SHAME ON SHAME? Well, Perhaps Not Always

Written by Wes Walker on August 29, 2014

The word “shame” in our modern context produces a complex reaction.

One segment of society would denounce it as a great evil. They would call it a grave social ill, oblivious to how — when it suits them — they, themselves, use shame to achieve an objective.

Other segments might know shame as a defining feature of their daily life. It follows behind them, ready to strike should they fail to meet some expectation, compelling them forward to whatever high standard has been set for them.

Still others have shame as a defining feature in a more paralyzing sense. It may be the hopelessness of thinking you might never measure up to expectations. That your most recent failure may forever define you. That people may think less of you if they discovered that one dark secret…

Shame for this group might be the embarrassment and humiliation that prevents someone from reaching out for help. The addict, perhaps, or the lonely or outcast. It might go the other way, and be found in that person who seems to have it “together”, maybe popular or successful, and worried that if someone finds out about that one weakness, it might all crumble.

Shame can take a wide range of forms.  How do people respond to it?

The first group tries denial. They dismiss shame as unnatural, negative, and harmful. They trace the shame back to its origin — often some socially unacceptable behaviour. They propose as a remedy for this shame that they (first) remove the stigma from that behaviour. (i.e.: Who is “x” to tell you this behaviour wrong?). From there, they move to embracing it, and then celebrating it. If they were to follow this to the logical conclusion, it would proceed to hostility against those who thought shame was appropriate in the first place.  It takes little imagination to see where this pattern might be relevant today.

The second group might try to harness it. They might use it as a goad to keep them going when they want to quit. I would think this is an exhausting way to live, one that might leave little room for genuine joy.

The third group is paralyzed. Shame is just as much the thing they need to be freed from as the secret hurt or behaviour their shame keeps hidden. Maybe more so. Sometimes shame stems from the wrongdoing of someone else, something done to them, over which they had no control. This would make the prison of their shame still more tragic.

We have seen three ways of coping with shame, none of which were particularly positive. Could there be a more positive role for shame to play? We’ll return to that question.  But first, how is shame used in ordinary interactions?

Even the people who supposedly reject shame use it.

You see it in everyday life. If somebody started giggling at a funeral, would they get a disapproving frown? What happens when a kid cuts in line at school, or someone texting and driving? We express disapproval. Those behaviours are outside the scope of what’s socially acceptable. The intent of these frowns, or harsh words, or ridicule is for the offending party to keenly feel his error, and mend his ways.

Isn’t shame the goal when words like “Islamophobe” or their equivalents get thrown around? “You’re intolerant, a bigot.” The goal is that the offending party change their ways, (and for bonus points) that the punishment deter onlookers from the same offending behaviour.

This is why innocuous statements can lead to massive boycotts. If an example is made of the “ThoughtCrime” offender, the public will meekly fall into line. It’s a bullying tactic. And it’s working.

But if shame can be used as peer pressure to avoid a mere faux pas, could it have a positive role in defining absolute behavior standards? Prison systems, I’m told, have an intuitive understanding of this. If someone is serving time for molesting a child, for example, they are the lowest of the low, and might experience “jailhouse justice”. Some behaviour is marked as despicable, or shameful.

We understand this on some level, don’t we? Is it possible that the shame felt by, for example, molested children is at least partly because victims recognize that act as evil, but don’t understand they don’t bear the guilt? What was done to them is truly shameful, because the act itself is evil… objectively sinful.

Some people struggle under a burden of a guilt that isn’t their own. Others, feel deep shame and guilt for what they know they’ve done wrong.

We know that pain and fear, as unwelcome as they are, serve a purpose. They point us to a problem that needs solving. However flawed they are, they are indicators that alert us to injury or danger.

Shame, however imperfectly, can do the same job. It can indicate injury or danger of another sort… as a moral measurement.  But, like most indicators, it can only identify the problem. It is powerless to solve it.

Shame reminds us of sin, but fails to solve it. That takes forgiveness, and grace… from Someone truly able to offer it. There is One who took, and bore that real sin and shame upon himself, on the cross, to free us from it. That is the good news of Jesus Christ.