The attacker streamed the attack on Facebook Live and published a personal manifesto on the Internet.13 The manifesto is titled The Great Replacement, named after the 2012 book by the French polemicist Renaud Camus.14 The manifesto references the white Western-European conflict with Islam and begins with a call to rage, couched in a Dylan Thomas poem. The first stanza reads, “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The final line in four of six stanzas is: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”15 The manifesto highlights a study showing that despite the declining birthrate of white Europeans, the population of European nations increases through 2100.16 Population growth of European nations is “all through immigration. . . . This is racial replacement. This is WHITE GENOCIDE.”17 The manifesto is a call to violence to prevent white Europe’s “replacement” by Muslims and other non-white peoples.

In Nazi Germany, the white Aryan race was declared superior as a matter of genetics and, therefore, as a matter of “blood and honor.” Under Hitler, a nationalist political movement arose leading to World War 2. The war was waged on behalf of Blüt und Ehre (blood and honor) of the so-called “pure” German-Nordic race. It led to the Holocaust—the murder of about 17 million people including about 6 million European Jews.18 Blüt und Ehre was the German slogan used by the Hitler Youth.

Not coincidentally, the Christchurch attacker’s manifesto included this sentence: “The origins of my language is European, my culture is European, my political beliefs are European, my philosophical beliefs are European, my identity is European and, most importantly, my blood is European.”19

What was the motivation for the terrorist act in Christchurch and its racist roots? The factors of ideology, religious belief, or national and cultural heritage should not be underestimated. But what about “blood and honor”? I propose that these factors together comprise the issue of core identity: To whom do we belong? For the attacker, it appears that blood and core identity was, as in Nazi Germany, part of defining, excluding, demonizing, and finally murdering the “other.”

Racial Terror and Shame in America

Shame and exclusion are the products of racism. The African-American theologian Howard Thurman provided inspiration for America’s civil rights movement. Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited examines American Christianity’s struggle with racism. His book could have been titled Jesus and the Shamed. Thurman asks, “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of race, religion, and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?”20 Thurman points out that hate can find positive reinforcement within the group. Racial hatred in America has been largely ignored by the church: “Christianity has . . . sought to get rid of the hatred by preachments, by moralizing, by platitudinous judgments. It has hesitated to analyze the basis of hatred. . . . There is a conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and its meaning.”21

The “Lynching in America” website yields research-based insights about the history of racial terrorism in America: “EJI has documented 4,084 racial terror lynchings in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950.”22 Further, “Terror lynchings in the American South were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes. Lynching was targeted racial violence at the core of a systematic campaign of terror perpetrated in furtherance of an unjust social order. . . . [A] selective public memory compounds the harm of officials’ complicity in lynching and maintains the otherness of black people who have lived in these communities for generations.”23

America’s history of racism and white supremacy carries forward into the current social and political climate—and integrates with racist, nationalist ideologies around the world. Lynching has come to an end in America. The “otherness of black people” has not come to an end—and remains a thorny issue in the church.

In his book The End of White Christian America, Robert Jones analyses the decline of “White Christian America” over the last 50 years. One reason is racism: “Racial reconciliation remains a destination far on the horizon, and there are no shortcuts at hand. . . . Given White Christian America’s long history of complicity in slavery, segregation, and racism, we are at the beginning, not the end, of the journey across the racial divide.”24 The hesitancy of the church to address race (or the refugee crisis, or terrorism) has me echoing Thurman’s words: Is there a “conspiracy of silence” in the church?

Is There a Cure for “Shame Writ Large”?

Donald Nathanson, a psychiatrist who has researched shame, developed a diagram to analyze shame’s pathological aspects, “The Compass of Shame.”25 It shows four types of unhealthy response: (1) Withdrawal, (2) Avoidance, (3) Attack Self, and (4) Attack Other.

Fig. 1: Nathanson’s Compass of Shame

If this diagram represents real life, then toxic shame, or sin-and-shame, is a major factor in a huge amount of suffering in our world.

A note of caution is in order: Suffering, trauma, and evil can defy analysis. There can be a deep illogic to satanic horrors of human suffering, global crises, structures of sin, the “mystery of iniquity” (1 Thess 2:7; KJV).

There is another mystery: “The wind blows where it wishes” (John 3:8); amid great darkness, the Holy Spirit often shines the light of Christ into the hearts of refugees, or those oppressed by terrorism or racism. The unpredictable Spirit works in myriad ways in cooperation with believers to draw the oppressed to Christ and soothe their wounds.

Having said that, “The Compass of Shame” still begs the question: If ‘shame writ large’ is a pathology that fuels various global crises, is there an honorific cure—an ‘honor writ large’—offered by the “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4)?

As demonstrated below, the gospel does speak powerfully to the pathology of sin-and-shame. Theologically speaking, however, there’s an obstacle. Sin-shame is not considered a problem worth solving, especially in the West. Sin-guilt is considered the primary, objective problem; shame is merely subjective, a problem derivative of the main problem of sin-guilt.

I’ll express the conventional view like this: “If you address the problem of sin-guilt, shame will take care of itself. No need to talk about shame. No need to teach about shame. No need to preach about shame.” The silence is deafening.

When other cultural dynamics are considered, the weakness of a guilt-only gospel framework becomes even more apparent. For example, power-fear may be related to the life-and-death security issue.26 And purity-pollution, a subcategory of honor-shame,27 may be a huge factor when sexual violence has occurred—a not-uncommon plight among refugees and victims of terrorism or racism.

2. Diagnosis: Shame Writ Large as the Crux of Global Social Crises

Shame Is Not Merely Subjective; It Is Also Objective

Is sin-guilt the basic problem of humanity? Theologian Wayne Grudem thinks so: “There is no other way to be reconciled to God than through Christ, for there is no other way of dealing with the guilt of our sin before a holy God.”28 Address the problem of guilt before God and you have addressed the basic problem of sin. So the argument goes.

Human guilt is indisputably objective. The question is whether shame is merely subjective—that is, merely a negative emotion derived from guilt. In my view, guilt and shame are both objective and subjective (see Fig. 2). Both are critical.

Fig. 2: Guilt-Shame Matrix

In his groundbreaking article, “Have Theologians No Sense of Shame? How the Bible Reconciles Objective and Subjective Shame,” which is buttressed by more than one hundred and fifty scriptural references, Jackson Wu presents “a unified view of shame, one that includes a subjective and objective dimension”: “Shame is multifaceted. It is a theological, psychological, and social concept. The Bible helps us reconcile the various understandings people have about this topic. In fact, the Bible uses honor and shame language both to describe the world’s most serious problem and its solution. Evangelicals want to have biblically faithful theologies and culturally meaningful ministries. To attain this goal, one needs a more robust view of shame.”29 Wu expresses three categories of shame: (1) psychological, (2) social, and (3) sacred. Psychological shame and social shame are well known. Less well known is the term “sacred shame,” especially as a theological term. Sacred shame is central to Wu’s argument for dealing with “the world’s most serious problem.” The chart below (Fig. 3) is an overview of one part of Wu’s article and the Scriptures cited.

One of Wu’s compelling assertions concerns the category of “sacred shame”—shame or dishonor in relation to God. Wu comments on the phrase “put to shame” used by Paul: “In Romans, Paul uses the concept of shame to describe justification, ‘For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame”’ (Rom 10:10–11; cf. 9:33). In this passage, the shame that is avoided is as objective as the justification that is gained.”30

A search of the phrase “put to shame” in the ESV Bible yields 65 occurrences (OT, 58; NT, 7). Clearly, “put to shame” was a common phrase reflecting honor-shame values of the Ancient Near East and Roman Empire. Indeed, as Wu says, “The shame that is avoided is as objective as the justification that is gained.” We observe a similar pattern in Peter’s encouragement to the saints, “So the honor is for you who believe” (1 Pet 2:7). The honor given by God is as objective as the salvation that is gained.

The Bible reveals that sin-guilt and sin-shame are both objective. The gospel cures both. This is exceedingly good news for mission amid global crises.

The following two charts (Figs. 3 and 4), adapted from Wu’s article, show that the Bible reflects an expansive concept of shame. The occurrences of objective shame far exceed subjective shame. The assumption that only sin-guilt is objective must be re-evaluated in the light of Scripture.

Fig. 3: Three Types of Shame in the Bible31

Fig. 4: Solving the Shame Problem through Six Aspects of Salvation32

From which quadrant is our gospel presented?

On which quadrant in the “Guilt-Shame Matrix” do Christian leaders focus most or all of their gospel teaching? It is quadrant 1: Objective Guilt—with supplemental teaching from quadrant 3 to deal with the subjective experience of guilt. Should we not supplement gospel teaching from a guilt framework with gospel teaching from a shame-framework—a gospel that derives from a God-glorifying, shame-curing salvation?

Fig. 5: From Which Quadrant Is Our Teaching?

Given the role of toxic shame in the refugee crisis, as a catalyst for terrorism, and in racism, the world desperately needs an honorific, shame-curing gospel—taught from quadrants 2 and 4. To that end, my diagnosis of shame writ large shifts lastly to a question concerning honor and shame in the biblical grand narrative: How high was the “honor-status-position” from which Adam fell?

The Fall Constitutes Humanity’s Loss of Innocence; It Is Also the Loss of Regal Glory

We begin with a summary of Gen 1:27–28, Ps 8:5–8, and Rom 1:22–23; 3:23. These passages are the basis for asserting that Adam’s fall is from a higher position than from mere innocence. We are much indebted to Haley Goranson Jacob’s Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans.33

Gen 1:27–28. Since men and women were created “in the image of God,” they not only possessed moral innocence, but also reflected the glory of God. The human race was given “dominion,” a regal term referring to viceregency with God. They were to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The Bible describes a wide range of animals and three kinds of spatial domains (sea, heavens, earth); Adam’s authority, stewardship—dominion—was truly expansive.

Ps 8:5–8. The passage adds clarity to humanity’s original regal identity. God created humanity as “crowned . . . with glory and honor.” All humanity is king-like in honor? Yes. God gave humanity “dominion over the works of [his] hands; [he has] put all things under his feet.” Humanity’s original core identity is nothing less than royal glory. And humanity’s vocation? Vicegerent for God with royal authority.

Rom 1:22–23; 3:23. In Adam’s sin, humanity “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Adam and Eve and their descendants could have enjoyed regal stewardship with God—dominion over the earth. Imagine—they could have built God’s kingdom, resulting in the flourishing of mankind, ever-greater development, glory, peace. Humanity foolishly exchanged regal glory with God for sin. Humanity falls short of the glory of God. “The point of Romans 1:23 is not the fall into sin of the primal pair from Genesis 3, . . . but humanity’s (אדם) “exchange of the glory of the immortal God” in terms of its failure to fulfill its created purpose or identity as creatures made in the image of God, having dominion over creation as vicegerents of the Creator God—hence Paul’s obvious allusion to Genesis 1:26–28 and not Genesis 3:6.”34

The linking of Genesis 1:28, Psalm 8:5–8, and Romans 1:23 has to do with original design. It impacts our anthropology. What is our original core identity?

Do we anachronistically imagine the “primal pair” as a morally perfect, middle-class couple—status-neutral, neither lower class nor noble or royal? As Goranson Jacob explains, the fall represented a descent from the high position of regal honor and vocation—to the lowly position of great dishonor.

This is not a trifling bit of theology. Adam in his original position was not “middle class.” Humanity was created with high regal honor—in the image of the king of creation with a vocation to match. Is the diagnosis more serious than previously understood?

3. Cure: Honor Writ Large in the Gospel of the Glory of Christ

I have demonstrated previously that honor-status reversal is a motif of the Bible.35

Fig. 6: Types of Honor-Status Reversal

Honor-status reversal is defined as when a person, family, or people has whatever degree of esteem, respect, privilege, power, or authority they carry in their community turned the other way around. As in the diagram above, honor-status reversal is classified in two ways—according to the end result of (1) honor or (2) shame.

In Ephesians 2, we see the honor-status reversal of believers in two dimensions—and discover it is part of the gospel. Ephesians 2:1–7 describes honor-status reversal as the transformation from being “dead in the trespasses and sins” (v. 1) to being “raised . . . up with him and seated . . . with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). From spiritual death to seated with Christ in exalted honor! These verses speak of the relationships with God that all believers enjoy. This is the personal-vertical dimension of honor-status reversal.

Ephesians 2:11–22 describes honor-status reversal for Gentiles in their relationship to God’s people. From separated, alienated, strangers, having no hope (vv. 11–12) to citizens, saints, full-fledged family members (v. 19) who dwell together in God’s presence (vv. 21–22)! This also is an honor-status reversal—in the horizontal and social dimension.

Timothy Tennent writes: “The New Testament celebrates a salvific transformation that has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Personal salvation in the New Testament is inextricably linked to becoming a part of the new humanity of Ephesians 2:15.”36 Paul Hiebert adds: “There is both personal and corporate sin and personal and corporate dimensions to God’s redemption.”37

At the crux of two dimensions of honor-status reversal, there it is—“salvation by grace through faith.” What is located between these two expressions of honor-status reversal—between vv. 1–7 and 11–22? Salvation by grace through faith (Eph 2:8–9).

This “salvation verse” sits at the intersection of vertical and horizontal dimensions of honor-status reversal. Salvation in Christ is thus the crux for restoring humanity’s honor—personally before God, and socially by being born again into God’s family, the new humanity.

Fig. 7: Two Dimensions of Honor-Status Reversal
for Believers in Eph 2

This shame-to-honor transformation can be under-valued by Christians who live free of oppression or are members of a majority people. Thurman helps us understand: “When I was a youngster, this was drilled into me by my grandmother. The idea was given her by a certain slave minister who, on occasion, held secret meetings with his fellow slaves. How everything in me quivered with the pulsing tremor of raw energy when, in her recital, she would come to the triumphant climax of the minister: ‘. . . You—you are not slaves. You are God’s children.’”38

As discussed above, the two great concerns that underlie the refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism are security and dignity—and the solution must address both violence and shame. Ephesians 2 teaches that honor-status reversal is part of the gospel, which offers a cure for the pathology of shame (the dignity issue). But what of the security issue? Does Ephesians 2 address the pathology of violence?

Curing Violence: The Cross/Atonement “Killing the Hostility, So Making Peace”

Each of the six verses that comprise Eph 2:13–18 speaks of the atonement. The chart below provides a verse-by-verse summary.

Verse in Eph 2 (ESV)

What the Atonement Does

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

  • Christ the Messiah-King is our new source of glory and honor—the Lord who forever deserves our allegiance and loyalty
  • Those far away (Gentiles) brought near by the blood of Christ
  • The once excluded are now included

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility

  • Christ himself is our peace, our longing for honor is satiated
  • Hostility between Jew and Gentile broken down in his flesh
  • Making both one—uniting once disparate peoples

15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,

  • Abolishing legal demands that divide
  • Creating in Christ’s body one new humanity, replacing the two
  • Making peace for humans to flourish

16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

  • Through the cross the unthinkable is thinkable—reconciliation of both Jews and Gentiles to God in one body is now possible
  • Killing the hostility between any peoples in conflict is now possible through the cross

17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

  • He came (the incarnation) for the purpose of the cross
  • Proclaiming a gospel of peace to everyone—both Jews (those near) and Gentiles (those far away)

18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

  • Through Christ, equal access to God the Father is now possible, regardless of cultural divide or honor status

Fig. 8: What the Atonement Does in Eph 2

Let’s focus on verse 16: “and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” Paul proclaims a stunning truth: The cross kills hostility. We are obviously not being called to believe that the cross kills all hostility in the here-and-now. Paul’s epistle suggests three “steps of belief.”

The cross kills hostility—step 1: The social hostility between Jewish and Gentile peoples (although in some cases commanded by the Old Testament) was in some measure conquered by the violence of the cross. Peace is possible—now—through the “new humanity” (Eph 2:15). Traditionally at odds with one another, Jews and Gentiles really can worship in unity through their common faith in Jesus, despite their cultural differences.

The cross kills hostility—step 2: This biblical truth extends to any and all peoples in conflict, since the plan of God “for the fullness of time” is to “unite all things in him” (Eph 1:10), to “reconcile to himself all things . . . making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). We see that this applies globally for all families, peoples, and nations. It is a sure hope for the future—an eschatological hope.

The cross kills hostility—step 3: In the third step, we dream. This dream stage is a call for Christians to develop a social imagination that is informed by Eph 2. It is a vision that, as Timothy Gombis says, “includes and celebrates racial, ethnic and gender differences . . . [whereby] no singular gender, ethnicity or race is any closer to God than any other. We are all one in Christ and are now free to explore the gifts that each group brings to the kingdom party.”39 This step combines the “now” of step 1 with the “whole-world hope” of step 2. Could it be that the global crises on which this article focuses—the refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism—may in some measure be cured by the cross of Christ “killing the hostility”?

In order to answer, let’s consider these verses about the atonement (vv. 13–18) within the status-reversal context of Eph 2:11–20 (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9: Honor-Status Reversal—For an Honorific Community

Honor-status reversal results in an honorific, cross-cultural community of Jew and Gentile—the new humanity, the family of God, in which all believers are accepted and honored. Plus, vv. 13–18 reveal a bridge from shame, exclusion, hostility to honor, inclusion, peace. What is that bridge? It is the cross—the atonement of Christ (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10: The Atonement of Christ “Killing the Hostility” Creates the Honorific Community

These rich verses on the atonement (vv. 13–18) emphasize what God has accomplished through the cross primarily in the social realm. We observe in the Scripture passage two related social transformations in Christ: (1) honor replaces shame; (2) peace replaces hostility. This is gospel truth.

But what God has accomplished through the cross in the social realm needs additional explanation. What is Paul really saying to Gentile Christians?

Redefining Honor and Shame, Insiders and Outsiders, in Eph 2

Levels of honor status in the empire: In the Roman Empire, social status ranged from very high and powerful to very low and powerless. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright identifies seven levels of social status, besides slaves: (1) The “ruling elite” and their families; (2) “regional elites”; (3) “municipal elites”; (4) “lower-level retainers like governing officials, scribes, and priests”; (5) “merchants and artisans”; (6) “the peasant class” of farmers and day laborers; and (7) “the destitute: beggars, prostitutes, widows, orphans . . . lepers.” In a separate category are slaves. “In the ancient world anyone could become a slave; all you had to do was to be on the losing side in a battle, or suffer a major business failure. Slavery had nothing to do with ethnic background or skin colour.”40

Interestingly, there was considerable mobility between these levels of social status: “People could move up and down this social scale, depending on political stability, famine, disease, population size, and taxation. For the most part it seems that in Jesus’s world there were constant downward pressures, forcing people towards debt and destitution, and in some cases even towards either banditry or slavery as desperate strategies for survival.”41 To the Ephesian church, Paul could have acknowledged the relative social status of various members, including their struggle for upward mobility or against downward mobility. After all, he spent two years there and certainly knew them intimately (Acts 19:1–10; 20:36–38).

But Ephesians gives scant recognition to levels of Greco-Roman social status. Paul’s silence is noteworthy given that Ephesus was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was the capital of the province of Asia, a city of enormous wealth and prestige. This great city “had at its center the great temple of Artemis/Diana and the widely practiced magical arts commanding allegiance and attention of all its dwellers and visitors.”42

Gentile Outsider Status Replaced by the New Humanity in Christ

In the phrase in Eph 2:19, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,” it is worth emphasizing to whom Paul is not speaking. He is not addressing low class refugees, destitute sojourners, oppressed immigrants. He is addressing a much larger group of people whose levels of social status are as wide as all humanity, primarily Gentile-background Christians (2:11; 3:1). Gentiles are simply anyone and everyone who does not belong to the Hebrews, the ancient people whose progenitor is Abraham, specially chosen and blessed by God (Gen 12:1–3). In their pre-conversion status they were non-Jewish “others.” The Greek word for Gentiles is ethnē. In missiology, ethnē has come to refer to the world’s range of specific ethnicities, tribes, or peoples as a way to emphasize the need for reaching the unreached people groups. But as Mark Roberts says, the term was simply “used by Jews as a label for non-Jews.”43 Paul’s emphasis is not on the diversity of Gentile people groups; rather, it is on their monolithic status as outsiders.

In verse 11, Paul the Jewish Christ-follower reminds the Gentile Christians in Ephesus of their non-Jewish, non-people-of-God background. He tells the Gentile males in his audience they are “called the uncircumcision by the circumcision” (v. 11). “The label ‘uncircumcised’ is a literal description of Gentile males, since, at that time, Jewish men were known as having been circumcised.”44 Thus, David Bentley Hart renders verse 11 as: “Therefore, remember that you, formerly gentiles in the flesh, the ones called ‘Foreskin’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision.’”45

The hermeneutical principle Scripture interprets Scripture applies here. Recall David’s bold question regarding Goliath: “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26). For David, the military battle was an honor-shame contest as much as a life and death struggle. David’s use of derogatory labeling seems apt, if not audacious.

In Eph 2:11, Paul seems undiplomatic, to say the least. Paul indirectly claims honor status for his Jewish ancestry; at the same time, Paul seems to be putting all Ephesian Gentiles into the category of “uncircumcised Philistine.” This is who the Gentile believers “were at one time” before Christ intervened in their lives. Could he be insulting the majority of his audience?

An insult, or not? Paul’s words might be read as an insult. But they could also be understood as a way of acknowledging humanity’s automatic tendency toward ethnocentric attitudes. In this case, is it the ethnocentrism with which he was most familiar: the Jewish version?46 Could it be Paul is also critiquing the Jews? Could it be Paul is identifying a Gentile caricature of the Jews: the Jews are a minority group who are culturally separate, whose religious practices (weirdly) include circumcision, who, because of ethnocentrism, look down on all whom they consider “unclean”?

So although Paul’s words might be read as an insult, it is likely that this is a more complex relational dynamic. We do well to keep in mind that Paul’s vocation and passion as the apostle to the Gentiles was for the inclusion of the whole world of Gentiles in the salvation story of God (Rom 15). Plus, Paul is obviously including and honoring Gentile Christians in the first chapter of Ephesians as he gives eloquent voice to the church as a community possessing immense ascribed honor in Christ (Eph 1). Moreover, Paul is well-known for relativizing Jewish exclusiveness and identity (Eph 3:1–6; Gal 3:28), even relativizing his own (very substantial) ascribed and achieved Jewish honor (Phil 3:4–8).

Paul is relativizing social capital: Whether Paul is being insulting or conciliatory toward the Gentiles with the words, “called the uncircumcision by the circumcision,” of this we can be confident: regardless of their pre-conversion (or current) wealth, citizenship, race, nobility, education, power or privilege—regardless of their local, cultural insider status—the Gentiles to whom Paul is writing had been at the margins of the only social community that truly and eternally matters, the people of God.

Having relativized Gentile identity (v. 11) among honor-obsessed Ephesians, Paul continues to describe Gentiles (v. 12) from a Jewish perspective, again using shame-and-outsider terminology. They were (1) “separated from Christ,” (2) “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,” (3) “strangers to the covenants of promise,” (4) “having no hope,” and (5) “without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).

Ephesians 2 describes only two groups—two levels of honor status. Outsiders comprise the first group. They are outside of God’s gift of grace in Christ; they do not belong to God’s people. Insiders comprise the second group. They are recipients of God’s grace in Christ and belong to God’s people. Paradoxically, this new community of God’s people is amazingly inclusive—anyone can be an insider through a relationship with Christ. Everyone is welcome!

All that matters: Whatever objective honor status they held as pre-Christian Gentiles adds not one iota to their actual, eternal social capital. The only thing that matters is this: Who are they in relation to God in Christ and his people? These Gentiles are reminded of their pre-Christian identity by what they were not: they were not in Christ. They shared no ancestry with God’s people Israel or their covenant-promises. They were outside of God’s family.

Could it be that Paul intends that believers who hold an attitude of supremacy or exceptionalism to feel the sting of conviction? Could it be that any Christians treasuring their blood-family relations, vocational pride, Ephesian identity, or Roman citizenship above their in-Christ identity are limiting the transformational impact of the gospel?

Concerning Eph 2:11–20, Willie James Jennings writes, “The power of this account of Gentile status radically undermined any distinction Gentiles held for themselves vis-à-vis other peoples. It is the ultimate deconstructive statement regarding Gentile ethnocentrism.”47 Why does Paul describe this Gentile identity in outsider terms? It is a foil, a dramatic antithesis, for what he reveals in his epistle. Paul has so much to say that is positively honorific, wholly glorious.

The honorific antithesis: God has intervened in Christ! God has made a way for unclean outsider-Gentiles to locate their stories honorifically in the story of another people—God’s people. This honor-status reversal happens through the humiliation of Christ’s incarnation, his perfect life, shameful cross, atonement, glorious resurrection, and exaltation as king—all in fulfillment of Israel’s story. Paul writes, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:19–20).

This is the kingdom-of-God program of identity formation. God is democratizing honor for believers and in so doing, God is relativizing every other form of social capital. Roberts writes: “Notice that the recipients of the letter were . . . Gentiles ‘by birth’ (literally ‘in flesh,’ en sarki). They did not become Jewish when they received God’s grace through Christ. Rather, Christ made them into something different from ordinary Gentiles and Jews. The early Christian writing known as the Epistle to Diognetus expresses this same point when it calls Christians a new race, ‘neither Jewish nor Gentile.’”48 This is an arresting thought. It informs how we think about the phrase “one new man” (Eph 2:15), hena kainon anthropon in the Greek. The phrase is also translated “one new humanity” (NIV), and “one new people” (NLT). Believers from Jewish backgrounds as well as Gentile backgrounds, believers from every social class together, gain not merely the ultimate insider status—“members of the household of God”; Christ-followers also gain a new community-based core identity.

Joshua McNall captures the essence of this new identity. “This transformation [by the reconciling cross of Christ] is seen . . . in the tearing down of ethnic and cultural boundaries (‘the dividing wall of hostility’ [2:14]). This demolition results in a new community comprised of a new people who do not look like they belong together. Only Jesus and his spirit can account for this strange lot.”49

Christ our life, an identity-shifting force: This is where the idea of “a new race,” a third race, “neither Jewish nor Gentile,” is helpful. Jewish believers, because of their faith in Christ, share both biological and historical continuity with the people of Israel; nevertheless, they are ontologically new-in-Christ, and incorporated into his body. They testify to this ontological newness by worshiping God through Christ, and doing so with people who, in former days, they strenuously avoided, even hated! To the question To whom do we belong? Jewish believers answer: We belong in King Jesus to a completely new community of intimacy with Gentiles! Because their loyalty as God’s people Israel to Jehovah had historically been expressed (in part) by their exclusion from Gentiles, it represents a profound shift indeed.

For Gentiles, could there be an even greater newness to their identity? Regardless of their Gentile marginality, because of Christ, they are now bound together with believers of Jewish heritage. Together, they form a “new humanity,” or simply a new divine way of being human.

This new humanity is a new community whose Father is God, whose King is Jesus, and whose bond is the Holy Spirit.

Subverting social capital through our honor surplus in Christ: Believers gain an enormous “honor surplus” in Christ, in his kingdom and family. All who give their allegiance to King Jesus gain the honor margin and shame resilience to maintain loyalty to Christ and the church, despite the shaming actions of their family or community.

Honorific gospel beliefs

Subverted beliefs

We gain an enormous honor surplus as believers, along with strong shame resilience. Our honor and dignity as human beings abounds by:

  • the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord (Phil 3:8);
  • being adopted into the family of God, whose king is Jesus the Christ (Rom 8:14–17; Eph 1:5);
  • experiencing the love of God “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5);
  • humbly serving in God’s kingdom (Mark 9:35; 10:43)—and being ambassadors of Christ (1 Cor 5:20);
  • being part of the royal priesthood, the church, the community of faith, the body of Christ (1 Pet 2:9).

Compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord and king: whatever level of wealth, honor, reputation, social capital, or majority status we may have inherited or earned, it is worthless and odorous (Phil 3:4–8; cf. Eph 2:11–12, 19).

Our ascribed or achieved honor, social position, social capital, or majority status permit us to separate from, dominate, or oppress others.

Because of the atonement of Christ (Eph 2:13–16), our new humanity (v. 15) gives us capacity and desire for communion and intimacy with “other” persons, families, peoples.

Our honor status, face, or social capital, whether high, low, or in between, is determinative of our true, essential honor and dignity.

Because of the atonement of Christ (Eph 2:13–16), God has broken down the wall of hostility between believers differing in tribal identity, nationality, social class, or other classification. The cross has “killed the hostility” between Jew and Gentile believers, and by extension, other Christian communities who may be in a state of division or conflict.

The default relational dynamic between Jew and Gentile—or God’s people and “others”—is separation, revenge, or violence.

Fig. 11: Honorific Gospel Beliefs and Subverted Beliefs

As traditional forms of social status lose their sway over the believer’s identity formation, subverted beliefs and practices emerge. Subverted is the belief that social capital or majority status permits you to lord over, oppress, or even separate yourself from others. Subverted is the idea that low social status determines your true honor and dignity. Subverted is the tradition that demands the operative relational dynamic between Jew and Gentile (or between God’s people and “others”) is separation, hostility, revenge, or violence. As N. T. Wright says,

It is why Messiah-believers from Jews and gentiles alike can together be identified as ‘the Israel of God’ [Gal 6:16]. This new people, called from among Jews, Greeks, barbarians, and anyone else you can think of, is no longer defined ethnically, but messianically and thus eschatologically. If Jesus is Israel’s Messiah (and early Christianity makes no sense whatever without that belief), then any and all who belong to Jesus are the inheritors of the Abrahamic promises. They are part of God’s new creation, participating in the Messiah where distinctions of gender, tribe, ethnicity, and social status cease to be badges of privilege and status.50

A new status, a new eternal honor is now available to any person who gives their allegiance to King Jesus.

Restoration of Honor and Relief from Hostility—Embodied

The three transformations—honor replacing shame, peace replacing hostility, and a new community to embody these healing behaviors—overlap with the primary concerns for global crises. We identified these concerns earlier in this article as: dignity and life. Ephesians 2 reveals that these social transformations are possible through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—and his body the Church.

Natalie Carnes concludes, “Christ suffers rivenness in order to rive it. Christ on the cross breaks brokenness itself. The cross is God’s refusal to let violence be determinative.”51 This christological truth becomes the gospel for refugees, for victims of terrorism and racism. But this can happen only as peace and honor are physically embodied by the body of Christ, the church. And the church can only embrace this identity as it accepts that it is a culturally diverse community—not by preference, but by the plain will of God. Commenting on Ephesians 2, Andrew Walls writes:

The church must be diverse because humanity is diverse; it must be one because Christ is one. Christ is human, and open to humanity in all its diversity; the fulness of his humanity takes in all its diverse cultural forms. The Ephesian letter is not about cultural homogeneity; cultural diversity had already been built into the church by the decision not to enforce the Torah. It is a celebration of the union of irreconcilable entities, the breaking down of the wall of partition, brought about by Christ’s death (Eph 2:13–18). Believers from the different communities are different bricks being used for the construction of a single building—a temple where the One God would live (Eph 2:19–22).52

When Walls writes, “The church must be diverse because humanity is diverse” it represents no small critique to church growth theory and practice as represented by the hugely influential “homogenous unit principle.”53 For Ephesians 2 is clearly calling for an ethnically heterogeneous church.

First of all, a gospel for the church: This, then, is the good news for refugees, for victims of terrorism and racism: that peace and honor are atoned for by the body of Christ on the cross (Eph 2:13–18) so that this peace and honor can be embodied by the church—members of the body of Christ. This gospel answers what I believe are the questions of our time: To whom do we belong? In what people is our sure source of honor?

Therefore, this good news, this gospel, is first of all for the church. As this gospel is taught, preached, embraced, and embodied by the church in its local settings, it then has the possibility to be the gospel for the world.

The restoration of honor is not merely psychological. It is also social; it is embodied. It is something believers feel and experience subjectively and objectively in community. Shame is conquered by the love and honor of the other believers. Honor competition is absent from this community. Members of this community serve Christ and they serve one another. Their longing for honor is satisfied in knowing Jesus. Believers experience an honor surplus as they “out-do one another in giving honor” (Rom 12:10).

Relief from hostility and violence is likewise not merely psychological. It is also social. It is safety, physically embodied. Believers from conflicting cultural backgrounds experience shalom in Christ, in community. People flourish in the “new humanity” (Eph 2:15).

In the Bible’s Metanarrative, Honor Writ Large through Christ Is the Cure

Haley Goranson Jacob helped us see that humanity’s fall was from highest honor and regal vocation. With her help we turn our attention now to the final bookend of the salvation story—and the conclusion of this article.

What is the goal or purpose of salvation? It is contained in the b-part of Romans 8:29 on which Goranson Jacob focuses: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In the next verse, Paul writes, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). What does it mean to be “conformed to the image of his Son”—to have been “justified” and thus also “glorified”? Jacob writes:

In short, what I have argued here in Romans 8:29–30 is that Paul sees that those conformed to the image of the Son are those who, though once participants in the Adamic submission to the powers of sin and death, now participate in the reign of the new Adam over creation. Mankind’s position on earth as God’s vicegerents to his creation is now restored, though now through the image of the Son of God, who reigns as God’s preeminent vicegerent. The depiction of humanity being crowned with glory and honor and established with dominion over creation in Psalm 8 is now again a reality, through both the Firstborn Son of God and those who participate in his exalted status, that is, his glory.”54

“A Reglorified Humanity in Romans 8:30”—Jacob uses this as the title for one of her last chapters. She emphasizes believers’ “vocational participation” with Christ as the present-tense reign with Christ, not an eschatological goal of salvation. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). To be glorified in Christ does not, according to Jacob, refer to moral perfection, or to the shining brilliance of one’s heavenly body. To be glorified in Christ means there’s work to do with Jesus today—exceedingly honorable work. We are participating with Christ for the world—ruling with Christ over creation on behalf of human flourishing.

Honor-status reversal is the salvation motif of the Bible (see Fig. 12). The position from which Adam fell is not mere innocence, but the regal identity of God’s vicegerent. In the fall, humanity exchanged the image of the glory of God for sin’s depravity and shame. In Christ the Last Adam (Rom 5:17, 1 Cor 15:45), humanity recovers the vocation of what it lost in the first Adam. This is the glory of “being conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29–30). Truly, humanity is intimately embraced into “The Story of His Glory.”55

Fig. 12: Honor-Status Reversal as Salvation Motif—A Regal Anthropology56

The restoration of honor is theological, social, and psychological. It is embodied. We possess this honor objectively and experience it subjectively in Christ, in community.

Relief from hostility and violence is likewise theological, social, and psychological. It is peace, physically embodied. Believers from conflicting cultural backgrounds experience shalom in Christ, in community.

Christ’s relational glory, embodied: This is the gospel cure for shame-fueled crises.


Shame writ large is a factor fueling global social crises; honor writ large is the cure, and his name is Jesus. He is the Christ, Word made flesh, Son of God, last Adam, king of glory, head of the church. Jesus embodies the killing of humanity’s hostility to make peace—and the restoration of humanity’s objective honor and glory from objective shame. Christ as honor writ large curing the world’s shame writ large does not mean salvation en masse. It means there is a density to the gospel of the glory of Christ—as theological truth, as metanarrative, as experience in the Spirit, as embodiment by the church wherever believers gather. Could it be that Christ’s honor and glory is greater than the entire world of sin and shame—for crises related to refugees, terrorism, and racism?

This article and the following propositions on key gospel categories invite further discussion and critique, research and experimentation.

  1. Anthropology: Across all peoples the original nature of humanity is regal, not common.
  2. Hamartiology: Humanity’s fall is from objective honor, the regal vocation of vicegerent—to sin’s degradation of objective guilt and objective shame.
  3. Ecclesiology: Cultural diversity-in-unity—the “new humanity”—embodied in the local church is a primary gospel matter because it is the direct result of Christ’s atonement. The blood of Christ cries out: the church by definition is culturally diverse! Unity-in-diversity is a gospel issue. The gospel is not only social, but neither is it less than social.
  4. Soteriology: Salvation includes a social dimension. We are saved socially into a new ethnically-diverse community of peace and honor through the atonement of Christ. Salvation also includes the reglorification of humanity—the immensely honorific vocation of participating with Christ to build God’s kingdom and bless all the peoples of the earth.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Werner Mischke (DD, Hon. Causa, Hindustan Bible Institute & College, Chennai, India) is vice president of Mission ONE, a partnership and training ministry advancing the gospel through the global church. He authored The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World (Mission ONE, 2015). Werner has provided training in regard to “honor, shame, and the gospel” in many nations for a variety of organizations.

1 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992); idem, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

2 Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

3 UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, “#IBELONG,” 2019,

4 Filippo Grandi, “Lecture at Darwin College, Cambridge: Refugees and Migration,” UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, February 9, 2018,

5 Grandi; emphasis added.

6 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham, 2012), 59.

7 James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (New York: Random House, 1997), 110–11.

8 David Blair, “Charlie Hebdo: ‘Blessed battle of Paris’ was our work, says al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen,” The Telegraph, January 14, 2015.

9 Osama bin Laden, “Full text: bin Laden’s ‘letter to America,’” The Guardian, November 24, 2002,

10 “The Return of Khilafah,” Dabiq, July 5, 2014, 3. As referenced in Damaj, 2017, below.

11 Yara Damaj, “Fatal Attraction: The Islamic State’s Politics of Sentimentality.” Global-e 10, no. 63 (2017):

12 Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Spokesman Ends Silence by Calling for Retaliation over New Zealand Massacres,” The New York Times, March 18, 2019,

13 The manifesto is entitled “The Great Replacement.” Available at, accessed 21 August 2020. See Michael Koziol, “Christchurch Shooter’s Manifesto Reveals an Obsession with White Supremacy over Muslims,” The Sidney Morning Herald, March 15, 2019,

14 Joe Heim and James McAuley, “New Zealand Attacks Offer the Latest Evidence of a Web of Supremacist Extremism,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2019,

15 Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” in The Poems of Dylan Thomas (New York: New Directions, 1952), 239.

16 The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto included a Wikipedia address for “List of countries by future population (United Nations, medium fertility variant)”; the webpage has been taken down. A similar Wikipedia article is: Accessed 21 August 2020.

17 “Great Replacement,” 5.

18 See United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

19 “Great Replacement,” 26.

20 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), xix.

21 Thurman, 65; emphasis added.

22 Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Trauma of Racial Terror,”

23 Equal Justice Initiative; emphasis added.

24 Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 196.

25 Donald Nathanson, The Many Faces of Shame (New York: Guilford Press, 1987).

26 Jayson Georges, The 3D Gospel: Ministering in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures (n.p.: Timē Press, 2017).

27 Werner Mischke, The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World (Scotsdale, AZ: Mission ONE, 2015), 161–80.

28 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2012), 117; emphasis added.

29 Jackson Wu, “Have Theologians No Sense of Shame? How the Bible Reconciles Objective and Subjective Shame,” Themelios 43 no. 2 (2018):

30 Wu, 211; emphasis added.

31 Adapted from Wu, 207–12.

32 Adapted from Wu, 212, 214.

33 Haley Goranson Jacob, Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018).

34 Goranson Jacob, 93.

35 Mischke, 181–204.

36 Timothy C. Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010), 62.

37 Paul G. Hiebert, “The Gospel in Human Contexts: Changing Perceptions of Contextualization,” in MissionShift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium, ed. Ed Stetzer and David Hesselgrave (Nashville: B&H Publishing), 99.

38 Thurman, 39.

39 Timothy G. Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 103.

40 N. T. Wright and Michael Bird, The New Testament in Its World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 111.

41 Ibid., 111–12.

42 Lynn H. Cohick, Ephesians, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), Kindle loc. 190.

43 Mark D. Roberts, The Story of God Commentary: Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 77.

44 Ibid., 77.

45 David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

46 Gombis, 98.

47 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2009), 271.

48 Roberts, 77.

49 Joshua M. McNall, The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 243–44.

50 Wright, 380.

51 Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), 99.

52 Andrew F. Walls, “The Ephesian Moment: At a Crossroads in Christian History,” in The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 77.

53 See Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).

54 Goranson Jacob, 226.

55 Steven Hawthorne, “The Story of His Glory,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1999).

56 Goranson Jacob, 233–63.

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The Arrival of Honor/Shame (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

Chris Flanders is associate professor of Missions at Abilene Christian University, where he has been teaching since 2005. His PhD in Intercultural Studies is from Fuller Theological Seminary. For nine years, Chris served as the director of the Halbert Institute for Missions at ACU. Prior to his time at ACU, Chris spent a total of eleven years in Thailand, working in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. He serves on the leadership team of the Honor-Shame Network and actively writes and researches in the areas of face and facework theory and the anthropology of honor and shame. His dissertation on face in the Thai context received the American Society of Missiology distinguished dissertation award in 2011. He is the author of About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and edited Devoted to Christ: Missiological Reflections in Honor of Sherwood Lingenfelter (Wipf & Stock, 2019) and (with Werner Mischke) Honor, Shame, and the Gospel: Reframing our Message and Ministry (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Press, 2020).

Covid-19 cannot stop Missio Dei! Though, admittedly, it did slow us down a bit.

We devote this issue of MD to investigate the issues of honor and shame. Readers might be surprised that the topic could warrant an entire issue. Indeed, many might have only limited knowledge or awareness of them, perhaps considering honor and shame as interesting but of little significance, a sort of missiological adiaphora. So, why an entire issue? The conversation about honor and shame is becoming, indeed has already become, an established critical issue for global missiology.1 That is to say, for contemporary missiology, the honor-shame conversation has arrived. I argue three compelling reasons that this is in fact the case.

First, honor-shame2 issues have risen to a level of increased attention because of the growth of the global church. We are all aware that the standard syllabus of missions issues changes throughout time. What occupied the attention of mission theorists and practitioners in 1900 was significantly different from critical issues in 1970, which in turn differs from the important missiological issues of 2020. We add to and often subtract from this dynamic set of critical topics, responding with our best contemporary understandings. For a season, church growth issues, receptivity theory, and the homogenous unit principle dominated missiological conversations. Similarly, worldview was at one time a central issue in missiology. These missiological “hot topics” (and I could name many more) no longer occupy center stage in most missiological conversations. For good or ill, these once-dominant concerns have given way to more recent concerns in the contemporary missiological syllabus. Issues such as missional hermeneutics, missional theology, missional ecclesiology, short-term missions, holistic missions, creation care, mission and justice issues, reconciliation as mission, diasporic missions and issues of immigration, partnership between the Western and Majority World churches, and the phenomenon of the new sending nations are now prominent. It is also impossible to imagine today a missiology lacking explicit attention to issues that involve the use of power in postcolonial contexts.

All these additions to the missiological syllabus arise out of ever-changing contexts, often catalyzed by the new voices of the global church, which are speaking with greater clarity and power out of their own experiences and contexts. These emerging global voices alert us to the importance of honor-shame. That is, much of the Majority World lives in cultural milieus where honor, shame, and face are dominant concerns in ways that differ radically from how honor/shame function in Anglo-European cultures.

Whether in discipleship or evangelism, empowering local believers to understand God and the good news through the lenses of honor and shame give voice to the deep cultural experiences of much of the global Christian family. Recognizing honor and shame as a critical issue in contemporary missiology is simply to acknowledge the global church speaking authentically from within differing cultural contexts. Honor-shame has arrived, so to speak, because the churches in the Majority World are awakening to their own cultural realities of honor/shame as legitimate theological and missiological issues.

Second, in the past several decades, biblical scholarship has highlighted the significant role that issues of honor and shame play in Scripture.3 Such exegetical and theological work has pointed out ways in which Western biblical interpretation has significantly underplayed, misunderstood, even ignored these important ancient categories of moral evaluation and social engagement.4 The new emphasis on honor and shame issues in contemporary missiology is a corrective to a long legacy of Western interpreters who, due to cultural lenses, have failed to engage them as important issues in the Bible. As this recognition grows, missiologists (particularly evangelicals, Pentecostals, and others from more conservative traditions, who tend to place the voice of Scripture close to the center of the theological task) have begun to take note as well.

Third, most who study these issues contend that honor, shame, and face are not simply the possession of Majority World cultures. Anthropologists, social psychologists, philosophers, political theorists, and missiologists now accept the universality of the basic human experiences of honor, shame, and face. All human cultures possess cultural modes of honorification, recognize experiences of shame (stigma, dishonor, and embarrassment), and engage in face and facework.5 What differs is the quality of those experiences, the diverse ways a majority culture authorizes or rejects different forms and expressions of them, the ways they are lexicalized into local vernacular, and the motivational force their different expressions take for individuals and communities.

Honor-shame conversations are increasingly important for the Anglo-European world. This is surprising, as many have for some time considered the Western world to represent guilt-based cultures (not shame-based) or justice-oriented cultures (not honor-oriented). There exists today a growing conversation in philosophy and political theory about the value of rehabilitating honor and shame for Anglo-European contexts.6 Similarly, there exists an explosion of critical interaction with issues of face (unsurprisingly, with concomitant issues of honor and shame) in the growing area of face and facework theory (a multi-disciplinary research focus fueled by communication theorists, anthropologists, and social psychologists).7 Finally, even the most casual cultural observer cannot miss the growing prevalence of overt shame issues in contemporary Western cultures. A March 2015 cover story in Christianity Today by former executive editor Andy Crouch, titled “The Return of Shame,” notes how shame is growing as a dynamic of popular culture, aided by the power of social media and the internet. He summarizes the major claim: “From online bullying to twitter [sic] takedowns, shame is becoming a dominant force in the west.”8 This phenomenon has fueled a massive surge of writings addressing the impact of shame on affective disorders and relationships (think, for example, of the tremendous popularity of the work of Brené Brown). In parts of the world that have for centuries been thought of as decidedly non-honor or non-shame cultures, many acknowledge an increasing relevance of these issues.

Many of us who work in honor-shame studies have noted a striking pair of consistent reactions when engaging leaders and churches throughout the world. The first reaction is typically one of hesitant excitement. Upon learning that Scripture and the gospel have much to say about the culturally salient issues of honor and shame, people often react with statements such as “Really? Are you certain this can be the case?” This reaction rests, I believe, on the anticipation of unlocking a new gospel-laden way of understanding deep issues that dominate their cultural environment. A second reaction typically follows: “If this is true, why has no one told us this before?” Many of these leaders puzzle at how missionaries who have brought them the gospel have missed what is so clearly a major issue, both in scripture and culture. The failure of Western theology, biblical studies, and missiology to take honor-shame issues more seriously over the past several centuries has led to concomitant lacunae in the Majority World church.

As with any emerging field of study, there are challenges. One such challenge is definitional. Often those who write on honor/shame do so with different perspectives and usages of even the most basic terminology. As senior Harvard anthropologist Michael Herzfeld observes, the English term honor is an inefficient gloss that covers a great variety of indigenous terminological systems.9 His point is that there is no such thing as honor—only honors of various types and cultural specificities. Honor is never a singular, univocal thing—it is a field concept, a “bundle of virtues.”10 Consequently, to delve into the study of social honor is to find oneself in a very expansive and, oftentimes, confusing place. The same slipperiness exists with shame and shame-laden terms. Authors who use the same terminology to write about very different concepts and experiences frequently compound this confusion. So, for example, shame can be a personal affect (internal) or a social phenomenon (external). Similarly, honor can reference an internal experience (self-esteem, a personal sense of pride, or feelings that derive from affirmation of various kinds) or external social practices (applause, titles, forms of politeness, recognition of different types). The cultural variability of honor and shame, either as an individual experience or as social dynamics creates differences in quality, motivation, and cultural practices.

Some authors who write on honor-shame issues ignore these complexities. This is usually not the case with leading scholars but is often true of those who consume the best honor-shame scholarship and generate resources at a more practical level. Generalization and essentializing result in the stereotypical and careless use of terms such as “honor cultures,” “shame cultures,” “guilt cultures,” and so on. This type of essentializing results in simplistic analyses and solutions. More careful authors acknowledge that no culture is completely one type in contrast to another.11 The honor-shame conversation must work toward a more accurate taxonomic nomenclature. Until one emerges, we will likely continue to use the clumsy terminology as shorthand.

Still another problem with many honor-shame studies is outdated theories or conceptual frameworks. Even Crouch’s generally perceptive CT article is given to designating “shame cultures” incorrectly as concerned with outsider opinion (what the community or society says about you) and “guilt cultures” as focused on behavior and principle. This unfortunate reliance on outdated theory exists within missiology, especially in the area of honor/shame.12 More recent scholarship in anthropology and social psychology now considers these older characterizations to be at best as incomplete, at worst completely wrong. Practitioners and non-specialists often continue to perpetuate these naïve, simplistic generalizations.

In this issue, we offer a variety of topics and approaches to understanding this important area of honor-shame. In “An Honor-Bearing Gospel for Shame-Fueled Crises,” Werner Mischke asks what the gospel implies for the current global refugee crisis, issues of terrorism, and the poison of racism. His answer? Shame is at the center of such persistent global crises, and Ephesians 2 provides a gospel of hostility-killing peace and shame-covering honor, which can be resources to heal these enduring problems.

Yi-Sang Patrick Chan provides us with a view of Romans 8 through distinctly non-traditional lenses. “Romans 8 and the Conception of Chinese Shame and Guilt” calls for a different view than the traditional Anglo-European approach with which most of us are familiar.

Travis Myers, in his article “Figuring the Disfigured in Zhuangzi and the Gospel of Mark: A Comparative Analysis,” provides a wonderful example of comparative theology, using stories from the Chinese classics of Zhuangzi and three stories from the Gospel of Mark. In this comparative work, he engages issues of disfigurement (and the accompanying stigma, shame, and need for honor) which raise important questions for Christian communities in every context, especially how to view and treat those on whom society has stigmatized and shamed.

Drawing upon his extensive missionary experience, Alan Howell offers a reading of Paul in the book of Philemon, utilizing a Mozambican rhetorical perspective. His article “‘Old Man’ as Cipher: Humor and Honor-Shame Rhetoric for Reading Philemon in Mozambique” provides a fresh cultural reading of that brief New Testament document.

Once a paragon of church growth and global admiration, the Protestant Church in Korea now struggles with significant membership decline and huge public relations problems. Shin-Ho Choi and Mike Rynkiewich, in “Face and the Loss of Reputation in the Korean Protestant Church,” paint a picture of institutional face-loss as a salient factor in the current challenges Korean Christianity faces.

Jackson Wu’s “From One Honor-Shame Culture to Another: A Proposal for Training Chinese Missionaries to Serve in Muslim Contexts” does the missiological community a favor by directing our attention to one of the “new sending nations,” China. He analyzes two very different cultures that both adhere to decidedly non-Western views of honor and shame. In his analysis, Wu proposes a framework for seeking context-specific strategies and training methodologies.

Anthony J. Gryskiewicz’s “Honor and Shame in Ruth” brings helpful insights from this ancient Mediterranean story to the modern, Western reader, especially in terms of face concerns and facework.

Evertt Huffard holds the special distinction of being the very first Western missiologist to write a PhD dissertation that materially addressed issues of honor/shame from a missiological perspective. He did so in 1985 while at Fuller Theological Seminary, writing on the topic of “Thematic Dissonance in the Muslim-Christian Encounter: A Contextualized Theology of Honor.” We are honored that he has continued this distinguished legacy here with his article titled “How Glory Veiled the Honor of God (2 Cor 2:1–4:6)”, in which he draws upon current research to shed light on a well-known, missiologically significant section of Paul’s writings.

Harriet Hill, who has worked extensively in missionary care of various kinds, highlights how missionaries face temptations of shame particular to the missionary task. Her “Missionaries and Shame” illustrates how the missionary calling is fraught with such personal trials and what God’s called servants can do to counter these temptations.

In this issue, veteran missionaries Sherry Faris and Jeremy Davis provide us with real-life case studies from their contexts (Guinea and Peru respectively). These two tangible examples of how honor-shame issues show up in very different contexts illustrate both the universality of these issues and the incredible challenge for those who would attempt to navigate honor-shame issues successfully.

Also, we interview several leaders from Missions Resource Network (MRN), a significant organization among Churches of Christ that equips sending churches and missionaries. They tell the story of how MRN has come to adopt honor-shame insights in profound ways that bear on their work of training individuals and churches for mission. Finally, several reviews highlight recent important works dealing with honor-shame issues.

As guest editor of this issue, my prayer is that these articles, case studies, and book reviews provide a compelling case demonstrating how lively and timely the honor-shame conversation is for missiological reflection. Ultimately, my goal is to convince us all that there exists a tremendous need for thinkers, researchers, and writers to reflect seriously on issues of honor and shame in specific contexts, within particular linguistic frames. To the God who erases and heals our shame and bestows eternal face upon his people be all the honor.

1 Recently, I presented a paper at the 2019 South-Central Regional meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society detailing the rise of honor-shame issues in English missiological literature since the late 1950s. Scholarly missiological writings in this area have increased sharply since 2014.

2 One important preliminary point is to clarify the relationship between honor and shame. Though these concepts often co-occur, the conventional pairing of these two notions is a bit misleading. As Unni Wikan, “Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair,” Man 19 (1984): 635–52, has argued, honor and shame are not binary opposites. They are not antipodal concepts, “the poles of one-and-the-same spectrum of social evaluation” (Gideon M. Kressel and Unni Wikan, “More on Honor and Shame,” Man 23 (1988): 167). This is clear when one notices that shame is an affect. Honor, in contrast, is not. One feels shame. One does not feel honor, though one may indeed feel certain emotions that result from the appropriation of honor. What one normally feels when receiving honor is pride. One feels proud, a somewhat self-directed pleasure that derives from the possession of or adherence to some type of excellence (see Gabriele Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment [Oxford: Clarendon, 1985]: 20). Pride may take the form of a purely self-referential affect (a highly individualized, internal experience) or may involve relationship to wider social units (see Erving Goffman, “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction,” Psychiatry 18 [1955]: 217–18; Taylor, Pride, 23 ff.). Viewed this way, honor is a binary correlate to public shaming: shame, as an affect, lies in opposition to pride. Here, however, I adopt the current convention of hyphenating these two terms, creating an umbrella designation. This convention, though imperfect, gains legitimacy from how these cultural dynamics tend to be correlatives.

3 Much of this began with the popular works of missionary and New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal: The 15th Chapter of Luke, Seen Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants, rev ed. ([1973]; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005); Poet and Peasant: A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976); and Through Peasant Eyes: More Lucan Parables, Their Culture, and Style (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980). Parallel to the work of Bailey was that of the so-called Context Group (Jerome Neyrey, Bruce Malina, John Elliot et al.) who engaged New Testament texts using social-scientific criticism arising out of models from anthropology and the social sciences. More recently, the work of David deSilva has highlighted issues of honor and shame as central to understanding the New Testament texts. See, e.g., his Despising Shame: Honor Discourse and Community Maintenance in the Epistle to the Hebrews ([1995]; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), Bearing Christ’s Reproach: The Challenge of Hebrews in an Honor Culture (North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL, 1999), and Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999). Though, much of this earlier work warrants critique and methodological caution. See, e.g., Louise Joy Lawrence and Mario I. Aguilar, Anthropology and Biblical Studies: Avenues of Approach (Leiderdorp, The Netherlands: Deo, 2004). Also see Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (New York: Continuum International, 2000). Much of this critique aims at use of outdated anthropological theory and models, which mainstream anthropology now generally rejects.

4 See, e.g., the reviews in this issue of the two recent books: Jackson Wu, Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2019) and Te-Li Lau, Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), which each in different ways address the failure of Western scholars and readers to appreciate honor and shame.

5 Many modern Western languages do not lexicalize face issues directly with face terminology as do many other languages. In the modern West we tend to collapse face and face-related behavior into other categories, such as politeness, image, identity and identity management, or various extensions of personal dignity and esteem. Yet, as Ervin Goffman notes in his seminal essay on face, even in modern Western culture, “the members of every social circle may be expected to have some knowledge of face-work and some experience in its use. In our society, this kind of capacity is sometimes called tact, savoir-faire, diplomacy, or social skill.” Yet, all such activity is “modified, prescriptively or proscriptively, by considerations of face” (Goffman, 217). Theorists are clear about this point: face and facework are universal human experiences, present in all cultures.

6 My contention is that since honor, shame, and face are and have always been universal experiences and social dynamics, what actually changed in the modern West was not a loss of honor and shame but two things: honor and shame in new modalities and a narrative that articulates a rejection of former honor-shame modes. Honor and shame remained constant realities, however.

7 The literature here continues to grow, especially that dealing with issues of honor. Representative of this trend are the following: Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2010); Anthony Cunningham, Modern Honor: A Philosophical Defense, Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory 22 (New York: Routledge, 2013); Peter Olsthoorn, Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press, 2014); Tamler Sommers, Why Honor Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

8 Andy Crouch, “The Return of Shame,” Christianity Today, March 10, 2015,

9 Michael Herzfeld, “Honor and Shame: Problems in the Comparative Analysis of Moral Systems,” Man 15 (1980): 339. Though Herzfeld was referring primarily to the study of honor within the discipline of anthropology, the same definitional confusion seems to occur in several disciplines.

10 David A. Gilmore, Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1987), 93. The enduring power of honor lies in this inclusive nature, bringing multiple positive moral notions together into a single evaluative category.

11 I have argued elsewhere that the over-generalization of cultures as “honor cultures,” “shame cultures,” “guilt cultures,” or “face cultures” is decidedly problematic: Christopher L. Flanders, “There is No Such Thing as ‘Honor’ or ‘Honor Cultures’—A Missiological Reflection on Social Honor,” in Devoted to Christ: Essays in Honor of Sherwood Lingenfelter, ed. Christopher Flanders (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2019), 145–65.

12 This has always been a significant challenge for missiology and is one unfortunate by-product of being a discipline that relies heavily on other academic disciplines. Michael Rynkiewich writes about this general tendency, noting that while missiology “was looking the other way, anthropology walked off in a different direction, and the world itself took some strange turns” (Michael Rynkiewich, Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postcolonial World (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), xi). This is particularly true of mission literature that deals with honor and shame. In chapter 3 of my book, About Face, I discuss at length how recent anthropology has moved beyond, and in some areas rejected the earlier theories of guilt and shame advocated by earlier anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. In effect, missiology seized upon a dated notion of honor (i.e., honor as external, competitive, masculine, zero-sum) associated with putative “honor cultures.” This created a convention of dividing cultures into “honor cultures” (or “shame cultures,” or “face cultures”) that contrasted with non-honor cultures (which, generally, were assumed to be modern Western cultures). Much early missiological writing on honor, shame, and guilt (e.g., Hesselgrave, Hiebert, etc.) assumed the earlier, but now rejected, anthropological theory as foundational.