“Ask me about the hole in my throat.” That’s the kind of caption that gets your attention! The accompanying picture is of a man with, you guessed it, a hole in his throat.
The ad was on a billboard, part of a campaign by the Center for Disease Control against smoking. Maybe you’ve seen similar ads, like the ones that made their way around Facebook with a clever spoof mocking the idea of “social smoking.” The idea behind the campaign is to change the way we think about smoking: it’s harmful, and it’s not cool.
The anti-smoking campaign is one example of the way we use shame to change behavior. When a society perceives an activity as acceptable, people can do it openly without fear of repercussions. Change the perception of that same activity from acceptable to unacceptable, and most of us will change our ways or hide our behavior. Shame is a powerful motivator.
But shame can be misplaced. When I see a campaign against smoking I can’t help but think about other moral issues our society deems perfectly acceptable and not shameful: abortion, divorce, pornography, to name a few. We seem to take aim against things that are harmful to our personal health, but turn a blind eye to those that destroy genuine human relationships.
The world around us isn’t the only place that uses shame to enforce behavior – nor is it the only place where shame is misplaced. Sadly, the church is often a place for the same misplaced shame. Consider the kind of issues in a church that divide us into an “us” vs. “them.” Maybe it’s homeschooling versus public schooling; if you choose the right option for your kids, you’re “in.” You’re part of “us.” Choose the wrong option, and you’re one of “them.” We could add things to the list: which version of the Bible you use, health food or dieting choices, what kind of extra-curricular activities your kids participate in, the authors you choose to read. Most of those are personal preferences where we elevate and spiritualize our own choices while shaming those who choose differently. But there are also issues of temptations and struggles with sin which divide us into “us” and “them”: a struggle with same-sex attraction, battles with substance abuse, or a temptation to swearing. Confess one of those sins in a small group setting and watch people back away like you’ve got the plague. But every one of those examples, and any others we could list, is an issue of misplaced shame.
Now don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that God’s church should be a place with no standards, no activities that are deemed unacceptable. After all, the New Testament is filled with commands that gospel-believing Christians are to obey. We are to be holy as the Lord is holy (1 Peter 1:15). This is Spirit empowered, grace motivated obedience – but it is obedience. Despite what we often say, there’s one sense in which the church isn’t the place where you can be accepted and welcomed for who you are, no matter what you do. If “who you are and what you do” is sleep with your girlfriend, persistently lash out in anger at your family, live in constant debt, or use dishonest financial practices, the church can’t simply ignore or accept those behaviors. In light of the reality of sin, that’s not true love. We must be willing to speak up, each of us and as the church together, when sins bring dishonor to Christ. So talking about misplaced shame should not be interpreted as a way to excuse sin or minimize the need for personal holiness.
But the problem is that shaming is a much easier “solution” to another’s sins than an honest conversation characterized by good listening, willingness to hear a different perspective, and, if necessary, a loving rebuke or correction. But when churches, small groups, or even families use shame to govern behavior, they end up creating pockets of secrecy under superficial conformity. Instead of being a place where the real God meets real life, such communities become places where the “God” that is openly talked about becomes increasingly irrelevant to the real but well-hidden struggles people actually confront. Even worse, shaming people we disagree with places on them a load that Christ has already removed. In Christ our shame and guilt are both gone; who are we to replace that burden on another’s shoulders?
Shame is never an appropriate motivator for Jesus’ people. Instead of creating a culture of, “We don’t do that here,” whatever “that” might be, the church is to be a place that welcomes all kinds of strugglers and meets them with the transforming message of the gospel. Sometimes we just need to learn to accept differing opinions in matters of personal preference. Other times we need to enter in with first love and listening, then well-chosen words of timely wisdom that bring the gospel to bear on actions that do need to change (Eph. 4:29). But throughout our goal is to view our brothers and sisters as God views them: accepted, beloved, and shame-free in Jesus Christ.
“Therefore welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).
Photo by Joe Gatling.