Gospel Restores Honor to the Dishonored
[Editorial note: This article is based on the 1994 EMQ article "The Gospel for Shame Cultures" by Bruce “Thomas” Sidebotham and has been revised on Bruce’s own site in this 2002 revision.]
In Indonesia, our Muslim housekeeper told us that when she was a little girl she had a friend who used to feel her mother’s hair in the morning to see if it was damp. Her friend did this so that she could tell if her mother had been messing around with other men.
According to Islam, sex makes one unclean. One’s prayers will not be heard again until after a complete bath. When asked why her friend’s mother would care about ceremonial purity if she were already committing adultery, our helper said no one would consider not bathing after having sex. Such uncleanness was a curse. Everything touched would be cursed. Curiously, adultery did not have the same result. In other words, the consequences of uncleanness were more feared than the results of sin!
Suddenly a lot of things made sense. I had always wondered why even nominal Muslims make such a big thing out of not eating pork and not getting licked by dogs when sins like lusting after women are treated so superficially. Even the 9/11 terrorists frequented striptease joints.
Under this perspective, the greatest felt need is not salvation from sin but deliverance from defilement. Every element of a devout Muslim’s life is ordered by this insecurity; the direction to face when falling asleep, the Arabic words with which to preface a task, speech, or greeting, and even the way to blow one’s nose or wipe one’s bottom. Because eating pork introduces the worst possible defilement and because one’s ceremonial purity outweighs one’s moral purity, the pork eater (George W. Bush) is more despicable than the murderer (Osama Bin Laden).
Defilements come in various levels. Each defilement has an appropriately matched ritual for cleansing. Burping and passing gas represents one level of defilement. Touching one’s private parts comprises another. Touching semen, urine, feces, or menstrual flow is serious; serious enough that a woman’s prayers will not be heard during her period.
How does the gospel apply under these circumstances? Does the Bible teach about defilement? Does the gospel address defilement as well as sin? Is defilement an integral part of man’s sinfulness? Is shame related to defilement the way guilt is related to sin? Does Christ save us from both? Is the apparent lack of theological attention to this area related to Christianity’s weakness in non-Western cultures which are more shame than guilt oriented? In cultures where defilement looms larger than depravity, are our gospel presentations relevant? Do we disciple converts into healthy and life changing maturity or are many still wrestling with unaddressed and misunderstood insecurities?
In Indonesia a friend asked me why Christians insist that Jesus is God and that he was crucified. Instead of trying to convince my friend that all have sinned and that all sin must be punished by death, I noted what he already knew, that all flesh is defiled and from before birth contains the very substances from which we need to be cleansed. I expressed my opinion on the futility of ceremonial rituals for making us clean enough for heaven, because dirt cannot make itself clean any better than darkness can make itself light. I said that just as a candle drives darkness from a room by entering it, God drives defilement from human flesh by becoming it. In other words, the very thing that Muslims object to most in Christianity, syirik the identification of God with his creation, is the solution to man’s most basic problem as perceived by most Muslims.
I should have also shown how the nature of Jesus’ miracles healing blindness with his spit and leprosy with his touch proves that he had to be God. No mere prophet could touch a leper without being contaminated, and, while a prophet’s grave might be holy, his spit remains foul like everyone else’s.
I did point out that by embracing death itself Jesus destroyed it. I concluded that our only hope for heaven lay in appropriating Jesus’ undefiled life and victory over death for ourselves by faith as is symbolized in baptism and communion.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they felt shame before guilt. Before the fall “The man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:25) After the fall, “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” (Genesis 3:7) But even with the fig leaves on, they were still naked. “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10) Interestingly and perhaps symbolically, God himself covered Adam and Eve’s nakedness. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21)
This progression is noteworthy. Adam and Eve hid after they sinned because they were afraid. They were afraid because they were naked. Shame over nakedness preceded fear, alienation, and separation. Guilt feelings were curiously avoided with some profound excuses. “The devil,” for Eve, and “the woman,” for Adam, “made me do it.” (Genesis 3:12-13)
If the immediate consequence of sin was death, (”For when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17)), then this “death” must be more than just the end of physical life.
The Old Testament contains many images indicating that defilement is integral to depravity. As a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and feet whenever they entered the tent of meeting or approached the altar, otherwise they would die (Exodus 30:17-21). Blemished or defective animals were not permitted to be used for sacrifices. Items used for worship had to be anointed or consecrated. Unclean animals could not be eaten, and even circumcision probably had some connection to ceremonial cleanliness as the illustration in Colossians 2:11-13 indicates by relating the foreskin with the “sinful nature.”
Jesus himself, when he challenged the Pharisees in their use and understanding of cleansing and dietary laws, affirmed that man is unclean (Mark 7:20-23).
The concept of original defilement helps total depravity make sense. “There is no one righteous, not even one,” (Romans 3:10) and “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags,” (Isaiah 64:6) because we are defiled. Sin is not inherited but stems from our being. We are unclean and everything we touch or do, even with good intent, becomes contaminated. The Muslim who understands that the ground is cursed wherever he steps if he has not bathed after having had sex may comprehend how bondage to unrighteousness proceeds from defilement. This may also explain why Muslims seem to strive harder to be clean than they strive to be righteous.
Niels Mulder says, “Shame is the feeling of anxiety about one’s presentation, about being criticized or laughed at, for short, a feeling of embarrassment and fear for the eyes, ears, and opinions of others.”1 Gailyn Van Rheenen quotes Jacob A. Loewen saying, “While shame is ‘the response to disapproval of one’s own peers,’ guilt is the ‘self-condemnation resulting from the violation of internalized convictions of right and wrong.’”2 To these definitions I add that guilt is a feeling and/or a condition occurring when one has broken or not kept a divine or human law, while shame is a feeling and/or a condition stemming from a shortcoming in one’s state of being, either before God or peers. Just as guilt can be real or imagined and felt or not felt, shame can also be objective or subjective and perceived or ignored.
Both Paul (Romans 9:33) and Peter quote Isaiah on the subject, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (1 Peter 2:6) If shame is limited to a subjective feeling in the face of one’s peers without any objective condition, then how could this promise be true? What about all the saints and prophets who got ridiculed? If, on the other hand, “shame” in this verse refers to an objective condition, then those who trust in the cornerstone laid in Zion (Jesus) have the objective basis for feeling shame permanently removed, whether they get ridiculed or not.
We talk about how sacrifice for forgiveness of sins is no longer necessary because Christ has provided the ultimate sacrifice; but what are our reasons for setting aside Old Testament dietary and cleansing laws? When Jesus “declared all foods ‘clean,’” (Mark 7:18-23) he was not setting these laws aside but challenging added traditions by pointing out that the issue of cleanness was in man’s basic condition and not in the food. Were these laws intended to highlight man’s defiled condition as the sacrifices highlighted man’s sin? Have we set aside these laws because Jesus once and for all removes our defilement just like he removes our sin? “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14)
Can we present the gospel in a way that addresses shame as well as sin? What kind of gospel have we been taking to the Muslim world when we neglect the issue of man’s “nakedness?” Jesus not only bore our sins; he bore our shame. As the “author and perfecter of our faith” He “endured the cross, scorning its shame.” (Hebrews 12:2)
What did it mean for “Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God”? (2 Corinthians 5:21) Did he become depraved, or defiled? Could he have conquered our defilement by assuming it? Christ was not only “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities;” he “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) The atonement is not just the simple matter of someone taking our punishment, a concept which Muslims find extremely distasteful. God took upon himself our fallen flesh to the point of pain and death so that our nature can be transformed, and we can live forever.
Has something been missing in our gospel preaching so that we don’t reach Muslim at their point of deepest insecurity? Does Muslim infatuation with endless cycles of ritual cleansing reveal another human problem as basic as sin? Do we need an approach to evangelism and discipleship that will meet people at this other point of need? Could such an approach revolutionize outreach and church planting in some of the most resistant parts of the world?