In a recent piece for The Atlantic titled “Challenging the Anti-Shame Zeitgeist,” Joseph Burgo outlines a growing, organized resistance to shaming, by which he refers to “people who bully others.”
Within the therapeutic paradigm, shame is a destructive power that threatens a person’s sense of self-worth. In a democratized culture striving to accept all difference - including “gay men and women, little people, deaf and blind people, transgendered individuals and other groups who insist that their difference is not a disability or defect” - shame of personal identity is the ultimate enemy. Because, as Burgo describes the common cultural perception, “it enforces conformity and stifles the creative or dissident individual. It kills the spirit.”
Burgo offers a gentle challenge: “While the anti-shame zeitgeist views conformity to norms as oppressive, support for a great many of our social norms and the shame that enforces them is virtually unanimous.” Burgo rightly notes that there are scenarios - like the father who abandons his family or the pedophile who preys on young children - in which the pain of shame is “the appropriate emotion … to feel.” While sometimes cruelly used to embarrass innocents for hegemonic reasons, shame is instrumental in stigmatizing behavioral differences that nearly everyone would agree are legitimately disgraceful.
Serious questions arise from Burgo’s article, however. What ultimately qualifies and differentiates the shame a pedophile feels and the shame a disabled person might feel? In determining what behavior is legitimately shameful, are culturally contingent norms ultimately helpful in assigning guilt? From where do any of us - in our various abnormalities - draw a lasting, fulfilling sense of self-worth? And, lastly, is there a purpose embedded in shame that’s more hopeful and productive than the prospect of a “well-functioning society?”
Is there a purpose embedded in shame that’s hopeful and productive?
No single article will adequately navigate a theology of shame, but during this cultural moment in particular - when the reign of the individual threatens to stifle the good of others and when the shaming tactics of the majority threaten to crush the individual - the conversation is sorely needed.
If shame is the emotional pain caused by guilt, unworthiness or disgrace, then we must do the hard work of asking ourselves what quality of culture best communicates three things: the sources of our shame; if and when our shame is an appropriate pain to feel; and whether or not there is a purpose for our shame. Under the authority of Christ, the church can provide a context in which shame might take a gracious, restorative shape, because we believe that Christ bore our shame on the cross and was resurrected so that we might be freed from our shame-ridden burdens. And Christ can restore us not only when we act in a legitimately shameful way that dishonors the Creator by violating His Creation, but also when we’ve been unjustly shamed by circumstances outside our control.
In other words, we need freedom from shame both as guilty sinners who are willing participants in shameful behavior and as unwilling victims of false shame, which is rooted in self-righteous judgment.
Such judgments are outside the scope of God’s creative-redemptive purposes, and as such, devour rather than heal. Of course, we know that the church has often perpetrated an abusive shaming, but we can also say that it has the resources necessary to hold itself accountable even in the way we seek to appropriately administer awareness of disgrace. This is because Christ the creator and redeemer supplies and restores our dignity.
Guided by this Christology, the church can be a community that meets shame with mercy and forgiveness, while also being the functional balm for those who, through some manner of abuse, have been burned by the lie that they are less than human. If Christ is Lord, then the church is in a unique position to condemn that which compromises human dignity, while also offering the hope to the shameful and the shamed that if we put our faith in Christ - who offers grace to the disgraced - there is now no condemnation, deserved or otherwise, which can overwhelm our souls. Without this hope, I fear the human situation is a crying shame.