When we’ve done stuff we don’t want the world to see, we hide it away. That makes sense. But what can we do when there’s no where to hide any more?
I’m currently contributing a chapter to an academic book on the psychology of shame; it’s a secular book, but I’m getting to write about shame from a Christian perspective. My chapter is called “This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record”: Redeeming Shame in a World that Doesn’t Forget. What I’m looking at is that in the past, someone who had done something shameful could easily brush it off and start again. But now with the advent of the Internet and particularly the search engine, digging up the dirt on someone’s past is much, much easier. We can’t just hide; we need ways to integrate and overcome the shame.
I was reminded of this again last week by the story of Katie Hill, an American politician who was forced to resign after nude photos of her were released to the public. (It’s a little more complex than that, as she was also having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a staffer; but the nude photos certainly provided a tabloid titilliation factor.) Time Magazine has written a thoughtful piece about navigating the problems caused by what I call the “permanent memory”:
Since millennials live most of their lives online, it’s only natural that their sex lives have gone digital as well, and Hill was no exception. One 2015 study found that 82% of adults had sexted in the last year, mostly with their partners in a committed relationship. But all those sexual messages can be easily weaponized by disgruntled exes or abusers: a 2016 study from the journal Data & Society found that 1 in 25 Americans—roughly 10.4 million people—have either had their photos posted without their consent or else had someone threaten to do so. For younger women, that figure rose to 1 in 10…
But Hill’s premature departure from the Capitol also hints at a political peril that is heightened for digital natives like her. “I never claimed to be perfect,” she said in a teary video to supporters. “But I never thought my imperfection would be weaponized and used to try to destroy me.” And yet, the weaponization of imperfection is the defining threat for millennials in public life. So much more is documented for this generation, and therefore so much can be dug up. All of it—nudes, texts with old flames, old Halloween costumes, angry emails, tasteless college jokes—just waiting to be mined and distributed into the court of public opinion.Katie Hill Is the First Millennial Lawmaker to Resign Because of Nudes. She Won’t Be the Last
The phrase “the weaponization of imperfection” sends a chill down my spine. I’ve written that “I thank God every time I remember that I went to university before the days of social media”, and it’s true.
But in a way, that fact that we can no longer deal with shame by hiding it, denying it or trying to “start again” is actually extremely welcome. It actually forces us to face up to our past and integrate it into our life. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that I believe shame can only be overcome by new life in new community with new values, and I think the “permanent memory” confirms this. We don’t get any easy ways out any more.
One thing I have been reflecting on in the new chapter is the way Paul addresses his new communities. He describes them as “saints”, “called to be His holy people,” (1 Corinthians 1:2), “heirs of God” (Romans 8:17), “sons of God” (Galatians 3:26), “members of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19), and so on. He does this in full knowledge that many of them had stuff in their lives which were considered shameful by the standards of their time (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) and that they were considered socially inferior (1:26). I think he’s doing this to challenge them to see their lives according to God’s values and God’s perspective, not their own.
Yes, they had done shameful stuff. But that isn’t how God evaluates us. He doesn’t look at us on the basis of what we have done. He looks at us on the basis of what He has done: created us, loved us, redeemed us. I think this is so hard to get our heads around, but so vital – especially in the age of the permanent memory.