Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Noble Shepherd and the Psychology of Shame

Sheep by the WWI trenches at the Newfoundland memorial, France
October 2018/ Geoff W. Sutton
The characteristics of the Good Shepherd are known to readers of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Good Shepherds are men of honor—men who protect their flocks. Christians continue to tell their children the story of the shepherd boy David who became King of Israel and an ancestor of Jesus, that Noble Shepherd found in the gospel story (John Chapter 10).

Two months ago, at 11:00 am on 11 November, 2018 I stood at the Cenotaph, a memorial in London honoring those who sacrificed their lives in the Great War, one hundred years ago. It is an annual event here and among the allies who fought together in 1914-1918 and again in World War II.

Cenotaph Memorial, London, 2018/ Geoff W Sutton

In times of war, governments call men and women into service. They are sent to carry out a task. We remember those who fought the good fight. Those that died while serving are especially honored with prayers, words of praise, and bowed heads. And people of many faiths remember the dead with symbols of their faith like the crosses Christians place in cemeteries and upon numerous monuments like those I saw along the Western Front in Belgium and France.

I use the term Noble Shepherd instead of the more familiar Good Shepherd because I think Jerome Neyrey (2001) makes a good case that John is contrasting the noble and worthy life and death of Jesus with the shamefulness of those who claimed to shepherd Israel in the first century.

Cultures of Honor

The prevailing themes of a culture of honor evident in the Scriptures, are still part of many contemporary cultures. In a classic set of laboratory experiments, Dov Cohen and his colleagues studied the response of young men from America’s South. When insulted, these college men were far quicker than those from the North to respond with anger. Their quicker response was even evident in levels of testosterone and cortisol reflecting a readiness for aggression and a state of arousal. The men from the South behaved boldly even when confronting a research assistant who stood 6 foot, 3 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds.

The scientists interpreted their findings in terms of a history of emigration from the herding cultures in Britain to the southern U.S. states. Those remote British places were beyond the reach of officers who might enforce protection laws. It was up to local shepherds to protect their flocks and their families from marauders. And that shepherding protectionism remained with them in their New World culture.

Noble shepherds defend their families. Like good soldiers, good shepherds may be called on to sacrifice their lives. Not to do so, brings shame and dishonor to the shepherd and his family. A culture of honor includes a culture of shame. A noble life includes an honorable death. In the gospel, the author frames Jesus' life and death in terms of a culture of honor--his life is not taken from him but, like a soldier, he chooses to sacrifice for God and his people.

Of course, Jesus also identified shameful conduct of robbing and stealing to which we could add the shame and destruction of life that results from sexual abuse. All must be aware of toxic behavior patterns (naricissism, psychopathy, machiavellianism) of those hired to be shepherds (Sutton, 2018).

Voice Recognition and Adult-Child Attachment

In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes a point about his sheep recognizing his voice. Those familiar with human-animal interactions understand the metaphor. The fascinating concept of imprinting studied by the Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz has been cited by many. Newly hatched fowl follow the nearest being whether it is a human or a member of their own species. In one report, Lorenz even quacked like a duck. The ducks knew his voice!

Jesus spoke of a close connection between the shepherd and the sheep. The sheep are safe with the shepherd whether they are going out to pasture or coming in at night. The iconic works of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are known to students who take an Introduction to Psychology course. Human and animal infants and their parents form a strong attachment, which is important to life itself. Those without a nurturing attachment die or suffer severely when there is a separation. Clinicians who work for courts in child custody cases are familiar with the quality of parent-child attachment as an important consideration when thinking about the best interests of the child.

Since the early work, with humans and animals, psychology of religion researchers like Kilpatrick (See 2014 post for more) found similar attachments between people of faith and God. A healthy relationship with God is marked by closeness and feelings of security, which are protective during troublesome times.

The Noble Shepherd Examined

In the text about the Noble or Good Shepherd, Jesus is on trial. The interrogation, which began in Chapter 9 continues. His inquisitors push to see how far Jesus will go in claiming authority that exceeds that of the local religious leaders. It turns out Jesus is not reticent about claiming an equal standing with God, which the accusers count as blasphemy. Like men of honor everywhere, they are ready to defend their faith. But before they throw stones, he artfully asks them to identify the good works worthy of such punishment. These judges sidestep the works-as-evidence-defense and focus on Jesus’ verbal claims of equality with God. Next, Jesus offers a very odd quote, which has occupied religious people for centuries. In verses 34-36, Jesus refers to Psalm 82

“Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming’, because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

Again, I draw on the insights of Neyrey to connect Psalm 82 to what happened at Sinai when God gave the people of Israel the Torah. Obedience to the Word of God was the path to life but disobedience would bring death. That reminded me of the first temptation of humans who disobeyed, despite the penalty of death, by eating forbidden fruit when told they would be like God. At Sinai the people would also be like gods having life rather than death if they chose to obey the God-given path. Recall that John opened his gospel with Jesus as the Word of God who, like the Torah at Sinai, was sent to offer life to the children of Israel. Once again, God offers his word, but this time his consecrated messenger is a Son of Man and Son of God.

Good Works & Noble Lives: A Concluding Note

I understand the traditional Christian message of the past 500 years that salvation is not by works. However, I cannot help but notice Jesus' reference to good works as a testimony to who he is and what he was about. The law as interpreted by the religious leaders of his day kept people in metaphorical chains. They were not even free to do good deeds on the Sabbath Day. Jesus clearly saw the principles of goodness in the law when he explained the Sabbath was made for man. When good laws are enforced, people feel safe from those who rob and kill and otherwise behave unjustly and even shamefully. There is a need for justice for those who are most vulnerable in society (see Psalm 82). But when those who only read texts for rules instead of for principles, and fail to think how their interpretation of old texts or laws actually contradict the spirit of the law, or the Spirit of the Divine Lawgiver, people hurt, suffer, and die.

I began this post by focusing on the concept of a Noble Shepherd and Cultures of Honor throughout history. I mentioned the memorial event of 11 November 2018 during which those of us present, like the blind man of Chapter 9, bowed our heads to honor those deserving honor. But there is another comparison I should like to make. Jesus says the Noble Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He has a choice but he is bound by honor to die if needed. And his death brings life.  The warriors who die protecting their families at home are worthy of honor. “Lest we forget,” we say as year after year we keep their memories alive. 

Like a soldier who abandons his post, Jesus could have avoided the cross by keeping quiet about injustice and spiritual abuse. Instead, he kept up the constant attacks on the harmful teachers of his day. Eventually, they found a way to kill him. Jesus, the Noble Shepherd, chose the path that led to death but paradoxically, it was also the path that led to life.

Notes and References

Attachment theory. See this 2014 post for more on attachment theory, attachment to God, and references to scholarly works.

Culture of Honor. Here’s the link to the Culture of Honor study by Cohen and colleagues (1996).

Dedication. I couldn’t help but notice the setting in verse 22. Jesus and his accusers are at the Temple for the Feast of Dedication (aka, Hanukkah), which is also known as the Festival of Lights. The celebration remembers the cleansing, dedication, and consecration of the Second Temple following the desecration by the Seleucids (National Geographic). The parallels to the life and death of Jesus suggest the Feast of Dedication may not be an accidental inclusion on the part of the gospel author, who likely wrote after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The Roman Empire’s influence may also be a factor in Jesus' oblique answers to some challenges.

Demons and Insanity.  In verses 20-21, the Jews wonder about Jesus' sanity and the role of the demonic. Religious people continue to wonder about mental health and the connection to supernatural evil. Since it was only a brief reference, which they dismissed based on Jesus’ good works, I decided not to pursue the matter in this post. Nevertheless, demons lurk in the background of many Christians and people of other religions. Through the centuries, people with unusual experiences have suffered considerable torture and discrimination when their behavior seemed strange. There is much education and work needed by those involved in pastoral care, pastoral counseling, and religious or spiritual counseling to understand the cultural beliefs of people with mental illness and their families. Spiritual competency includes an understanding of a person’s supernatural worldview.

Hearing voices.   In discussing the voice recognition of the sheep in this chapter, a Christian with a history of hearing voices told me he was better able to deal with the voices in his head after conversion. Recognizing the source of one’s voices may be helpful to others struggling to ignore auditory hallucinations.

Identity Theory.  I discussed this in my previous post about Chapter 9 so I have not repeated the comments here. Clearly, the author continues to reveal aspects of Jesus identity, which rise to a high point in the claim, Son of God.

Neyrey: See the following two articles if you want a more in-depth analysis of the translation of the Greek word kalos. There is more than one Greek word translated as good

Neyrey, J. H. (2001). The “noble shepherd” in John 10: cultural and rhetorical background. Journal of Biblical Literature, 120(2), 267–291. Retrieved from https://0-search-ebscohost-com.swan.searchmobius.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000064269&site=ehost-live

Neyrey, J. H. (1989). “I said, you are gods”: Psalm 82:6 and John 10. Journal of Biblical Literature108(4), 647–663. Retrieved from https://0-search-ebscohost-com.swan.searchmobius.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000822052&site=ehost-live

Shame. Shame is a pervasive self-evaluative emotional state. People display shame in a slumped body posture with their heads down and avoiding eye-contact. They may express the wish to die or disappear (See Psychology of Shame).

Shameful shepherds. Much has been written about the shameful behavior of clergy toward children and other parishioners. In addition to the horrific stories of sexual and other forms of physical abuse with the accompanying psychological scars, Christians suffer spiritual abuse.  Moreover, the shameful abuse did not end with the local shepherds but was worsened by those tasked with overseeing the abusive shepherds.  In addition, there are numerous reports of sexual assault and harassment of women by male clergy accompanied by a silent cover-up and victim blaming.  The whole matter of sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse by clergy and Christian leaders deserves attention by religious and secular leaders. (I cover related issues in A House Divided and various articles—see ResearchGate or Academia).

All clergy and congregants need to be aware of the destructive personality traits that can harm a congregation. Learn more about Psychology's Toxic Triad: Narcissism, Psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (Sutton, 2018).

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Monday, January 7, 2019

Who Sinned? Identity and the Psychology of Sin

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The story of the man born blind in John 9 is an evocative, metaphor-laden portrayal of a poor individual caught in a contentious religious crossfire about sinners and the identity politics of righteous minds. I’m writing this post as a way of putting some thoughts into words before leading a discussion on Sunday, 13 January.

This story isn’t just for Christians. The characters in the story are mostly Jews. The sociohistorical context is the old city of Jerusalem ruled by the Romans. Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet from the Quran. But atheists and agnostics may consider the group dynamics that are part of human nature for millennia as well as the ancient author’s manner of dealing with variations of the age-old question, “Who am I?” In addition, we glimpse problems common to all humanity of thinking logically about morality and evil, group identity, and groups in conflict.


At the beginning of the story, we see a man who cannot see. We imagine him begging on an ancient path. His disciples ask the title question, “Who sinned?” And our story takes off. Jesus counters the traditional faulty understanding of effect-cause thinking by answering, no one sinned. Jesus spits on the ground, applies a mud poultice to the closed eyes, and sends the unseeing man to the sent pool (Siloam Pool) to wash. He comes back seeing a fight over the identities of the people fuming over his Sabbath Day treatment. That fight still goes on among people with righteous minds who passionately claim to possess the truth and vehemently attack those with whom they disagree.



Despite the challenging logic (affirming the consequent), there is a biblical basis for the sin, qua cause of illness, argument, which we may phrase as:

A person has a disease state
The cause of disease states is either personal sin or parental sin
Therefore, either the person sinned or his parents sinned.
The biblical notion of punishing children is usually traced to Exodus 20:5 and a contrasting punishment for personal sin found in Ezekiel 18:20. A troubling story is God’s punishment of King David. The king is cursed by the prophet Nathan and as part of the punishment, his child dies (See 2 Samuel 12).

The disciples ask the Who-Sinned question, which seems to be part of the cultural understanding of cause and effect when it comes to the role of sin in disease. Later in the chapter, the Pharisees appear to share the same cultural idea that the man’s blindness was connected to personal sin (i.e., born in sin).

Christians prone to thinking all disabilities, diseases, or other evils are caused by personal or parental sin might consider Jesus' words. Jesus offers a different view of personal sin as a cause of life problems by focusing on the good outcome in the story and the connection of that good to God.

The Who-Sinned question is also about identity. Social identity theory, helps us think about the way labels categorize people and contribute to their understanding of who they are and who they are not. Labels like sinners and blind man are still category labels people use. These labels, and many similar ones, lead to in-group and out-group distinctions that quickly become bases for discrimination. Some category labels are like chains that hold people back from a meaningful life.

Discussion 1: Clergy in the news and individuals on social media sometimes interpret personal experiences, wars, and natural disasters in terms of sin and evil. 1.1 To what extent do you or others you know interpret bad events as caused by sinful acts or by evil wrought by supernatural beings? 1.2 What is the role of an individual and other agents in causation of general illness, mental illness, war, and other tragic experiences? 1.3 How do you deal with people whose strident voices about good and evil, right and wrong, express opinions opposed to your perspective?


The author (attributed to the apostle John) seems to have a sense of humor as we see people wondering if the seeing man is the same one as the formerly blind beggar--the man they had seen before he could see them. In seeming exasperation, the subject of discussion declares, “I am the man!” 

The discussion soon shifts to the identity of the healer. At first the formerly blind man does not know Jesus’ identity but declares him a prophet. The healed man’s credibility is questioned by the local Jews, so they interrogate his parents who verify the identity of their son but not the identity of Jesus because they fear socioreligious ostracism—that is, being put out of the synagogue.

Identity groups of all kinds still use social threats to keep their membership in line. Some religious zealots still kill members who attempt to leave their faith. Other religious people rely on more benign ways to keep doubters quiet and dissenters at bay-- criticism, charges of heresy, gossip, shunning, and self-righteous statements alienate those who no longer share the group's interpretation of religious or spiritual beliefs.

The author’s use of the term, The Jews, is quizzical in context because Jesus was a Jew as were his disciples, and the parents of the man born blind. The author  appears to be informing his contemporary audience, perhaps some 50-80 years after Jesus’ ministry, that this late first century community of Christians, possibly in Asia, are not Jews. Given the Jewish rebellion and the destruction of The Temple in 70 A.D., there may be a survival reason to distinguishing their Christian group of Jesus followers from The Jews who were associated with the rebellion. In light of history, the distinction between Jesus and The Jews is disturbing because of the horrific treatment of Jews throughout history.

Discussion 2: 2.1 Why would an author write as if Jesus was not one of the Jews?  2.2 In what ways might Christians increase awareness of hostility toward other Christian groups (e.g., denominations) and people of other faiths (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc) or no faith at all?  2.3 What are some examples of harm aimed at the destruction of people (or their reputations) holding different religious-spiritual beliefs where you live and work?

In the next scene, the newly seeing man is questioned again; however, he becomes combative. Harsh words and accusations follow. The questioners claim the authority of their moral high ground by tracing their identity to God via Moses in contrast to the beggar’s heritage of a man born in sin. Ironically, yet consistent with a moral purity dynamic, the seeing man is cast out of the religious group.

The author’s presentation of the heritage-identity connection is still a way people form their own identities. As I write, the DNA-ancestry discovery fad is popular as is the related interest in the development of family trees. People want to know their roots—at least until they find a rascal. I’ve been in Christian groups where folks humbly brag about their connection to famous religious leaders. Sometimes the talk is reminiscent of the early church disputes about the followers of Paul or Apollos (1 Cor. 3: 4-6). Then, as now, the winner in such discussions is the one claiming to be a follower of Jesus qua God.

Now Jesus re-enters the story and asks the newly seeing man if he believes in The Son of Man. Jesus identifies himself as such to the former blind one, who quickly becomes a believer. The healed man has a new identity. He is not one of the Jews but a follower of Jesus--the people who can see the truth.

This story closes with a brief metaphorical clash between the religious leaders, the group known as Pharisees, and Jesus about people who are spiritually blind and thus deserving of judgment because they are guilty. In this clash, the author is still clarifying who Jesus is and who he is not.

It is worth considering Jesus’ attitude toward religious leaders, which is often quite hostile. Some contemporary Christians emphasize the love of Christ for all people and dwell on stories of kindness and compassion as shown to the blind man in this story. Many contemporary Christians have formed an identity of Jesus that ignores his harsh edge.  There is ample evidence that Jesus did not routinely shower loving words upon the religious leaders of the day in a manner that 21st century Christians usually understand love.

Discussion 3: Discuss the importance of religious-spiritual identity.  3.1 How do biblical authors like John use ancestry to say something important about Jesus ' identity?  3.2 How is religious conversion about changing one's identity?  3.3 How important is religious identity to other aspects of one's identity?  3.4 How important is ancestry to understanding personal identity (who one is and who one is not)?  3.5 What ought Christians to do to reduce the harm done when extremists insist on rigid criteria for belonging to a privileged occupational, religious, social, national, or political group?


The concept of identity is important to psychological scientists and clinicians because it appears to drive much of human behavior. The importance of identity is powerful enough that some people kill others over identity-related issues.

In a less destructive but still meaningful way, people are keen to protect the identity of their group and keep others out, which can hurt the sense of identity of the person seeking to belong to a privileged group. You can probably fill in the blank: “You can’t be a Christian if_____” We can imagine the same kind of phrase about nationalities too. That is, identifying what it means to be a true American, Briton, European, and so on.

Sometimes money, benefits, and privileges are tied to ethnic, class, religious, and national identities. When social rules change and personal identities shift, it can be a challenge to consistently answer the questions Who am I? and Who am I not?

When reading the Bible and any literary work, we learn about the identities of the people presented to us as filtered by the author and ourselves as readers. There are so many questions we might ask to learn something about the characters, the author, and ourselves.


1. My use of the term righteous minds is taken from the book of the same name by Jonathan Haidt (2012) who summarizes research in moral psychology, which explores the dimensions of human morality and the way people form like-minded groups. I have explored this moral foundations theory in A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures (Sutton, 2016).  I have found both conservative and progressive Christians willing to discuss ways to deal with people having different opinions.

In a recent empirical study with colleagues, we explored Haidt’s model in relationship to social identity theory including both sociopolitical identity and religious-spiritual identity (Sutton, Kelly, & Huver, 2018).

2. Philosophers of science are aware that researchers also commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent in drawing conclusions from empirical studies. We humans often have trouble thinking clearly about matters of great importance.

3. Science and the text. In the text, Jesus did not pray for the man born blind but used a procedure akin to what physicians tell parents whose infants have encrusted or “sticky” eyes. Parents are advised to wash the eyes with a saline solution (link). Jesus uses salty saliva and the salty Israeli soil to treat the closed eyes, which are then washed. The text refers to opening the eyes as if they were literally closed. I briefly searched the internet for others having explored this eye treatment connection but did not find any. Feel free to add a comment if you find an earlier reference. I’m not claiming any special insight here nor am I attempting to debunk the scripture. I just ask questions when I think about faith and science.

4. Identities in conflict. Recently (2018), a Christian psychologist, Mark Yarhouse of Wheaton College and his colleagues, wrote Listening to Sexual Minorities. A recurring theme in the book is the struggle of young Christians who experience same-sex attraction while at a Christian college where the two identities (Christian, Not Heterosexual) appear in conflict with traditional Christian teaching. This book in itself is worthy of a discussion.


My Page    www.suttong.com

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 Geoff W. Sutton

TWITTER  @Geoff.W.Sutton

LinkedIN Geoffrey Sutton  PhD

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