“The desire for recognition is the motor of history.” This has been a recurrent theme across decades of work by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. This article assumes that the desire for recognition is equivalent to the longing for honor; it is the unquenchable thirst for dignity, even glory. This desire is observable across time and across national and ethnic boundaries. Under this historical and anthropological rubric, we will propose insights and biblical truths to address global crises and pathologies: the refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism. These problems have in common the concern for security and dignity. The security issue is marked by the question: How do we prevent hostility or violence? The dignity issue is marked by the question: Who are we—to whom do we belong? This dual concern—first, for our survival, and second, for our honor, the recognition of our identity—is, as mentioned above, an unrelenting force in history. Shame writ large is at the crux of these historical forces. Is the gospel robust enough to offer a cure? Yes. One, the gospel deals with group-based violence (addressing the security question). Two, the gospel offers to re-glorify humanity by removing sin’s objective shame (addressing the dignity question). Three, the gospel creates a new humanity—a new divine way of being human—by relativizing all forms of social capital and robustly answering the question: To whom do we belong? Christ himself through his body is the cure for pathological sin-and-shame as Honor writ large, Word made flesh. The gospel is first embodied and then proclaimed by the church: a gospel of hostility-killing peace and shame-covering honor.
Four Preliminary Comments
This article examines the gospel frameworks of innocence-guilt and honor-shame: Section 1 of this article briefly describes three massive, interrelated global pathologies: refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism. Section 2 offers a diagnosis: objective and subjective shame. Section 3 proposes a gospel cure. While there are at least four value binaries (innocence-guilt, honor-shame, power-fear, and purity-pollution), this article focuses on two: innocence-guilt and honor-shame.
This article addresses theory, not practice. Obviously, the practice of reconciliation and peacebuilding by professionals who are devoted followers of Christ is much needed in our world. Though I comment very little on the practice of peacebuilding, in no way do I wish to under-estimate the challenges of this ministry. Still, reconciliation practitioners who engage with this article may wonder about several issues that, for them, are major concerns left unaddressed. I suggest practitioners read this article as a proposal for a gospel framework inside of which reconciliation can be practiced, rather than an examination of specific reconciliation practices themselves.
This article recognizes Christianity’s problematic history with violence. The Christian’s Savior is Jesus Christ, “the Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6). However, critics of the Christian faith point to the last 2,000 years of Christianity’s history and see a myriad of bloody conflicts. Various theologies and institutions of Christianity have been co-opted to support division, bloodshed, and war. The Crusades, the 30 Years War, or the American Civil War can be understood as problematic examples of violence writ large intertwined with Christianity. In this article, space does not permit me to explore this problematic history.
This article has an underlying tension concerning “individual versus group.” Does the cross of Christ only reconcile individuals to God? Or does the cross of Christ also provide for reconciliation between groups of people in conflict? In this article I examine Paul’s staurocentric vision in Ephesians 2. This is a vision of Christ’s body “making peace” to “create in himself one new man” (Eph 2:15), “thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:16). Notably, this peace seems to be between human groups in conflict—Jew and Gentile, insiders and outsiders. Please note: In exploring the truths of Eph 2:13–16, I am not precluding the necessity for individual persons to repent, be discipled, and be transformed. I hold a both/and view.
1. Humanity Is Sick: Three Acute, Global, Social Pathologies
The global refugee crisis is the business of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency. UNHCR states: “An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is Filippo Grandi. In a February 2018 address, Grandi summarized the causes of the migrations of people around the world. People are motivated to flee because of “state repression and persecution—moving in search of safety and a solution to their plight. Others are propelled forward by a complex mix of factors—poor governance, deep-seated inequality, resource scarcity, food insecurity, social and economic exclusion, stalled development, a collapse of traditional livelihoods, and the consequences of climate change—which in combination are driving migration in search of better opportunities, as well as fueling the conflicts that lead to refugee flows.” Grandi identifies two priorities: “What, then, are the fundamental considerations that should shape our response to all people on the move, and especially those traveling in today’s ‘mixed’ migratory flows? First and foremost, protecting the lives and dignity of all must be at the centre of the response.”
Note Grandi’s emphases: life and dignity, considerations that those who would serve displaced peoples must prioritize. The word life speaks of physical security—the need for protection from hostility and violence, plus adequate food and shelter. The word dignity speaks of the need for recognition, belonging, citizenship, identity: honor.
To address this problem, UNHCR has sponsored a hashtag, #IBELONG, to raise awareness about the need.
I Belong: In this simple declaration, one sees honor-shame dynamics. That’s because “not belonging” is a near-universal characteristic of shame. Social scientist Brené Brown writes that shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
The fear of hunger, homelessness, hostility; the loss of belonging, identity, honor—for millions of refugees are the concerns. It is vulnerability and shame writ large.
Shame often fuels violence. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has worked extensively in American prisons, makes this observation: “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated. . . . The secret [violent men have] is that they feel ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed . . . over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them, so that they are ashamed even to reveal what shames them.” Gilligan’s comments on shame and violence serve as a bridge to the topic of violence en masse—terrorism.
Paris, January 7, 2015. At about 11:30 a.m., two brothers, armed with rifles and other weapons, forced their way into the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killed twelve people, and injured eleven others. Al-Qaeda took credit for the murderous assault. One week after the attack The Telegraph published an article quoting Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, a senior figure in Al Qaeda: “Ansi denounces the ‘dissolute kuffar’ who ‘insulted the chosen Prophets of Allah.’ . . . ‘Congratulations to you, o ummah of Islam, for this vengeance that has soothed our chests. . . . Congratulations to you for these brave men who blew off the dust of disgrace and lit the torch of glory in the darkness of defeat and agony.’” Honor-shame also characterizes the propaganda of other Islamic terrorist groups. In bin Laden’s “Letter to America” the honor-shame dynamic is plain: “You are well aware that the Islamic Nation, from the very core of its soul, despises your haughtiness and arrogance.” The ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq recruited soldiers using the language of honor-shame and heroism: “The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, . . . after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect—the time has come for them to rise. . . . The time has come for [all Muslims] to . . . remove the garments of dishonor, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace . . . the dawn of honor has emerged anew.”
Political theorist Yara Damaj writes, “[ISIS] claims to offer the disenfranchised—who see no way to live in honor in the West—a chance to reinvent themselves as heroes. . . . It does so by concocting fantasies of belonging.” The motivation is plain: honor and shame.
We turn to an example of violence that embodies both terrorism and racism.
Christchurch, February 16, 2019. A man armed with automatic weapons entered Al Noor Mosque during Friday Prayer and, later, the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack killed 50 people. It was designed for a social-media-networked world.
This attack was fueled by racism (white supremacy), revealing that the refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism are integrated pathologies. Two days after the attack, an ISIS spokesman recorded a 44-minute audio, calling for revenge: “The scenes of the massacres in the two mosques should wake up those who were fooled, and should incite the supporters of the caliphate to avenge their religion.” Christchurch was a terrorist attack, fueled by racism, against Muslim refugees, linked historically to other Islam-versus-the-West conflicts, calling for further terrorist attacks, which, in turn, invite revenge attacks.
The attacker streamed the attack on Facebook Live and published a personal manifesto on the Internet. The manifesto is titled The Great Replacement, named after the 2012 book by the French polemicist Renaud Camus. The manifesto references the white Western-European conflict with Islam and begins with a call to rage, couched in a Dylan Thomas poem. The first stanza reads, “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The final line in four of six stanzas is: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The manifesto highlights a study showing that despite the declining birthrate of white Europeans, the population of European nations increases through 2100. Population growth of European nations is “all through immigration. . . . This is racial replacement. This is WHITE GENOCIDE.” The manifesto is a call to violence to prevent white Europe’s “replacement” by Muslims and other non-white peoples.
In Nazi Germany, the white Aryan race was declared superior as a matter of genetics and, therefore, as a matter of “blood and honor.” Under Hitler, a nationalist political movement arose leading to World War 2. The war was waged on behalf of Blüt und Ehre (blood and honor) of the so-called “pure” German-Nordic race. It led to the Holocaust—the murder of about 17 million people including about 6 million European Jews. Blüt und Ehre was the German slogan used by the Hitler Youth.
Not coincidentally, the Christchurch attacker’s manifesto included this sentence: “The origins of my language is European, my culture is European, my political beliefs are European, my philosophical beliefs are European, my identity is European and, most importantly, my blood is European.”
What was the motivation for the terrorist act in Christchurch and its racist roots? The factors of ideology, religious belief, or national and cultural heritage should not be underestimated. But what about “blood and honor”? I propose that these factors together comprise the issue of core identity: To whom do we belong? For the attacker, it appears that blood and core identity was, as in Nazi Germany, part of defining, excluding, demonizing, and finally murdering the “other.”
Racial Terror and Shame in America
Shame and exclusion are the products of racism. The African-American theologian Howard Thurman provided inspiration for America’s civil rights movement. Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited examines American Christianity’s struggle with racism. His book could have been titled Jesus and the Shamed. Thurman asks, “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of race, religion, and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?” Thurman points out that hate can find positive reinforcement within the group. Racial hatred in America has been largely ignored by the church: “Christianity has . . . sought to get rid of the hatred by preachments, by moralizing, by platitudinous judgments. It has hesitated to analyze the basis of hatred. . . . There is a conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and its meaning.”
The “Lynching in America” website yields research-based insights about the history of racial terrorism in America: “EJI has documented 4,084 racial terror lynchings in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950.” Further, “Terror lynchings in the American South were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes. Lynching was targeted racial violence at the core of a systematic campaign of terror perpetrated in furtherance of an unjust social order. . . . [A] selective public memory compounds the harm of officials’ complicity in lynching and maintains the otherness of black people who have lived in these communities for generations.”
America’s history of racism and white supremacy carries forward into the current social and political climate—and integrates with racist, nationalist ideologies around the world. Lynching has come to an end in America. The “otherness of black people” has not come to an end—and remains a thorny issue in the church.
In his book The End of White Christian America, Robert Jones analyses the decline of “White Christian America” over the last 50 years. One reason is racism: “Racial reconciliation remains a destination far on the horizon, and there are no shortcuts at hand. . . . Given White Christian America’s long history of complicity in slavery, segregation, and racism, we are at the beginning, not the end, of the journey across the racial divide.” The hesitancy of the church to address race (or the refugee crisis, or terrorism) has me echoing Thurman’s words: Is there a “conspiracy of silence” in the church?
Is There a Cure for “Shame Writ Large”?
Donald Nathanson, a psychiatrist who has researched shame, developed a diagram to analyze shame’s pathological aspects, “The Compass of Shame.” It shows four types of unhealthy response: (1) Withdrawal, (2) Avoidance, (3) Attack Self, and (4) Attack Other.
Fig. 1: Nathanson’s Compass of Shame
If this diagram represents real life, then toxic shame, or sin-and-shame, is a major factor in a huge amount of suffering in our world.
A note of caution is in order: Suffering, trauma, and evil can defy analysis. There can be a deep illogic to satanic horrors of human suffering, global crises, structures of sin, the “mystery of iniquity” (1 Thess 2:7; KJV).
There is another mystery: “The wind blows where it wishes” (John 3:8); amid great darkness, the Holy Spirit often shines the light of Christ into the hearts of refugees, or those oppressed by terrorism or racism. The unpredictable Spirit works in myriad ways in cooperation with believers to draw the oppressed to Christ and soothe their wounds.
Having said that, “The Compass of Shame” still begs the question: If ‘shame writ large’ is a pathology that fuels various global crises, is there an honorific cure—an ‘honor writ large’—offered by the “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4)?
As demonstrated below, the gospel does speak powerfully to the pathology of sin-and-shame. Theologically speaking, however, there’s an obstacle. Sin-shame is not considered a problem worth solving, especially in the West. Sin-guilt is considered the primary, objective problem; shame is merely subjective, a problem derivative of the main problem of sin-guilt.
I’ll express the conventional view like this: “If you address the problem of sin-guilt, shame will take care of itself. No need to talk about shame. No need to teach about shame. No need to preach about shame.” The silence is deafening.
When other cultural dynamics are considered, the weakness of a guilt-only gospel framework becomes even more apparent. For example, power-fear may be related to the life-and-death security issue. And purity-pollution, a subcategory of honor-shame, may be a huge factor when sexual violence has occurred—a not-uncommon plight among refugees and victims of terrorism or racism.
2. Diagnosis: Shame Writ Large as the Crux of Global Social Crises
Shame Is Not Merely Subjective; It Is Also Objective
Is sin-guilt the basic problem of humanity? Theologian Wayne Grudem thinks so: “There is no other way to be reconciled to God than through Christ, for there is no other way of dealing with the guilt of our sin before a holy God.” Address the problem of guilt before God and you have addressed the basic problem of sin. So the argument goes.
Human guilt is indisputably objective. The question is whether shame is merely subjective—that is, merely a negative emotion derived from guilt. In my view, guilt and shame are both objective and subjective (see Fig. 2). Both are critical.
Fig. 2: Guilt-Shame Matrix
In his groundbreaking article, “Have Theologians No Sense of Shame? How the Bible Reconciles Objective and Subjective Shame,” which is buttressed by more than one hundred and fifty scriptural references, Jackson Wu presents “a unified view of shame, one that includes a subjective and objective dimension”: “Shame is multifaceted. It is a theological, psychological, and social concept. The Bible helps us reconcile the various understandings people have about this topic. In fact, the Bible uses honor and shame language both to describe the world’s most serious problem and its solution. Evangelicals want to have biblically faithful theologies and culturally meaningful ministries. To attain this goal, one needs a more robust view of shame.” Wu expresses three categories of shame: (1) psychological, (2) social, and (3) sacred. Psychological shame and social shame are well known. Less well known is the term “sacred shame,” especially as a theological term. Sacred shame is central to Wu’s argument for dealing with “the world’s most serious problem.” The chart below (Fig. 3) is an overview of one part of Wu’s article and the Scriptures cited.
One of Wu’s compelling assertions concerns the category of “sacred shame”—shame or dishonor in relation to God. Wu comments on the phrase “put to shame” used by Paul: “In Romans, Paul uses the concept of shame to describe justification, ‘For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame”’ (Rom 10:10–11; cf. 9:33). In this passage, the shame that is avoided is as objective as the justification that is gained.”
A search of the phrase “put to shame” in the ESV Bible yields 65 occurrences (OT, 58; NT, 7). Clearly, “put to shame” was a common phrase reflecting honor-shame values of the Ancient Near East and Roman Empire. Indeed, as Wu says, “The shame that is avoided is as objective as the justification that is gained.” We observe a similar pattern in Peter’s encouragement to the saints, “So the honor is for you who believe” (1 Pet 2:7). The honor given by God is as objective as the salvation that is gained.
The Bible reveals that sin-guilt and sin-shame are both objective. The gospel cures both. This is exceedingly good news for mission amid global crises.
The following two charts (Figs. 3 and 4), adapted from Wu’s article, show that the Bible reflects an expansive concept of shame. The occurrences of objective shame far exceed subjective shame. The assumption that only sin-guilt is objective must be re-evaluated in the light of Scripture.
Fig. 3: Three Types of Shame in the Bible
Fig. 4: Solving the Shame Problem through Six Aspects of Salvation
From which quadrant is our gospel presented?
On which quadrant in the “Guilt-Shame Matrix” do Christian leaders focus most or all of their gospel teaching? It is quadrant 1: Objective Guilt—with supplemental teaching from quadrant 3 to deal with the subjective experience of guilt. Should we not supplement gospel teaching from a guilt framework with gospel teaching from a shame-framework—a gospel that derives from a God-glorifying, shame-curing salvation?
Fig. 5: From Which Quadrant Is Our Teaching?
Given the role of toxic shame in the refugee crisis, as a catalyst for terrorism, and in racism, the world desperately needs an honorific, shame-curing gospel—taught from quadrants 2 and 4. To that end, my diagnosis of shame writ large shifts lastly to a question concerning honor and shame in the biblical grand narrative: How high was the “honor-status-position” from which Adam fell?
The Fall Constitutes Humanity’s Loss of Innocence; It Is Also the Loss of Regal Glory
We begin with a summary of Gen 1:27–28, Ps 8:5–8, and Rom 1:22–23; 3:23. These passages are the basis for asserting that Adam’s fall is from a higher position than from mere innocence. We are much indebted to Haley Goranson Jacob’s Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans.
Gen 1:27–28. Since men and women were created “in the image of God,” they not only possessed moral innocence, but also reflected the glory of God. The human race was given “dominion,” a regal term referring to viceregency with God. They were to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The Bible describes a wide range of animals and three kinds of spatial domains (sea, heavens, earth); Adam’s authority, stewardship—dominion—was truly expansive.
Ps 8:5–8. The passage adds clarity to humanity’s original regal identity. God created humanity as “crowned . . . with glory and honor.” All humanity is king-like in honor? Yes. God gave humanity “dominion over the works of [his] hands; [he has] put all things under his feet.” Humanity’s original core identity is nothing less than royal glory. And humanity’s vocation? Vicegerent for God with royal authority.
Rom 1:22–23; 3:23. In Adam’s sin, humanity “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Adam and Eve and their descendants could have enjoyed regal stewardship with God—dominion over the earth. Imagine—they could have built God’s kingdom, resulting in the flourishing of mankind, ever-greater development, glory, peace. Humanity foolishly exchanged regal glory with God for sin. Humanity falls short of the glory of God. “The point of Romans 1:23 is not the fall into sin of the primal pair from Genesis 3, . . . but humanity’s (אדם) “exchange of the glory of the immortal God” in terms of its failure to fulfill its created purpose or identity as creatures made in the image of God, having dominion over creation as vicegerents of the Creator God—hence Paul’s obvious allusion to Genesis 1:26–28 and not Genesis 3:6.”
The linking of Genesis 1:28, Psalm 8:5–8, and Romans 1:23 has to do with original design. It impacts our anthropology. What is our original core identity?
Do we anachronistically imagine the “primal pair” as a morally perfect, middle-class couple—status-neutral, neither lower class nor noble or royal? As Goranson Jacob explains, the fall represented a descent from the high position of regal honor and vocation—to the lowly position of great dishonor.
This is not a trifling bit of theology. Adam in his original position was not “middle class.” Humanity was created with high regal honor—in the image of the king of creation with a vocation to match. Is the diagnosis more serious than previously understood?
3. Cure: Honor Writ Large in the Gospel of the Glory of Christ
I have demonstrated previously that honor-status reversal is a motif of the Bible.
Fig. 6: Types of Honor-Status Reversal
Honor-status reversal is defined as when a person, family, or people has whatever degree of esteem, respect, privilege, power, or authority they carry in their community turned the other way around. As in the diagram above, honor-status reversal is classified in two ways—according to the end result of (1) honor or (2) shame.
In Ephesians 2, we see the honor-status reversal of believers in two dimensions—and discover it is part of the gospel. Ephesians 2:1–7 describes honor-status reversal as the transformation from being “dead in the trespasses and sins” (v. 1) to being “raised . . . up with him and seated . . . with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). From spiritual death to seated with Christ in exalted honor! These verses speak of the relationships with God that all believers enjoy. This is the personal-vertical dimension of honor-status reversal.
Ephesians 2:11–22 describes honor-status reversal for Gentiles in their relationship to God’s people. From separated, alienated, strangers, having no hope (vv. 11–12) to citizens, saints, full-fledged family members (v. 19) who dwell together in God’s presence (vv. 21–22)! This also is an honor-status reversal—in the horizontal and social dimension.
Timothy Tennent writes: “The New Testament celebrates a salvific transformation that has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Personal salvation in the New Testament is inextricably linked to becoming a part of the new humanity of Ephesians 2:15.” Paul Hiebert adds: “There is both personal and corporate sin and personal and corporate dimensions to God’s redemption.”
At the crux of two dimensions of honor-status reversal, there it is—“salvation by grace through faith.” What is located between these two expressions of honor-status reversal—between vv. 1–7 and 11–22? Salvation by grace through faith (Eph 2:8–9).
This “salvation verse” sits at the intersection of vertical and horizontal dimensions of honor-status reversal. Salvation in Christ is thus the crux for restoring humanity’s honor—personally before God, and socially by being born again into God’s family, the new humanity.
Fig. 7: Two Dimensions of Honor-Status Reversal
for Believers in Eph 2
This shame-to-honor transformation can be under-valued by Christians who live free of oppression or are members of a majority people. Thurman helps us understand: “When I was a youngster, this was drilled into me by my grandmother. The idea was given her by a certain slave minister who, on occasion, held secret meetings with his fellow slaves. How everything in me quivered with the pulsing tremor of raw energy when, in her recital, she would come to the triumphant climax of the minister: ‘. . . You—you are not slaves. You are God’s children.’”
As discussed above, the two great concerns that underlie the refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism are security and dignity—and the solution must address both violence and shame. Ephesians 2 teaches that honor-status reversal is part of the gospel, which offers a cure for the pathology of shame (the dignity issue). But what of the security issue? Does Ephesians 2 address the pathology of violence?
Curing Violence: The Cross/Atonement “Killing the Hostility, So Making Peace”
Each of the six verses that comprise Eph 2:13–18 speaks of the atonement. The chart below provides a verse-by-verse summary.
Fig. 8: What the Atonement Does in Eph 2
Let’s focus on verse 16: “and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” Paul proclaims a stunning truth: The cross kills hostility. We are obviously not being called to believe that the cross kills all hostility in the here-and-now. Paul’s epistle suggests three “steps of belief.”
The cross kills hostility—step 1: The social hostility between Jewish and Gentile peoples (although in some cases commanded by the Old Testament) was in some measure conquered by the violence of the cross. Peace is possible—now—through the “new humanity” (Eph 2:15). Traditionally at odds with one another, Jews and Gentiles really can worship in unity through their common faith in Jesus, despite their cultural differences.
The cross kills hostility—step 2: This biblical truth extends to any and all peoples in conflict, since the plan of God “for the fullness of time” is to “unite all things in him” (Eph 1:10), to “reconcile to himself all things . . . making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). We see that this applies globally for all families, peoples, and nations. It is a sure hope for the future—an eschatological hope.
The cross kills hostility—step 3: In the third step, we dream. This dream stage is a call for Christians to develop a social imagination that is informed by Eph 2. It is a vision that, as Timothy Gombis says, “includes and celebrates racial, ethnic and gender differences . . . [whereby] no singular gender, ethnicity or race is any closer to God than any other. We are all one in Christ and are now free to explore the gifts that each group brings to the kingdom party.” This step combines the “now” of step 1 with the “whole-world hope” of step 2. Could it be that the global crises on which this article focuses—the refugee crisis, terrorism, and racism—may in some measure be cured by the cross of Christ “killing the hostility”?
In order to answer, let’s consider these verses about the atonement (vv. 13–18) within the status-reversal context of Eph 2:11–20 (Fig. 9).
Fig. 9: Honor-Status Reversal—For an Honorific Community
Honor-status reversal results in an honorific, cross-cultural community of Jew and Gentile—the new humanity, the family of God, in which all believers are accepted and honored. Plus, vv. 13–18 reveal a bridge from shame, exclusion, hostility to honor, inclusion, peace. What is that bridge? It is the cross—the atonement of Christ (Fig. 10).
Fig. 10: The Atonement of Christ “Killing the Hostility” Creates the Honorific Community
These rich verses on the atonement (vv. 13–18) emphasize what God has accomplished through the cross primarily in the social realm. We observe in the Scripture passage two related social transformations in Christ: (1) honor replaces shame; (2) peace replaces hostility. This is gospel truth.
But what God has accomplished through the cross in the social realm needs additional explanation. What is Paul really saying to Gentile Christians?
Redefining Honor and Shame, Insiders and Outsiders, in Eph 2
Levels of honor status in the empire: In the Roman Empire, social status ranged from very high and powerful to very low and powerless. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright identifies seven levels of social status, besides slaves: (1) The “ruling elite” and their families; (2) “regional elites”; (3) “municipal elites”; (4) “lower-level retainers like governing officials, scribes, and priests”; (5) “merchants and artisans”; (6) “the peasant class” of farmers and day laborers; and (7) “the destitute: beggars, prostitutes, widows, orphans . . . lepers.” In a separate category are slaves. “In the ancient world anyone could become a slave; all you had to do was to be on the losing side in a battle, or suffer a major business failure. Slavery had nothing to do with ethnic background or skin colour.”
Interestingly, there was considerable mobility between these levels of social status: “People could move up and down this social scale, depending on political stability, famine, disease, population size, and taxation. For the most part it seems that in Jesus’s world there were constant downward pressures, forcing people towards debt and destitution, and in some cases even towards either banditry or slavery as desperate strategies for survival.” To the Ephesian church, Paul could have acknowledged the relative social status of various members, including their struggle for upward mobility or against downward mobility. After all, he spent two years there and certainly knew them intimately (Acts 19:1–10; 20:36–38).
But Ephesians gives scant recognition to levels of Greco-Roman social status. Paul’s silence is noteworthy given that Ephesus was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was the capital of the province of Asia, a city of enormous wealth and prestige. This great city “had at its center the great temple of Artemis/Diana and the widely practiced magical arts commanding allegiance and attention of all its dwellers and visitors.”
Gentile Outsider Status Replaced by the New Humanity in Christ
In the phrase in Eph 2:19, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,” it is worth emphasizing to whom Paul is not speaking. He is not addressing low class refugees, destitute sojourners, oppressed immigrants. He is addressing a much larger group of people whose levels of social status are as wide as all humanity, primarily Gentile-background Christians (2:11; 3:1). Gentiles are simply anyone and everyone who does not belong to the Hebrews, the ancient people whose progenitor is Abraham, specially chosen and blessed by God (Gen 12:1–3). In their pre-conversion status they were non-Jewish “others.” The Greek word for Gentiles is ethnē. In missiology, ethnē has come to refer to the world’s range of specific ethnicities, tribes, or peoples as a way to emphasize the need for reaching the unreached people groups. But as Mark Roberts says, the term was simply “used by Jews as a label for non-Jews.” Paul’s emphasis is not on the diversity of Gentile people groups; rather, it is on their monolithic status as outsiders.
In verse 11, Paul the Jewish Christ-follower reminds the Gentile Christians in Ephesus of their non-Jewish, non-people-of-God background. He tells the Gentile males in his audience they are “called the uncircumcision by the circumcision” (v. 11). “The label ‘uncircumcised’ is a literal description of Gentile males, since, at that time, Jewish men were known as having been circumcised.” Thus, David Bentley Hart renders verse 11 as: “Therefore, remember that you, formerly gentiles in the flesh, the ones called ‘Foreskin’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision.’”
The hermeneutical principle Scripture interprets Scripture applies here. Recall David’s bold question regarding Goliath: “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26). For David, the military battle was an honor-shame contest as much as a life and death struggle. David’s use of derogatory labeling seems apt, if not audacious.
In Eph 2:11, Paul seems undiplomatic, to say the least. Paul indirectly claims honor status for his Jewish ancestry; at the same time, Paul seems to be putting all Ephesian Gentiles into the category of “uncircumcised Philistine.” This is who the Gentile believers “were at one time” before Christ intervened in their lives. Could he be insulting the majority of his audience?
An insult, or not? Paul’s words might be read as an insult. But they could also be understood as a way of acknowledging humanity’s automatic tendency toward ethnocentric attitudes. In this case, is it the ethnocentrism with which he was most familiar: the Jewish version? Could it be Paul is also critiquing the Jews? Could it be Paul is identifying a Gentile caricature of the Jews: the Jews are a minority group who are culturally separate, whose religious practices (weirdly) include circumcision, who, because of ethnocentrism, look down on all whom they consider “unclean”?
So although Paul’s words might be read as an insult, it is likely that this is a more complex relational dynamic. We do well to keep in mind that Paul’s vocation and passion as the apostle to the Gentiles was for the inclusion of the whole world of Gentiles in the salvation story of God (Rom 15). Plus, Paul is obviously including and honoring Gentile Christians in the first chapter of Ephesians as he gives eloquent voice to the church as a community possessing immense ascribed honor in Christ (Eph 1). Moreover, Paul is well-known for relativizing Jewish exclusiveness and identity (Eph 3:1–6; Gal 3:28), even relativizing his own (very substantial) ascribed and achieved Jewish honor (Phil 3:4–8).
Paul is relativizing social capital: Whether Paul is being insulting or conciliatory toward the Gentiles with the words, “called the uncircumcision by the circumcision,” of this we can be confident: regardless of their pre-conversion (or current) wealth, citizenship, race, nobility, education, power or privilege—regardless of their local, cultural insider status—the Gentiles to whom Paul is writing had been at the margins of the only social community that truly and eternally matters, the people of God.
Having relativized Gentile identity (v. 11) among honor-obsessed Ephesians, Paul continues to describe Gentiles (v. 12) from a Jewish perspective, again using shame-and-outsider terminology. They were (1) “separated from Christ,” (2) “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,” (3) “strangers to the covenants of promise,” (4) “having no hope,” and (5) “without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).
Ephesians 2 describes only two groups—two levels of honor status. Outsiders comprise the first group. They are outside of God’s gift of grace in Christ; they do not belong to God’s people. Insiders comprise the second group. They are recipients of God’s grace in Christ and belong to God’s people. Paradoxically, this new community of God’s people is amazingly inclusive—anyone can be an insider through a relationship with Christ. Everyone is welcome!
All that matters: Whatever objective honor status they held as pre-Christian Gentiles adds not one iota to their actual, eternal social capital. The only thing that matters is this: Who are they in relation to God in Christ and his people? These Gentiles are reminded of their pre-Christian identity by what they were not: they were not in Christ. They shared no ancestry with God’s people Israel or their covenant-promises. They were outside of God’s family.
Could it be that Paul intends that believers who hold an attitude of supremacy or exceptionalism to feel the sting of conviction? Could it be that any Christians treasuring their blood-family relations, vocational pride, Ephesian identity, or Roman citizenship above their in-Christ identity are limiting the transformational impact of the gospel?
Concerning Eph 2:11–20, Willie James Jennings writes, “The power of this account of Gentile status radically undermined any distinction Gentiles held for themselves vis-à-vis other peoples. It is the ultimate deconstructive statement regarding Gentile ethnocentrism.” Why does Paul describe this Gentile identity in outsider terms? It is a foil, a dramatic antithesis, for what he reveals in his epistle. Paul has so much to say that is positively honorific, wholly glorious.
The honorific antithesis: God has intervened in Christ! God has made a way for unclean outsider-Gentiles to locate their stories honorifically in the story of another people—God’s people. This honor-status reversal happens through the humiliation of Christ’s incarnation, his perfect life, shameful cross, atonement, glorious resurrection, and exaltation as king—all in fulfillment of Israel’s story. Paul writes, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:19–20).
This is the kingdom-of-God program of identity formation. God is democratizing honor for believers and in so doing, God is relativizing every other form of social capital. Roberts writes: “Notice that the recipients of the letter were . . . Gentiles ‘by birth’ (literally ‘in flesh,’ en sarki). They did not become Jewish when they received God’s grace through Christ. Rather, Christ made them into something different from ordinary Gentiles and Jews. The early Christian writing known as the Epistle to Diognetus expresses this same point when it calls Christians a new race, ‘neither Jewish nor Gentile.’” This is an arresting thought. It informs how we think about the phrase “one new man” (Eph 2:15), hena kainon anthropon in the Greek. The phrase is also translated “one new humanity” (NIV), and “one new people” (NLT). Believers from Jewish backgrounds as well as Gentile backgrounds, believers from every social class together, gain not merely the ultimate insider status—“members of the household of God”; Christ-followers also gain a new community-based core identity.
Joshua McNall captures the essence of this new identity. “This transformation [by the reconciling cross of Christ] is seen . . . in the tearing down of ethnic and cultural boundaries (‘the dividing wall of hostility’ [2:14]). This demolition results in a new community comprised of a new people who do not look like they belong together. Only Jesus and his spirit can account for this strange lot.”
Christ our life, an identity-shifting force: This is where the idea of “a new race,” a third race, “neither Jewish nor Gentile,” is helpful. Jewish believers, because of their faith in Christ, share both biological and historical continuity with the people of Israel; nevertheless, they are ontologically new-in-Christ, and incorporated into his body. They testify to this ontological newness by worshiping God through Christ, and doing so with people who, in former days, they strenuously avoided, even hated! To the question To whom do we belong? Jewish believers answer: We belong in King Jesus to a completely new community of intimacy with Gentiles! Because their loyalty as God’s people Israel to Jehovah had historically been expressed (in part) by their exclusion from Gentiles, it represents a profound shift indeed.
For Gentiles, could there be an even greater newness to their identity? Regardless of their Gentile marginality, because of Christ, they are now bound together with believers of Jewish heritage. Together, they form a “new humanity,” or simply a new divine way of being human.
This new humanity is a new community whose Father is God, whose King is Jesus, and whose bond is the Holy Spirit.
Subverting social capital through our honor surplus in Christ: Believers gain an enormous “honor surplus” in Christ, in his kingdom and family. All who give their allegiance to King Jesus gain the honor margin and shame resilience to maintain loyalty to Christ and the church, despite the shaming actions of their family or community.
Fig. 11: Honorific Gospel Beliefs and Subverted Beliefs
As traditional forms of social status lose their sway over the believer’s identity formation, subverted beliefs and practices emerge. Subverted is the belief that social capital or majority status permits you to lord over, oppress, or even separate yourself from others. Subverted is the idea that low social status determines your true honor and dignity. Subverted is the tradition that demands the operative relational dynamic between Jew and Gentile (or between God’s people and “others”) is separation, hostility, revenge, or violence. As N. T. Wright says,
It is why Messiah-believers from Jews and gentiles alike can together be identified as ‘the Israel of God’ [Gal 6:16]. This new people, called from among Jews, Greeks, barbarians, and anyone else you can think of, is no longer defined ethnically, but messianically and thus eschatologically. If Jesus is Israel’s Messiah (and early Christianity makes no sense whatever without that belief), then any and all who belong to Jesus are the inheritors of the Abrahamic promises. They are part of God’s new creation, participating in the Messiah where distinctions of gender, tribe, ethnicity, and social status cease to be badges of privilege and status.
A new status, a new eternal honor is now available to any person who gives their allegiance to King Jesus.
Restoration of Honor and Relief from Hostility—Embodied
The three transformations—honor replacing shame, peace replacing hostility, and a new community to embody these healing behaviors—overlap with the primary concerns for global crises. We identified these concerns earlier in this article as: dignity and life. Ephesians 2 reveals that these social transformations are possible through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—and his body the Church.
Natalie Carnes concludes, “Christ suffers rivenness in order to rive it. Christ on the cross breaks brokenness itself. The cross is God’s refusal to let violence be determinative.” This christological truth becomes the gospel for refugees, for victims of terrorism and racism. But this can happen only as peace and honor are physically embodied by the body of Christ, the church. And the church can only embrace this identity as it accepts that it is a culturally diverse community—not by preference, but by the plain will of God. Commenting on Ephesians 2, Andrew Walls writes:
The church must be diverse because humanity is diverse; it must be one because Christ is one. Christ is human, and open to humanity in all its diversity; the fulness of his humanity takes in all its diverse cultural forms. The Ephesian letter is not about cultural homogeneity; cultural diversity had already been built into the church by the decision not to enforce the Torah. It is a celebration of the union of irreconcilable entities, the breaking down of the wall of partition, brought about by Christ’s death (Eph 2:13–18). Believers from the different communities are different bricks being used for the construction of a single building—a temple where the One God would live (Eph 2:19–22).
When Walls writes, “The church must be diverse because humanity is diverse” it represents no small critique to church growth theory and practice as represented by the hugely influential “homogenous unit principle.” For Ephesians 2 is clearly calling for an ethnically heterogeneous church.
First of all, a gospel for the church: This, then, is the good news for refugees, for victims of terrorism and racism: that peace and honor are atoned for by the body of Christ on the cross (Eph 2:13–18) so that this peace and honor can be embodied by the church—members of the body of Christ. This gospel answers what I believe are the questions of our time:
Therefore, this good news, this gospel, is first of all for the church. As this gospel is taught, preached, embraced, and embodied by the church in its local settings, it then has the possibility to be the gospel for the world.
The restoration of honor is not merely psychological. It is also social; it is embodied. It is something believers feel and experience subjectively and objectively in community. Shame is conquered by the love and honor of the other believers. Honor competition is absent from this community. Members of this community serve Christ and they serve one another. Their longing for honor is satisfied in knowing Jesus. Believers experience an honor surplus as they “out-do one another in giving honor” (Rom 12:10).
Relief from hostility and violence is likewise not merely psychological. It is also social. It is safety, physically embodied. Believers from conflicting cultural backgrounds experience shalom in Christ, in community. People flourish in the “new humanity” (Eph 2:15).
In the Bible’s Metanarrative, Honor Writ Large through Christ Is the Cure
Haley Goranson Jacob helped us see that humanity’s fall was from highest honor and regal vocation. With her help we turn our attention now to the final bookend of the salvation story—and the conclusion of this article.
What is the goal or purpose of salvation? It is contained in the b-part of Romans 8:29 on which Goranson Jacob focuses: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In the next verse, Paul writes, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). What does it mean to be “conformed to the image of his Son”—to have been “justified” and thus also “glorified”? Jacob writes:
In short, what I have argued here in Romans 8:29–30 is that Paul sees that those conformed to the image of the Son are those who, though once participants in the Adamic submission to the powers of sin and death, now participate in the reign of the new Adam over creation. Mankind’s position on earth as God’s vicegerents to his creation is now restored, though now through the image of the Son of God, who reigns as God’s preeminent vicegerent. The depiction of humanity being crowned with glory and honor and established with dominion over creation in Psalm 8 is now again a reality, through both the Firstborn Son of God and those who participate in his exalted status, that is, his glory.”
“A Reglorified Humanity in Romans 8:30”—Jacob uses this as the title for one of her last chapters. She emphasizes believers’ “vocational participation” with Christ as the present-tense reign with Christ, not an eschatological goal of salvation. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). To be glorified in Christ does not, according to Jacob, refer to moral perfection, or to the shining brilliance of one’s heavenly body. To be glorified in Christ means there’s work to do with Jesus today—exceedingly honorable work. We are participating with Christ for the world—ruling with Christ over creation on behalf of human flourishing.
Honor-status reversal is the salvation motif of the Bible (see Fig. 12). The position from which Adam fell is not mere innocence, but the regal identity of God’s vicegerent. In the fall, humanity exchanged the image of the glory of God for sin’s depravity and shame. In Christ the Last Adam (Rom 5:17, 1 Cor 15:45), humanity recovers the vocation of what it lost in the first Adam. This is the glory of “being conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29–30). Truly, humanity is intimately embraced into “The Story of His Glory.”
Fig. 12: Honor-Status Reversal as Salvation Motif—A Regal Anthropology
The restoration of honor is theological, social, and psychological. It is embodied. We possess this honor objectively and experience it subjectively in Christ, in community.
Relief from hostility and violence is likewise theological, social, and psychological. It is peace, physically embodied. Believers from conflicting cultural backgrounds experience shalom in Christ, in community.
Christ’s relational glory, embodied: This is the gospel cure for shame-fueled crises.
Shame writ large is a factor fueling global social crises; honor writ large is the cure, and his name is Jesus. He is the Christ, Word made flesh, Son of God, last Adam, king of glory, head of the church. Jesus embodies the killing of humanity’s hostility to make peace—and the restoration of humanity’s objective honor and glory from objective shame. Christ as honor writ large curing the world’s shame writ large does not mean salvation en masse. It means there is a density to the gospel of the glory of Christ—as theological truth, as metanarrative, as experience in the Spirit, as embodiment by the church wherever believers gather. Could it be that Christ’s honor and glory is greater than the entire world of sin and shame—for crises related to refugees, terrorism, and racism?
This article and the following propositions on key gospel categories invite further discussion and critique, research and experimentation.
- Anthropology: Across all peoples the original nature of humanity is regal, not common.
- Hamartiology: Humanity’s fall is from objective honor, the regal vocation of vicegerent—to sin’s degradation of objective guilt and objective shame.
- Ecclesiology: Cultural diversity-in-unity—the “new humanity”—embodied in the local church is a primary gospel matter because it is the direct result of Christ’s atonement. The blood of Christ cries out: the church by definition is culturally diverse! Unity-in-diversity is a gospel issue. The gospel is not only social, but neither is it less than social.
- Soteriology: Salvation includes a social dimension. We are saved socially into a new ethnically-diverse community of peace and honor through the atonement of Christ. Salvation also includes the reglorification of humanity—the immensely honorific vocation of participating with Christ to build God’s kingdom and bless all the peoples of the earth.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Werner Mischke (DD, Hon. Causa, Hindustan Bible Institute & College, Chennai, India) is vice president of Mission ONE, a partnership and training ministry advancing the gospel through the global church. He authored The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World (Mission ONE, 2015). Werner has provided training in regard to “honor, shame, and the gospel” in many nations for a variety of organizations.