What Became of Shame?


“Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7).

Whatever else may be true, beloved, it is obvious that we are not sewing fig leaves together anymore. It’s all out there, on the record, in language you never heard in the Bible. The barriers of what is acceptable in public speech and personal conduct have been eroding for some time now, but under this administration they have all but collapsed. There is no point in arguing that this is so. The question is—How did we as a nation lose our sense of shame?

The answer is not as complicated as we might think. In fact most of us can recall the decline and fall of shame because we played a part in it—not a starring role, perhaps, but we were part of the mob scenes. I know I was there to swell the crowd when shame died. And because I am partly to blame for it, it is incumbent upon me to do some small thing to rebuild the fallen barriers.

Shame is a very basic, and one might say, a primitive emotion. The scriptures trace it all the way back to the Garden, where Adam and Even ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Immediately their eyes were opened, the Bible tells us, and they were confronted with the awful consequences of their disobedience. They felt shame, which is, simply put, the humiliating awareness that we have committed some terrible transgression of the rules.

Guilt is a different thing all together. Guilt is self-condemnation, a profound unease because of what we are, independent of any particular action. It is the deep-seated suspicion that we are by nature bad in ourselves. Shame on the other hand is the consciousness that we appear bad to others. It is a state of moral undress, the awareness we have been caught, judged and condemned for what we have done by another person, by the community, or by God.

Shame is measured by the transgression and the transgressor. Where the transgression is small the shame is—or should be—proportionate.  Where the transgression if terrible, shame can be overwhelming—except when the transgressor feels no shame. Then he or she will not scruple to disguise the shameful act with a lie. So in the story of the children of Adam and Eve, when Cain killed his brother Abel, at first he trusted that no one had seen him. So when the LORD asks him, “Where is Abel your brother?” he replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” But the LORD says, “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:9).

What have you done? Honestly admitting shame is the only remedy for it, honestly confessing the transgression, accepting forgiveness and resolving to do better. Shame can become twisted, cruel, and destructive, but it is not a bad thing in itself. It is in fact the foundation of conscience, which is simply the internalization of honest shame.

The other day, while the United States Senate narrowly voted—50 to 51–to begin debate on a repeal of major parts of the Affordable Care Act, protesters in the gallery chanted “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” and “Shame, shame, shame!” At least they had the right idea, but one cannot help but wonder what if anything the word “shame” means anymore in the public realm, things having been brought so low by brazen shamelessness of this administration and the paucity of honor among those who are supposed to serve us.

Because the opposite of shame is the pagan virtue of honor and its Judeo-Christian equivalent, righteousness. Righteousness and honor go hand in hand with modesty–not thinking too highly of yourself–and restraint–the inherent dignity of the person in victory and defeat. But in the Age of Trump does honor or righteousness, let alone modesty and restraint, retain any real value in the public realm when compared with money and power?

Oh, yes there are still examples of honor out there. John McCain comes to mind. But in his integrity, independence, and willingness to compromise he appears like a dinosaur on the floor of the Senate. And Jimmy Carter goes on modestly building Habitat for Humanity houses and teaching his Sunday school class. But the consensus of the Principalities and Powers seems to be the honor does not matter anymore than its opposite, shame.

So how did this come about? What became of shame?  The responsibility for its decline must be shaded as widely as possible.

On the one side liberal politicians and intellectuals and ordinary folks—like myself–with progressive ideas have for many years now made the proverb—“To understand all is to forgive all”—our motto. It was a big mistake and I confess it.  But for most of my lifetime the liberal establishment has excused violence and sexually irresponsibility as justified by circumstances or explicable because of economic influences. It isn’t. But when you cut people the slack they do not deserve, when you excuse the inexcusable, when you lower the barriers of what is acceptable to the place where everything is acceptable, you make yourself an enabler in a society where nothing is shameful.

Teaching shame—that wrong is wrong in the eyes of God and the community–is part of a moral upbringing. What we say and do have consequences in the real world. But when we give a pass to bad behavior as a result of a bad environment, when we justify what we should condemn and approve what we should disapprove the consequences will crowd in upon us.

We are not taking about forgiveness now. Forgiveness is another thing altogether. Divine grace does not make excuses for sin; it demands righteousness, or at least its pursuit and it presupposes shame and repentance.

Conservatives have until very lately been the bemoaners of moral laxness and the self-appointed champions of responsible behavior. Not anymore. The self-styled defenders of traditional values went for Trump in a big way, knowing full well that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for shameless coarseness and leprous morality. Everyone knew that from the get-go. And we got exactly what they wanted. And why? Partly because he wasn’t Hilary Clinton. Defeating her justified any means.

But it was more than that. Trump speaks to and for a deep, latent violence in America and out of a shadowy background of racism. His Fundamentalism of Money and Power speaks to other forms of Fundamentalism, evangelical and materialistic. And he is a bully, and bullying is the new correctness. Shame may be dead—or at least dying, but the same cannot be said for bullying. Tweet-shaming is being practiced everywhere—from high school to the Oval Office—and with the same aim in mind—destruction of the enemy. And the enemy is us, beloved.

So liberals and conservatives—both the “talking heads” and the “hoi polloi”—in their own ways share the responsibility for the new shamelessness and its nasty results. So is this the way it is going to be from now on? Or will it get worse in ways that we cannot even anticipate now? Well, beloved, that is in a small but real way up to you and me. We have to decide whether or not to call scurrilous language and antisocial behavior what it is. It is easy to condemn those in high places for their brazen shamelessness, but it is more difficult to acknowledge how we enable their bad behavior by excusing the inexcusable. It is easy to censure Donald Trump for his vulgarity, coarseness, and laziness, but it is harder for us to condemn the culture of excess, which he represents and in which each play our part.

The righteous life must be lived in the world among other people, which is what makes it so difficult. Some of them think as we do, others do not. In the end integrity is a lonely business. It takes courage and a degree of recklessness to pursue it because whatever you say and do in its pursuit will never please other people. But its reward is an awareness of having lived honorably, which in the end is the only thing worth having. So, beloved, we need to take those words from the hymn seriously:

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for our salvation be our glory evermore.

And may the Holy Spirit answer that prayer.



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