“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
It's true, I am ashamed and I don't need your help. I'm ashamed because I know me; I know my past, I know the thoughts that I have had, I know some of the things I am likely to do in the future. With that said, this post is not going to be a confession of any kind. My shame is sufficient; I don't need your help in my shame, at least not right now. This post isn't about your shame either. My intent is not to shame you, at least not individually. My intent in this post is to question the current state of culture both inside and outside the church in regard to shame.
It has become common to shun shame. No one should ever be shamed about their behavior or their proclivities of any sort. In American culture this is because the "unfettered self" is the god of choice. The individual should be embraced regardless of whether an individual's traits are healthy and beneficial or not, not to mention holy. The unforgivable sin of American culture is the rejection of the unfettered self, and the second is like it, it is the judgment of another person who has embraced their unfettered individuality. To commit the first sin is to practice self-hatred and to commit the second is judgmental and bigoted. The unstated assumption is that the individual is not at fault for who they are and there is no need to fight any temptations or desires because they are innate to the individual. At least that is the prevailing message.
Shame is "a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior." The question is whether or not a person should feel shame or perhaps even more pertinent is whether or not a person should cast shame on another person.
When I was a young child and I had done something bad my mom or grandma (the two most likely candidates) would often say to me, "John Pat, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!" Perhaps you have heard someone say this before. Were they wrong to cast shame on me? Before we answer that question, perhaps there is another question we should answer.
Why did they use that phrase when they addressed my bad behavior?
In short, they were training my conscience. I had committed some act for which I should have felt shame, but I did not feel enough shame to avoid committing the bad behavior. In essence my mom and grandma were helping me train my conscience. They were helping me develop discernment for what should and should not cause shame. The message being communicated was that I should have been aware of the kind of distress and embarrassment those actions would cause and my own awareness should have caused me to avoid those bad actions. Since I was not aware, they rightly felt the need to inform my conscience so I would have better discernment in the future.
Shame is something a person should feel if they have participated in wrong or foolish behavior. But, is it right for a person to cast shame on another person? The answer is necessarily yes, it is, IF another person has participated in wrong or foolish behavior and is not ashamed when they should be, then someone needs to cast shame on them. There is no doubt that there is a subjective side to this. You might ask, "how much shame should be felt for what kinds of behavior?" There isn't a clean and clear answer regarding the degree of shame a person should feel for certain types of behavior. Perhaps one could say they should have enough shame to avoid such behavior in the future. This helps, but it is still subjective. If a child has bad manners, but is not ashamed because of the bad manners, then someone else (perhaps a parent) must cast sufficient shame on the child to train the child's conscience. On a societal level the parental role is left up to society. If an adult person commits bad behavior it may be up to society to cast the appropriate amount of shame. That doesn't always work out because society doesn't always get it right, but that is societies role nonetheless. When society does not fulfill this role properly a variety of different harms are done. If society fails to cast any shame moral anarchy results. I fear this is what is happening now in America.
What about the church, should the church cast shame?
That depends on what is meant by casting shame. The church should preach and teach what is sin and what is not sin, the church must inform the conscience and move the believer towards maturity in recognizing good and evil (Hebrews 6:14). Furthermore, it should teach how sin is offensive to God and harmful to humanity (Psalm 5:4; Gen. 3-6). If that is casting shame, then that is the role of the church. This does not mean that grace is not emphasized as a response to sin. In fact, to preach morality and judgment without grace is itself a sin, but what good is grace if a person has nothing of which they are ashamed?
Does shame actually work?
Many people claim shame does not work. Most often they will tell an anecdotal story about how shame did not work for them. However, if a person takes sexual activity as an example statistics would show that as shame was removed in the 60's & 70's sexual activity outside of marriage increased significantly. When bad behavior is no longer shamed, that bad behavior increases.
If anecdotal stories are more your thing then consider my own story, and the story of countless others I have talked to over the years. It may be the case that many waited until marriage to have sex because they believed their were significant benefits to doing so, but those same people also considered sex outside of marriage something that was sin and of which they should be ashamed. Shame alone is not the answer, but it is a part of the answer. Overemphasizing shame can lead to legalism but underemphasizing shame can lead a person to believe they don't need grace - and we all need grace.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.