There were many instances from my days of growing up under the moss-laced cypress trees of southern Louisiana that I would be asked by my father or my mother, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Most of the time, I was not. I was only “ashamed” of getting caught. Shame is not an emotion we naturally embrace.
I was reminded of our natural desire to avoid shame when I visited China this past summer. It is well documented by missiologists that the oriental cultures in general and Chinese people in particular value “saving face.” They do not wish to be ashamed. Thus, missionaries learn to tweak their gospel language and tailor their ministry work to avoid shaming the very people they hope to serve.
My reminder came as we tried to order our lunch. We had scoured the streets of Guilin, looking for the best local restaurant to explore authentic Chinese cuisine. When we saw little swimming pools filled with living squid, eel, snakes, turtles, crawfish, and spoon-billed catfish, we knew this was the restaurant for us. If nothing else, the food would certainly be fresh.
Once seated, we began perusing the menu for our palate-pleasing entrees. Delighted, we pointed to the giant bowl of fried rice. After all, there is a limit to how many noodles a human can eat, and we had eclipsed that limit. Unfortunately, after a flurry of language negotiations with our waiter, we were informed that the restaurant did not have rice–only noodles. Why then was there a picture of a very large, very inviting bowl of fried rice on the menu?
Our waiter was in crisis at the question. He could either be embarrassed and admit the false advertising, or he could attempt a perverted defense of the picture in order to save face. Choosing the latter course, he replied to our inquisition that the picture of rice is used to show that the restaurant serves noodles. As contorted and inexplicable as this explanation was, it was his explanatory attempt to save face.
Missiologists in China are pleased to report on the saving face impetus in oriental culture. But, really, Chinese people avoiding shame are no different from American people avoiding shame. When we say, “It’s not my fault”; or “I didn’t mean to”; or “What’s the big deal”; or when we say, “I’m sorry if anyone were offended…”; Are we not doing the same thing as the Chinese waiter? Are we not simply seeking to save face and avoid shame? All these statements are simply different berries from the same diseased plant called “avoiding shame.”
In fact, this natural tendency to save face by avoiding shame goes back to Adam’s finger in the Garden of Eden. When God called Adam to account for sin, Adam responded with “that woman that you gave me, she…” (Genesis 3). Rather than humbling himself before the Holy One, Adam pointed the finger directly at Eve and (indirectly) back at God. It’s easier to blame someone else than it is to be ashamed of ourselves, isn’t it?
How have you seen this saving face tendency in yourself and others? What are some other examples I’ve missed? I hope we all will be humbled and accept our part of the blame and, even more, Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.