We are on the final stretch of the Reformation Project’s 2016 Leadership Development Cohort. One week from today we will be gathering in Atlanta for a few days on intense teaching and discussion. I’m also very privileged to be presenting on my transgender experience during our time in Atlanta.
Thanks to those who have already contributed to our Cohort’s financial goals. For those who have intended to but haven’t yet – now is your chance! We are within $3,500 of reaching our overall goal! Please consider making a contribution to this great organization and project. You can do that at this link. Any amount will be appreciated!
In the meantime, here is another one of my contributions to the cohort reflecting on a reading from book by Jim Brownson, “Bible, Gender and Sexuality”. I have been dealing with feelings of guilt this past year as I’ve navigated going back to school, earning a living and support my kids. It has made me aware that the “honor-shame” culture the reading refers to is still alive and well.
“The church will stay on much stronger and clearer footing – and remain more closely linked with its Scripture – if it approaches honor and shame more clearly in the light of deeper and more sustainable scriptural principals.” (Brownson, p. 221)
In chapter 10 of “Bible, Gender and Sexuality” Brownson addresses what anthropologists call the “honor-shame” culture in which the ancient writers of scripture operated. This is basically a code that says some things bring a person recognition and respect (honor) while others will cause a person to fall from favor (shame). This is often seen as a closed system, meaning if one person is honored (a winner) then someone else is shamed (a looser). One of the many things we see in this system over the course of history is that it is fluid: it varies depending on the time and culture.
Once upon a time marrying the widow of your brother would bring you honor – even if you already had a wife. The very same act would be considered scandalous in contemporary Christian cultures. There was also a time when treating your slaves with respect and dignity would bring honor to your family and estate (and doing so was taught from the pulpits); today even having them would be not only illegal but also disgraceful. Paul experienced the fluidity of the honor culture in his own life experience when, having met Christ, he is transformed from a zealot, hunting and killing followers of Christ, to an Apostle – proclaiming the name and power of Christ.
So what does this mean as we look at the issues of sexuality and gender in scripture? For that matter, what does it mean about anything that is prohibited in scripture? In short it means we need to ask “why”. Why do what have Mosaic laws that imposed the death penalty when the same offenses today might barely receive a scolding? Why is Sampson’s strength zapped when his hair is cut short in the Old Testament only to have Paul declare that long hair is inappropriate for men in the New Testament (and then have most artistic interpretations of Jesus show him with long hair)?
Looking at the Biblical cultures in light of an honor and shame culture casts a bright light on the modern environment that has evolved in and around the Church. Our concepts of sin, salvation, purity and righteousness are all driven by an idea that revolves around what we see as shameful and what we believe will bring honor to ourselves or those in our community.
While we may have rewritten the rules a little to place Christ as the intermediary for our shame and the recipient of our honor (glory), we still nonetheless measure and judge one another with the same scales, balancing out our modern standards. “Tithing”, “devotionals”, “education”, and “service” are all examples of the pools in which we collect the sum on ones honor. To some degree, even the depth from which a person has been saved (the drug dealer weighs more than the drug user) adds more depth to that pool of honor.
Shame also has it’s own shadows. And the honor system that the church creates becomes the artificial light that casts those shadows around us.
The system has changed through the centuries. The one thing that has remained the same, from the Spanish inquisition to the modern fundamentalists, is the passion with which they hold to the system. Their own light is blinding, preventing them from seeing system itself; and more importantly – the way it impacted the writers of the Old and New Testaments.
God calls us to step into His light, which he summed up like this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself.
Brownson addresses the notion that shame can be healthy: specifically that the idea of bringing harm to someone should be shameful and cause us to reevaluate our way of thinking. This type of shame over the harmful patterns in our lives can lead to a healthy “guilt” over our specific actions. When this process happens in a community where they can be replaced with more healthy (honorable, if you will) patterns and actions, such as recovering from addiction in a 12-step community, shame and guilt can work together to motivate change for the better. (It should be noted however that even in these communities, the shame does not come from the community, but rather from the person themselves and manifests itself in a desire to change.)
The honor-shame culture was also the concept behind the now discredited “reparative” or “conversion” therapy programs. These programs targeted LGBT individuals (mostly youth) in an attempt to shame them out of their same-sex attractions or cross-gendered beliefs and into a more culturally conforming hetrosexual, cis-gendered pattern of thought. It is also the result of such approaches from the church to the LGBT community as “love the sin and hate the sinner” or “accepted but not approved”. Our presence is encouraged, but the same is reinforced.
The question we have to ask when addressing issues surrounding gender and sexuality is whether or not the shame is healthy or toxic? Or to put it another way, “is the shame preventing harm or causing it”? Are gay and lesbian followers of Christ failing to fulfill Christ’s summary of the law, or are they simply on the loosing end of a modern iteration of an honor-shame culture?
Is there honor in shaming someone who has done no harm?
Brownson says it like this:
“What is honorable is what contributes to a form of life and dignity that is permeated by the gospel of Christ. What is shameful is any impulse or behavior that diminishes life and dignity, as that life and dignity is portrayed in the gospel of Christ.” (p. 221)