Shame is a powerful force, like an explosive. A person full of shame is unpredictable, even dangerous to himself and others. He feels sub-human, unworthy, unloved. Shame is no mere trinket in the hands of the powerful; it must be handled with care. More and more, though, it seems people are using shame to “correct” others.
Parents publicly shame their teens on Facebook, outing them for drinking or disobeying in some other way. Even toddlers aren’t immune as at least one father posted a photo online of the child wearing a sign describing her pooping in the shower. But it’s not just the internet. A recent story told of a mother who demanded her children wear shirts to school labeling them as a thief and a bully as punishment for their indiscretions. Spend enough time at Target or at the grocery store and you’ll hear parents four aisles away berating their children for some mistake.
Pastors, too, do this to congregants. One pastor publicly calls out gay teens in his church and embarrasses them. Another stops his sermon to yell at a man speaking to a neighbor during service—public shaming from the pulpit.
All of these examples are a flippant use of a dangerous force. Shaming someone publicly explodes his or her foundation. They lose trust, hope, and love. Instead, all that is left is the rubble of anger, resentment, apathy, and fear. Relationships crumble as distance is created. And when this is done in the name of Jesus, as many parents and pastors do, the foundation of the gospel is blown up, too.
What is the difference, you may ask, between corrective discipline and such shaming? The heart. The shamer seeks to break down or, at best, is not aware enough of the human heart to realize that’s what he is doing. The shamer manipulates others, leaving them no choice but to fight back loudly (and thus shame themselves) or concede and be shamed. Sure, sometimes it seems like such actions “work.” The shamed person changes. They straighten up and fly right. But all that really happened is that they conceded to fear. It is temporary behavior modification, not a change of heart.
When a Christian shames someone, the gospel’s message of grace is undermined. But the gospel’s message of grace is the only hope for truly overcoming shame—the kind of heart-change that truly transforms people. And that is the deepest reason using shame is so despicable—it creates an innate barrier between the shamed person and the hope and truth they need. People do need correction and discipline, not to make them hate consequences but to build them up and point them in the right direction. Such correction is the opposite of shaming; it is life giving.