We have a culture that is obsessed with shame. In the hit HBO show Game of Thrones, one of the main characters of the show is publically exposed for immorality in her life. She was paraded, physically exposed, down the main street of King’s Landing, the central capital, with a pious woman following her crying, “Shame, *ding*, Shame, *ding*, Shame.” You get the point. She was announcing her shame to the throngs gathered around her. The crowd triumphed over the queen regent in her depth of shame. Many that watch the show also regaled the parade as a victory march for several years of cruelty dispensed in the name of protecting power.
Even beyond the screen, we feel the need to point out the faults of others, even to dig beyond necessary means to find the deplorable about another human being. We love to find the icky and the shameful because that makes us feel a sense of power and superiority. We love to revel in the lowliness of others, in their fall from grace. Americans have trodden over people like Ray Rice, Michael Vick, and O.J. Simpson. These are just many of those that have been the butt of scorn from the public. Honestly, these are all football players, because these were the freshest on my mind. However, there are others that have been treated with similar shame and scorn. Even more recently President Trump has been the recipient of considerable umbrage from media and the public.
However, we don’t want shame brought on us. There are movements against criticisms of others in an overarching “anti-shaming” movements. Notably, these ideas are based in the concept that you should be able to make the choices that you want no matter the consequences. It is a retrenchment into a safe-space that avoids admonishment for glaring issues in our lives. However, we do not hold back from our willingness to dispense quick criticism from those that get caught in their sin or engage in activities with which we disagree.
At the same time, our society is obsessed with justice. It seems both diametrically opposed but somehow part of the same issue. From social justice warriors to people fighting against perceived injustices and the rights for the oppressed and ignored, we have a general obsession with justice. However, this justice is contingent on the perspective through which you see. The problem is that it is not to the principle which it is anchored, but more to a political or ideological agenda.
See, this justice is dispensed with the same ferocity and vitriol with which we pursue lumping shame on others. We revel in the defeat of others. It is gratifying to find pleasure in their lowliness. Shame and exacting justice are the byproducts of making choices. However, the loud cry of “DON’T YOU DARE TELL ME HOW TO LIVE MY LIFE. YOU CAN’T SHAME ME!” belongs to those that can see evil and wrong in others, but refuse to see it in themselves.
Jesus teaches us an important lesson on shame and justice.
There are several instances in which Jesus encounters people who have been broken and been caught in shame. In John 4 we see the story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well in Samaria who is deeply shamed by her sin; she has been married five times and is living with her current man unwed. This is not information that she divulges but is something Jesus calls her on. Some today would say he shamed her. However, he was telling her where she was in her life but was offering her something more. Before he’d even mentioned the state of her sin, he was offering her salvation through him. His concept of shame and justice was the reverse of what we have. He offered criticism and in the same stroke extended grace. He offered her a way out of the judgment that she’d earned.
In another story, we see the dispensing of justice more clearly. In John 8, there was a woman brought to the city wall to be stoned for being caught in the act of adultery. The punishment for being caught in adultery under the Jewish law was to be stoned. However, Jesus simply said that he who has no sin may cast the first stone. He was reserving the justice for himself, for he was the only one with no sin. When the crowd dissipated, Jesus was left alone with the woman and left her with no accusers. At this Jesus said arguably some of the most powerful words of justice, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
When Jesus does this, he is saying that the one person who has the right to dispense with justice offers grace instead. He sets the standard that his followers must do the same. They must choose grace over exacting justice. It is when we remember that justice is not in our hands, but in the hands of the Lord, that we understand the role of sin and shame in our interactions with people.
Even more poignantly, we realize the power that shame and justice can hold in our lives. In my life, I have been mired in sin and felt unable to get out. I have felt the immeasurable burden of sin and shame consume me. I felt that I had no one to talk to because of this weight and my inability to atone for my wrongdoing. I needed out because I desired unity with God. I desired to do so much more for Him, but my sin kept me from being who God made me to be. It was only through His grace withholding justice that allowed me to be free.
Only in understanding the debilitating role of shame in my life did I understand the irreparable harm we do to ourselves and others when we have no concept of God’s justice and grace. Don’t be fooled, God is still a just God and has not forgotten the punishment for sin, but He has sent His Son as a ransom for you to wipe your slate clean. The price… your life. Our duty in this life is to display grace to those whom justice will otherwise be dispensed at the end of time. God’s focus is not on our present self, but on the eternal being we are. C.S. Lewis makes the point that we have a body, but we are a soul. How much more should we fight for the soul of man, rather than the body that can be broken? He gave his life to spare us from His judgment, how then can we deny showing the love and grace he showed us?
It is when we remember that justice is not in our hands, but in the hands of the Lord, that we understand the role of sin and shame in our interactions with people.