Shame: Has It Returned or Have We Been Deluded by Pride?

Andy Crouch, in a recent Christianity Today article, announces the return of shame to western culture:

“From online bullying to Twitter takedowns, shame is becoming a dominant force in the West. Thankfully, the Bible is full of language about shame. It’s just that most Westerners don’t see it.”1

Social media provides the backdrop for a new intensified public/group notion of identity and all sorts of new ways of being exposed and shamed. What Crouch is pointing to is an understanding, usually associated with eastern cultures such as Japan, but which is central to a biblical notion of personhood. In the usual discussions of shame the cultural differences in apprehending God, human significance, and the nature of sin, are compared and contrasted. These discussions are valuable and inherently interesting but often do not go beyond the cultural comparisons and pointing out that the Bible, as Crouch notes, is full of language about shame. What I would argue is that a proper biblical understanding of shame does not simply point to a cultural difference but to an ontological difference in the make-up of human personhood. It is not just that the Bible addresses both guilt and shame and that different cultures can appreciate these two facets of Scripture. Shame as definitive of failed humanity, as opposed to guilt, gives us a very different picture of personhood. Focus on guilt may be something more than an interesting cultural difference when it comes to reading the Bible – it may be a screen which filters out the depth and true nature of the human problem and the revolutionary way Scripture addresses the holistic problem of human failure.

A Holistic or Partial Problem

One of the key differences between guilt and shame, noted in secular psychology, is that guilt indicates an outward, partial problem with limited inward implications. Guilt has to do with breaking a law and the need to make things right with regard to the law. If one is guilty of breaking a law a payment of restitution can be made and everything is fine. Shame, on the other hand, is holistic and pertains to ones very existence and personhood. The depersonalization and estrangement of shame, in the description of one of the patients of Leon Wurmser (in The Mask of Shame), “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.” Wurmser describes shame, with a direct appeal to Genesis 3, as the root negative emotion. Helen Lewis describes shame as the “unendurable emotion.” Humans cannot survive prolonged exposure to the condition of being shamed. They will tend to resort either to suicide or to murder, in her description, as prolonged shame demands an instinctive response to end the pain. To “die of shame” is not simply a colloquialism but describes a reality. Shame is the extreme human emotion which evokes the most extreme of responses.

Shame as the Experience of Death

The link between death and shame, only indicated in secular psychology, is clearly made in the Old Testament. God had pronounced in regard to the forbidden fruit, “The day that you eat of it you will die.” The result of the transgression is the experience of shame, which the Bible will link here and elsewhere with a living death. God’s presence, represented in the tree of life, is removed and they are turned over to the slow death resulting from His absence. To speak of it simply as a spiritual death, while certainly the case, may miss the fact that what happens is not some inward partial, non-physical event. The living death of shame becomes definitive of their personhood and directly impacts their life together. Shame compels them not merely to hide a portion of their bodies but involves hiding from God. The fallen human project can be described as working on a pride/shame axis. Pride is the project of fabricating a cover and controlling and warding off shame and death. Pride is linked directly to the notion that they are not subject to death (the “pride of life” – “you will not die”) in which it is presumed that they have life within themselves apart from God.

The Bible in a continuous line links death and shame. Death describes the reality and shame the experience of being exposed to that reality. 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.” Everlasting shame is equated with the final shame of death (Ps. 78:66). Idolatry is described as prostitution – as lusting after the nations and being “defiled with their idols” (Ezek. 23:29-30) and judgment an exposure or being made naked and ashamed. The shame of nakedness is the exposure of a mortal claiming to be immortal (like God). Every experience of shame exposes the inadequate foundation of the self apart from God, and this connection of shame to death explains why shame is the one emotion that is unendurable. It is literally the end of duration or the failure of self. The human psyche cannot endure the exposure to shame because it is an exposure to its own dissolution.

Pride as Shame or Death Denial Versus Death Acceptance in Following Christ

The destructive dynamic of the fallen self exists on a pride/shame axis in which the reality is denied and covered up through the pretense of pride. The problem is that the false nature of pride is continually threatened by the shame it hides. “Pride cometh then cometh shame.” Or, “Pride comes before a fall” (Proverbs 11:2). Is. 54 connects shame to the living death of a childless widow. She has no husband to propagate life and no hope of having a child, as she is barren. To be a barren, childless, widow is a living death/shame. Yet the promise is given, “You will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated” (Is. 54:4).

Escaping shame depends upon seeking refuge in God – as opposed to the false refuge of pride: “Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you” (Ps. 25:20). Being subject to shame or escaping shame describe the ultimate or final state. As Psalms 25:3 puts it, “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.” The theme of being brought to either the final shame of death or the resurrection of life is repeated in both Daniel and Revelation. In Revelation, this is once again connected with the shame of nakedness. The same passage speaks of an eye salve to remove a blindness of which, like the nakedness, the individual is in denial (Rev. 3:17-18). Those who are without the clothing provided by Christ (the white robes of righteousness) will experience an ultimate shameful exposure (Rev. 16:15).

The absence of God puts humans in pursuit of this lost presence and the axis of pride/shame can be understood as being grounded in absence. It is Cain who first articulates the unbearable nature of this lost presence. Cain describes the two-fold aspect of his experience, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land and I will be hidden from your presence… From your face, I must hide myself” (Gen. 4:13-14). He is driven from the presence of God but it is not simply God that withdraws; Cain of necessity must hide his face from God. His description of inhabiting this absence gets at the unendurable nature of shame – it is literally more than we can bear. It is simultaneously an unendurable personal experience but it is linked with the fact of his having murdered his brother and to the possibility that he will be murdered. The link with death, in all of its various manifestations (murder, revenge, unendurable suffering, etc.), is made clear within the first four chapters of Genesis. By the time Lamech comes along, revenge has become an art form which he celebrates in verse. Killing or being killed is the necessity which God’s absence gives rise to in the living death of shame. The Tower of Babel would reinstate presence by constituting itself a pure presence – a total presence – at once immutable and eternal and thus frozen and a-temporal. To become one with the One in enlightenment, ecstasy, or satori, likewise, describes the goal of searching out presence apart from God’s promise and revelation.

The fabrication of a cover (pride) is not a temporary measure undertaken only by the first pair, it is definitive of the human project. Towers, cities, religions, and really fine wearing apparel, owe their existence to the impetus of shame. According to Wurmser, “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.” Shame gives rise to the necessity of wearing masks and the human project might simply be understood as the effort of masking shame. Yukio Mishima gets at the holistic nature of the project in his novel, Confessions of a Mask. As indicated in the title and in his autobiographical work, the confession does not arise from the one behind the mask; rather his entire identity is vested in the mask. What becomes clear in the course of his life story is that even the pretense behind his death (to reinstate the Emperor and return to a prewar nationalistic pride) is only a mask aimed at enabling his ritual suicide (seppuku). The mask is all there is as what is being masked is ultimately absence and death.

The Game of Language as Filling in Absence

The human project of pursuing self-presence, which in Jacques Derrida’s description is all inclusive, is described by Derrida and Lacan (both following Freud) as a pursuit of presence carried out over the abyss of absence and the loss of shame. Sigmund Freud hits upon this realization in a literal fashion in observing his grandson. It was watching his grandson playing a hide-and-seek game (symbolizing the absence and presence of his mother) that led Freud to his early formulation of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive “o-o-o-o” (Freud and his daughter conclude the boy is saying “fort” (gone)). He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful ‘da’ (there). This, then, was the complete game – disappearance and return. As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated untiringly as a game in itself, though there was no doubt that the greater pleasure was attached to the second act. (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 15)

Freud concludes that the constant repetition of the game was “the child’s great cultural achievement”, the compensation for letting his mother go, in that he began to stage the disappearance and return of objects under his control. The game stages and repeats the disappearance of the love object and, as Freud explains in a footnote, the child at the same time had discovered how to make himself appear and disappear in a mirror (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 15). That Freud, and perhaps the boy, connects being “gone” with death is made clear in a footnote explaining the early death of the boy’s mother. “Now that she was really ‘gone’ (‘o-o-o’) the little boy showed no signs of grief” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 16). He had sent her away many times and so had prepared for her death and had even participated in it. Death is the ultimate un-pleasure that overwhelms and which repetition and play attempt to master. It is the final “fort” for which the game obscured and compensated for. The child’s game or his entry into language occurs as compensation for the absence of the mother. The spool can only symbolize absence and presence as these are both played out over a final or real absence. While the binary of presence and absence allows for the two opposing positions in turn, it is actually the silent absence of the mother that keeps the game running. From a theological perspective, it is the ultimate reality of the absence of God for which the game of empty human speech (and with speech the world of binaries and supposed dualisms making up the human project) would compensate.

Paul weaves together a picture of sin in which the organs of speech, due to taking up a lie, function as a grave and entrap and poison, leading to bloodshed and violence (3.10-18). Nothing or emptiness seem to have been taken up into the organs of speech, to become there a grave or a sarcophagus. Throughout the list the organs of speech deal in death: “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit” (3:13 quoting Ps. 5:9, NIV). David, in this Psalm, compares two kinds of speech, as they orient one, either to God’s presence or his absence. He arrives at an understanding definitive of shame, “Their inward part is destruction itself” (Ps 5:9). Paul’s picture of human subjectivity in Ro. 7 might be described as absence and destruction itself. The tripartite picture of the inner workings of the self (“I”, law, body of death) are a dynamic of destruction. The resolution pictured in Ro. 8 is a participation in the Trinity. The fellowship with the Father in the Son through the Spirit describes the final resolution of shame with full participation in the presence of God.

No Longer Ashamed

Paul announces the resolution to the problem of shame as specific to the purpose of the Gospel. In the opening statement of Romans (1.16-17) Paul pronounces his theme of “the righteousness of God,” echoing several Old Testament passages which call for God to make things right in the face of shame and death. Here is the pronouncement of the fulfillment of the Psalmists prayer, “In You, O LORD, I have taken refuge; Let me never be ashamed; In Your righteousness deliver me” (Ps. 31:1, NASB). In Paul’s words, he is “not ashamed” as the universal reign of death inaugurated with Adam and Eve’s shame is pronounced closed and replaced with the reign of life marked by faith in the gospel’s power to make things right (the righteousness of God revealed). According to Richard Hays, the themes of shame and righteousness are paired in the Old Testament passages Paul is echoing. The language of shame (aischynein and kataischynein) appears together in the lament Psalms with Paul’s terminology of righteousness, as it is the specific problem of shame and death that righteousness addresses.2 While Adam and Eve were “naked and not ashamed” (Gen. 2.25) prior to the entry of sin and death, Paul is not ashamed in the face of sin and death due to God’s righteousness. God’s faithfulness to his covenant promise (universal salvation or all things made right) is upheld in Christ who is accomplishing what the Old Testament people and prophets longed for. With his faith in the crucified one Paul could say with Isaiah, “I know that I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near” (Isa. 50:7-8). (The passage goes on to describe the fate of those who persecuted the Servant, “They will wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up” (Isa. 50:9). Where the Suffering Servant has entered into the very jaws of shame and death, he has not been put to shame, while his persecutors will be consumed by a final shame.)

Owning up to Shame

The price of not recognizing the key role of shame as a description of the human predicament is to fail to appreciate, I would claim, the holistic nature of salvation. Guilt and shame are not simply cultural alternatives from which we can pick and choose. A theory of atonement which takes guilt as primary will be satisfied with something on the order of a legalistic exchange between the Father and Son which leaves the lived reality of the human situation out of the picture. With shame at the center of understanding, the problem with which we are faced and its resolution will be on a different order. Shame as experience of a living death points to the intimate manner in which the death of Christ defeats one form of human subjectivity so as to bring about a recreated Subject. As long as shame is not directly understood and addressed, the danger is that it will continue to hold sway. Where shame rules the possibility for true koinonia and agape love are eliminated. As James McClendon has described it, “In genuine presence I am with another and she or he with me, and there is a Wholeness in 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.” Shame incapacitates our ability to be present for the other in love.

As Stephen Pattison pointed out in his book, Shame, the Church is paying a heavy toll in personal injury by not recognizing the key role of shame. Church worship and structure tends to continue to gear itself to covering up shame, which only increases the relentless shame experience of congregants. In Pattison’s survey of the theological literature on shame, far from realizing that this is a universal problem, the very nature of shame has caused theologians to portray it as the experience only of those who have severe emotional and mental affliction. To admit to the shame experience is to admit to levels of brokenness which simply do not accord with the health and wealth tenor of American Evangelicalism.

The danger in the recent discussion of shame is in imagining that we have hit upon a quaint artifact of the east which has to do with our situation only in some retrograde fashion. That is, our western notions of self serve to cover (with pride) the true nature of our failure. In this version of the Gospel, salvation is simply part of a western perspective, easily incorporated into nationalistic notions of self (in comparison to those group oriented, immature creatures of the east). The Gospel is reduced to supporting notions of Orientalism in which the east is seen as primitive, immature, and backward. Recent engagement with shame, as it appears in the west, has pictured it as something new, a “return,” with the decay of civilization. Instead of seeing shame as a problem of the Other (the precise problem Pattison found in the theological discussion of shame) it is time to own up to the problem and reassess our theology accordingly.

1 Andy Crouch, “The Return of Shame” in Christianity Today (March 10th, 2015). Thank you for sharing Jordan.

2 Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 36 – 7.


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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.

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