Regaining the Value of Shame

by Aug 8, 2007

In college I took a course on the early church. It was at a secular university, but it was taught by a great professor who was also a strong Christian. For my final paper, I wrote about baptism practices of the first century. Throughout the paper, I referred to the guilt felt by early believers. My professor drew a thick red line every time I used the word “guilt,” and replaced it with the word “shame.” Until that point, I never knew there was a difference.

So what is it? Guilt is an internal conviction that comes when we understand the depth of our sin. Shame is an external pressure that other people apply to make us understand the consequences of our sin on everyone around us.

I believe that God desires to use both shame and guilt in the process of making us holy. Sin is primarily between us and God (“Against you and you alone have I sinned,” David cried out to God in Psalm 51… after he had raped a woman and killed her husband), but followers of God are also part of a spiritual community that is affected in one way or another by our individual sin (which is why Paul commands us in Galatians 6 to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”).

In the early church, shame was a much stronger motivation than guilt. Today, in our increasingly individualistic and pluralistic world, it’s exactly the opposite. While shame is (to a small extent) still a part of local culture here in the islands, I believe there are millions, maybe billions of people in the world who have never felt serious shame in their lives.

thailand_sit.jpgI’m even more convinced of this after reading a Times article about how a police chief in Thailand is going to try using public shame to motivate deadbeat cops:

It is the pink armband of shame for wayward police officers, as cute as can be with a Hello Kitty face and a pair of linked hearts.

No matter how many ribbons for valor a Thai officer may wear, if he parks in the wrong place, or shows up late for work, or is seen dropping a bit of litter on the sidewalk, he can be ordered to wear the insignia.“Simple warnings no longer work,” said Pongpat Chayaphan, acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, who instituted the new humiliation this week.

“This new twist is expected to make them feel guilt and shame and prevent them from repeating the offense, no matter how minor,” he said. “Kitty is a cute icon for young girls. It’s not something macho police officers want covering their biceps.”

According to Google News, this story has been covered by 228 newspapers across the world in the last 24 hours. Why is it such big news that a few cops in Bangkok will be wearing little pink armbands? Because this type of public shame never happens in the Western world anymore.

Many of us read The Scarlet Letter in high school, so we’ve seen how public shame can go way too far. But on the other hand, so does the autonomous mindset that makes us believe our sins affect no one but ourselves. So does the relativistic mindset that makes us hesitant to point out shortcomings in anyone else.

As American Christians, we have a lot in common with the autonomous and apathetic Christians of Laodicea. Remember what Jesus said to them in Revelation 3:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen.

Ever have one of those dreams where you go to work naked and don’t realize it until people start laughing at you? That’s what Jesus is warning us about. We’re all spiritually naked in one area or another. And we’ll keep walking around naked until we open ourselves up to a little bit of shame by allowing a few other mature Christians to look into our lives and point out our state of undress.