In the men’s Bible study that I attend, we are now studying Philippians, and two words from the first chapter stood out to me. They were notable because I associated them with the Kewa language and culture. The words are “shame” and “jealousy.” But first, some background.
Shame is first mentioned in Genesis 2.25 in the Bible: “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Adam and Eve were innocent, so shame was not a factor. However, in our culture, shame is often no longer evident because pornography and nakedness encourage open sin and decadence. We read of this type of dismal situation in 2 Kings 19.25, where “Their people [in fortified cities], drained of power, are dismayed and put to shame. They are like plants in the field, like tender green shoots, like grass sprouting on the roof, scorched before it grows up.”
Job was “full of shame and drowned” in his affliction (Job 10.15b) and David cried to the Lord that he should not “be put to shame” (Psalm 31.17a). Instead, David wanted those who were after him to “be disgraced and put to shame” (Psalm 35.4), with it wrapped around them and covering them like a cloak (Psalm 109.29). He realized that “Whoever disregards discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored.” (Proverbs 13.18).
Christians are not to live in shame. Paul wrote in Romans 5.5: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” and “anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” (Romans 10.11).
However, when the Corinthian church members were having arguments, Paul used shame as a tool to help them come “back to your senses” (1 Corinthians 15.34). In many cultures, there is “shame” at being caught in some disgraceful act, such as stealing or adultery.
Shame is different than being embarrassed or humiliated, although the two concepts are closely related. For example, I was embarrassed and, to some extent humiliated, when I was engaged to Joice, and we were attending a party. I thought I would pinch her (lightly of course) to remind her that we needed to leave, and I pinched the wrong woman. The incident was further compounded because the woman I pinched was wearing a pink skirt and Joice was wearing a black one. I was reminded of the instance often during our almost 65 years of marriage. My sin, if it was one, had “found me out.”
The word for “shame” in the Kewa language is “yala pota,” literally “to crack open one’s shame.” It is like cracking an egg or breaking a dish—the original substance is penetrated and opened for all to see. The phrase can refer to indecency, extreme embarrassment, or very poor behavior. I once shamed a Kewa lad who had been stealing kerosene (a precious commodity) from our storage room, and I suspected who it was, so I laid a trap for him. I caught the boy red-handed and shamed him. However, because I had shamed him openly before his peers, they were not pleased with me. In the end, after a lot of talk and discussion, I was told that I should not have shamed him, despite his stealing the kerosene.
We first read of jealousy in the Bible when Cain killed Abel and when Joseph’s brother sold him into slavery. God is also a jealous God: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34.14).
Crime scenes here in the US often center on the jealousy of spouses and lovers, sometimes a so-called “love triangle.” In Numbers, we read that a jealous husband could take his wife to the priest and have an offering made for the jealousy (cf. Numbers 5.15-18). Proverbs 6.34 makes it plain that “jealousy arouses a husband’s fury, and he will show no mercy when he takes revenge.”
Paul was persecuted because the Jews were jealous of the crowds that listened to him. Some Jews once started a riot because they were so jealous of Paul (Acts 17.5). Paul in turn had to remind the Corinthians that their jealousy and quarreling was “worldly” (1 Corinthians 3.3).
Jealous is a word that has two meanings (at least) in Kewa: On the one hand it refers to a person who wants things and is jealous about not having them. The word can also refer to a “co-wife” and many Kewa men had more than one wife (think Old Testament). Co-wives often were jealous of each other.
This is a true episode that Joice and I witnessed: The village chief had gone to a pig feast, and he brought back pork for his two wives. He had married sisters—not common and not looked upon favorably by the clan. Of course, he gave the bigger and better piece of pork to the younger sister-wife and a smaller piece to the older wife. She promptly threw it over the fence and into the garden. The chief was not pleased, so he took a fence post and hit the older wife over the head. The younger wife, being a sister, also retrieved a fence post and whacked the chief on his head. When he turned to hit her, the other wife then hit him with her fence post. It was now two against one, and the chief was not winning, so he retreated to his house.
The next day, the chief came by our house, decked out with important shells around his neck and fresh, colorful cordyline leaves tucked into the back of his bark belt. I asked him where he was going. “I’m going to buy another wife,” he replied. I remarked that he had trouble controlling two, so how was he going to handle three? Undismayed, he took off on a trot and, if I remember correctly, had trouble getting another clan to let one of their women marry him.
Shame and jealousy: two powerful words and concepts. We should be on the guard about both!