Dealing with Shame

Anthropologists say there are three kind of cultures. It’s a crude heuristic but it conveys something that’s true.

There are guilt cultures, where social order is maintained by reinforcing guilt for condemned behaviours. People are concerned with right and wrong action. Laws and punishment are the usual social mechanisms for enforcing order. Broadly speaking this describes cultures we might call ‘western’ that have been the most deeply influenced by Christendom.

There are fear cultures, where social order is maintained by those who have power controlling others. People are more concerned with the reactions of powerful forces, the question is “will someone or something hurt me if I do this?” Broadly speaking this describes cultures in the global south.

There are shame cultures, where social order is maintained by reinforcing personal shame and practising ostracism. The big questions would be “will this make me feel shame” as opposed to guilt, or “how will others look at me after this action.” There are honourable and shameful actions, but therefore there are also honourable and shameful people. Broadly speaking this describes cultures in the Middle East and Asia.

While any broad tool will have many flaws, if you’ll accept the premise for a moment, I’d like to suggest that many of our online spaces, if not our broader culture, are shifting in how they comprehend sin—or ‘what is beyond the pale’ if you will. They increasingly look like shame cultures.

The clue, I think, is that it’s very difficult to be uncancelled, whoever cancelled you.

Cancel culture

Whatever we might think cancel culture is, we can all agree that it’s bad, and that it’s only other people that do it. Have you noticed that phenomenon? After an initial free-for-all, online spaces are developing newer self-policing cultures that tend to use ‘cancelling’ as a sanction, which may simply mean someone’s name is mud, or it may mean that their ability to feed themselves is forcibly removed by a mob of trolls.

It is becoming de rigueur following Tom Holland’s work in Dominion to point out that those who are cancelled are treated as heretics, but that the Christian underpinnings of many of our subcultures melt away when we consider atonement: there’s no way back. We can’t be forgiven for what we’ve done in the past unless we loudly declare the reigning orthodoxy. Even then we will be treated with suspicion. This seems to play out whether we’re talking about offending the progressive sensibilities that rule the cultural power centres of the West, or whether we’re talking about offending the authoritarian sensibilities of the People’s Republic of China.

Why is that? Why can’t we forgive? There are two sorts of answers to this. Firstly, a psychological one that explores what forgiveness requires of us, which boils down to needing to first be forgiven. Secondly, a cultural one that explores why we don’t have an impulse to forgive even if we cannot. It’s this second one I’d like to briefly explore.

The online mob—which if you’re astute you’ll notice can exist on any political ‘side’—doesn’t tend to want to forgive. Why? Because the problem isn’t that these people are guilty, it’s that they’re shameful. They’re dirty. They smell of something that greatly offends our sensibilities.

We have no way of getting them clean. Shame is the opposite of honour, so we need re-honouring. We have no cultural ways of doing that.

Christian atonement theology has the depth to deal with each of these axes of sin, but in this specific instance we don’t want to forgive because forgiveness doesn’t seem to fix it. They’re still shameful people and something within in us howls at the need to get them out of our sight. Most likely it’s our own shame baying at the moon.

The cross

The cross resolves our guilt by giving us a verdict of ‘not-guilty’, which is given by justifying us: changing our status to that of the divine Son. “For our sake he who knew no sin became sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5).

The cross resolves our fear by defeating the powers. Jesus victory is declared in his apparent loss and then exaltation to the right hand of the Father. Theologians call this Christus Victor because they can’t resist a bit of Latin. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2).

How then does the cross resolve our shame? By washing us clean, by expiating us, which we both act out and receive in Baptism. When blood and water flowed from Jesus side (John 19) to declare him the new Eden (with its four rivers), the new rock in the wilderness, Ezekiel’s glorified Temple, and to fill the seventh water jar for his bride, we also see our cleansing. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3).

But we don’t talk a whole lot about this third aspect in our churches. Conversative Evangelical churches are very solid on guilt, forgiveness, justification, and propitiation. Long may they continue to be! Charismatic churches do well at speaking about the cross as victory and the defeat of the powers and principalities, the Adversary, and his foul legions. Long may they continue to do so!

I’m not sure that any of us talk a lot about cleansing and expiation though. Perhaps we don’t preach Leviticus enough. We certainly lack the moral taste buds to find it easy to speak of sanctity and holiness, of being ritually clean and unclean. I often pair justification with victory in short descriptions of the cross in my preaching. I, even if indirectly, address guilt and fear all the time. But do I address shame? I wonder.

If our culture is shifting—even if only slightly—we should preach the fullness of the cross. There is more to the cross than these three axes, but there certainly isn’t less to it.

Friends, if you trust Jesus you are cleansed. Washed with the water and the word. (Ephesians 5). Remember your Baptism. It says you joined a new family, a new humanity, took up a new identity. It says you are forever shameless, forever holy, forever honourable, before the face of God.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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