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Chapter 11: Sin and Guilt




Guilt and Shame:

To a large extent, the psychological impact of “transgressing” (violating breaking rules and norms taught or reinforced by a society or religious tradition)  can be described as guilt or shame. 


            Guilt  is internalized; that is, it is experienced privately by the individual who has transgressed.  Consequently, guilt can be dealt with by acts of expiation such as confession.

            Shame  results from external forces, especially from society at large.

Shame – prefer to speak of honor and dishonor is a powerful motivation in Japanese society.  Remember in Confucianism, strong emphasis on society, order, fulfilling one’s responsibilities and duties.  Failure to fulfill these bring disgrace and shame upon individuals.  They bear the shame not just for a personal failure, but for “letting society down.”  Shame is very much a part of the traditional samurai culture of Japan in which  it is better to commit suicide than face dishonor. In fact, suicide becomes an honorable way to die and thus, a way to restore honor.  In fact, shame cannot be dealt with by simple acts of expiation.  Rather, it must be dealt with in such a way as to restore honor.




What is Guilt?

            In Christianity and Judaism, guilt has both an objective and subjective dimension.

Objective: Guilt is a force, an actually change that take place in the world. If every action brings a reaction, the reaction to an act of transgression is objective guilt which impacts both people and the world.    


            Subjective: In its subjective dimension, guilt is the psychological impact upon the guilty as well as their experience of a need for restoration.


Consequently on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in early Judaism/ Late Israelite acts were performed to remove the sense of guilt from the congregation as well as to remove the objective guilt that had accumulated upon the place of worship.


An interesting variation of the notion of objective guilt may be found in the Japanese religion of Shinto.  Although it has no concept of sin in the Western sense, Shinto teaches that evil actions can contaminate individuals by causing them to accrue impurities that poison innocence and offend the kami. These impurities are  called tsumi: the quality of impurity. To rid one's self of these impurities, Shintoism prescribes ritual washings in natural phenomena such as a waterfall or the ocean. Purification rituals are an important aspect of this Shintoism.


Within Christianity, objective nature of guilt is included the concept of original sin.  This doctrine teaches that because of transgression, something has changed within human nature itself.  Consequently, in the rite of baptism there is a dual focus: the change within the individual and the “washing away” of original sin.


Judeo-Christian Concepts of sin


Like guilt, the concept of sin can be very complex.  It can include such things as:


  1. Simply breaking a rule (violation of Torah)
  2. The underlying attitude that leads to breaking rule (especially pride) (become like God, live outside of limits).
  3. Apathy:  indifference to the presence of the divine and the needs of others
  4. Objective guilt (original sin)


Note again, the concept of original sin is absent from Judaism and Islam.