Shame in the Public Arena

In 401 AD, twenty-nine Saxon “slaves,” strangled each other to death with their bare hands in their prison cells. They chose this death rather than being forced to fight one another in Rome’s arena. Better death than shame. Their “owner,” the Senator Symmachus (famously known as the “Last Pagan”), wrote of them that they were a rebellious “band of slaves, worse than any Spartacus.”1

In the pages of the New Testament we see some interesting public events:

  • A woman taken in the act of adultery is dragged into the street by her accusers where she is threatened with public stoning.
  • Jesus is nearly thrown headlong off a cliff after speaking in the synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4).
  • Stephen the Deacon is publicly stoned after preaching about Christ.
  • King Herod issues orders to arrest more Christians after his execution of James is seen to please the people.

Public life in earlier centuries could be brutal and dangerous. In many locations across the world, little has changed. The controlled madness of sporting events boils over into violence on any number of occasions each year.

But all of these events share something in common: the public use of shame. The language of shame essentially attacks who a person is rather than what they have done. A person who is guilty of murder thus becomes a “murderer.” And though this is technically true, it is also not true. The language of guilt isolates responsibility for a single event; the language of shame assumes that you are now that event waiting to be visited upon all. Guilt suggests punishment or restitution; shame declares that no matter what you might do, you will always be that person.

There is a world of difference between being wrong about something and being “stupid.” But, as one comedian has it, “There’s no cure for stupid.” Shame labels us as incurable.

The language of shame is far more powerful than the language of guilt. Guilt can be answered and atoned. Shame, however, has no atonement – it is a declaration of “who we are.” There is no atonement for stupid, ugly, incompetent, mean, evil, etc. On occasion, I have been accosted by those who use shame as a verbal weapon. Recently, in an exchange in which I was the object of someone’s labeling, I was told that no apology need be made when speaking the truth.

Shame is not only permitted in our culture; it needs no apology.

There is a strange phenomenon about shame, however. I describe this as its “sticky” quality. When we see the shame of someone else, we ourselves experience shame. This can be as innocuous as watching someone’s public embarrassment and sharing the feeling of embarrassment. It is equally and more profoundly true in darker and deeper encounters. We cannot shame others and remain untouched. The very shame we extend reaches within us and takes us with it.

It is there, in its depths, that shame does its most devastating work. It is a primary creator and maintainer of the false self, an identity established largely through the energy of shame that leaves the truth of the soul shrouded in darkness. It becomes the source of acedia, in the words of the fathers, or anger, anxiety, and depression, in modern parlance.

I recently sat with an older African-American man who was sharing his daily experience with me. He’s poor, and has had occasional trouble with the law. He works long hours at menial labor and is frequently mistreated in his work. He said to me, “I’m angry all the time.” As I looked at him, I saw someone who seemed only a moment removed from homelessness or jail. But we met as two men. He was asking nothing of me other than someone to listen to him and offer whatever wisdom I might have. I saw someone who has endured decades of shame. Indeed, simply to be Black in American culture is to carry some amount of unwarranted shame. How could he not be angry all the time?

Unattended shame lives within us like a dybbuk, an angry hurt and hurting soul that breeds death. We ignore the role of shame in our lives to our own spiritual peril. Much that we imagine to be righteousness is only shame in a fancy disguise.

If you have ever engaged in one of the typical shame fights on social media, then think about how you felt when it was over (or even if you only read such a shame fight). There is no inner peace. There can be burning anger and a nattering inner voice of opposition that lingers for days. In terms of shame, it doesn’t matter if you are right. Shame loves the categories of right and wrong. It only matters that your opponent disagreed and that you shamed them. Shame is like the game of global thermonuclear war: the only option is not to play.

Shaming is easily justified by many. Whether it is doctrine, the Church, the state, the culture, whatever institution stands most in danger, shaming, like violence, is considered an effective tool in guarding the fort. However, it remains the case that shame cannot be used without causing damage to the one who uses it. Like the One Ring of Power, shame takes the one who uses it into the darkness and binds them there as well.

The mystery of our salvation cannot be found in living life on its most literal, surface level. Such a life can make no sense of forgiving enemies, doing good to those who hate you, rendering good for evil, being kind to all and sharing your stuff. In short, such a life cannot bear the shame of love. But only such love can know God. We only live by dying. We only heal shame by bearing shame.

Footnotes for this article

  1. Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Kindle Edition (2975).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


25 responses to “Shame in the Public Arena”

  1. Mike H. Avatar
    Mike H.

    Hi Father,

    Thank you very much for this post. I’m intrigued by your saying, “We ignore the role of shame in our lives to our own spiritual peril. Much that we imagine to be righteousness is only shame in a fancy disguise.”

    This is something of which I feel like I’ve seen the shadow in my own life (e.g., if I understand you correctly, my attempts at “piety” are just a defense mechanism against the shame I feel in other parts of my life), but I was wondering whether you could elaborate on that point.

    Thank you!

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is pretty consistent in the lives of the saints that as they grow in holiness, so they become far more aware of their sin. The awareness of “righteousness” (in its many, many guises), is generally a delusion and has little to do with righteousness. “The way up is the way down,” according to the Elder Sophrony, but so very, very few choose it.

    Frankly, I think very few people actually believe in God. (That’s a terrible thing to say, I know). We believe in a cypher that stands as a place-holder for the concept of God. And the concept serves as a place-holder for our ego (the false self). We see this by our behavior. We defend that which needs no defending – which can only mean that we believe it does need defending and thus cannot be God. We concern ourselves daily and moment-by-moment with the outcome of history, when that belongs to God alone.

    Paul Tillich famously defined God as “Ultimate Concern.” It’s true that what you are ultimately concerned about serves as your God. But ultimate concern is a far, far cry from the true and living God.

    I have written previously about “Christian Atheism” in this regard.

    Genuine righteousness looks much more like one of the classical fools for Christ than it does like most people’s notions of righteousness. Indeed, if there is nothing of the fool about someone, then they probably have not started their journey.

  3. St. Longinus Avatar
    St. Longinus

    We cannot shame others and remain untouched. The very shame we extend reaches within us and takes us with it.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    St. Longinus,
    It’s a point that I’m not making up – it’s a scientific account of the experience of shame. It’s strange, but can be proven over and over. It is indeed intriguing.

  5. Maria Avatar

    You know, Father, it is not a terrible thing to say, “Frankly, I think very few people actually believe in God.” It is true.

    In my own life, observing myself I see that I do not believe in Him. I would certainly be different on the whole if I did. Perhaps, when I say I believe in God, a minuscule part of my belief IS God, but it seems the vast majority is something else, some other god.

    I wonder something. Does a person’s ability to see, and be, their real self help them see and believe in God [in your sense]?

    Thank you.

  6. Jonathan Avatar

    I write this not knowing what side of the shame I am on. But knowing that I am in it seems enough. My family experienced a trauma a few years ago. One family member responded to another family members sin by refusing to share meals with him until he repented of his sin. The family has not been together since. One part feels holy and the other wishing for acceptance. I am without sin in the situation and pray God has mercy on us all–it is the only way out. I find comfort in the words of a few post ago–we must stand up from behind the bush and say, “here I am Lord. Comfort me.” I find myself wanting to change the situation, hide from it, yell at it, and sometime just cry. But what do I really have that will help? These posts on shame have been close to my heart. I can’t help but think that prayer for God’s mercy is the only way.

  7. St. Longinus Avatar
    St. Longinus

    Perhaps ‘acceptance’ is not the correct word. Perhaps empathy is what the ‘sinning’ party wants from the ‘holy’ family member(s). As for the ‘holy’ family member(s), they might want to look in the mirror for a bit. The sin shouldn’t be accepted. However, the repentance, even if offered, may not be enough for those who seek it from the sinning party?

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As we cannot shame others without being shamed neither can we forgive others and not be forgiven.

    “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me”.

    It is an Incarnational reality. God became us, is still us, body mind and soul except without sin. When He arose He raised all the dead. That inculdes us.

    The hymns of Pascha are not poetic fancy and metaphor. The hymns of Pascha describe both the cosmic and personal reality of what and who we are.

    The door to our experiencing that reality involves both death and shame: the Cross.

    BTW, my wife’s aunt, Lawanda, is in the final stages of dying soon to depart.

    Please pray for her soul. A beautiful woman who endured much in this life with a genuine joy in Christ.

  9. St. Longinus Avatar
    St. Longinus

    @Fr. Freeman,
    There are times I know I believe in God because, in those moments, I trust Him completely to know what I need, spiritually and materially, and how to provide it to me. And there are moments when I offer Him or the Blessed Mother a prayer and I wonder whether either of them will listen to me because I’m not in a state of grace and therefore don’t deserve to be heard. I have many doubts..

  10. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father, you speak truth and I think the violence of shaming is rising in our culture. I hear people trying to preach their “gospel” using shame to attack others who do not share their particular version. I also see you as spot on when you say those who use shame are damaged by it as well. Thank you fr putting this in such a tidy package of truth.

  11. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Your comment of the black laborer reminded me of an encounter in Death Valley. Outside one of the tourist stores sat an old member of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe. I sat beside him on a long rock barrier, out of the sun. I think he was drunk. But we struck up a conversation. Don’t recall the specifics. But he would say a few sentences. Then I’d reply. Probably sat together only 10 minutes or so. I believe I gave him a couple of dollars when I got up. I do know how badly I felt when I parted, no doubt sorrow, guilt, empathy, shame, all jumbled together.

  12. Taina Avatar

    How does bearing shame heal it? And by bearing shame, what exactly do you mean? Thank you.

  13. Mark Avatar

    Taina, for me, not returning shame is how we bear it. Maybe the one shaming can see that love is there and shame is healed.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The term “bear a little shame” comes from the Elder Sophrony of Essex. It means to expose it to the light. Shame is intensely private (it makes us feel like hiding). The only way for it to be healed (slowly) is to expose it in a safe and trusting place. That’s where, with a trusted person, we can look at it, begin to disarm it. When shame continues unattended, and unexposed, it doesn’t remain quiet or behave itself. It can poison us and things around us.

    The Elder’s instructions were given to a your priest-monk who was just beginning to hear confessions. Sophrony told him, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” He meant by that to help them learn the path of healing regarding their shame and the spiritual freedom that can come from it.

  15. Deacon James Avatar
    Deacon James

    Fr Stephen,
    Please comment on Christ’s encounter with the crowd accusing the woman of adultery. Shame was at the core of the crowd’s action, but Christ seems to have thrown that shame back into their faces. Was this indeed shame working both ways in this? BTW, in my asking, I am not looking for an excuse use shame as a means to good. Our Lord knew their hearts. I can only see expressions on faces. For me to use it as you well said would have the same results as tossing nuclear bombs, there will be collateral damage back on me. Thanks for having us think about a common form of ‘communication’ in life.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Deacon James,
    I think that what Christ did was not to create shame (to shame them), but to reveal their shame that already existed. “Who among you is without sin?” Is indeed to let the light shine in the darkness. It does not create the darkness. Now, however, we come to the interesting problem of how we respond to the light. Some hate the light. “And this is condemnation. That light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the light, for their deeds were evil.” (Jn 3:19). It is indeed part of our life in Christ to shine the light into the darkness (particularly our own). What I think is that a whole lot of light needs to have shone in my darkness before I’m ready to shine it in someone else’s. “Remove the log from your own eye then help him with the splinter in his…” In Christ, there is no darkness at all.

    That event with the woman could very well have been the salvation of everyone involved. It was, if you will, the dread judgment seat of Christ. What we can say is that no one threw any stones. They repented of an evil they thought to do. The darkest shame, unrepented, would have started throwing stones at Jesus. Perhaps some of them wanted to and waited till a better time…

  17. Ann Avatar

    How this has shown light into my darkness! Again I give God thanks and glory for my brothers and sisters and for Father Freeman. “We are the body of Christ, and members in particular”. Glory to God for all these members who come together to wash and water each other with the Word. Glory to God for all things!

  18. Matt Avatar

    That event with the woman could very well have been the salvation of everyone involved. It was, if you will, the dread judgment seat of Christ. …

    Father, I think you just gave me a reason for our hope. 😀

  19. Timmy Avatar

    Father Stephen, what is “the shame of love” that you mentioned in the last paragraph? How do we bear this “shame of love”?

    PS: Your blog has been & continues to be an indispensable aid in my spiritual struggles. Thanks for writing about such crucial & oft overlooked topics!

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Love always puts us in a vulnerable situation. The love of God put Him on the Cross. Vulnerability inherently dares to bear a little shame – because we are easily mistreated. Love is not always returned. Sometimes love gets us crucified. Thus, I speak of the “shame of love.” Love is not shameful in and of itself – but it really risks it for the sake of the one who is loved.

  21. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    The second thing that popped into my mind while reading this (the first was a cringing acknowledgement of its truth in my own life) was how much this sounds like the 16th century. I’ve been learning recently a bit about the Reformation-era struggles in Europe, and it is remarkable how given to insults and shaming speech so many of the key protagonists and antagonists of the Reformation were. They saw their disagreements as life-and-death struggles, and they used every possible weapon to make their point. But as you say, Father Stephen, one cannot use these weapons of shame without harming oneself, and I can’t help but wonder how much of the outcome of that century was a result of these invisible wounds. How much sublimated shame is embedded in the theology and the anthropology of the Reformation? And how would things have been (a worthless question, I know) if a different approach had been used in working through the questions that were being asked?

  22. Anastacia Avatar

    I am a high school English teacher and a single mom who daily has to bear my own shame. All I know to say is that we are living in dark times, times that shy away from the light. I teach among the white, rural poor. They are the “deplorables.” They actually fit the stereotype: dealers of opioids and racists. I try to to love them, but in doing so, I realize more and more that the shame–oh my, we are all covered in shame. I sometimes only know to sit with them. It is what I can do. I feel it is not enough.

    I am a long time reader (years upon years); I am thankful for you, Fr. Stephen, in ways I cannot express.

  23. Matthew Avatar

    Today my pastor gave a sermon appealing to our congregation to “take up the sword” (Matthew 10:34), against the injustices that have been taking place in Charlotte, NC over this last week. Our congregation is on the West Coast, and it seems like a call to modernity to try to impact activities all the way across a continent, when locally, so much can be done, at the personal level, to try to further the kingdom of God.

    Obviously, what’s happening in Charlotte is profoundly sad, but I’m having a difficult time articulating why I feel it is probably a distraction for those of us so far removed from the situation to try to impact it. It seems intuitively futile.

    Forgive me if I am off-base in this. You have discussed how our society has a hard time in dealing with shame, personally and publicly. Maybe sermons like this are useful in acknowledging that shame, but the whole thing smacked of an activism that just didn’t sit well with me.

    Lord have mercy upon me a sinner.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m certain that we should not say “it doesn’t matter.” But, apart from expressing outrage (on Facebook?) there is little to be done. A war was fought over this – the Civil War – it is not a sword that needs to be taken up – it is the very difficult peace. I am a child of the South, whose ancestors fought in the War and owned slaves. I was born during the years of the Jim Crow Laws (Southern apartheid) and saw some of the tragedy of that situation. Those who are too young to have lived through any of that have no idea just what racism truly is and how hard those laws were to correct. Their effect still marks the subconscious life of our nation.

    But I have also seen vast changes in the Southern mind (I can’t speak for the rest of the nation). I’m sure it’s not perfect, but it is nothing like the days of my childhood. We are in very turbulent times when mostly we are being governed by the passions. Nothing good can come from action based in the passions – no matter how noble the cause. Bad people cannot make the world better. At most, they can replace one set of bad people with another set of bad people. What we need are good people. By God’s grace, pray to be good, to be kind, to be generous, to forgive everyone for everything. That alone makes a difference.

  25. Matthew Avatar

    Thank-You for such a prompt response. I know that this weekend is extremely busy for you, and I appreciate the encouragement.

    Lord have mercy.

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