Shame is a good thing. The capacity for shame humanizes us. Try as I might, I simply cannot bring my cat to embarrassment. But even one of the 19th century’s most notorious atheists called human beings “the beast that blushes.” Jeremiah rebuked his generation for its moral callousness, saying, “… they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jeremiah 6:15).
Yet in our humanist times of human rights and human assertion, we not only tolerate but also celebrate shamelessness. Time magazine last week listed Miley Cyrus among the 100 most influential people in the world. This is someone who, despite her fine singing voice and obvious talents, chose strip-naked-on-a-wrecking-ball as her best option for restarting and reorienting her career. And apparently it worked.
For half a century, show-offs and publicity seekers have been searching for new ways to shock the public with their boast of moral freedom. We hail these cheap attention grabbers as somehow better and freer than the rest of us. They are supposedly bold, honest, authentic, and courageous, personifications of the American spirit of individualism. But actually they’re just shameless. And ordinary people have picked up the habit as a way of life—on the street, on the train, and even in supermarket.
The shameless forsake their humanity—though in their desire to shock they affirm it in a perverse way. I can annoy my cat, but I cannot shock her. But the voluntary degradation of the shameless involves the rest of us. Human dignity is a shared good, and so their public conduct is not simply “their business.” When you forsake your dignity, I lose a bit of mine. If I treat you as worthless, I diminish myself in the process. It is no wonder that tyrants and gangsters who treat people as beasts act like beasts themselves. And when we allow ourselves to admire shameless self-displays, our common understanding of human worth suffers loss.
A functioning sense of shame also fits people with an internal source of moral restraint. Israel in Jeremiah’s day should have been moved to a morally wholesome community life by a love for God, for his law, and for their neighbors. Instead, they couldn’t even muster the natural sense of shame without which no community can function for long. Shame, like manners, is a way of respecting the people around us. But shame adds the dimension of respect for one’s own humanity, helped by the reproof of those who value theirs and justifiably find their community threatened when you undervalue yours.
But it is good not to become downcast amidst the rising tide of American barbarity. It is better that we keep our eyes trained not on our scandalous neighbors, but on Jesus. The early church did not say, “Look what the world’s coming to,” but instead, “Look who has come into the world!” Given the temper of our times, Christians will be more helpful to our neighbors by giving more consistent attention to the beauty and dignity of Christ in our demeanor, our families, and our churches, than in increasingly pointless attempts to reprove.