Are Christians and Christianity Shameless?

I suppose there are easier ways to make progress in theology, but it took me some twenty years in Japan to recognize the inadequacy of a theology focused on guilt (a concept all but lacking in Japan).  There is no equivalent for the concept of “sin” in Japanese, where sin has to do with a guilt plagued conscience.  There is crime (tsumi – used to translate “sin”) and shame but these both have to do with a serious corporate transgression. Sin and guilt, as we have conceived them in the west, do not get at the root of Japanese self-identity – which is group oriented and corporate.  Where the group serves as the ground of identity, shame and not guilt, best describes the experience of a failed identity.  The question is if there are actually two such very different modes of doing identity; one which takes account of relational reality and one in which there is a non-relational essence at the center of personhood?  Or is one of these simply a mistaken understanding of the root human condition?

Ruth Benedict’s postwar study of Japan, in its division of eastern/shame and western/guilt cultures, succeeds in getting at broad differences between east and west in outward behavior and psychology. However, after several years of being back in the United States, having spent much of my adult life in Japan, it appears it is the western side of the equation that does not ring true.  Her characterization holds true regarding Japan, in that shame is an instrument of coercion openly used to control and manipulate.  The group oriented nature of identity, the heightened consciousness of outward presentation of the self (tatemae), and the idea of a hidden self (honne), gets at the clear demarcation between the inward and outward worlds which necessarily arise where shame is the controlling factor.  But is shame and its relational ontology absent in a western context or is it in fact repressed?

The reality of shame, which is openly manipulated and dealt with in Japan, is often not factored in, either culturally or theologically, in the United States. As Stephen Pattison pointed out in his book, Shame, the Church is paying a heavy toll in personal injury by not recognizing the role of shame.  In addition, secular psychoanalysis is beginning to recognize that the malaise of western society is very much attached to the unacknowledged problem of shame. Shame, as described in recent psychoanalytic literature and in Scripture, is more than an emotion or feeling on the order of guilt.  It is a physiological, emotional, psychological response that touches on our very existence. It is inclusive of our relationship to others, to ourselves, and to God – which is to say that it is an ontological reality concerned with our being.  Shame touches on the reality of who we are because who we are is necessarily relational!

Psychoanalysts have been the first to recognize that the near exclusive focus on guilt and the relative neglect of shame has meant that the reality of an array of experiences and emotions (mortification, an inherent sense of being flawed, unremitting despair, a suffocating lack of being, envy, rage) has not been accounted for or dealt with.  This is partly the result of notions that the ego, in Freudian psychology (at least in the American context) and in the predominant “ego psychology” of the west, is generally presumed to be the irreducible core of the self.  In revisionist readings of Freud, primarily through recognition of the implication of the death drive (as worked out by Jacques Lacan) the possibility has begun to be explored that shame is a more primary reality.  As its name implies, the “death drive,” as it is directly implicated in the dissolution of the ego in shame, potentially gives rise to the worst forms of sadism, masochism, and human evil.

Leon Wurmser, is among the earliest of psychoanalytic practitioners, to recognize that shame creates a false consciousness, or what he calls a quasi-reality, aimed at blocking out the possibility of shame. “To see and to be seen have to be ‘blocked out’ as too dangerous, drained of its lifeblood, so to speak, made into a strange quasi reality” (The Mask of Shame).  The process is one of depersonalization and estrangement from self and others. In the description of one patient it has “the feeling of lacking, namely the experience of being not enough one and the same individual, of being not alive enough, of being not real enough.” As Gershen Kaufman describes it, “Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within.”

Helen Lewis, who along with Wurmser has been key in recognizing the primary role of shame, calls shame “the unendurable emotion.”  Prolonged exposure to shame gives rise to either murder or suicide.  One literally cannot endure shame over a prolonged period.  As Cain cries out in regard to his own shame experience, “(It) is more than I can bear.” Shame induces the first couple to hide the body, to hide from one another and to hide from God – in Cain it becomes murderous rage.  As Merleau-Ponty puts it, here we encounter the embodied nature of sin. Several of the psychoanalytic researchers have noticed the anecdotal confirmation which Scripture seems to provide for their encounter with shame in their patients.

The experience and word group, more than twelve Hebrew and a half-dozen Greek words, describing this root negative experience is linked to death itself. This painful emotion of misery and reproach culminates in the complete dissolution of the self in the grave. The Bible, in a continuous line, links death and shame, with death describing the reality and shame the experience of being exposed to that reality.  It is only in the presence of God that this reality can be reversed: “No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame, they will be put to shame who are treacherous and without excuse” (Ps. 25:3). Escaping shame depends upon seeking refuge in God – as opposed to the false refuge of pride or self: “Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you” (Ps. 25:20). Psalms 53:5 describes the progress of death as being “overwhelmed with dread, where there was nothing to dread” to a final shattering of the bones, for God “put them to shame.”

Theologians, such as James McClendon, have recognized that shame, more than guilt, gets at the holistic nature of sin as described throughout Scripture.  McClendon describes shame, along with Wurmser and Lewis, as the sense of “lost presence.”  “In genuine presence, I am with another and she or he with me, and there is a Wholeness in the shared act or fact of our being there. But shame is a failed Wholeness. Thus, face to face with one another, but ashamed, we sense a loss of presence.” The presence that is lost in the fall, witnessed in the shame of Adam and Eve, is not only the presence of God but human presence – the capacity of being present for or loving another.

In Scripture the history of murder, beginning with Cain and followed by Lamech, is directly connected to shame.  Lamech justifies his right to revenge 70 times 7 –  representative of the same infinite exponential Jesus invokes in forgiving.  A young man has wounded him – perhaps he has wounded his pride – and Lamech waxes eloquent in his poetic description of his murder.  Lamech is at the head of the generation of Noah, psychopathic killers – all.  Here it is no longer shame that is controlling factory – they are the shameless generation. They have given themselves over to the evil of death drive and presume to possess infinite righteous anger.

The danger is, that in the turn from full recognition of shame and the focus upon guilt, Christianity becomes an enabling factor in shamelessness.  While I have encountered an array of various forms of evil in both Japan and the United States, shameless behavior seems peculiarly potent in this culture. The constraints of shame, as I experienced it in Japan, had a real-world impact on expressions of violence and sociopathic behavior.  As Jean-Paul Sartre has described it there is a heightened consciousness in the presence of shame: “It is shame which reveals to me the Other’s look and myself at the end of that look.” As Sartre well understood, in feeling ashamed we feel objectified and exposed as inherently flawed or defective before the gaze of a viewing, judging other. The problem is that where this social moral gauge is subverted and where there is no shame, shamelessness will result.

The theological capital invested in legal/guilt notions of atonement (penal substitution, divine satisfaction) has meant not only that real-world evil has gone unchallenged by many Christians,[1] but that the experiential gauge of evil (shame) has been disengaged.  Guilt as the focus of the human problem, in both theology and experience, speaks of a partial problem which can be resolved legally and which seems to accommodate ongoing participation in evil. Experientially, guilt is something that can be negotiated, dealt with, and resolved by satisfying whatever law or authority has been violated.  The focus on guilt does not presume, as either the definition of the problem or the solution, to identify and root out evil.  Is the end result that witnessed in the shameless behavior characterizing many forms of the faith? Nazi Christians, white supremacist Christians, KKK Christians, or just the mean and nasty garden variety of evil Christians, seem to embody a compounded form of evil where there literally is no shame.


[1] As I argued in my previous blog

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.