Shame isn’t always a bad thing

Sep 27, 2016 by

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

My parents were pretty effective in correcting their nine children by using frequent verbal reprimands, even the occasional “Shem dich!” (Pennsylvania German equivalent of “Shame on you”). They mostly had the kind of relationship with us that made us want to stay on their good side and to enjoy their blessing and approval.

Today any use of shame to correct behavior tends to be seen as a Very Bad Thing, since shame, as opposed to guilt, is about being a failed or flawed person rather than about a basically good person engaging in unacceptable or inappropriate behavior. Shame is seen as diminishing people’s self-esteem, something to be avoided at all costs, especially in the case of children.

As a general rule, I support that. Let’s separate the person from the problem, then address the problem and not disgrace the person. Let’s not assume we always have to make others feel worse in order to help them behave better.

But are there times when feeling worse can motivate us to do better? Are there times when I need to recognize that I am not only violating a rule, but that I am being a jerk, insensitive to the needs and feelings of others?

Fortunately, the gospel offers abundant grace, forgiveness and transformative healing both for what we are and what we do. So we can pray both boldly and contritely as the ancient Hebrew leader Ezra did on behalf of himself and his people, “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6).

Sometimes that’s a matter of just facing the truth.

Then there is this insight from an Amazon review of professor Jennifer Jacquet’s recent book Is Shame Necessary? New Uses For An Old Tool:

In cultures that champion the individual, guilt is advertised as the cornerstone of conscience. But while guilt holds individuals to personal standards, it is powerless in the face of corrupt institutions. In recent years, we as consumers have sought to assuage our guilt about flawed social and environmental practices and policies by, for example, buying organic foods or fair-trade products. Unless nearly everyone participates, however, the impact of individual consumer consciousness is ineffective.


Is Shame Necessary? presents us with a trenchant case for public shaming as a nonviolent form of resistance that can challenge corporations and even governments to change policies and behaviors that are detrimental to the environment. Jennifer Jacquet argues that public shaming, when it has been retrofitted for the age of social media and aimed in the proper direction, can help compensate for the limitations of guilt in a globalized world. Jacquet leaves us with a new understanding of how public shame, when applied in the right way and at the right time, has the capacity to keep us from failing other species in life’s fabric and, ultimately, from failing ourselves.

I haven’t yet read the book, but she makes a good point. Maybe some serious shame is long overdue for realities about which we fail to feel sufficient guilt to motivate us to change:


• We have condoned the incarceration of more people than any country in the world, 2.3 million (China is a distant second with 1.6 million) with more men of color behind bars and on probation and parole than were slaves prior to the Civil War.

• We have been complicit in the spending of more of our tax dollars for military purposes than is spent by the next ten most armed nations in the world combined.

• We feel entitled to a life of comfort and convenience that is contributing to massive deforestation, depletion of our resources and the pollution and destruction of our environment for generations to come.

• We waste 40 percent of the food we produce and market in spite of millions who live on the brink of starvation every day.

• We profess to be pro-life while defending abortion on demand, capital punishment, massive bombing and drone strikes, and withholding help from the poor at home and abroad.

• We support a health care system that promotes corporate profit over meeting the needs of the underserved ill and aging among us.

What would you add to this shameful list?

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.

Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.