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.
Burgo points out that even within the current anti-shame zeitgeist, we still unanimously condemn certain behavior with resultant social shame—fathers who abandon their families and refuse to pay child support or, a more extreme example, those who sexually abuse children. As a broad society we don't want people to be proud or self-accepting of this behavior, so it remains stigmatized.
And although there can be intelligent disagreement about what beliefs, attitudes, and choices should and should not warrant shame, to begin that discussion, we have to stop understanding shame as merely a boogeyman to run from. And we cannot reject any moral stance that might cause another person to experience shame as, therefore, intrinsically wrong, oppressive, or untrue.
Some Christians try to mitigate shame by relaxing or ignoring biblical standards—there's no reason to feel shame since nothing is all that wrong. The theological term for this lax permissiveness is "antinomianism." Others turn to moralism and try to become spiritually perfect enough to avoid feeling shame. We work hard to keep our own sin managed and hidden while shaming others for theirs.
But the antidote to shame is neither relativistic self-esteem boosting or rigorous self-improvement. It is truthful, full-orbed grace. We have to own up to our shame, admit it, recognize the truth it tells about our rebellion against a holy God, and know that, in Christ, we are utterly loved, forgiven, and accepted.
In the Genesis story, when Adam and Eve first rebel against God, their instinctual, even primordial, response is shame. They don't simply experience guilt—the sense that they made a poor choice—they also recognize that that choice came from a corrupted self-orientation and self-obsession. They're humiliated. They hide. They realize that they're naked and grab the closest thing they can—some leaves—to cover up, a response that is tragic and ridiculous and so very human.
But when God pursues them, he doesn't tell them that they ought not be ashamed or recommend self-acceptance. There is a new order in the world, and, in it, shame is real. He doesn't minimize sin or excuse their shame. Nor does he tell them to begin a rigorous self-improvement plan, try harder, get themselves together, and make better leaf underwear. And he does not abandon them. Out of love, God takes it upon himself to deal with their shame. He clothes them. He restores their dignity. He begins his long work of redemption.
When we rebel against God, we feel shame. If we respond defensively, dishonestly, or by isolating ourselves, it can be destructive. But shame can serve as an indicator that we need to repent. The proper response to shame is to run to Christ to clothe us.
And grace is not just an invisible idea. It is made palpable in the community and practices of the church. This year, I've been part of a group at my church that practiced the discipline of confession. Each week, we told stories and secrets. We were honest and specific about our sin, the dark, embarrassing, unedited, selfish parts of us. It was hard. I cried a lot. And, at times, it was humiliating to show others these parts of me that I'd rather keep hidden.
The women in my group never made excuses for me. They never justified my sin or told me that it was understandable or not so bad. But they responded lovingly and gently. They prayed that I'd know I was entirely forgiven and accepted by God. They anointed my head with oil and prayed that God would free me from sin. They helped me sort out false shame and true conviction. They reminded me of the gospel and pronounced blessing. Each week, on Sunday, when I receive communion with these women, my co-confessors, in the pews around me, grace is made visible, fleshy, and real. They know me, both the shameful and beautiful parts of me, and, as a community, we feast together in a meal of redemption.
In her famous TED talk on shame and vulnerability, researcher Brené Brown claims that the remedies to shame are vulnerability, letting ourselves be fully seen and known, and the belief that we are worthy of love and belonging. The practice of confession takes our hand and walks us out of hiding. When we confess our sin, we acknowledge our nakedness and shame before God and his church and believe again that we are forgiven and clothed in Christ. As Christians, we can face the reality of shame because we are fully known by God and we belong to a people who Jesus made worthy and calls beloved.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She and her husband work with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and have two young daughters. She writes regularly for The Well, InterVarsity's online magazine for women, and was featured on The White Horse Inn. She's on Twitter at @Tish_H_Warren.