by Bassem Melki
In 2010, Domino’s Pizza, one of the biggest food chains in the world, had a problem. Although they had the speediest delivery service, the pizza quality was so bad that Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle said, “we had somehow created a situation where people liked our pizza less if they knew it was from us.” The problem threatened to ruin the entire business, so Domino’s did something brilliant: they used a combination of transparency, strategy, and counterintuitive marketing to reinvent the company. This made me wonder how companies deal with bad reputations in our Middle Eastern contexts. It seems to me that under shameful situations we run and hide to save our honor; however, in the process, we lose even more.
To remedy its terrible pizza problem, Domino’s chose to actively seek negative feedback from customers and then share those harsh comments in national ads stating, “Microwave pizza is far superior”, “Worst excuse for pizza I’ve ever had,” and “The taste of its crust is like cardboard”. The company took the criticism, shared the criticism, embraced the criticism, and then worked hard to improve. They showed vulnerability by admitting their weaknesses and failures and then asking for help to address their problem. Domino’s entire business fortunes changed because they chose an ingenious way to be honest with themselves and their customers. The story gives much for reflection on understanding culture and faith.
Certainly, Domino’s is motivated by one thing: profits. But what they did is an intriguing model for Christian individuals, churches, communities, and organizations to consider. In fact, the Holy Spirit and the word of God compel us to be quick to confess and repent when we err, especially when we fail others. Basically, when we fail – even more – when we realize it, we need to admit it, embrace it, and then fix it.
Although this sounds simple, I know that shame-based cultures can have a tough time walking that talk. I wonder how a Christian would feel, in our culture, about admitting a certain addiction! Or for a church to admit that they score low on love and need to confess that they harbor judgement! Would a Christian friend admit that they have gossiped behind their friend’s back? Can we trust our Christian friends as a safe space to confess sin?
This is not easy in shame-honor based cultures. We believe that hiding our failures will keep our honor not realizing that confessing actually takes away shame and restores honor. Shame-based cultures are tempted to believe that there is shame in admitting weakness or failure, and that we need to hide it to defend our honor. But what Jesus seems to tell us is that admitting a weakness won’t cause us to lose respect but rather gain credibility. Especially if we then ask for help, seek God, and work hard to overcome it. I know transformation has to happen on all sides; learning must be transparent to foster a safe space for growth and restoration.
The shame-honor perspective in which we live dictates and affects much of our thinking and our responses to failure and weaknesses. At one point as a parent I realized that my wife and I were teaching our children that acting rightly means acting honorably and that the problem of doing what is wrong is its shamefulness. Although this is healthy in many ways, we risked losing direction in some areas, like by focusing on what others expect. In the West I believe feelings of guilt are the natural response to failure of doing what is right. In a shame-based culture, feelings of shame are the preconditioned response to failure. This is not to say that our culture is healthier or less healthy, but it points out that it has its own distinct effects on how we function in society and treat shortcomings.
In the MENA region, one’s honor determines one’s image and upholds their chaste reputation. Therefore, our culture encourages us to cover up instead of confessing, to avoid instead of confronting. Our culture is often tempted to elevate honor over conscience. If telling the truth brings shame then we are tempted to lie. We are tempted to put on masks to cover our weaknesses and to boast about the little achievements we still have. We are tempted to create fake honor. I think this is what the Pharisees did, and Jesus mocked it. For example, in Luke 18:9-14, while the Pharisee stood and prayed thanking God that he is not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers, … the tax collector stood at a distance beating his breast said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Jesus continued to assert, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This mindset of the Pharisees can make transparency and accountability an issue. Shakespeare portrays this predicament in Othello, asking, “But why should honor outlive honesty?” Do we dare to air our shortcomings with the faith that, if we deal with them in an open setting, we will emerge better off? I sure do hope so because if the church is not the place for that, then what is? Could the world provide a better system than what Christ offers? I believe that what the Gospel offers surpasses human wisdom in restoring human beings. However, we might be caught up in the lie that apologizing, confessing, and repenting is not the way back.
Self-criticism is beyond moral reproach. The challenge for the church and for Christians who have been reared and are living in a culture of shame and honor is to ask ourselves whether allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us to have a mindset that believes that self-criticism is a virtue; it can restore our honor rather than bring shame. The Apostle Paul says, “therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9- 10) Paul understood that when we confess our weakness, we allow God’s strength to shine through. But our overriding concern is often the defense of our honor rather than the credibility and trust that we might reap from an honest discussion or confession. The defense of one’s honor becomes vastly more important than self-improvement and honoring God in the process.
I do understand the enormity of the consequences of shame. While being shamed in Western cultures, or being publicly humiliated, might not mean the end of the world for an individual, being publicly shamed in shame-honor cultures means that the individual might become an outcast.
No one can elevate himself. The message of the Gospel to a shame-based culture is that God has the power and desire to elevate man and woman from a life stricken with weaknesses to a place of honor through His grace. Domino’s Pizza way back from failure, although brilliant, is nothing compared to what the Father can do in our lives if we abide by His values.
Bassem Melki is Dean of Faculty and leader of Peacemaking Initiatives at ABTS.