How do you feel when you read about the 10-12 million African souls who were sold through the transatlantic slave trade? And what are your feelings on the 4,743 lynchings that took place in the United States between 1882 and 1968? What about the 3,000 Native Americans who died along the “Trail of Tears,” after being forcibly removed from their ancestral land? Depending on your heritage, perhaps you feel a twinge of what some call, “guilt.” I would like to suggest that, regardless of your heritage, the appropriate response is shame.
Honoring the Past
Before we talk about shame, we need to discuss honor. Nearly every nation creates an honorable narrative about their history; a story that inspires patriotism in the hearts of their people. They create a narrative that addresses questions like:
- Who are we?
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- What are our values?
- What makes us the good guys?
Particular historical events are highlighted and celebrated; while others are hidden or deemphasized until they pass from the collective consciousness. Monuments are constructed. Statues are sculpted. Flags are flown. Songs are sung. Allegiances are sworn. These efforts are meant not only to honor the dead, but also to tell the living, “Because you belong to this group, you share this honor.”
However, as we have said continually in this series, honor that comes from man can be “intoxicating and addicting.” Christians should especially recognize the dangers of receiving or sharing in the honor of man.
The Shame of Israel’s History
Most of what we call the Old Testament is a carefully curated retelling of Israel’s history. Like all national stories, there are details that are intentionally included and details that are excluded. However, what makes the biblical story unique is that Israel’s sins are on full display. God, it seems, wanted every subsequent generation to remember the shameful events of the past.
Unlike other nations, Israel was not allowed to whitewash her past. Consider passages like Psalm 106, an inspired song rehearsing Israel’s sins, “Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness.” Passages like this were recited as a continual reminder of the shame their fathers had brought upon them through sin.
Obviously, one of the benefits of remembering the shame was to avoid repeating their fathers’ sins. However, it also served as a reminder that Israel was responsible for repairing the damage caused by their fathers’ sins (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah). This is part of what biblical justice means. Justice not only punishes the guilty party, but also insists that responsible parties make restitution.
To be clear, sons are not guilty for their fathers’ sins (Ezekiel 18:20), but they are responsible for doing everything in their power to clean up their fathers’ shameful mess. After all, Jesus is not guilty of any sin, but he has taken responsibility for his family’s mess.
When We Glory in Our Shame
Paul describes the enemies of the cross as people who, “glory in their shame” (Philippians 3:19). In other words, “they are proud of what they ought to be ashamed of” (Complete Jewish Bible). We should always be ashamed of what is shameful. We should never be proud of shameful behavior.
Consider how inappropriate it would have been if Israel had honored their ancestors for doing sinful things. Israel was supposed to remember shameful historical events, but not glory in them. When they remembered these events appropriately, they remembered them from their knees, with their heads bowed low, and tears in their eyes.
As a modern example, consider the legacy of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was formed with the stated purpose of protecting the institution of slavery. They instigated a rebellion that led to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans. But after the war, Southern states were allowed to maintain their honor, rather than experiencing a full measure of shame. They were even allowed to rewrite their narrative to make their cause seem noble.
This matters not simply because history matters, but because the victims of slavery never received justice. They never received recompense for what they suffered. Instead, their families were victimized and treated shamefully for at least another 100 years. Because the sons and daughters of the Confederacy were allowed to glory in their shame, they not only failed to make amends, they perpetuated their fathers’ sins.
This is what happens when we try to be proud of, rather than ashamed of, shameful behavior.
The Son Who Takes Away Our Shame
In Second Temple Israel, there were Jewish people who were proud of their heritage and others who were appropriately humble. The humble not only knew their own personal sin, but also felt the collective shame of the nation. This humble remnant rightfully received Jesus as the son of David who would clean up the shame of their ancestors.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, testified about God’s work through Jesus, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). Those who were proud of their heritage rejected Jesus, but the humble received him and were set free from their shame (see John 8:31-38).
Once they were set free from their shame, they did not glory in their ethnic heritage or their national history. The humble followers of Jesus echoed the words of Paul, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
As the Son of Man, he is not only able to deal with the shame of his Jewish family, but also the shame of all humanity. He is able to take away the shame of every ethnic group. Because he is not personally guilty of any sin, he can make atonement for all sin and shame.
No Guilt, No Shame, and No Pride
Therefore, as a follower of Jesus, my personal sins are forgiven. I no longer have guilt. Furthermore, I have also been set free from the shame of my ancestors. With the helmet of salvation on my head, I no longer have to perpetually hang my head in shame.
However, I must not boast in my ethnic heritage or my national story. There are certainly good things my ancestors did, but I cannot share their honor without sharing their shame. So, I will say with Paul, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
Because of my citizenship in the city of God, I have become a sojourner, an exile, and an alien in the United States of America. As one second-century Christian wrote about Christians, “Every land of their birth [is] as a land of strangers.”
That doesn’t mean I am free from any responsibility to help clean up the mess my ancestors (or even the ancestors of others) made. I am called by Jesus to do good and help alleviate the suffering of my neighbors. However, I must also maintain the realization that only the second coming of Jesus can fully heal what has been broken.
So, until he comes, let us do good to all people, eagerly anticipate his appearance, and boast ONLY in his cross.
I love you and God loves you,