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Jun 23 2014
Certain shame can push us to repentance and our God of grace.

In the age of of cyber-bullying, we see deplorable instances of public shaming to rival Hester Prynne's scarlet letter. Yet, simultaneously, we are in the midst of what psychotherapist Joseph Burgo calls an "anti-shame zeitgeist." Just as it's become common to deride all who disagree with us with the epithet "haters," it's now popular to label those with any deeply held moral conviction as "shamers."

The en vogue phrase "slut-shaming," which is sometimes used to rightly discourage victim-blaming, is often wielded as a bludgeon to silence anyone who questions a woman's sexual choices. I first heard the phrase less than a year ago, when bloggers at New Wave Feminists were chastised as "slut-shamers" for their opposition to abortion.

Increasingly, we dismiss experiencing shame for any reason as a bad thing, something we shouldn't feel, something that's probably someone else's fault. From pop stars to college presidents, Burgo contends, the cultural voice is united: shame is the enemy, a "uniquely destructive force… to be resisted." Instead, we are encouraged toward pride and radical self-acceptance. But understanding shame in solely negative terms is reductionist and overly simplistic.

If we seek to smother any ember of shame or stamp out moral disagreement, will we douse our ability to experience true moral conviction and culpability? Perhaps at times, our experiences of shame are a natural, needed (if not inevitable) response to the reality of sin.

We need to allow our discussion of shame to be as complex and variegated as that of other emotions like anger, grief, or guilt. Some forms of shame are indeed distorted and pernicious. We experience false shame from manufactured standards of beauty and perfectionism or from being marginalized or abused by those in power. While false shame is routinely used to sell tooth-whitening products or shout down opponents on Twitter, it can be profoundly damaging and deeply destructive. I want to be clear: misplaced shame can be very, very hurtful. We need to hear cultural critiques that give voice to that reality. And we Christians need to be the first to admit that religious communities have misused shame as a weapon to control, judge, and silence people.

But I'd like to suggest that there is another kind of shame, akin to pain in our bodies, a natural indicator, a check engine light that signals that something is spiritually awry. This kind of shame—let's call it "ontological shame"—is inescapably part of what it means be human in a fallen world, as unavoidable as stomach aches, sadness, and boredom. And like physical pain, ignoring it or ceasing to experience it altogether poses a danger.

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