The Problem with Shame

There is a lot of equivocation over the apparently ambiguous word “shame.” In contemporary parlance, it has a psychological meaning which denotes a person’s total identification with a negative behavior or transgressive status.

We live in a culture where behavior is usually socially regulated by guilt, rather than shame. We are each personally responsible in this context, and when we break laws, rules or social norms, we become guilty in a judicial sense. The role of shame in a guilt culture emphasizes our transgressive identities as those who take on outsider status due to deviation, and the only way to redeem oneself, if possible, is through the payment of a debt, either to society, or through the justice system, or through the enactment of revenge scenarios that are played out as “justice,” wherein one gets whatever punishment it is that is deserved in relation to her transgression. 

The problems with understanding the regulation of moral behavior in terms of guilt are many, including the notion that redemption is essentially an abstract transaction wherein a wrathful God demonstrates punishment against his son in order to redeem sinners. Moral behavior is codified into abstract formulations as well. Rather than being transformed people who exemplify conduct that flows from the heart, one becomes moral merely by living according to a set of principles or codes. Bad behavior is not primarily addressed through seeking to heal the soul that sins, but rather through punishment, which has been shown through numerous studies to not have any long-term behavioral effect.  

Shame cultures focus less on individual responsibility and abstract legal transactions, and more on how one’s betrayal of the community creates estrangement and stigma. In a guilt culture, if I do something wrong and the public does not know about it, I am still expected to feel guilty and to seek to make amends by being punished. This is not the case in a shame culture. In a shame culture, if I do something wrong and there is no public knowledge of it, then I experience no shame, and have no motivation to seek amends.  Shame is all about public identity, and whether or not one is honored or dishonored.

In a shame culture, to become a criminal is to be seen by society as an object of dishonor, worthy of public humiliation and expulsion. This is why the Scriptures say that Jesus is a participant in shame, particularly at the point of his crucifixion on the cross. To die publicly in such a manner after being mocked and beaten is the ultimate demonstration of punishment in a culture of shame. But this is not the only way in which Jesus walks on the path of shame; he also visits and dines with tax-collectors, who are regarded as political enemies in occupied Israel. He doesn’t shun prostitutes. He speaks to a Samaritan woman at the well. Over and over again, Jesus identifies with the subjects of shaming in a culture of shame, and through him all are comforted and shame is taken away.

But there is absolutely no implication that Jesus internalizes or feels shame, even when he is being put to death on the cross. Such an assertion would be totally scandalous and possibly heretical. While Jesus repeatedly identifies with the positions of shame, he does so in order to break up and transfigure the apparatuses of power that stigmatize those who are marginalized, while bringing healing to the abject, and he calls us to do the same, to visit prisoners, feed the hungry, heal the sick. The implication is that shame and the stigma it produces is toxic and harmful. It is one of the cords of oppression that Jesus breaks through the power of his life, witness, death and resurrection.

In our present culture, people are beginning to understand how harmful shame is and the destructive power it wields in the lives of those who are its captives. Dr. Brene Brown, for instance, discusses how shame works as a destructive force in the lives of people from all walks of life, not just those who have been abused or suffer from addictions. Dr. Gabor Maté goes into great depth showing how shame furthers addiction and can often have fatal consequences, since a person living under the rubric of shame is more inclined to hide than to seek help. Shame tells us that we are something we essentially are not; it has an existential spirit in that it implies we are what we do, and makes people think they are incapable of change. As such, there is no place for shame in Christian life.

I think the equivocation comes in when we confuse shame with humility, vulnerability, meekness, contrition, sorrow or moral failure. I do not understand it in any context as any of these better vehicles for becoming self-aware and approaching God. I do not believe there is any place for shame, properly defined, in the kingdom of God, either as a soteriological mechanism nor as any kind of impulse related to humility or repentance.

My argument is based on the fact that shame is basically an experience of pride on the negative end of the spectrum. It is a product of comparison, which is itself opposed to humility and meekness, whether you are comparing yourself to the conventions of society, a moral code, or to God’s purity and righteousness. You cannot have shame without pride. In fact, I might go so far as to say that both are one and the same, operating in the same modality, but experienced in different circumstances. As such, it is not at all the same as humility, which is transparency and self-knowledge that arises from self-awareness.

Humility begins within and moves outward. It is transparent and does not seek to hide. Shame is dependent on conventions, forms and the judgments of others, including self-judgment that arises when one does not measure up to one’s own imagined (false and inflated) view of oneself. Shame, like pride, is a function of the inflated ego. Shame is how pride reacts when an inflated ego is deflated. You cannot have shame without pride.

The experience that one has that leads to metanoia (the Greek word for repentance), as evidenced for example in the story of the prodigal, is one of awakening, not of shaming. Repentance itself is a change of mind, a redirection of one’s focus and path ― it is not self-flagellation or punishing oneself due to remorse.

Becoming aware of one’s own flaws and sins and darknesses is not pleasant, and might be shameful ― but that’s a danger to the psyche, not a virtue. It is an experience that should evoke an acceptance of one’s own culpability, one’s own myopia, as well as one’s own pretenses and attempts to cover up who they really are. It’s important to remember who we really are both in terms of being the sons and daughters of God, essentially glorious, as well as inheritors of death, stained by the disease of sin and severely limited by the fact of our creaturliness.

Made in God’s image and called to God’s likeness, I am a creature who is impure, rough, difficult, addicted, who often behaves badly, lies and deceives, and then tries to cover it all up and present myself as closer to the likeness than anyone else. The human psyche in its subordination to death may be farcical, but it doesn’t help in any way to suggest that shame is any kind of antidote in any way whatsoever. Humility, contrition, awareness, lack of comparison and judgment, sorrow or compunction for the way I have hurt others, and even the strong hunger for the experience of communion with God are far more likely antidotes that motivate us to true repentance. 

Shame is used as a tool to influence and exert power over others. Sermons that rely on shame contradict the command of Christ, when he tells his disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” Making other people feel shame in order to control them is toxic and destructive. It is a grave sin.

Shame motivates us to sham repentance because like guilt, it stems from an abstract, exterior source, namely, what others think of us. Shame is a form of pride. The last thing one should do when approaching God is to care about what other people think. Rather, we should go to confession with humility, sadness over our sins, and a willingness to turn away from them.

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