The Shame of the Cross

Over the last year or so I have been learning more about honour-shame cultures and how they impact the way we read the Bible, particularly how we understand and communicate the Gospel. The Roman world in which the Jesus’ movement emerged consisted of honour-shame cultures. While I have recognized its importance, its only very recently that I have begun to fully grasp its significance. The insight came from reading a short but illuminating article from Jennie Pollock over at Think Theology entitled Global Glory. She writes:

“…who, for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really thought that the shame of the cross was the worst thing about it. Yet sitting reading some other section of the Bible one morning last month, this verse dropped into my mind and asked me to consider it.

Later that day, Andrew Wilson tweeted, “If you read Scripture as if ‘shame’ is basically the same as ‘embarrassment,’ an awful lot of it will not make any sense.” He went on to say, regarding the crucifixion account: “It’s interesting that the pulling of the beard, spitting, wagging heads and jeering are mentioned in such detail in the Gospels, yet the physical pain is not. We’d do the opposite (like Mel Gibson did).”

Quite. I skim over the beard-pulling parts without really noticing them, and certainly wouldn’t consider them important in explaining the gospel. And that is because I, as a modern Westerner, understand sin (and indeed all right and wrong) as being about guilt, not shame.

Which is perhaps why no one has yet worked out a way of bringing rape cases to trial without increasing the suffering of the victim through exposing her to the shame of having every detail of her private life pulled apart by lawyers. We don’t understand the reality of it.

In the Middle East, they do. Shame is a powerful motivating factor there, and the message of the gospel in that culture has to deal with the removal of shame as well as guilt. And it does. As Andy McCullough explains in Global Humility,

If the atonement were only a guilt-righteousness transaction, Christ could have died in private, satisfying God’s wrath and bearing our punishment. The truth, however, is that he was not just bearing our guilt, he was also bearing our shame. (p. 138)

He goes on to talk about how the Hebrew word for ‘atonement’ literally means ‘covering’, not in the sense of staging a cover up, or hiding our sins under the carpet, but covering our nakedness, our shame, as with Adam and Eve in Eden.

By pointing out the centrality of shame to the cross, all the dots began to connect for me. I knew that the cross was an ignominious thing, an execution designed by the Romans to bring about maximum humiliation on the victim, mostly reserved for people on the lowest rungs of society, for slaves and rebels. However, up to that point I had only thought of the humiliation as a feature of the cross, albeit an utterly dehumanizing one, and not one of its central issues. As Pollock rightly indicates, in the New Testament the worst thing about the cross is consistently not the torture but the shame. It’s not only in the passage from Hebrews but it is crystal clear in the famous Philippian hymn.

…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name… – Philippians 2:6-9 ESV

The ESV, like most English translations, in verse 7 uses the word “servant” but the Greek word actually means slave. In fact, in this particularly context slave is the most appropriate translation because crucifixion was known as a 1slave’s death. That was because it was considered such a shameful thing it was usually those at the very bottom of Roman society, the slaves, who usually suffered such a terrible fate. The entire hymn (Philippians 2:6-11) tells a story about vertical status, from the highest honour to utter abasement and then back to the highest honour. Honour and shame are right at the heart of the story of Jesus.

Fleming Rutledge brilliant explains in her wonderful book The Crucifixion why Paul in Romans boldly said he is not ashamed of the Gospel. The only reason why he would say something like that was if the cross was such an utterly shameful thing. It was so abominable that it could be hardly expressed so it was completely preposterous to proclaim allegiance to a crucified Lord. 2The cross is about humiliation and this was something no one in the ancient Roman world would have missed. We have many atonement models but not many seem to deal with the question of shame which is what crucifixion is designed maximally to inflict upon its victims.

The connection between shame and sin also helped me understand the attitude in the Bible of the entire community bearing responsibility for the transgression of the individual. This is something I have always struggled with because it seemed unfair. The trouble was I was understanding sin only in terms of guilt and forgetting the shamefulness of it. Guilt is about individual responsibility for committing the offence. Guilt is personal and internalised. Shame on the other hand is always about ones status in the group. Shame is therefore the social ramification of sinful behaviour. Sin is itself shameful behaviour. Since shame only occurs in a group, shame is transferable. Associating with a dishonourable person makes one also dishonourable. Therefore if the group accommodates a dishonourable person the whole group is dishonoured by association.

Within this group ethos I do not think the entire community is considered guilty of sin, that is, the whole community committed the act, after all individuals are still punished for their individual transgressions. Rather the group bears the responsibility of bearing the shame of the sinful act because it was committed within the group by a member of the group. I think Paul’s analogy of the body (3which was a common metaphor) provides a useful illustration of the group ethos. He says,

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. – 1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV

The group is not just an arbitrary collection of people or a business relationship between a group of people who share common private interests. They are a living organism, consisting of different parts dependent on one another. What affects one affects all. I think this honour-shame dynamic provides clues as to how Jesus, the innocent one’s death, can cover the sins of the world. Sin, because of the shame it causes, has a social dimension. By his humiliation on the cross, Jesus somehow took on himself the utter horror and ignominy of sin on himself. Since he took our dishonour, being found in him means we also participate in his glorification.

There is clearly more work that needs to be done on this model of atonement. As Andy McCullough points out to atone means to cover, in the sense of covering nudity. We must remember a key component of the humiliation of crucifixion was that the victim was nude. The idea of nudity being shameful and therefore a key metaphor for dishonour is pervasive throughout the Bible and in most cultures throughout the world. Likewise being clothed is a key metaphor for honour and the more beautifully arrayed you are, the more glorious you are. I therefore think our atonement models need to reckon with how shame is covered because that is what atonement literally means. Moreover, the cross is about humiliation and it happened in the social context of an honour-shame culture.

1Hengel, M., Crucifixion in the ancient world and the folly of the message of the cross, p. 51, Fortress Press, 1977.

2Rutledge, F., The Crucifixion: Understanding the death of Jesus Christ, pp. 90-93, Eerdmans, 2015.

3Keener, C.S., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Second Edition), p. 485, IVP Academic, 2014.

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