Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Forgotten Virtue of Shame

“You’re body-shaming me,” lectures the tubby, well-propagandized primary school girl, heading off her mother’s forlorn attempts to get her to order a salad instead of yet another side of large fries.

“Fat shaming is dangerous,” opine the editors of Psychology Today. Well, we can certainly concede that certain forms of it are impolite.

Wikipedia says the term “slut-shaming” is a derogatory expression used by feminists to “reclaim the word slut and empower women and girls to have agency over their own sexuality.” I’m not sure that’s world’s most helpful agenda, but there you are.

Out of Vogue

Almost everywhere we look these days, shame is seriously out of vogue. Once in a while that’s a good thing. There are times we may humiliate people for doing or saying things that are not their fault, and for which they ought not to be subjected to criticism. In a kinder, gentler society — and certainly among Christians — we need to think before we speak, and weigh our words before we inflict them on others.

That said, the eradication from the public square of shame over things that are genuinely and biblically shameful is a huge mistake for which we are going to pay a stiff price. “Reclaiming” the word slut is not going to make the world a better place for anyone. In the right situations, shame serves a useful purpose for both the individual and for society. We might call it a forgotten virtue.

Shame at Work

In the book of Numbers, Miriam’s public humiliation was perfectly appropriate to her conduct. “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days?” said the Lord. Yes indeed.

Ezra confessed the sin of his nation this way: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads.” He had the right spirit.

“When you mock, shall no one shame you?” asked Zophar rhetorically. He was on the wrong side of his argument with Job, but he was trying to get at something with which even Job would have agreed in principle: mockers deserve to be called out for their evil conduct. When scofflaws get to air their opinions with impunity, somebody is letting down the side.

The Bright Side of Public Disapproval

The New Testament speaks of more than a few behaviors which are legitimately shameful. The apostle Paul says the “sons of disobedience” do things of which it is shameful even to speak. That is shame in its most righteous aspect, discouraging conduct that needs to be discouraged.

Shame helps the sinner see his conduct as God sees it. His behavior seems perfectly reasonable to him, and he needs to make a serious mental adjustment. Left to our own devices, we are capable of rationalizing away all manner of misconduct. The disapproval of people we respect is a bracing tonic to those of us who are insufficiently attentive to our own failings of character, hurtful actions, and destructive omissions.

Shame is a preservative. For example, sloth is not a good quality. Paul tells Timothy to take note of a Christian who will not work for a living, and “have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” Some of Paul’s Roman readers had been engaged in things that lead to death, and of which, Paul says, “you are now ashamed.” Well and good. He also speaks of shunning a man “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Hypocrisy produces resentment, but righteousness often produces shame, and everyone is better for it.

Tell it to the ekklēsia...

A couple of days ago in this space I mulled over the Lord’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew 18 about the third step in dealing with fellow believers who had sinned against them: “tell it to the ekklēsia.” I believe translating ekklēsia as “church” in that passage is unfortunate and a bit misleading. Jesus was not talking about church discipline or excommunication. He was not even talking about taking someone before a religious tribunal in order to receive justice. Rather, he was talking about escalating a personal disagreement to those who have the discernment to be able to make an assessment about it and offer an opinion on one side or another. In Jewish society, that would be other believing Jews. Today, it would be our fellow believers, whether or not they are members of our own local congregation.

The result of making a private dispute public would inevitably be shame, and shame of a good sort. In the event that the person making the accusation had done so falsely, was mischaracterizing his brother’s actions, was making a mountain out of a molehill, or had failed to fulfill his own rights and obligations, it’s quite possible the shame would bounce back like the proverbial boomerang and land in his own yard. People would hear his case and point out its deficiencies so that his accusations could be retracted and an apology offered, which would be the best outcome for everyone. Alternatively, where the person accused was in the wrong and had become obdurate, the disapproval of his community might finally get his attention, making him feel obliged to do the right thing. Shame might do the job that patient reasoning and logic would not.

Applying Matthew 18

There is definitely a place to apply the Matthew 18 process — which, like 1 Corinthians 5 and other passages, makes use of what we might call the “shame principle” — among the people of God today. I don’t think the Lord gave these instructions only for Jews in the few years before Judaism was superseded by the Christian faith. Lovingly drawing the attention of sinners to their sin for the purpose of encouraging them to reject it is never a bad thing in any age. But we need to apply the principle correctly.

The Matthew situation is:
  1. Civil, not criminal. Individually or corporately, Christians have no jurisdiction over crimes, either to prosecute or excuse them (Catholic priests take note). Establishing criminal guilt requires a formal judicial procedure. Believers have no business weighing in with our opinions about legal guilt or innocence in the absence of either a clear confession or incontestable evidence.
  2. Personal. In Matthew, the brother’s sin is “against you” [singular], not against society, against God, against others, or even against self (as in the case of the glutton). We may certainly have concerns about sins of all kinds we observe in the lives of others, and there is no reason not to discuss that concern with a guilty party and every good reason to do so (“whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins”). However, it would be presumptuous to try to apply the escalating Matthew 18 procedure to offenses that have not been committed against us personally. They are outside its scope.
  3. Relatively minor. A fellow believer who bumps your car in the church parking lot and drives away without offering to pay for the damage deserves to be called out. A variant of the Matthew procedure may help with that. A fellow believer who broadsides you at an intersection because he is an out-of-control alcoholic on his regular lunchtime bender deserves to be read out. He needs the 1 Corinthians 5 treatment ... the full nine yards. There is a list of chronic behavior patterns in that chapter; things like greed, idolatry, reviling, and thievery. A personal offense that is obviously a symptom of a larger lifestyle issue is on another level. Making your own experience public may serve to bring that out.
  4. Limited in scope. As set out in the aforementioned post, the Matthew procedure is not the 1 Corinthians procedure. Both may eventually result in shaming or shunning (one hopes not), but the shunning in Matthew is not obligatory for either the witnesses or the ekklēsia. The “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” of verse 17 is singular, not plural. It’s the offended party who writes off the offender until he repents. My fellow believers may elect to pass some sort of personal judgment on the brother who has offended me, or they may not. That is up to them. I cannot enforce it or expect it, and I should not become bent out of shape if they do not read the evidence of my brother’s guilt the same way I do.
  5. Unofficial. “Telling it to the ekklēsia” in the Matthew 18 sense need not involve a formal complaint to the overseers of a local church (though there is no reason to exclude them as individual believers). There is no indication in Matthew that any kind of official response from the Jewish religious authorities was to be asked for or required. Rightly or wrongly, the accused brother in that situation had the option to reject the voice of the ekklēsia, which strongly suggests there had been no formal appeal to any authoritative body.
Shame as a Tool

When it comes from the right motives, shame is a legitimate tool in the hands of loving believers looking out for the best interests of their brothers and sisters in Christ. To live in a society without shame is to live in a society without a moral compass. (Curiously, despite its moral decrepitude, our current social order still embraces shaming, if only of those perceived to be intolerant of evil. The “compass” still appears to function, but its needle is pointing in the wrong direction.)

That understood, in making the facts of a personal grievance public within the circle of those equipped to weigh in with an opinion, we need to be extremely careful of several things: (i) that we have done everything possible to resolve the situation biblically first; (ii) that what we are claiming can be demonstrated beyond dispute; (iii) that we are telling our story in an honest and unmanipulative way; (iv) that we do not turn “telling it to the ekklēsia” into an occasion for gossip and other unprofitable talk; and (v) that someone for whom Christ died does not inadvertently become sport for the world and a convenient excuse to deride Christians generally (“Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”).

After all, that is precisely the reason believers don’t sue one another.

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