Understanding Shame and Its Effects on Asian Americans

(The following was originally posted on The Good Book Blog in two parts by Dr. Benjamin Shin. It is presented here in its entirety with minor edits for flow.)

Understanding An Older Concept In Today’s World

Many years ago, Fats Domino (and later Cheap Trick on Live at Budokon) sang these lyrics in the song entitled, “Ain’t That a Shame”:

You made me cry, when you said goodbye

Ain’t that a shame
 My tears fell like rain

Ain’t that a shame
 You’re the one to blame

You broke my heart, when you said we’re apart

Ain’t that a shame 
My tears fell like rain

Ain’t that a shame
 You’re the one to blame

Although these lyrics reflect the sorrows of a jilted lover, they also capture an important older concept that has relevance for today. It embraces the dynamic of shame, which is one of the greatest cultural dynamics of the New Testament. This paradigm is key in understanding other concepts and various texts accurately especially as it relates to topics such as approval, reputation, glory, and status. While these practices were prevalent in the 1st century of the Mediterranean, they also have current bearing to different segments of society today, specifically Asian-Americans in the 21st century. This blog will be the first in a series of blogs that will demonstrate the correlation of Paul’s use of shame in light of the framework of Roman cultural practices as well as how it relates to modern 21st century Asian-American spiritual tendencies.

The spread and growth of Christianity among Asian-Americans throughout the United States have been exponential. This has been witnessed through parachurches at universities, the numerous Asian-American churches, and the number of Asian-Americans enrolled in seminaries. The growth has been phenomenal. In fact, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States. Church futurist DJ Chuang notes that the estimated population numbers 18.9 million Asian-Americans in 2012 with a projected growth rate of 40.6 million by 2050. Much of this is fueled by immigration and reproduction.[1] In light of this growth, there are also many questions concerning healthy church practices and spiritual maturation processes among Asian-Americans especially those who are involved in different kinds of leadership or serving capacity. Much of the complexity regarding these issues are related to the issue of shame.

An opening disclaimer is necessary in giving definition to the term Asian-American. It is a generic term that is used to describe people of Asian descent who may have either been born in the United States or came to the country at an early age. As a result, they have become Westernized through schooling and society. Typically, Asian-Americans can refer to Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and even Southeast Asians. While there are certainly many similarities between all of these groups including the collectivist mindset, the honor/shame culture, and the hierarchical social structure, there are also significant differences as well. This entry will overview the larger Asian-American culture but will cite specific examples mainly from the Korean-American spirituality context in light of the honor/shame culture.

The symptoms and manifestations of shame within Asian-American Christians will be examined from an integrated study that includes the social history of the New Testament with an emphasis on Mediterranean/Roman culture of the first century, a New Testament exegetical perspective from the writings of the Apostle Paul from select passages from his letters, and the correlation of parallel culture practices done by Asian-Americans, specifically Korean-Americans. So the examination of this blog will move from identifying different 1st century cultural practices to examples within the writings of Paul within the New Testament connecting these practices to modern Asian-American elements of religious and spiritual experiences.

Defining Shame

It would be important to begin with a working definition of shame. Shame, unlike guilt, appears as a predominant dynamic within the culture of the first century as well as in global perspective today. Joe Hellerman notes that “ideas about honor and shame can be found in virtually all societies.”[2] It can also be asserted that it is one of the main cultural dynamics of both the Old and New Testament among the respective people groups of the Bible.[3] While the West today focuses on guilt, the majority of the world today functions under the shame dynamic. This can be attributed to the other cultural dynamics that work in tandem with shame, i.e. the hierarchical nature of people groups along with the collectivist mentality of different ethnic groups around the world.[4]

The mention of guilt in the New Testament is found but not to the degree of the dynamic of shame. It is mentioned through two main words, guilty (enochos), ten times in seven passages (Matt. 5:21; Matt. 26:26; Mark 3:29; Mark 14:14; 1 Cor. 11:27; Heb. 2:15; and James 2:10) and the word guilt/charge/reason (aitia), which is found in twenty passages (Matt. 19:3; Matt. 19:10; Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 8:47; John 18:38; John 19:4; John 19:6; Acts 10:21; Acts 13:28; Acts 22:24; Acts 23:28; Acts 25:18; Acts 25:27; Acts 28:18; Acts 28:20; 2 Tim. 1:6; 2 Tim. 1:12; Titus 1:13; Heb. 2:11).

So how are guilt and shame different from one another? It would be important then to realize that there is a significant, qualitative difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is pictured through Western lens as a court transaction which is addressed in a linear manner. Stockitt writes about how guilt “has consumed the energies of theologians—at least in the Western theological tradition—has been “guilt,” and this metaphor has defined, shaped, and molded subsequent theological reflection as a result.”[5] He further writes, in defining it, “when sin is defined principally as a transgression against an abstract law then the resultant legal status of the one who has committed the transgression is one of guilt.”[6] Stockitt contrasts shame from guilt by suggesting that the nature of shame is inherently relational. He writes “shame does not carry a legal meaning in the way guilt appears to. It sounds far more personal, more existential, more corporate.”[7] This would be consistent with how shame is typically understood by scholars of most disciplines.

So how should shame be defined? It depends on the discipline and perspective. There are multiple definitions for this term. A popular vulnerability counselor, Dr. Brene Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”[8] Christian author and ethicist Lewis Smedes in his book Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve, writes “shame is a very heavy feeling. It is a feeling that we do not measure up and maybe never will measure up to the sorts of persons we are meant to be.”[9] Robin Stockitt, a minister in the Anglican church, writes:

Shame can be understood, therefore, as arising from the external pressure of a group, where the use of shame as a social sanction is particularly effective. Shame is closely related to the reception of approval, strikes at the core of who a person is. Shame and anxiety thus become inseparable companions. The fear of being shamed leads to a state of anxious anticipation, which in turn leads to a whole range of coping mechanisms being established. [10]

Social scientist Halvor Moxnes explains that one of the main characteristics of an honor-and-shame society is that the group is more important than the individual. He states:

The individual received status from the group. Therefore, recognition and approval from others were important. Interaction between people was characterized by the competition for recognition and the defense of one’s own status and honor. To refuse a person’s claim for honor was to put the person to shame. The basic notion in all studies of honor and shame is that they represent the value of a person in her or his own eyes but also in the eyes of his or her society. [11]

Finally, Joe Hellerman writes how honor was preeminently a public commodity. He states “in the collectivist culture of antiquity, one’s honor was almost exclusively dependent upon the affirmation of the claim to honor by the larger social group to which the individual belonged.”[12]

This first part has attempted to explain the concept of shame from biblical times and how there are similarities between 1st century Mediterranean practices and 21st century aspects of spirituality specifically in Asian-American Christians. Understand shame and how it is different from guilt; understand how shame should be defined more in terms of a relational understanding rather than simply a judicial aspect of exchange.

In the next section, I will draw a correlation between this practice and the current challenges and tendencies of shame within the spirituality of Asian-Americans in the 21st century and go deeper into some of the motivations behind both. As I show the connection between 1st century Roman culture and 21st century Asian-American culture, there are valuable lessons that can be learned from studying and comparing both.

Learning Important Lessons Today from Examples of the Past

Roman Culture Vs. Asian Culture

There is an uncanny similarity between 1st century Roman culture and 21st century Asian-American culture. The similarities manifest through specific practices that relate to honor and shame. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that both cultures are hierarchical in nature and demonstrate collectivism in differing degrees. Two specific practices will be examined between the two cultures that parallel each other closely: the court of reputation and the cursus honorum. These practices, although ancient in nature, seems to have parallels in the 21st century that are likened to practices within Asian-American religious and spiritual experiences.

One of the common 1st century Roman practices of the day was something called the court of reputation. David deSilva defines this group as “that body of significant others whose ‘opinion’ about what is honorable and shameful, and whose evaluation of the individual, really matters.”[21] This group functioned in a way that is described as the “eyes” that needed to “be directed toward one another, toward their leaders, and, frequently, toward beings beyond the visible sphere (for example, God or the honored members of the group who have moved to another realm after death) as they look for approval.”[22] The opinion of this court of reputation factored heavily into the individual’s decision making for either approval or disapproval for different issues. This facet of the collectivist mindset of Asian-Americans, for example, could provide a peer pressure to do what is “right” in the eyes of the group for conformity or harmonious purposes.

Within this cultural framework, the individual is highly dependent on the group’s collective approval for his life. But as this extends into the Christian’s life, there is a person who is greater than the group that needs to give approval. That person is God. This issue is discussed by deSilva as he writes that “most prominent within this court of reputation is God, whose central place is assured because of God’s power to enforce his estimation of who deserves honor and who merits censure.”[23] This value is affirmed by the Apostle Paul throughout his ministry and his writings through the greater approval of God over any person or people group. Again, 1 Thessalonians 2:4 makes this clear when he states “but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.”

In terms of Asian-American culture and community, there functions a strong parallel “court of reputation” that includes parents, elders in a church, the pastor, peers, and anyone else who is watching the believer especially with a title. This takes many forms in terms of decisions and final outcomes. For example, when a young man commits himself to the Lord in a serious manner, he is often encouraged to go to seminary for further training. This is often decided by the pastor, parents, older authorities, and sometimes even peers. While this may prove to be a positive experience, sometimes this becomes detrimental to the young man if he does not have a “calling” or desire for full-time ministry from the Lord. A biblical example of this kind of calling may be seen in 1 Timothy 3:1 which states “if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” The point is that sometimes the “court of reputation” gives him pressure instead of a clear calling that comes directly from the Lord.

In another manner, the “court of reputation” can also function as a positive influence and peer pressure to help maintain high levels of piety, holiness, and spiritual practice. This is done when the group engages all together in something like morning prayer, bible study, a retreat, or a service event. For many Asian-American churches, the actual structure of the church may include an older congregation of people who speak the native language. For Chinese churches, the generations are termed Overseas-Born Chinese (OBC) who work together with American-Born Chinese (ABC). For Korean churches, the designations come through number points. For the older 1st generation of Korean-speaking people, they are known as 1.0 generation churches or Korean Ministry (KM) while the younger generation are the 2.0 generation also called the English Ministry (EM). The “court of reputation” dynamic works well when both generations of the church recognize and acknowledge the work or well-being of a congregation member for either their service or contribution to the church. In many ways, this paradigm is established as a means to achieve honor but more so in order to avoid shame, which is of great importance in the Asian-American culture.

Another Roman practice of the 1st century was the idea of cursus honorum. This term was yet another means for honor to be upheld centered around the honorific offices of the political arena. These “races for honors” showed up in many places including gravestones that would basically list all of the accomplishments of the deceased person. This was the way that a person received honor. Hellerman defines the cursus honorum as “a sequence of offices that marked the standard career for the Roman senatorial class, and which had been in place since the middle of the fourth century BCE.”[24]

Again, the Apostle Paul reflects the 1st century Roman culture in his writing in Philippians 3:5-6. He follows the typical paradigm of listing his honorable accomplishments both ascribed and acquired: “circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding righteousness that is in the law, blameless.” This would fit perfectly with the cursus honorum of the day especially since Philippi was a colony that was under the rule of the Roman government. But the Apostle Paul doesn’t stop here with this listing but proceeds to go in an unexpected direction. He lists everything and then states “more than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He travels the route of humility just like his Lord Jesus Christ. This is quite an unexpected turn culturally speaking because it is very counter-cultural to go in this direction. But again the direction of approval goes to a higher source and in this case it was that of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ.

Years ago, while attending a large conference for Asian-American college students, a speaker who was invited by the organizing group gave a sermon that was very much like a cursus honorum. He cited his many accomplishments academically as well as all the high ranking positions that he had previously and currently held during his lifetime. It was quite interesting to see the different generational responses to this speaker’s message. Some of the older Asian-Americans were awed and dumbfounded how accomplished and established the speaker was from his many years of ministry and life. The younger Asian-Americans, however, were totally disgusted with the talk because they perceived it to be a shallow boasting of personal accomplishments that seemed both inappropriate and unnecessary. It was simply seen as arrogant boasting. This led to an emergency meeting of the organizers who voted to have the oldest member of the group to go and confront the speaker about his inappropriate boasting. This author was the chosen spokesperson. As the rebuke was occurring, the speaker received everything very graciously and changed his approach in the preaching. But this author today realizes that it may have been too premature and even incorrect to judge his motives as negative. He was just establishing his credibility through his modern day cursus honorum.

Another example of the practice of cursus honorum within Asian-American religious and spiritual experiences happens through the acquiring of academic degrees to bolster one’s standing or credibility. Within a seminary, this is minimally done through working towards a Masters of Divinity degree. A generation ago this was the most popular degree that was needed to become a pastor which was a position of status and honor. While this has changed within the larger Western culture in America, it still remains true among Asian-American students and workers. For many American churches, a Master’s degree in New Testament, which is significantly less in terms of units, is often sufficient for a person to become a pastor. In some cases, a degree may not even be required for some denominations and churches. This is not the case for Asian-Americans. Part of this can be attributed to the “court of reputation” which encourages students to achieve more learning and some of it can be attributed to the student who is building his cursus honorum. Some of these same students go on to work towards additional degrees such as Masters of Theology (Th.m), Doctor of Ministry (D.Min), and even Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.d). The academic degree certainly exceeds the job requirements but they do strengthen the honor status for the pastor or leader. Social historian Joe Hellerman notes:

Traditional Asian culture is wedded to honor and shame in much the same way as the ancient Roman culture was. Instead of public offices in a cursus honorum, however, today’s Koreans regard educational achievements and vocational status as the key criteria for honor in the public sphere.[25]

While the effect of shame typically leads to withdrawal and hiding oneself, this can also be accomplished in more than one way. For example, Stockitt notes for some it is camouflaged by an excess of pious spirituality; for others by resignation. We go to extraordinary lengths to run away from this disease of the soul, by denying it is there, by refusing to stop, by filling every corner of our lives with busyness, hoping that the dread feeling will simply drift away and disappear.[26]

The tendency for an Asian-American Christian would then be to engross himself in religious piety, service, or activity. This would fit the grid of the goal attaining for approval (from an authority or God Himself), accomplished through the means of good works, which is actually motivated by shame. For example, the cursus honorum can be viewed as a list of accomplishments that may be interpreted as a means to give back to God through service or various positions that are held in the church. This sense of “more is better” worldview seems prevalent among Asian-Americans as they sometimes tend to quantify their spirituality. For Korean-Americans, this may be seen through earlier morning prayer, longer prayers, bigger church buildings, louder prayers, and greater fervor in one’s spirituality.


The combination of the modern day “court of reputation” with the cursus honorum pressure can drive a person in an Asian culture to feel great shame especially if he feels that he is not doing an adequate job in performing the tasks and duties which would be considered excellent. This kind of drive can lead to other potentially unhealthy attitudes and conditions including obsessive-compulsive behavior and detached emotions. This can also culminate in burnout and fatigue. When this occurs, this can affect a person’s spiritual condition significantly to the point of possibly even abandoning one’s faith. That is why there needs to be good accountability and monitoring of one’s spiritual and emotional health.


[1] DJ Chuang, “9 Things About Asian American Christianity,The Exchange: A Blog by Ed Stetzer, November 7, 2013 accessed November 14, 2013, http://christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/november/9-things-about-asian-american-christianity.html
[2] Joe Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 35.
[3] David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 24.
[4] For an excellent overview of the different cultures of the world, see Sheryl Takagi Silzer’s book Biblical Multicultural Teams (Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, 2011).

[5] Robin Stockitt, Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 43.\

[6] Stockitt, 43.

[7] Stockitt, 44.

[8] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012), 69.

[9] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve (San Francisco, CA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 5.

[10] Robin Stockitt, Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 41.

[11] Halvor Moxnes, The Social World of Formative Christianity and Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, Peder Borgen, and Richard Horsley (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 208.

[12] Hellerman, 35.
[21] David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 40.

[22] deSilva, 40.

[23] deSilva, 55.

[24] Hellerman, 51.

[25] Joe Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Ministry, 2013), 138.

[26] Robin Stockitt, Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 6.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *