S omeone wrote to me the other day because they really weren’t convinced about what I was saying: that our Western society is incredibly sensitive to shame. They asked (and others have also asked me), “aren’t we now getting more and more shameless?” It’s a good question, because I think it helps us to understand some of our assumptions about shame.
Let’s take the example they used: politicians lie. This is nothing new, of course, but it seems like politicians are getting more shameless in their lies. What do we mean by that? When we call someone “shameless”, what we’re actually doing is making a judgement about what we think about their actions. Politicians lie and do not seem to feel ashamed of it, and I think they should. In a sense the “shameless” label is a means of social control – saying “Have you no shame?” is actually communicating “Why aren’t you ashamed of behavior that, in our society, you should be ashamed of?” But this is very different from saying that someone is not motivated by shame at all.
Perhaps a better way around is to ask: if someone isn’t ashamed of what I think they should be ashamed of, what are they ashamed of? What is it that they cannot bear to be exposed to the world? I can think of a very prominent politician in the US right now who is certainly not ashamed of lying or sex scandals or anything else that might embarrass someone like me. It’s tempting to think he therefore has no shame. But I would say that he is almost entirely driven by shame in what he does.
What someone like Donald Trump (there, I said it) fears most is appearing weak or being dominated by others, so he counters that by projecting an image of alpha-male strength and dominance over others. He projects an image of wealth and prosperity, and so has gone to unprecedented lengths, even suing Congress, to keep the public from knowing his true financial position. So shame is still there, it just isn’t our shame. Lying isn’t shameful: being disrespected is shameful; not being a billionaire is shameful. Indeed, this need to create and maintain images and appearances, and then being driven by the fear of those images being exposed, is an obvious indicator of how big a deal shame really is.
So I think we can learn two things from this. First: no, we’re not a shameless society. We’re just a society where different people are ashamed of different things. Second, though: We can’t expect everyone to have the same emotional response to their behaviour, especially if we are trying to impose our external standards on them. And this is a Gospel challenge, because it means that we can’t assume that everyone is going to feel guilty when they do something that we ourselves would identify as sin – something you will learn very quickly if you try sharing the Gospel in many parts of the world!
In fact, this is why we need to take shame seriously in our telling of the Gospel: because underneath everything, it is something that people can relate to, even if they don’t share our sense of right and wrong. What seems like shamelessness can actually point us towards a need for a new way to share Jesus with others.