Ain’t That A Shame
The online version of Christianity Today landed in my inbox this week with the cover story by Andy Crouch, “The Gospel in An Age of Public Shame.” The article has been a good reminder of the definitions – and perceptions – of shame in Eastern and Western cultures.
Shame is defined as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety; dishonor or disgrace,” but in today’s Western society it has nothing to do with contrition or honor. It’s more about doing whatever it takes not to feel badly about ourselves. If shame lowers our self-esteem, then it must be wrong and avoided at all cost.
Not too long ago, I read an article about discipline and shame. The author used an illustration of a disobedient child who continued to play ball inside the house despite his mother’s repeated warnings to stop. When the nine-year-old finally put the ball through the television, the mom lost her temper, yelled “Are you kidding me? What were you thinking?” and sent him to his room.
Later, upon reflection, the mom felt that her words had shamed her son and she felt badly. Her counselor (and author of the article) helped the mom sort out her feelings: “Instead of seeking to change Tyler’s behavior by making him feel shame, Renee might have talked to him to find out why he acted as he did, while also letting him know the consequences, how his actions make others feel, the effects of his behavior. Maybe he was acting out. Maybe he was upset about something and feeling distracted. Approaching such a situation as a discussion, and not a reprimand meant to intimidate or cause fear, can be a chance for parent and child to connect. Even the most ‘loving’ forms of punishment often come across as judgments and intensify feelings of shame; later, this shows up in teens and young adults who put immense pressure on themselves to be very good at all times, something that can lead to anxiety and depression, or repressed anger and rebellion.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the news is covered with stories of Middle Eastern shame-based cultures that perpetuate abhorrent practices in the name of “honor,” such as the killings and mutilations of women and children who have “shamed” fathers and families in ways that seem minor to us. These cultures believe it is their duty to save public face and punish the offender in ways that are not only humiliating but often fatal – gang rape, acid in the face, dismemberment.
Yes, there is “toxic shame,” but there is also “healthy shame.” John Bradshaw, the author of Healing The Shame That Binds You, has said that a healthy sense of shame is the beginning of humility.
All of the perversions of “healthy shame” have led to our mistrust and avoidance of any kind of shame, leaving the individual’s feelings as the ultimate source of right and wrong. We are no longer sensitive to a community standard of honorable behavior ̶ which sometimes can be enough to govern our individual behavior.
The desire to be seen as honorable has its uses – especially when our own compass is off course. The pressure to conform can be a good thing.
Kwame Appiah wrote a book that traces the historical notions of both honor and shame, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. Appiah uses the practice of foot-binding as an illustration of how honor (being worthy of respect) and shame (being dishonorable) can change a culture over time. Foot-binding once was a sign of aristocratic privilege and elevated position in China. Change came only when the Chinese perceived the practice as dishonorable in the eyes of foreigners. Appiah writes, “The respect, or disrespect, of our peers is an immensely powerful mechanism. That is why honor – and its reciprocal sentiment, shame – is peculiarly well-suited to turn private conscience into public norms.”
Kwame goes on to say, “In order to align what people know with what they do, we must try to reshape their codes of honor using shame and even carefully calibrated ridicule.” Legitimate shame was the motivation for stopping a practice that crippled generations of women.
In the book of Nehemiah, the prophet confronts the wealthy and corrupt nobility of Jerusalem because they have defrauded the poor and robbed them of their land, homes and freedom. Nehemiah assembles them in public and rebukes them not only for what they have done to the poor but for how they have disgraced Israel in the eyes of the Gentiles: “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?”
He does not wait for them to feel individual guilt but exposes them openly to reproach and their dishonorable behavior. Nehemiah understood the power of appropriate and deserved disgrace to move people to reshape their actions, and as Kwame wrote, “To align what people know with that they do.”
Unfortunately, the overreaction to shame in general has led to our wanting to eliminate it entirely and to celebrate those who are shameless – and that’s a shame.