From Bill Clinton To Harvey Weinstein: How American Culture Is Becoming More Shame-based

In his Nov. 18, 2017 New York Times article, What if Ken Starr Was Right?, Ross Douthat, writes, “(According to Clinton’s supporters)… our 42nd president was only guilty of being a horndog, his affairs were nobody’s business but his family’s, and oral sex with Monica Lewinsky was a small thing that should never have put his presidency in peril.”

I doubt if, deep inside, many of the above supporters didn’t think that President Clinton had committed an immoral act. Yet, at the same time, they felt that “the effort to impeach him was a hopeless attempt to legislate against dishonor.” Again, Mr. Ross says,

That narrative could not survive the current wave of outrage over male sexual misconduct. So now a new one may be forming for the age of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump. In this story, Kenneth Starr and the Republicans are still dismissed as partisan witch hunters. But liberals might be willing to concede that the Lewinsky affair was a pretty big deal morally, a clear abuse of sexual power, for which Clinton probably should have been pressured to resign.

aggression-683910__340A question we should ask is, what changed? What is this new narrative that now says, “the Lewinsky affair was a pretty big deal”? To me, this new narrative is written by the social media community, which is using shame as a means to control those within her boundaries.

Here I need to explain what I mean by shame brought about by a community, or as it’s called a shamed-based community. The phrase “shame culture” was coined by Ruth Benedict in her book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, where she described American culture as a “guilt culture” and Japanese culture as a “shame culture.”

A shame-based culture (Sometimes called shame/honor base) consists of a community where a continually reinforced feeling of shame and ostracism is used as the main instrument to control the people within that community. In those societies, a person is punished by coming short of the standard which her people have collectively chosen to be the norm. The punishment for acting against the norm is being shamed and shunned. As David Brooks puts it, “The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong (As in a guilt base culture); it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.”

Having been born and raised in Iran, I didn’t just study the shame culture, I lived in it for 19 years. After living in the guilt-based culture of America for almost 50 years, I still have nightmares about being exiled and condemned instead of being praised and embraced (honored) by my old Persian community. That’s because in that culture everybody is constantly living in fear of being at the mercy of a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no clear standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture that compels all her members to just go along. By the way, that’s why I wrote my book, Shame On You.

For the last 15 years I’ve been teaching on shame and honor. And for that many years, I was sensing a shift in the American culture, but I couldn’t put it to words. I could sense that the younger generation was tilting more towards a culture of shame, but couldn’t quite see, or name the nuts and bolts that were creating such a society. Then, last year, I read Andy Crouch’s essay, The Return of Shame.

According to Andy, this above society is social media and the nuts and bolts are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.. The shame-based community of social media is the community of “constant display and observation” where the desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the standard of right and wrong, but a standard of acceptance and rejection. By the way, how many Facebook “Likes” did you get on your last post?

In this community, each tribe demands instant respect and recognition for their group. They react with intense violence toward those who dare to disrespect the community by questioning their codes of conduct on some biblical values. As Crouch argues, the ultimate sin today, is to criticize a group, especially on moral grounds. Talk of good and bad has deferred to talk about respect and recognition. Crouch writes, “Talk of right and wrong is troubling when it is accompanied by seeming indifference to the experience of shame that accompanies judgments of ‘immorality.’”

Crouch calls the social media community a “fame” culture rather than a “shame” culture. Again, he correctly argues that this shame culture is different from the traditional shame cultures, of many third-world nations, for example. In traditional shame cultures the opposite of shame was honor or “face” — being known as a dignified and upstanding citizen. In the new shame culture, the opposite of shame is fame — to be attention-grabbing and aggressively unique on some media platform (Aka the Kardashians).

Going back to my original question, “What is this new narrative that now says, ‘the Lewinsky affair was a pretty big deal?’” As David Brooks puts it, it was “The shifting fancy of the crowd” and not a moral awaking. The community, in this case, “#me too” established a set of common behavior patterns. Then, the enforcers within the tribe went after everyone who broke the group code. Maybe Clinton’s supporters were correct—you can’t legislate against dishonor. But you can establish a culture where its enforcers can come after you when you break their codes of conduct. And this my friend, has all the nuts and bolts of a shame-based culture.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m delighted that almost every day more women are coming out to name their abusers and shame these predators. However, having experienced both cultures, I much rather live in a guilt-based culture where my identity is built on a moral code of right and wrong. It’s much less stressful. But here, all I’m talking about is a shift in the culture. If, along with many others, what I’m saying is true and there’s a cultural shift in the wind, then what is the church’s place in such a community?

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If You Don’t Change Them, They Will Swallow You UP!

 On the Sunday after 9/11 my message to my Iranian church started by me asking the following question and answer.
Who put a gun to your head and demanded that you leave Iran and come to America?
If you don’t like living in America, I’ll personally buy you a one-way ticket and send you back to Iran.
Using Jer. 29:4-7, I then went on to show them, as immigrants in this country, what our responsibilities towards America should be. Once I made them aware of our role as immigrants, I then challenged them, as followers of Christ, to put aside our Third World corrupt habits that almost all of us were raised with, and be a light and salt to our community.
Over a year ago, I felt the need to preach the same message again, but this time to English speaking churches—Christians who are born and raised in America—along with a long disclaimer repeated throughout my message. I felt the need to include the disclaimer because these days, many Americans take offense to everything, even on behalf of those who are not asking for it. So, I had to start my message with the following warning, which I kept repeating throughout my teaching:
Please be advised that I gave this message to my IRANIAN church, and it is NOT directed at you. By the way, after I was done preaching it, the whole church gave me a standing ovation, so PLEASE don’t get offended on their behalf.
My message had to do with change, that of heart, mind, soul and behavior. It was an attempt to help them become more like those who belong to the Community of Jesus. It challenged them to outflowing action that would influence the adverse Iranian community that surrounds them. In doing so, I gave them example after example of the corruption that exists within much of our culture. The type of Third World mentality that is so, so foreign to the majority of American Christians, but so, so natural to us who were born and raised in Iran.
“But, why are you giving this message to the American church,” one might ask.
Because I am very concerned about the type of society my grandchildren might be facing in America.
In his article, 4 Trends in Christianity That Could Scare You, Ed Stetzer says,
As the Nones (Nominal/Cultural Christians) rise in their number, Christian influence on culture will begin to wane. The minority of Christians in a culture will begin to feel even more like a minority when more nominals become Nones. As people no longer claim to be Christians, Christianity will be further marginalized…
Although Mr. Stetzer considers this to be something positive for the future of the church—She then will be full of REAL (Whatever that may be according to him) Christians.—he doesn’t take into account the vacuum this lack of Christian influence will create in the society. Those of other mentality/cultural mindset, i.e., Muslims, will not sit back and wait for the Christians to easily once again get their influence back. These non-Christians will fill the void.
In his recent column in Los Angeles Times, How corruption abroad threatens U.S. national security, Doyle McManus wrote,

 We often look at corruption as a secondary issue in international affairs: as a moral problem that allows Third World governments to steal from their people and gets in the way of equitable economic development…But the lesson of the collapse of the Iraqi army, an army built with $25 billion in U.S. aid, is this: Corruption isn’t only a moral issue; it’s a national security issue, too.

That’s the message of Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio, who spent 10 years working on economic development projects in Afghanistan — only to find that corruption was getting in the way of nearly everything she did.

 I want the American church to understand what happens when she losses her influence in society, an influence that is directly related to the teachings of Christ. I long for the church to realize what an unscrupulous society awaits her if she doesnt stand up for Christian Principles and offer the life changing teachings of Christ to those around her, especially those of us from the Third World.
After hearing my message at his church, a member, a white American, who was offended by what I’d said, asked the following question,
“So, what is the redemptive value in this message?”
My answer: If you don’t change my mindset with the teachings of Jesus, I WILL swallow you up.

This Church Will Die Out In One Generation!

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 “When you die, your epithet will say, ‘He was way ahead of his time, so no one understood him,’” was something one of my church elders once told me.
With his hand literally on the small of my back ushering me out of his office, the district supervisor said, “Brother, I’m a church planter. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The year was 1987. I’d just left my engineering job to become the full-time pastor of the Fellowship of Iranian Christians, the first Iranian Christian organization in the US. An organization I’d founded and been pastoring bi-vocationally for the prior ten years.
Here I was an Iranian Muslim background believer (MBB) with no background or education in pastoring, let alone, a church consisting of first generation Iranian MBBs and Jewish immigrants. I was desperately in need of help, guidance and support, so I went to see my denomination’s overseer.
After the initial pleasantry, this is how our conversation followed:
Supervisor asked, “Tell me about your church.”
“Well, they’re not churches in a traditional sense. We have 3 house fellowships that meet in the evenings during the week.”
“Are you looking for a building?”
“No!”
“How come?”
“A church like ours is only good for one generation. The second generation Iranian Christians will be too Americanized to attend a Farsi speaking church. I believe it works better if the first generation Iranian Christians meet at homes during the week and on Sundays attend English-speaking churches.
This was over 30 years ago. There was no Barna Group around. What I knew was a gut level intuition. Some might even say it was a “prophetic proclamation”.
What I didn’t know at the time was how very few people knew anything about the challenges that a group like ours was facing. Unfortunately, my American born monoculture supervisor was not among the few. In fact, I don’t believe he knew anything about other cultures let alone Iranian culture. So, he got up from behind his desk and escorted me out.
By nature, most Iranians assimilate quickly into other cultures. In fact, some of the Iranian leaders have accused their own people of being like chameleons, changing colors at a drop of a hat. For the majority of us, this has made it possible to survive and succeed without having to rely on our own community.
As it may, this gift, or curse of assimilation has made the US Iranians the third most educated minority group, and one of the most successful ethnic groups. In less than 40 years, we have accomplished what many other ethnic groups have not been able to achieve in 100 years. A few years ago, when my cousin graduated from the USC School of Dentistry, out of the 100 graduates, 30 of them were Iranians.
More than 30 years ago, I encouraged my Iranian fellowship/church members to take their kids to English speaking churches, so they can be discipled in English. Some did and some didn’t. Of those who did listen to me, most their children (my own included) are still walking with the Lord. However, majority of those kids whose parents insisted that, “We are Iranians and we do things the Iranian way” have walked away from the faith.
The same outcome is taking place in many Farsi-only speaking churches in America. The attendance is getting lower and lower—the first generation has either started to attend English-speaking churches, or is simply dying out. And as I mentioned, the second generation has either walked away from the church, or is also attending English-speaking churches. In fact, I dare to say that there are more Iranian Christians attending English-speaking churches than there are those attending Farsi-speaking churches.
The Iranian churches that are growing are the ones that understood my predictions and are now having bilingual services—a service in Farsi to take care of the parents and new immigrants, and one in English reaching out to the second generation.
Let me conclude this blog by issuing two challenges:
First to the English-speaking pastors:
From all I have seen, heard and studied, church attendance among English-speaking Americans is in decline. One of the most effective ways to keep the church alive is to reach out to immigrants.
Many years ago, I developed a simple outline of how this can be achieved, but there haven’t been too many pastors willing to implement the system at their churches. Maybe the time has finally arrived? Maybe now, as a matter of survival and desperation, the American church needs to shift her paradigm by realizing our nation IS the greatest mission field God has given us.
Second, to the Iranian pastors:
Face reality! You are not in Iran anymore. The Iranians in America are different than the ones in Iran. Rebuking and shaming our young ones for their lack of ability to speak Farsi will only push them farther away from the church.
Like the sons of Issachar, (I Chronicles 12:32) understand the times and contextualize your approach in evangelism and discipleship. If you’re not capable of teaching in English, train some of your young members who are fluent in English to do so. This way, our second generation, who is teachable if they could understand the language, will not feel abandoned by the church.
PS. For many valid reasons today, I’m much more open to having a church building, but I still believe in the above principles when it comes to the second generation.

When Leaders Are Called Losers

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I don’t like the Vietnam era or anything related to it. I lived in the midst of it, had friends who lost relatives in the war and friends who fought in the war and were never the same.  For that reason, as much as I like war documentaries, I never watch anything about Vietnam, except for “We Were Soldiers”.  The movie is a 2002 film that dramatizes the Battle of Ia Drangonthat took place on November 14, 1965.
If I’d known the movie was about Vietnam I might not have watched it.  However, once I started watching it, I was hooked.  It wasn’t so much the plot that attracted me as much as a segment of a speech the protagonist of the movie, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (played by Mel Gibson) gives to his men right before they head to Vietnam:
This I swear before the Almighty God: when we go into the battle, I’ll be first to set foot on the field.  I’ll be the last to step off.  I’ll leave no one behind.  Dead or alive, we’ll all come home together.  So help me God.
The statement touched me deeply.  All my life I’d lived by that creed, but this was the first time someone had articulated it for me.  I’m the type of a leader who likes to get close to his people — become buddy-buddy.  I refuse to shove my position down anyone’s throat in order to prove my superiority.  Those who know me, know very well that as a Christian leader I’ll never send my people anywhere I’ve not been myself, nor expect them to accomplish anything I haven’t or at least attempted to do myself.  And, because of that I was called a loser.
I must have really ticked off the mega-church pastor when he looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re a loser because you have no respect for your position and want to be buddy-buddy with everyone.”  In other words, I was a loser because I was too close and friendly with those around me.
“Pastor,” I said to the man, “when Jesus walked among us, he refused to ride on a horse.  He preferred to rub elbows with those around him, the sinners and the scum of the earth.  He didn’t give a crap about his position when the religious leaders of his time accused him of being ‘buddy-buddy’ with common people.  However, when He comes back, He’ll be riding on a horse to smash the heads of God’s enemies.”
For the sake of honor, I’m one of those leaders who refuses to ride a horse while fighting along side of his people.  I’d rather be the first to set foot on the field and last to step off than one who sits behind his desk in an air-conditioned mansion of an office telling others how to do things I’ve never done myself.  I’d rather be called a “buddy” by the forsaken than a “winner” by the likes of that pastor.
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When I was in 5thgrade in Iran, we read a story about one of the old kings of our country. The king loved to read. One late night as he was reading, the oil in his lamp ran out. His servant, who was standing behind him, reached over to take the lamp away for refilling when the king stopped him.
“I will do it myself,” said the king to the servant.
Absolutely shocked and dismayed, the servant replied, “But sire, it is beneath his majesty to do such a menial job.” But, he could not argue with his king.
So, the king got up, refilled the lamp and sat down to read. Knowing that his servant was still uncomfortable with what had just transpired, he turned around looking the servant in the eyes said to him, “When the oil ran out I was the king, when I got up and filled the lamp I was the king and when I finally sat down again I was still the king. Doing a servant’s job did NOT take away my kingly position.
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Pastor…leader, do you ever befriend people for no reason at all, or are there always strings attached?  Do you ever go out of your way to rub elbows with those who are not in your class, or is getting off your high horse too uncomfortable for you?  As I look around today, I notice that a true friendship is one of the most desired, and yet most lacking commodities in our society.  Why not be a loser in order to become that desired commodity?  Maybe then you’ll gain the ability and privilege to share the Gospel of Christ with those whom you’ve become “buddies” with.  

This Is What I Mean By "Social Justice"

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I was meeting with New York Times bestselling author. This was our second meeting. I’d read her book a while back, liked what she had to say, and when I found out that another friend knew her, I asked to be introduced to her. Our first meeting had gone well.
It was a few weeks before the last presidential election. As we sat at a table at Starbucks, she started to tell me about the conversation she’d recently had with a friend who disliked Sarah Palin. 
“I’m voting for McCain.” I told her.
“What?! You’re a Republican?” 
“Yes, I am.”
I could tell she was surprised.  People who don’t know me have a hard time pigeon-holing me. Some Evangelicals feel that I’m too liberal to be a Christian, and non-Christians are shocked to find out that I, a brown-skin Iranian, am a conservative Christian. She wasn’t any different. Her book, which I recommend very highly, is not something that every evangelical would have on their bookshelf. So, she had assumed I was a liberal.
Her curiosity got the best of her, so she asked, “Why do you like McCain?”
“He is for securing our borders,” I replied.
“I want our borders left open.”
Now it was my turn to ask questions:  “Why do you want our borders left unsecured?”
“I want people to come here so they can be helped.”
“If you want to help them, why don’t you go over there?” I asked her.
That’s when everything hit the fan.
In the middle of Starbucks, she began pounding the table with a raised voice saying, “How dare you?! How dare you?!”
Those who know me know that I never shy away from a good confrontation, but I almost never go out of my way to deliberately provoke anyone to anger or hurt their feelings.  My new-found friend’s reaction was a total surprise to me.
I had no idea why she was so angry with me. I was almost in tears and shaking. My brain began to search for the cause of her anger like my Mac doing a search on the hard drive for a lost document.  If she had listened hard enough, she could have heard the clicking in my head. Then, Eureka! I figured it out.
She was angry because a naturalized American, me, had just told her, an American, to leave her country. But that wasn’t what I meant. It took me a while to explain to her what my point was, and eventually she apologized to me. I think I might have been as upset if I was in her place not knowing what the other person meant with those words.
I was simply referring to what I’ve practiced in my own life. For example, when I visited Tajikistan in 1998 (a war-torn ex-Soviet satellite, which is among the poorest nations in the world), I was so moved by the lack of healthcare in the country that the following year I went back with a medical team hoping to alleviate some of the pain I’d witnessed. I didn’t go around demanding that the government should bring all sick Tajiks here so Americans can take care of them. That was my personal issue. I was obeying Christ’s mandate.
In asking my question, I was telling my friend, “If you really care about helping people of other countries, YOU go over there and help them. Don’t turn something personal into a public problem demanding that others take care of it for you.”And to me, this is “Social Justice”.
After my explanation and her apology, we went back to being friends. We have met once or twice since in the same Starbucks.
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It’s the last day of a grueling seven days of providing care to over 600 sick people by an American medical team in Ghorghan Tepeh, Tajikistan—a Muslim nation. Except for me, everyone in the team has suffered from some kind of dysentery.  Being born and raised in Iran has its benefits. For over a week we’ve had no water or electricity. It’s in the middle of summer and it’s quite hot.  Although the team is under my care, I mostly act as a translator and at times help with crowd control.
We’re all tired, smelly and desperately in need of a shower.  I am also quite frustrated.  There is so little the team’s doctors can do with the limited resources they have available.  They have no X-ray or CAT scan machines, and can’t run blood tests.  So sometimes the best we can do is pray over the patient.
As Marvin (a team member who’s directed many medical teams before with his doctor wife) and I are guiding patients to where they’re supposed to go, a Tajik lady walks up to us.  She’s crying.  Our doctors can’t do anything for her.
“My in-laws want my husband to divorce me,” she tells me in Tajik.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I’m barren and my in-laws demand grandchildren of us.  But I love my husband.”
Now, I’m in tears.  I know the pain of being barren.  My wife experienced that for the first eight years of our marriage, but there’s nothing we can do.  I explain to Marvin what the issue is, and then ask her if she would let us pray for her.
I want her to know to whom I’m praying, so I pray in Tajik.  My heart is heavy as we send her away.  She is crying and I’m wondering how God’s going to answer this prayer.  Even if there was a medical solution, these people are so poor and can’t afford even the most basic surgical procedure.
As the end of the day draws near, I’m even more frustrated. There are more patients to see and we’ve ran out of most of our medicine.  I’m grateful that our doctors have so sacrificially put aside their own interests and seen patient after patient for hours on end.  But, I also wish they could do more.  Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder if this has been a successful trip when our infertile lady shows up again.
This time she is full of joy.  Her tears have turned into laughter.  “What in heaven’s name could have changed her so quickly?” I wonder.
This is what she tells us:  “By the time I got home there was a letter from the government telling us we’ve been approved to adopt the twins we’ve been asking for.  We’ll start the procedures tomorrow.”
She then makes another announcement, “The twins will be called, Shahrokh and Marvin.”  Dear God, I feel sorry for those kids.  Shahrokh is a Persian name and can be handled with much less difficulty in that culture, but Marvin?
And finally she presents Marvin and me with a naan — a flat, round bread popular in that part of the world.  “I want you and Marvin to each take a bite on different parts of the bread,” she tells us.  We comply.
She takes the bread back and says, “We will nail the bread to a wall in our house and keep it there for as long as it lasts.  This is our tradition; something we practice in memory and respect of people who have touched our lives.”
By the time we leave for the States, we have seen over 600 patients. We’re all filled with a sense of gratitude and fulfillment for being able to touch so many lives in such a short time. Yes, there are many more people to be helped, but none of us come away thinking that somehow every American is obligated to share our burden and bring the needy Tajiks to the US so they can be helped.