حرام عليك (Haraam 3aleik) Shame on you!
That is the extent of the Egyptian Arabic Jonny has taught me and I still can’t pronounce it. (Shame on me!) According to him, it is an important phrase to know if you want to know about Egyptians and maybe the whole Middle East. He often calls them a shame culture. For people schooled in western philosophy and theology, the sociologists need to remind us that we are from a guilt culture. The generalizations of sociologists are hard to defend but they can be instructive to think about. Want to know more about how they label you? Here’s a full treatment of the building blocks of godless societies: fear, shame and guilt. It will help you get your mind around the ideas: link.
If you don’t want the full treatment, here’s the idea of what runs a shame culture:
Basically, shame is an act against the accepted system of values. You feel shame when you are going against what others think you should be going with. It is especially activated when an outsider finds out that you have committed a shameful act. One author puts it this way: “He who has done a shameful deed must conceal it, for revealing one disgrace is to commit another disgrace.” There is an Arab proverb that says, “A concealed shame is two thirds forgiven.”
A 20th Century Syrian scholar, Kazem Daghestani, tells of an Arab husband who caught his wife in bed with another man. He drew a gun and pointed it at the couple while addressing the man. “I could kill you with one shot but I will let you go if you swear to keep secret the relationship you have had with my wife. If you ever talk about it I will kill you.” The man took that oath and left. The husband divorced his wife without divulging the cause. He was not concerned about the loss of his wife or her punishment but about his reputation. Public shaming and not the nature of the deed itself or the individual’s feelings had determined his action. That’s an old example from mid-twentieth century, but it is still applicable — and it tells the story of a lot of what happens in the Middle East. People are carrying secret shame.
You are probably carrying secret shame too, Egyptian or not. When you got up today, your “shame attendant” probably started doing its internal job. Maybe you looked in the mirror and said, “Yuck.” You got ready for a shower and it said, “Too fat. Too thin. Too hairy. Too out-of-shape. Too unnatractive to make love to.” The background music of our secret shame is playing all day and we never let anyone else hear it because that would feel even more shameful. So we end up dragged around by it all day; trying to feel better in spite of it all day. Right now as I write this, my left foot still hurts because I went down to the basement to turn on my laundry in the dryer (Forgot it last night, stupid) and I hit my foot on my toolbox. (Did not take it clear down to the workbench, lazy.) When I yelled in surprise and pain, my first thoughts were, “Why did you leave that there (you dummy!)?” And I also immediately thought that I did not want to tell Gwen I had hit my foot because she disapproves of me leaving my stuff lying around. My shame attendant was in full swing.
At my conference this weekend Curt Thompson called shame the “vector” that evil uses to dis-integrate the universe. He is an MD so I think he meant: Shame is like “an organism, typically a biting insect or tick, that transmits a disease or parasite from one animal or plant to another.” Shame transmits anti-love and dis-connection. It transmits the dis-ease resident in a shame-activated person to another victim. It is a spiritual self-destruction virus. But he might mean this:
Regardless, shame is a dis-integrator. It separates us from our true selves and definitely keeps us from transparently loving of others. Our shame attendant monitors our every move so we present a self that conforms to whatever we think will make us look good enough to survive the constant threat we perceive. Gwen cares more about my toe than about her sense of proper tidiness. But my shame attendant needs that to be proved before it allows me to receive her love. I am still tempted to think I will be ashamed if I show up as myself. In other contexts, when my true self poked his head up from his bunker, the shame attendant was spot on and someone did shout “Shame on you!” in some way, trying to get me back into line with what is killing everyone. Some sociologist chimed in and said, “From a shame culture, eh?” I’ve been bitten by the tic so many times that I am tempted to give up altogether.
As a matter of fact, Curt Thompson said that the whole temptation of Jesus story is written for the salvation of people who live in a shame culture and for each of us (all of us) who have a shame attendant. We see that the ultimate shame attendant, the devil, accuses the Son of God and tries to get Him to give in to conforming to a God-free, love-free, truth-free world. “Prove it!” Satan keeps saying to Jesus. “You don’t know that your needs will be satisfied, because you aren’t worth saving. You don’t know that you are honored as the Son, it needs verification. You have no power in this world that the world does not give you, prove your allegiance.”
This daily, relentless fact of shame’s dis-integrating power is why Dr. Thompson was so thankful to point out that the life of Jesus and facts of the cross so completely disintegrate the dis-integrator:
Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
In the King James Version it says Jesus “despised” the shame. He looked at it as the disintegrator it is. Even more, he fought it to the finish and publicly wore it by hanging on a cross. People shouted “Shame on you!” while he was dying there. But bringing the shame of the world into the light crippled its power. Rising from the dead provided hope for all of us making our way through this world into our own resurrection.
We are a circle of hope because of the great promise of God in Jesus:
Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:5).
Despise the shame that creates that “despicable you” your shame attendant is relentlessly trying to make the true you. In Christ, we are the children of God and the whole universe is waiting to see what we will become.