"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Friday, September 29, 2006

Stigmatizing Stigma

In response to Christianity Today’s big question – How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? – Amy Laura Hall shares some thoughts about the use of shame in addressing the rising tide of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Her comments could not be more timely, and though directed specifically towards Christians, they are part of a conversation that transcends any partisan divide, and as such, is applicable to all members of society.

Now one need not accept Ms. Hall’s curious history of Christianity’s use of shame (forgive me if I do not accept Margaret Sanger and an unnamed Methodist clergyman as representative) to acknowledge that well-meaning people throughout history have employed it. So rather than focus on her contention that Christians should be moving more towards welcoming unwed mothers and their children, and away from stigmatizing them – as I fail to see how this might be countercultural - I’d like to look at whether there is any legitimate place left for shame in modern moral world.

Certainly shame is on the decline. Our collective lack of moral confidence and fear of the scarlet letter H (hypocrisy) make it a very rare occurrence indeed for someone today to criticize the decisions made by others. And yet, out-of-wedlock pregnancy is one issue that transcends these concerns, and is widely accepted by all sides as problematic. In her encouragement to the church to seek out unwed mothers and serve them, Ms. Hall reminds us that real lives hang in the balance, and that it is incumbent upon us to partner with God to turn even regrettable human choices to good. This is no doubt sound advice, redemption being foundational to the Christian worldview. That said, it is hard to see how such a response helps to move us forward in the broader issue of minimizing future unwed pregnancies. At the heart of redemption is the acknowledgment of sin, and it is not entirely clear from the following quote that Ms. Hall regards this as a necessary step.

This does not mean that Christians cannot say it would have been preferable had this young woman not shared herself intimately with a boy…

And it is here where we begin to see the limitations of pure kindness; what may in fact be the subtle absence of actual care. Promoting the good is easy enough to get behind, but don’t we also have a duty to confront that which is wrong? Is it love for the person that keeps us from necessary correction, or is it more likely that we are avoiding an inconvenient and difficult task? Confrontation has become out of vogue, as so many of its practitioners are less than attractive. Yet shame has a place, even if its implementation proves to be confusing and difficult.

Perhaps it makes sense here to consider where things have gone wrong with our use of shame. For many, shame is viewed as a sort of glue that holds society together. It is the tool that helps it promote its morals (and enforce compliance) among its members. Shame is justified on the basis that society has the right to discourage individuals from causing it injury. I believe that it is out of this understanding that shame is most frequently abused. In this view, members of society ascribe to themselves victim status, which then grants them permission to cast off any sense of responsibility to help those in distress while bolstering their own sense of superiority by devaluing others.

The use of shame in such a scenario is obviously less than satisfying. But what would happen if we shifted our focus so that we were primarily concerned with the well-being of the individual? Natural law, despite its universality, is not immune to the corruptions of the flesh. And so, we know that we will be faced time and again with the question of how to help the individual who has heard the case for moral behavior but finds it difficult to resist temptation? I submit that it is here that shame has its proper place, as it is useful in reinforcing the cost of moral transgressions. For what is sin other than a fundamental lack of understanding of the real consequences of one’s actions? Relationships based on integrity demand that we recognize and account for our nature, that we hate the sin while retaining our sympathy for the sinner.

The words, ‘You should be ashamed of…’, far from being the utterance of prudes, may be among the greatest kindnesses that we can extend to one another. Shame, or guilt, is the critical sensation that we are given to help shape our character so that we may reach our full potential. It is not something to be avoided or stigmatized. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us – with all the grace that we possess – to work to ensure that it remains a healthy presence in our lives. Without it, life would be completely unlivable.


Akaky said...

The trouble with your thesis, Matt, is that we know live in a therapeutic culture wherein nothing you do is a cause for shame. No matter how badly you screw up your life and the lives of those around you, there will always be those who say that it wasn’t really your fault and therefore you shouldn’t feel guilty or embarrassed by what you did. If no one feels shame or guilt anymore, it’s because we’ve all been listening to Dr. Freud and his minions for much too long.

Tom Van Dyke said...

An important distinction is between "I'm ashamed of you" and "you should be ashamed of yourself," the first being purely social, the other I suppose an appeal to morality.

The social condemnation is of failing society, faining the child's future, and I suppose the stupidity of the mother in messing up her own life.

But the religious dimension, as an appeal to morality, what is the Christian duty to condemn sinners? John 8:1-11 indicates to me, not much.

And since forgiveness is a component of Christian culture, one wonders how long the social shaming should go on before we simply pitch in and help, as Amy Laura Hall's article asks.

Still, many non-Christians ask what's the viability of morality when you just get forgiven anyway, or as Ms. Hall writes of her daughter saying,

"Mom, if God gives me a baby before I am married, I won't worry. I know that you and Dad would take care of it so that I could stay in school."


Ms. Hall also pries the lid off the fascinating question of Providence allowing/directing the unplanned pregnancy. If not a sparrow falls without His notice, surely an egg and sperm can unite. My answer to all this is, I dunno. Much to think on, and thanks for bringing it up, Matt.

Matt Huisman said...

As convention has it, our duty is to condemn sin, not the sinner – and it ends the moment sin is acknowledged and repented. The failure of the Pharisees in John 8 was not the confrontation, but rather their inability to see themselves in the one they would condemn, and to miss the opportunity to facilitate her repentance. (Those interested in reinforcing social mores will find much more power in the testimony of the redeemed than in that of a woman stoned to death.) But we should not miss that Jesus did confront the woman (‘Go now and leave your life of sin’) – just as he confronted the Pharisees - lest she later delude herself into thinking that she was in the right.

Now social shaming need not be a return to the Stone Age, and we are not excused from serving a those in need. Our love is not conditional on compliance. But none of us can afford to lose the idea that we will have to ‘give it up’ sooner or later. (The problem with a God that cares about each of us being that he himself will take up the issue if we fail to first.) Social shame (I prefer it mild, and on the side) reminds us that now is better than later.

(As for falling sparrows and unplanned pregnancies, I too am a believer. It may be that the supplying of all of our needs includes the everyday tragedies of life that give us reason to believe that we are, in fact, relevant.)