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Monday, February 23, 2015

The Problem of Shame

The powerful work of Brene Brown highlights the implications of shame in our lives from the perspective of our social and psychological health. Brene and I believe it also has profound implications for our spirituality, and it's the spiritual implications of shame that I would like to examine in this post. First, though, a definition that distinguishes between unhealthy shame and healthy guilt.

Suppose that we make a mistake at work. Shame says, "I am such an idiot, I can't do anything right. I can't believe I'm such a moron." On the other hand, guilt says, "wow, I really screwed that up." In other words, guilt focuses on our behavior being inadequate or in error while shame says that we ourselves, our very essence, is inadequate. The distinction should be obvious because if our behavior is lacking then we can change our behavior, but if our person is lacking we are stuck. Of course, we can try to change a person but it tends to take many years of therapy with no guarantee of effective change.

Can you see how religion in the West has added to our shame? Tying salvation, which at its heart is a question of worthiness, to our behavior blurs the distinction between guilt and shame and guess which pile it all falls into? Of course, it falls into shame because if I am not qualified for salvation, if I am damned for all eternity it means that God doesn't love me and questions of whether or not we are lovable are always questions of shame. When we hear either people or deities say, "you aren't enough, you aren't adequate, you are less than okay and so you cannot come into our little eternal club," our shame level takes off as if it had been shot out of a cannon.

Why would religion want to broker shame? Religion wants to dealing shame because there is no better way to control people's behavior than through shame. Throughout the centuries, religion has not been in the business of seeing people reach their full potential. Rather, religion has been in the thought and behavior control business and that is precisely why we see religion in decline today. It comes to us like an abusive parent saying in effect, "I know that I've beaten you every week for all these years, but I really love you and want what's best for you so want to come home?" At least many of us have managed to generate enough self-love so that offer isn't especially attractive.

Eastern religions tends to do better in that they characterize behavior as either skillful or unskillful. In this way they make an effective distinction between healthy guilt and unhealthy shame. If I can come to perceive my own errors as questions of unskillful behavior rather than as a problem with my being, I can begin to move from an unhealthy place to a healthier place. I have to confess, however, that I'm not in a place yet where I can see all behavior is falling into either skillful or unskillful categories. I must admit that I still see some behaviors as evil. When an adult molests a child, I don't believe that calling it unskillful is strong and. When a terrorist sets off a suicide bomb, I believe it goes beyond the realm of what I am comfortable calling unskillful behavior. Perhaps this struggle is the vestigal remnant of my Christian upbringing, and one day I will come to see even the most vile, despicable act is simply a matter of less than skillful behavior. It could be that such behaviors have at their root a long history of the person being shamed. Whatever the case, I'm simply not ready to say that the people who flew those planes into the twin towers at the World Trade Center were simply demonstrating unskillful behavior.

My hesitations and qualifications aside, there can be little doubt that we need to move from a culture of shame to being a culture where healthy guilt is our response to mistakes. We need to stop taking the easy way out in our parenting, refuse to use shame in rearing our children, and instead take the longer but healthier route of modifying their behavior by addressing that behavior rather than shaming their person. Our spiritual and religious institutions must also move from a culture of shame into a culture of separating a person from their behavior. We simply must stop using salvation language that tries to tell us that some of us are okay and always will be while others are not okay and never will be. This will require all of us to invest more effort into our relationships with all other people and relate to them as the equals they are, rather than some sort of inferior being that we can manipulate and bully. I believe if we do this the effect will ripple throughout our culture and offer the best majority of people the self-confidence they need to reach their full potential as the beautiful human beings they always have been!


  1. There is some great stuff here around Shame and I agree with most of it.
    I agree that sometimes Christianity does tie people up with Guilt and Shame and I have experienced this myself growing up in a Christian home.
    But this is not the message of the Bible. It does not say some of us are ok and some of us are not. It actually says that "all have sinned and fall short." None are better than anyone else and we all slip up and get into shame and guilt sometimes?
    If the Bible stopped there then we certainly would be stuffed but it doesnt.
    The whole message of the Bible is aimed at one major incident where God sent His own Son to die naked on a cross to take away our shame and sin.Wow! All any of us have to do is receive the free gift He is offering us; freedom from sin and shame. Good News!

    1. Graham, you wonderfully summarize the position of atonement theology - and I completely disagree with atonement theology, which views God as a kind of cosmic debt collector who is trapped by the rules God created and the only way out is sacrificing Jesus, the Son of God. That theology posits a God who is rather short sighted at best, apparently having not seen that humanity couldn't keep the Law, and who is cruel and despotic at worst. If such a God were a human being, God would be imprisoned for life, but some sections of Christianity would have us believe Jesus death was a kind of transaction, a payment to a creditor to free us all. I'm quite simply not an atonement theologian.

      I also disagree that the idea that we "have all sinned and fall short" is Good News. It is a message of intrinsic brokenness, the idea that (in the traditional view of creation) God makes junk, and what could communicate shame more than that?

      Instead I see Jesus as reconciling us to God (and so does the Bible), a reconciliation that was needed because, among other reasons, we are so convinced of our own guilt that we needed to be shown it was simply not true. Do we make mistakes? Absolutely. Do those mistakes condemn us? Absolutely not, nor do we need to continue running back to churches and their designated authorities to ensure we are safe.

  2. Thank you for your gracious response.
    all i wanted to put across is that there are many of us Christians who do not feel that we are better than anyone else or want to control others.
    It is obvious that we will not agree on much! so i will stop here and wish you all the best!
    Thanks again