Guilt and Shame: Roadblocks and Catalysts in Racial Bridge Building

This post is adapted from Lesson 3:Shame and Guilt in The Bridge to Racial Unity Discussion Guide 2.0. I wrote this section with considerable input from Jayson Georges, a friend, author, missionary, and founder of , a website that offers practical tools and training for Christians ministering in honor-shame contexts.


In our individualistic and therapeutic culture, shame and guilt tend to be regarded with suspicion—or as tools for controlling others. Viewed this way, they can hinder the process of relational restoration. In the Bible, however, shame and guilt are much more.

The Scriptures do contain examples of people who endured humiliation at the hands of others (Noah in Genesis 9:22, Joseph in Genesis 37:12-36, a delegation of King David’s men in 2 Samuel 10:1–5). But two other important sources of shame include: [1] when guilt and wrongdoing are exposed (Genesis 2:25; 3:7; 2 Chronicles 30:15), and [2] sharing an identity with a group that has sinned and/or acted dishonorably (Ezra 9:5–15; Daniel 9:1–19), so that even if a person has not personally sinned, she or he loses status and communal esteem (Job 10:15; Proverbs 3:35; Jeremiah 46:12). This can be conceived of as collective shame.

Western morality is based on individual guilt and innocence. For instance, a person who obeys the law is “good,” but one who breaks the law is “bad” and deserves to be punished. It reflects the assumption that the individual is the primary unit and source of identity, accountability, and status. For this reason, people from individualistic cultures struggle to grasp the concept of collective shame, or a morality based on communal honor—that is, where individuals share responsibility in the preservation of a community’s integrity and reputation. Communal shame somewhat exists in American culture. For example, if your toddler pushes a kid at the park, you apologize on his or her behalf. If a father makes a scene at a high-school football game in front of his daughter and her peers, she feels embarrassed.

In general, however, when communal shame is aroused beyond the level of familial association, which frequently happens in conversations about racial inequality, it is rapidly rejected and countered with proclamations of individual innocence — “I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m not a racist!” Or perhaps a knee-jerk rush to defend the honor of one’s group (honor culture without the shame dimension). The following story illustrates cultural differences in the way people handle collective shame and guilt.

In January 2017, Sam Okyere, a Ghanaian television personality living in South Korea, shared his experiences of racism in the country on the Korean talk show As You Say. One of the cohosts responded, “I’m embarrassed.” The cohost next to him said, “I feel so sorry.” The third chimed in, “I am sorry.” The immediate response of the three Korean cohosts was empathy and apology rather than condemnation of the specific people who had mistreated Sam. Their responses reflected an ethic based on communal honor, a sense that as a country, South Korea had failed to exercise appropriate hospitality to Sam, and Koreans collectively bore that dishonor.

Given a similar situation, most Americans would not likely feel dishonored as Americans due to dominant values of individual guilt and innocence. In fact, many Americans would reject any pressure to think or feel anything other than, “Those people were guilty of racism, but their behavior doesn’t reflect poorly on me or my country.”

Ancient Hebrew culture as recorded in the Bible contains themes of collective shame and honor that are similar to those in Korean culture. In several places, we see Israel’s righteous leaders sharing the collective shame and even guilt of the people. Ezra, personally innocent of the sins committed by the people, prays, “O my God, I am utterly ashamed; I blush to lift up my face to you. For sins are piled higher than our heads, and guilt has reached to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6, emphasis added). Daniel likewise confesses, “O Lord, we and our kings, princes, and ancestors [even deceased ancestors!] are covered with shame because we have sinned against you” (Daniel 9:8, emphasis added).


Although communal shame brings great distress here, it’s part of a redemptive arc. For both Ezra and Daniel, shame is not associated with fear of punishment or the need to establish personal innocence; it is about recognizing the opportunity to initiate communal restoration. As members of a group, they assume the responsibility of confessing and seeking reconciliation on behalf of the entire group.

The possibility of communal restoration through collective identity and repentance increases the ways we can achieve justice and restore peace between estranged ethnic groups. It is one way for us to be imitators of Christ Jesus, the sinless one who willingly took on the sin and shame of the world in order to establish peace between God and his enemies. He is “the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)


Categories: Church/Ecclesiology, Culture/Social issues, Race/Ethnicity, Uncategorized

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