A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
3rd August 2007
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“Shame” is an underrated concept today.
It is the emotion of disgrace, dishonour or embarrassment. It is a bitter disappointment in oneself.
But it is not just a private experience. “Shame” is also a word of social disapproval. It is a word that has been used both helpfully and cruelly to coerce behaviour in others. To shame somebody is to expose some private fault to public indignation. It has also been used to reveal somebody's tardiness or unwillingness to act morally. By this means people, institutions, and governments have been forced into action.
As with all coercive powers, shame can be used to tyrannical effect. It gives to the publisher great power. The invasion of privacy, the potential for blackmail, the evil of false witness makes it a terrible weapon. Its abuse and its potential for abuse is only one of the reasons for it falling out of favour in Western societies.
Sometimes we have to stand up to the power of shame. Jesus despised the shame of the cross when he willingly laid down his life for us.
Yet shame has been used for centuries to promote moral and to prevent immoral behaviour. It works better within a small close-knit tribe and worse in a large loose-knit individualistic society. Within the families of Sydney, especially migrant families, “shame” is still a powerful tool of social cohesion. But within the society as a whole, based on individualism, materialism and hedonism “shame” is not much of a consideration.
Yet even in this society shame still works. The power of the news media still lies in the exposure of people's moral failures. The quickest way to close a brothel may be to publish photos of customers. People still fear being caught or exposed more than they fear doing the wrong thing. The anonymity of the Internet allows all manner of vile communication, for people feel safe from exposure—safe from being shamed by their actions.
But there is another reason why in western cities like Sydney, shame is no longer used. Today we have lost the meaning of right and wrong and therefore the sense of shame.
Last week in two articles in the Sydney Morning Herald, we had people advocating immorality on the basis of honesty. One was saying that the homosexual bishop of New Hampshire in the United States was no different to many other bishops except that he was honest about his sexual activity. The other was saying that the columnist's visit to a prostitute was more honest than manipulating sexual favours by deceit and false promises.
Neither of them saw that the activity (homosexuality or prostitution) as wrong. The wrong that they decried was hypocrisy or dishonesty.
Hypocrisy is a dreadful sin—but worse than hypocrisy is shamelessness. Shamelessness acknowledges no wrong. It accepts dishonourable actions as respectable and moral. Shamelessness is the rejection of any moral constraint.
That there have been bishops secretly practicing homosexuality is a matter of great shame and hypocrisy. Such hypocrisy does not justify doing it publicly! At least those who did it privately understood that it was wrong. At least they still knew that in some sense their behaviour was unacceptable.
The bishop who does it openly is not a man of greater honesty but a man of shamelessness. He is unaware of how objectionable his behaviour is. Indeed he is openly defiant of the opinion of others and of God's revealed word.
Similarly the columnist who writes up his visit to a brothel is not honest but shameless. His behaviour towards women is appalling. That he prefers now to pay money rather than to manipulate by lies does not in any sense excuse him. The underlying behaviour pattern is the same—he uses women to satisfy his own selfish lust. His failure to understand his own decadence is breathtaking.
It is truly a sad state of affairs when people “glory in their shame”. “Their end is destruction” for how will they ever hear of God's wonderful mercy when they are in such denial of his righteousness.