In response to Christianity Today’s big question – How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? – Amy Laura Hall shares some thoughts about the use of shame in addressing the rising tide of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Her comments could not be more timely, and though directed specifically towards Christians, they are part of a conversation that transcends any partisan divide, and as such, is applicable to all members of society.
Now one need not accept Ms. Hall’s curious history of Christianity’s use of shame (forgive me if I do not accept Margaret Sanger and an unnamed Methodist clergyman as representative) to acknowledge that well-meaning people throughout history have employed it. So rather than focus on her contention that Christians should be moving more towards welcoming unwed mothers and their children, and away from stigmatizing them – as I fail to see how this might be countercultural - I’d like to look at whether there is any legitimate place left for shame in modern moral world.
Certainly shame is on the decline. Our collective lack of moral confidence and fear of the scarlet letter H (hypocrisy) make it a very rare occurrence indeed for someone today to criticize the decisions made by others. And yet, out-of-wedlock pregnancy is one issue that transcends these concerns, and is widely accepted by all sides as problematic. In her encouragement to the church to seek out unwed mothers and serve them, Ms. Hall reminds us that real lives hang in the balance, and that it is incumbent upon us to partner with God to turn even regrettable human choices to good. This is no doubt sound advice, redemption being foundational to the Christian worldview. That said, it is hard to see how such a response helps to move us forward in the broader issue of minimizing future unwed pregnancies. At the heart of redemption is the acknowledgment of sin, and it is not entirely clear from the following quote that Ms. Hall regards this as a necessary step.
This does not mean that Christians cannot say it would have been preferable had this young woman not shared herself intimately with a boy…
And it is here where we begin to see the limitations of pure kindness; what may in fact be the subtle absence of actual care. Promoting the good is easy enough to get behind, but don’t we also have a duty to confront that which is wrong? Is it love for the person that keeps us from necessary correction, or is it more likely that we are avoiding an inconvenient and difficult task? Confrontation has become out of vogue, as so many of its practitioners are less than attractive. Yet shame has a place, even if its implementation proves to be confusing and difficult.
Perhaps it makes sense here to consider where things have gone wrong with our use of shame. For many, shame is viewed as a sort of glue that holds society together. It is the tool that helps it promote its morals (and enforce compliance) among its members. Shame is justified on the basis that society has the right to discourage individuals from causing it injury. I believe that it is out of this understanding that shame is most frequently abused. In this view, members of society ascribe to themselves victim status, which then grants them permission to cast off any sense of responsibility to help those in distress while bolstering their own sense of superiority by devaluing others.
The use of shame in such a scenario is obviously less than satisfying. But what would happen if we shifted our focus so that we were primarily concerned with the well-being of the individual? Natural law, despite its universality, is not immune to the corruptions of the flesh. And so, we know that we will be faced time and again with the question of how to help the individual who has heard the case for moral behavior but finds it difficult to resist temptation? I submit that it is here that shame has its proper place, as it is useful in reinforcing the cost of moral transgressions. For what is sin other than a fundamental lack of understanding of the real consequences of one’s actions? Relationships based on integrity demand that we recognize and account for our nature, that we hate the sin while retaining our sympathy for the sinner.
The words, ‘You should be ashamed of…’, far from being the utterance of prudes, may be among the greatest kindnesses that we can extend to one another. Shame, or guilt, is the critical sensation that we are given to help shape our character so that we may reach our full potential. It is not something to be avoided or stigmatized. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us – with all the grace that we possess – to work to ensure that it remains a healthy presence in our lives. Without it, life would be completely unlivable.