Well-placed shame is not an easy gift to receive. But it is indeed a gift.
Few things are more harmful than the misplaced, abusive shaming of others — or the weighty, unjust self-shaming some people experience. Yet, when rightly applied and humbly received, shame can be constructive and healing.
Sadly, those who need to reject unfair, harmful shaming too often endure it — and those who could and should put a stop to it do not.
On the other hand, it is easy to dismiss the need for shame. “No, I didn’t,” or “No, I’m not,” we tell others as well as ourselves.
During our most recent Christmas vacation, I made a judging comment about a woman’s choice of beach attire. Our daughters quickly told me it was not my place to decide what she should wear based on my consideration of her body type.
I was shamed. I could have responded with a common deflection like, “but I was just joking,” or sought to justify my comment otherwise. But we all know those are just defensive moves.
Simply put: They were right. I was wrong.
My recalling and confessing to this well served application of shame still lingers and stings a bit. And I don’t want to let go of it until its work is fully done.
That is, until my sensitivity is enlarged enough to keep my tongue from uttering such comments again — and, more so, my mind stops thinking them.
The proper balancing of shame and mercy can help us avoid mismatched portions that do more harm than good. The Bible speaks to that balance.
“Because of God’s mercy, we have work to do,” some early followers of Jesus were told. “…We have given up doing secret and shameful things” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).
At this moment in time, however, I need the more-pointed confession reflected in a good line from singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton: “I know right where I went wrong … and I got nobody to blame but me.”
We underestimate the negative impact of quick defensiveness that keeps us from facing our failures and doing the hard work of needed change.
Defend and deflect are the modus operandi of choice today. Just check the comment stream of any writing in which someone’s racism, sexism, nationalism or other shortcoming is exposed.
The absence of shame — particularly among those with religious, political and social clout — is noted by the ease and comfort with which so many will lie, cheat and miscast blame onto the vulnerable. Being considered right or defending one’s so-called “rights,” even when dead wrong, is often preferred over truly getting it right.
Therefore, needed shame must first break through the wall of defensive reactions like: “I was kidding.” “I didn’t mean it.” “Race has nothing to do with it.” “Why are you so sensitive?” “What about…?”
Sound discernment and a good dose of humility allow for accepting shame when it is needed to make us into better persons — more aligned with the life and teachings of Jesus. But then, at the right time, to accept the grace offered so that shame does not linger beyond its usefulness.
“The world is not full of good and bad people; that is not what our scriptures teach us,” Jim Wallis once wrote in Sojourners magazine, challenging the NRA’s claim that the only response to bad people with guns is to have more good people with guns. The application is broader, however.
“We are, as human beings, both good and bad,” he continued. “This is not only true of humanity as a whole, but we as individuals have both good and bad in us.”
Having the capacity to do both good and bad is why we need a healthy experience with the gift of well-placed, constructive shame.
Many of us were steeped in a church tradition that emphasized a highly selective set of “sins” that we needed to confess after “getting under conviction.” We have rejected that guilt-laden approach to faith that tended to serve more manipulative purposes than to produce a positive change of heart and direction.
In doing so, however, we may have lost the value of shame as a needed shaping factor in our lives.
The Lenten journey seems like a good time to turn from so readily spouting, “Shame on you!” to introspectively admitting, “Shame on me.” Or, collectively, “Shame on us.”
Shame, in this positive way, is not a burden to weigh us down but a needed redirection from whatever attitude or expression is less reflective of the one with whom we are journeying.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.