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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