I sometimes wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far. People are too quick to reduce societies to guilt- or shame-cultures, on the convenient premise that both concepts are relative and subjective. Thus we can evolve beyond such antediluvian notions. However, while it’s true that in western Protestantism we spend a great deal of time facing up to the realities of guilt (and rightly so, where it is genuine rather than subjective or self-imagined), what of shame? We can’t hide behind not being a shame-culture.

I was very struck by this very helpful distinction made by Glynn Harrison in The Big Ego Trip (reviewed here):

As guilt is the emotion linked to specific wrongs I commit, shame is the emotion that springs from being the kind of person that does that sort of thing. Shame, indeed, is the emotion of inferiority.

But shame isn’t always linked to moral culpability and guilt. There were many other moments of shame in my childhood (as there probably were in yours) that had nothing to do with wrongdoing. (p141)

It’s vital to grasp that. Shame isn’t always linked to guilt. But it sometimes, perhaps often, is. I am the kind of person who does these things. But it’s liberating to be told that shame also results from being the kind of person to whom these things are done, against my will or without desert. I’m embarrassed, I’m awkward, I’m weak or frail.

Recognising both facets of this will be intensely painful. The inferiority that results is crippling. The instinctive response is to run and hide. Whereas genuine guilt provokes angst-ridden fears that I am beyond forgiveness and mercy, shame makes me feel unacceptable andunlovable.

I have had moments of painful self-recognition in the last 10 days. It is galling to admit it. But I am ashamed. Of much about myself and my life. It’s not very alpha male to admit shame, of course. But then I don’t think anyone ever confused me for one of those. The timing of this I suppose is fortuitous: the close of Lent and the arrival of Good Friday. For one astonishing fact of this day is that the Incarnate one himself bore not only our true guilt, but also our deepest shame. For crucifixion was regarded as the most shameful way to die.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

I can’t tell you how much the relief of this means to me. Not only does he know what such shame is like, but through what he did, I can know that despite my shame, I am accepted and loved. My shame has been crucified.

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;
To His feet your tribute bring.
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Who like me His praise should sing:
Praise Him, praise Him,
Praise the everlasting King.

Shame by Libertinus Yomango (Wiki Commons)
Shame by Libertinus Yomango (Wiki Commons)
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