Shame, Guilt, and Easter


I haven’t written much lately, and I have something to say about that.

Until last year, I didn’t do social media. I didn’t feel any need for it, and I didn’t understand what I would want to share with that many people. Still an academic at heart, I didn’t like to communicate by broadcast—I preferred to choose my words carefully and tailor them to my audience, in part to look smart and avoid embarrassment or shame. But then I started blogging and writing and I needed to broadcast, so I went onto Facebook and Twitter and developed more of a public presence. It has been good to write for more people, but as a result of going public, I have opened my life to insults, personal attacks, and nasty criticism. And I don’t like it.

I thought I had developed a thick skin. When I was a grad student and an assistant professor, I did my share of job talks and delivered my share of papers before skeptical audiences peppered with people hoping to look smart by taking me down a notch. But none of this ever touched me. Actually, I enjoyed the intellectual combat. The difference is, back then I was talking about history. My subjects were all long-dead. Nothing I said could conceivably be mistaken for a personal attack or threaten anyone’s most deeply held beliefs. And, most importantly, these events occurred face-to-face. And so no one attacked me personally. Sometimes they said things like, “I don’t think you are right about that,” but never “You are a liar/idiot/poser.” Now they do, and it turns out my skin isn’t so thick after all.

So if I am going to keep writing about current events, I need to develop a thicker skin. Clearly. More importantly, though, I need to reject shame.

When I am insulted, I feel shame, which isn’t the same thing as guilt. Guilt I know how to deal with. When I get insulted or criticized, I always look to see if I did something wrong. Did I make an uncharitable assumption? Did I stretch the truth? If so, I know what to do. I apologize, I make amends, and I go to confession. And I am healed.

Shame is different. Guilt says, “You did something wrong,” but shame says “There is something wrong with you.” When I get personally insulted online, I feel shame. I worry that I actually am shallow, judgmental, dishonest, or uncharitable. When I feel that way, I lose all desire to write. I think to myself, who am I to write, to have a voice at all? If I stay quiet, I can at least minimize the harm that my sinful self can do.

Shame is a far nastier beast than guilt. In his New York Times column, David Brooks recently argued that we are moving toward a shame culture, one in which moral life is about inclusion and exclusion rather than right or wrong. In a guilt culture, he explains, you know you are good or bad by your conscience, but in a shame culture, you know you are good or bad by what others say about you. In Brooks’ words, “In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.” A guilt culture allows us to love the sinner while hating the sin, but a shame culture doesn’t differentiate between action and actor. It judges by mocking, dehumanizing, and excluding.

The fact that we are moving toward a shame culture is bad news. But there is good news, good news that I am hereby laying hold of, good news that makes me long to write again and fills me with a holy courage.

In His infinite mercy and through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God has given us a way to put guilt behind us. But shame? God doesn’t give us a way to rid ourselves of shame. He simply tells us that we WILL NOT be put to shame. If we have died with Christ and live in Him, then, like Him, we can be spat upon, mocked, harassed, beaten, and derided, but nevertheless, we will not be put to shame. The suffering servant in Isaiah says, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Paul writes that anyone who believes in Christ will not be put to shame.

Shame is an illusion. It’s like being handed a bag of crap as a gift—you do not need to accept it and you shouldn’t accept it. It’s not yours. If you feel shame, then stop and think, is there anything here that points to something I have done wrong? Am I guilty of some sin? And, if so, apologize, make amends, take it to God in the confessional, and accept forgiveness. But shame? It is not for you. It is not yours. It cannot touch you.

Believe in the Resurrection. Our Lord’s shame was an illusion, but his Resurrection is real.

He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia, Alleluia!

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