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Shame – an Indication of our need for Grace

Adam Serwer and Megan McArdle disagree over the benefits of shame in society. Serwer believes that shame is detrimental and McArdle argues that it has the positive effect of producing social cohesion.

Adam Serwer, who blogs for The American Prospect writes that the benefits of shame in society have been overestimated by conservatives. “Shame,” writes Serwer, “provokes response in the form of impulse, not long term planning. A person who is ashamed isn't going to think, “I'd better get a degree” or “I'd better get married,” they're going to think in the short term about what they can do to rectify their sense of self worth.”

Megan McArdle, who writes a blog for The Atlantic responds by asking, “Without shame, what are you left with?” she argues that without shame there is no way to “regulate behavior within the social network short of brute force or bribery.”

For both McArdle and Serwer, shame is seen in pragmatic terms, whether negatively, in the case of Serwer, or positively, as is the case with McArdle. Serwer argues that shame produces negative results—low self esteem and a reluctance to make positive changes—whilst Mcardle argues that shame is vital to maintain a communities cohesiveness. In her view, shame is society's way of warning people about bad decisions which have a negative impact on the community. However, do we really have any choice as to whether to include shame in society? I am sure we have all wished to get rid of it from time to time, especially when we are the one feeling ashamed, but shame seems to linger anyway. If it is not possible to remove shame, then perhaps it is innate to the human experience, and if so, we have to ask how it got there.

For McArdle, the question is: On what basis should we decide which actions are deserving of shame and which actions are not. If shame is something positive for controlling behavior, who decides what is good or bad behavior? McArdle confesses to living with her boyfriend and says that she feels no shame. However, she lists several activities for which she approves of varying degrees of shame, “Like having a baby you know you can't care for, or paying yourself a lavish bonus out of taxpayer provided funds to bail out your crappy insolvent bank.” Does her opinion for what deserves shame trump the opinion of those who believe it is a sin to have sex outside of marriage? If actions warranting shame are relative to the individual or to cultural communities, then there would be no justification for arguing that others ought to agree with you.

I want to suggest that shame both indicates that something has gone wrong, and that something needs to be done about it. If shame—whether imposed on you by others or not—is an indication of a wrong, then there must be such a thing as a wrong. Therefore, shame acts to indicate that a moral law has been breached. Moral law is not relative to society—otherwise we could eradicate it—it is the inner voice of conscience. The feeling of shame indicates something more than a breach of societal norms, it indicates the falling short of what we should be – standard set for us by something or someone outside of us.

Shame also indicates our need to put something right. Whether you are ashamed because of what has been done to you—as is the case with rape victims—or because of something you have done, shame tells us that action needs to be taken. I want to suggest that the action which is needed is repentance, atonement and forgiveness. When shame is experienced it indicates the need for these things. We need them in our relationships with each other. For example, we make atonement for our wrongdoing by paying a certain price to society. We may also need to forgive someone for hurting us. However, shame also points to our need to make amends with God. We need something to make a reparation or payment for our wrongdoing to God. We also need to be forgiven by him and be reconciled to him. In this case we cannot meet the price of our offense and so need someone to pay it for us. The good news is that God provides the payment in Jesus Christ and on that basis forgives us. We are ultimately reconciled through an act of God. The son of God pays the price we deserve by dying a criminal's death on the cross. He bares the ultimate shame and humiliation so we don't have too. Because of Christ's atonement, we can trust in him and have no shame before God. Paul quotes Isaiah when he says “As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." (Rom 10:11)

McArdle, Megan. "For Shame." Weblog post. 17 Feb. 2009. 23 Feb. 2009 .


Anonymous said…
Blimey. Cheery stuff!