Shame, Shame

Michael Metzger

Owing largely to the rise of Internet, social media “shaming” is on the rise. Publicly shaming someone can be mean and merciless. But it can also be redemptive.

It’s no surprise that dark corners of the Internet offer digital anonymity. That can bring out the worst in people. It has also brought about the reemergence of social media “shaming.” Jon Ronson describes it in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Purveyors of porn, plagiarism, or inappropriate tweets and videos are exposed for public humiliation.

Public shaming is not a recent phenomenon, however. In the Old Testament, Israel is God’s bride (Jer. 3:14). But she is not faithful. She’s an adulteress. And she didn’t blush about her adultery (6:15). So God publicly shamed the nation, saying “you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame” (3:3).

Isaiah shamed Judah as an adulterous wife (Isa. 42). Ezekiel wanted Judah to “be ashamed of all you have done” (Ez. 16: 54, 58-63). The Apostle Paul publicly shamed the Corinthian church. It was spiritually adulterous. “I say this to put you to shame… cease to sin. I speak thus in order to move you to shame” (1 Cor. 6:5; 15:34).

Public shaming continued through colonial days. But it began to be viewed as cruel and unusual punishment in the mid-nineteenth century. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, made a heroine out of Hester Prynne, an adulterous woman. Shaming became cruel. What Prynne did in her private life was her business. The Scarlet A, pinned to her breast, was a badge of autonomy. Yet she also conceded that her badge “is teaching me lessons whereof my child may be wiser, and better.”

It is only recently that we’ve begun to reconsider whether public shaming, done properly, is redemptive. A few years back, a judge sentenced a La Habra slumlord to live in his own run-down building under house arrest for two months. Another made an Ohio woman who abandoned 33 kittens spend a night alone in the woods. In a case that made the legal textbooks and withstood appeal in 2005, a San Francisco mail thief was ordered to stand on the post office steps with a sign that read: “I stole mail and this is my punishment.”

Daniel Markel, a professor of law at Florida State University and an expert on sentencing, says shaming is often more beneficial than prison sentences. Defendants often opt for prison as it’s hidden from public view. “They realize there is something publicly humiliating about being exposed in the streets.” Shaming exposes defendants. Exposing embarrasses, but recent studies indicate that it can promote virtue.

That’s the finding of economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter. In a classic experiment, they asked Swiss students to play twelve rounds of a “public goods” game. It goes like this: You and three partners each get 20 tokens on each round (a token is worth ten American cents). You can keep your tokens or “invest” them in a common pot. At the end of each round, the experimenters multiply the pot by 1.6 and divide it among the players. Economic sense says hold your tokens to get more of the bigger pot. And that’s what happened over six rounds. Less trust. Declining cooperation. Selfishness.

Then the experimenters added a twist. You could use your tokens to punish those who didn’t chip in. Every token you paid to punish would take away three tokens from the player you punished. Remarkably, 84 percent of players paid to punish, at least once. And even more remarkably, cooperation skyrocketed on the very first round where punishment was allowed. By the twelfth round, the average contribution was fifteen tokens. Conclusion: Punishing bad behavior promotes virtue and benefits the group.1

It might be time for the church to recall the redemptive role of public shaming. I was a pastor for eight years. At numerous conferences, three pastoral challenges were routinely noted—porn, plagiarism, and people pleasing. Porn rose to the level of sin, so most pastors—when caught—blushed and confessed their sin.

Plagiarism and people pleasing don’t seem to make pastors blush anymore. I’ve watched plagiarism be treated as “oops.” In academic circles it’s grounds for firing. Yet pastors routinely plagiarize, pleading—when caught—that it was unintentional.

Same with people pleasing. Seeking to serve people, pastors often become slaves to others’ opinions. They cave in to congregant demands. Some pastors come to their senses, feeling shame, but as Edward Welch notes in When People are Big and God is Small, they’re more concerned about being shamed than correcting their sin. The fear of man becomes greater than the fear of God.

This makes for an adulterous church. The church is the Bride of Christ. Believers are betrothed to Jesus—married (II Cor. 11:2). Sin is adultery (James 4:4). Adultery ought to make believers blush, but that seems to require being properly and publicly shamed.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2003), pp. 208-9.


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  1. In these instances, in a desire to grow more and more Christ-like in my behavior, I am left to wonder WJWD. As I see his interaction with the adulterous women, his posture seemed to be more redemptive than shaming. Unfortunately, I too often find myself exhibiting a posture of shaming in a self-righteous way. I am convicted by the HS that being an agent of redemption is more important than being a person who “shuns” the sinner by shaming them.
    I embrace the truism you espouse that a healthy fear of God (which is what true wisdom is based upon) is far more powerful than the fear of man.
    Can you further explain the redemptive role public shaming plays? Maybe the expressions of shaming I have been part of just have not been redemptive in nature.

  2. Many questions here. If one were to invite this behavior in our churches how would it work? At the hands, as in social media, of self-appointed zealots? Or, as one would think, under the auspices of the church leadership (board, elders, etc)? And what to do if leadership and shamer do not agree? (Recent example: Dentist kills Cecil the Lion. Dental practice under siege. Authorities determine Cecil the Lion was legally killed. Current Yelp rating for Dental practice 1.9) Does the shamer continue? At what point does non-sanctioned shaming cross into bullying? Cruelty? Sin on the part of the shamer? How do we respond to non-sanctioned shamers who feel it is their right and duty to continue? Is this a slippery slope with disproportionate consequences? Are we inviting mob justice? If as you say the fear of shame is greater than the fear of God vis-a-vis the underlying sin, then what is the real outcome? Does shaming ultimately address the symptom rather than the disease?

  3. Tim, I was also curious as to how Mike’s narrative fits with the ‘cast the first stone’ scenario. Especially, with grace and mercy being part of the revelation. Is restorative justice the essence of the intention ?

  4. Tim:
    Good questions. For starters, shaming is not shunning. I’m currently coaching two individuals who are learning the benefits of being shammed for things they did–and they have brought me alongside. No shunning. I’m with them in their messes.

    Second, the idea of human agency means that God often (maybe even prefers) to use real life people as agents of his Holy Spirit, as both can benefit. It’s too easy to squirm away from the harsh light of reality when I make my shame merely a matter between me and Jesus.

    David was shamed by Nathan, and he had to live with the public consequences of a child born out of wedlock (and murdering the husband). The deepest redemption requires touching bottom. God often uses friends, as their wounding is called “faithful” in scripture. I take no delight in watching the ugly, messy, terrible plight of sin that these two individuals have caused. But both asked that they not “bob” too quickly to the surface and never get in touch with as many sinister forces as possible that might be at work in their life. They want whatever the fullness of redemption might be in this life.

  5. Mavi:

    You raise a hots of serious questions, indicating how the beneficial side of shaming has not been developed as much as possible. For starters (and this is barely a starter)…

    Bad example makes bad law.

    Here’s what I mean.

    It’s too easy to imagine all the ways shaming can go wrong and then throw the baby out with the bath water. Many of your examples (slippery slope, etc.) can happen (and often do happen). But they’re not inevitable. That’s why wise and mature church leadership should be able to shame in a redemptive manner without becoming self-appointed zealots. Good example makes good law. Bad example makes bad law.

  6. I’m intrigued by this idea, Mike, but with caution. Shaming has been misused to the point of causing harm. At the same time, we Christians have developed a pretty thin skin when it comes to correction.

    My two cents to add to the conversation:
    I think shaming is misused when it aims to communicate that the person being disciplined is somehow uniquely evil, defective, different from “the rest of us.” In this case, shaming is about putting someone in his/her place, separate and lower than everybody else. This kind of shaming makes those imposing it feel better about themselves (without any self-examen or repentance of their own) because they’re not like that sinner (cf. Lk 18:11). And in this case, the person being shamed usually always remains “less than” in the eyes of those shaming him. In other words, the message is “you’re uniquely shameful and worthy of shame, so here’s what you get.”

    But where shame can work redemptively, it’s more a natural outflow of a larger discipline addressing a person’s wrongful behavior (rather than some innate, immutable shamefulness of the person him/herself). In this case, shame helps the person see the seriousness of what he/she has been doing and how it’s hurt the community. This kind of discipline is imposed for the sake of the the offending person, so he/she would feel sorrow for their actions, leading to humility, leading to repentance, leading to new actions in line with repentance. In this situation, the rest of the community is also called to humbly look inwardly (Gal. 6:1-4), knowing we’re each susceptible to falling. And instead of viewing the person as “less than,” this kind of shaming sees them as a brother/sister (2 Thes. 3:14, 15), loved by Christ, worth going through the painfulness of applying discipline that he/she may experience freedom from sin and greater intimacy with God and our community. In other words, the message is “you’re uniquely loved and worthy of discipline, so the body can be more fully who Christ desires us to be when you are restored to us.”

  7. I would pay to punish all the time, but it is not acceptable in modern church culture. (Paul calls us to internal accountability, 1 Cor 5:12-13) but most people focus on the unbelieving outside of the church. Any constructive critical feedback that lands in the vocational ministers lap by the laity is often received as offensive and contentious. I come out as a person of dissension. AKA an Exile. The vocational class dislikes congregants such as this, therefore many of us left. Problematic, is the Gospel is offensive. If properly exposited (at times) it should create contentious discussion and create dissension in a persons heart and personal relationships. The Apostle Paul, spends half of his epistles in dissension over doctrine. Luke illustrates Jesus in contentious discussion in chapters 11-19. James, Works vs Faith! And yet Paul’s call to the Romans 14:19 “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification” is used as the rallying cry of minister, while being taken completely out of context. This piece reminds me of the Jan 4, “Lake Wobegon” blog, misleading ourselves into thinking that our organizations have a better culture than they really do. Thanks Mike.

  8. Consider how Hebrews 12 might apply in situations where public shaming may be of benefit to the one whose sin has been exposed. Shaming, when it leads to redemption, like parental discipline, is most effectively administered when done with love and humility.

    4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

    “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
    and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
    6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
    7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

    12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

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