Posted by: Rex Boyles | January 9, 2008

“The Culture of Guilt”

In our churches, institutes, and universities – especially those that train missionaries and ministers – there is significant emphasis given to learning the cultures of the indigenous peoples throughout the world. It is not uncommon to hear discussions in such places about the most effective ways to reach people of this culture or that.

These discussions about culture include religious groups, distinctive nationalities, and differing political or philosophical world-views. There is even now a developing discipline of the culture of poverty. (If you are working with people in poverty, you will  find just about anything written by Ruby Payne helpful.)

I’m  sure that someone has already done the research – written the dissertation – and applied the training; but it may be time for us as a brotherhood to apply ourselves to understand the “culture of guilt”. If we do believe that we are commissioned by Jesus to “seek and save the lost” … we must recognize – not only that there are “lost” people – but that those people share a common culture that transcends race, color, or creed.

I fear that too often in our attempts to “evangelize” we ignore this “culture of guilt” that produces feelings of shame, fear, and the reactions to such. Consider again the reaction of Adam and Eve to their sin. They were ashamed – and because they were ahamed they hid from God in fear of being “caught” – punished. Such deep emotions find ways of being expressed, and in this case those feelings turned into anger toward each other – even toward God.

So … how do we apply this understanding? When approaching a person living in the culture of guilt – expect them to be sensitive …  even over-sensitive. They are ashamed of themselves – so they may hide emotionally – sometimes wanting to be invisible or in some cases hiding behind a mask of bravado. You attempt to meet them … they pull back or they bluster and bluff you. Either way, you hesitate, because they are making it obvious that they do not want you to get to know them. (They believe that if you really knew them, you would not like them.) If their primary source of shame is some public sin or embarassment you will see these feelings and reactions magnified.

I have lived in such a culture and have observed – sometimes painfully observed – the hurtful and even damaging effects of some of our “standard” attempts at reaching out.

Why do we make a point of being sarcastic, when we feel uncomfortable with someone we haven’t seen in awhile or know to be bruised by sin? An elder walked up to me at church shortly after my divorce – “What happened to you? She throw you out?”

Why do we quiz or interrogate the sinner, as to what happened and why it happened? Questions that cannot change what happened? There may be a time and place for that – but what does it benefit the sinner that we are trying to reach? A minister asked me, the first time he saw me after my shame was splattered on the brotherhood’s conciousness, “Why would you do such a thing?” How does a sinner answer that question and feel in any way welcomed home?

Why do we insist on making sure that the sinner knows that we know that they were wrong? It was amazing to me how many ministers and elders – friends and ex-coworkers made a point in their letters, emails, or conversations to confess my sin over and over before me – as if to alert me to the fact that they would never do such a thing. Quoting verses about their sin – while they are crying, even begging forgiveness – does not comfort – does not save.  A young lady in tears, grieving over her sin, told me that her teacher had told her, “You just need to wallow in your sins for a few days, then I will make a decision about you.”

There are more …

But I have rambled enough, for now.

P.S. At some point we should discuss the “inherited” guilt of those abused or neglected as children. Their sense of shame will also produce anxieties and anger. The prevelance of such strong “undue” guilt will affect their emotional development – noticed particularly in their interpersonal relationships.


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