Shame and Humiliation
Part V of V: Shame and Humiliation in Judaism versus Christianity
In the first part of this series, I referred to Tamar in relationship to her father-in-law as well as to Joseph and his brothers in the Torah and their rejection of shame and humiliation, especially shaming another. Instead, Judaism generally stressed guilt, remorse for what you specifically did, and not for who you are. This guilt element in Jewish cultural history emphasizes the rule of law and due process. It stressed respect for the Other and oneself. However, ancient Hebrew culture also has a deep understanding for a shame culture, for it is that which is rejected, that which represents falling into a bottomless pit. After all, the obverse of trying to abide by rules and experiencing guilt when one fails is not experiencing deep shame. It is summed up in Proverbs 13:18. If you do not follow a disciplined path, you will end up impoverished and in disgrace, totally ashamed of yourself, but if you learn from your mistakes and listen to criticism, you will be honoured. “Poverty and disgrace befall him who spurns discipline, but he who keeps reproof will be honoured.” רֵישׁ וְקָלוֹן פּוֹרֵעַ מוּסָר וְשׁוֹמֵר תּוֹכַחַת
Shame is the hell Israel will be forced into if the nation fails to follow God’s laws. “They will put on sackcloth and be clothed with terror. Every face will be covered with shame, and every head will be shaved.” (Ezekiel 7:18) But if the Israelites can throw off shame, if the dry bones of those who live without hope can be infused with self-respect and discard shame, then “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” will come to life with flesh and spirit. (Ezekiel 37)
Further, those who try to humiliate and shame me for my beliefs and my practices will, in the end, be shamed and feel shame deep in their souls and disgraced in their very bones. “Then my enemies will see that the LORD is on my side. They will be ashamed that they taunted me, saying, ‘So where is the LORD–that God of yours?’ With my own eyes I will see their downfall; they will be trampled like mud in the streets.” (Micah 7:10) Shame revisits the shamer. To be mired in shame is to be an eternal wanderer without direction, without hope and destined to live in the deepest darkness.
The opposite is escape from shame, escape from humiliation. If one escapes shame, escapes humiliation, if one is to grow flesh on one’s dried up and dead life, out of that dry ground one must grow into a tiny plant rising from the cracked and parched earth seeking self-respect and light, seeking to respect others. When I was a young man, I wrote a play that was produced called “Root Out of Dry Ground” (Isaiah 53:2) about that struggle. I was denounced from the pulpit of Canada’s largest synagogue for being a self-hating Jew. Especially some sects experts at shaming even though shaming is antithetical to the core of their religion.
Though one be humiliated, though one can be shamed, though one can be “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” and though others turn away, despise the shamed one and refuse to come face to face with him (Isaiah 53:3), though we hide our faces from him; “he was despised, and we esteemed him not,” that is not the path, the light and the way. “Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed. Neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and the reproach of thy widowhood shalt thou remember no more.”
אַל-תִּירְאִי כִּי-לֹא תֵבוֹשִׁי, וְאַל-תִּכָּלְמִי כִּי לֹא תַחְפִּירִי: כִּי בֹשֶׁת עֲלוּמַיִךְ תִּשְׁכָּחִי, וְחֶרְפַּת אַלְמְנוּתַיִךְ לֹא תִזְכְּרִי-עוֹד.
Before we get to the story of Cain and Abel that we referred to earlier, it is important to properly understand the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. In the standard misinterpretation, Adam and Eve disobey God’s command, eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, experience deep shame and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They experienced deep shame for their disobedience. They experienced deep shame for having sex with one another.
I have written many times on the phenomenology of this experience, and so I will try to be very brief. Adam is placed in the garden. He aspires to be like God, to say and there is. After all, he is given responsibility for naming things. Enamoured with his vocation, he is ignorant of his own body, its desires and its needs. He does not even recognize he is lonely. He does not even acknowledge his body as his own. He may have been a brilliant naturalist, but he was also one dumb dude totally ashamed of who he was as an embodied being.
God knew he was alone. Adam himself never recognized his needs or his loneliness. And, as I have written, loneliness is at the core of suffering from shame. Adam is ashamed and he does not even know it well before he eats of the Tree of Knowledge of good and Evil where eating thereof allowed him for the first time to know, to acknowledge that he was ashamed. Though God had created Eve in the same way as Adam, in Adam’s dream, in his fantasy world, Eve is merely a projection of his own flesh without a mind of her own, without a centre of self-determination. He does not recognize her. He does not respect her. He does not even respect his own body. So when his erect penis in the form of an othered Being, viewed only as a devious snake, seduces Eve, that penis is not his. It is a trickster who beguiles Eve. It is not Adam who had sex. He was taken off guard. He was led down the garden path. Adam takes no responsibility for his acts. He was too enamoured with being a disembodied mind to appreciate he was an embodied creature with feelings and attachments.
But his body, not his mind, saves him. It introduces, but only introduces him, to determining what is good and what is evil, to the world of ethics and not just the knowledge of external nature, to the world of prescriptions and imperatives and not just descriptions. It began with recognizing that he felt ashamed, ashamed that he was an embodied creature and not a disembodied divine Being. With this knowledge, he could no longer live in the illusory purely mental world of the Garden of Eden. He automatically was thrust into the real world.
The shame experienced is not because of disobedience of God’s instructions, for God had simply warned that IF you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will no longer be able to live in a cut off disembodied world of the mind. You shall surely die and be reborn as a flesh and blood creature. Thou shalt not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is not a categorical imperative. It is not even an imperative at all. A conditional anticipation is not an imperative. But because Adam had not yet eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he could not recognize the difference between a categorical and a conditional. He could not recognize the difference between an imperative and a descriptive generalization, especially one that referred to what could be rather than what is.
Nor were Adam and Eve punished for eating of the tree. The consequence followed as described, but the shame arose from the lie, from the cover-up, from the displacement of responsibility. Where they should have felt guilt about this projection, about the failure to respect who he was as an embodied mind and not a disembodied God, for who Eve was as an independent self-respecting human being, they covered up their flesh. They felt ashamed. This was the Fall, not eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having sex is not a sin. Denying who we are, blaming others are sins. And Adam was deeply immersed in shame long before he and Eve had sex.
The history of man in throwing off a metaphysics of shame and accepting a metaphysics of guilt defined by rules and discipline became an effort of thousands of years. The start, however was ominous. The children of Adam and Eve demonstrate this. If Cain and Abel no longer could see themselves as demi-gods, each could at least try to define themselves and be respected as the one chosen to be closest to God. This was the new fantasy that replaced the older one. How do you achieve that recognition? They follow the reverse path of the Greeks where humans are helped by the gods – in this case by second order gods. But for the Hebrews, men still aspired to be next to God and to be recognized as God’s second-in-command.
How to get there? Show your indifference to the best products of your physical labour. Sacrifice the best that you have made and produced with the labour of your body to God to gain that desired recognition. The farmer sacrifices the best of his grain and Cain asks for recognition for his labour and service to God. Abel, the hunter, the cattleman, the rancher, sacrifices the best of his herd. God gives the recognition to Abel. Cain, instead of understanding that recognition is a step backwards, a step backwards to dependency on nature, a step back towards the image of man as a disembodied being, goes into a jealous rage and feels totally shamed. He lashes out and kills Abel.
God punished Cain by ejecting him from society and not just the Garden of Eden. The pain experienced and acknowledged there had been a piece of cake. He becomes the wanderer, the individual without a settled home who will have to roam through the wilderness of dry bones and shame, but will eventually redeem himself on a higher plane as the founder of cities, of civilization.
I recognize that this is not the Genesis tale you were taught as children. But, I suggest, you were educated in a culture that esteemed shame as a tool of progress, of redemption, as a spur to salvation. Instead of a state that had to be abandoned and left behind totally. In Christianity, it will be left behind, but by and only through grace. As it is written in Timothy 1:12, “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” Suffering is redemptive. And one is freed from shame only be being accepted as one with Christ, a far more ambitious goal than that of either Cain or Abel, who wanted simply recognition from God. If Jesus is God and a person can be one with Jesus, then one can be one with God. And that is the only route to escape shame and sin because man is by nature a sinner. As Christianity teaches, a true Christian stands unashamedly only when he finds the cross and lives as one with the spirit of Jesus.
Instead of positing guilt and shame as belonging to opposite worlds, guilt is absorbed into shame and the Hebrews are characterized as inherently wallowing in shame, suffering from faithlessness because they rejected Christ as their saviour and as a reborn God. However, if one is a Christian, one accepts Christ as one’s saviour and the route out of sin and shame; one rejects the Jewish belief that the rejection of shame requires you and only you to have respect for who you are and not depend on another for recognition. Accepting Jesus is not only not the route to salvation but the route to reinforcing a shame culture. So Christianity was built, not on Judaism as a brother religion, or Judaism as the source religion of Christianity, but as something which has to be buried and upon which the cornerstone of the Church of Christ has to be built. As Peter put it, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (2:6) Jews became shameful, but if you trust in Christ, you will never suffer shame.
The choice for Christians was either everlasting life in Christ or shame, everlasting shame. One escaped shame not through respecting oneself and who we are, not by respecting Others for who they are, but by accepting that Jesus is the one and only way to escape your life as a sinner. Sin was shameful and man was inherently a sinner and cannot escape sin without the grace of God through the assistance and mediation of Jesus. One had to confess one’s natural sinfulness. Instead of an expansion of spirit, one had to experience contrition. Unless one accepted that path of salvation, one was condemned to everlasting shame and contempt. So guilt, instead of being a regret for one’s own responsibility in offending a social norm, becomes a synonym for shame instead of its opposite. Guilt says you are unworthy and not that you are guilty for the specific act you did.
Thus, when David cries out to God not to be cast aside in shame and thrown into the pit with the wicked, this is interpreted as a request for grace when it is no such thing. It is a request that as a person I stand up on my own two feet, accept who I am and what I must do to be better, but reject, not accept, that one is inherently shameful; to reject not accept that one needs a mediator to accomplish this task, to accept that shame cannot be a tool of redemption, but must be cast off and left in the desert of dry bones unable to rise up with flesh on those bones and a smile on your face.
In a guilt culture, one is inculcated with norms. When one disobeys those implanted norms by digressions in one’s behaviour, one feels guilty, not for who you are but for what you did. In a guilt culture, one confronts another in private so as not to humiliate the other for her or his failure to follow those norms. And when those norms shift, then there are cultural clashes within ourselves and between us and others. But this requirement for discourse is not a cause for shame, but for rejoicing. For it creates the foundation for a dialogical society. This does not entail that guilt cultures insist on total conformity, but rather they insist on a second order set of rules for altering primary norms governing behaviour, in secular parlance, a constitution. The problems really occur when these second order rules themselves are in disarray or have lost their respect.
Now some would class shame cultures as those which esteem self-pride and honour, superficial appearances and upholding of those appearances. But that is just one instance of a shame culture and a pretty debased one at that. Deep shame cultures do not attribute shame merely to how we appear but to who we fundamentally are. We are born sinners. And it is only when we accept that, when we accept that we are totally dependent on a divine hand to escape from wallowing in sin and shame, that we can escape its quicksand effects.
But doesn’t Christianity require confession of specific misdeeds? Doesn’t Christianity require restitution? Yes, but only as a step towards being reborn only when one accepts that one is by nature a sinner. In contrast, guilt without shame is the feeling that arises within when we violate the ethical norms planted within, when we violate our conscience. An individual may suffer guilt even if no one else knows of that error of your ways. The feeling of guilt can only be eased by taking responsibility for what you did as when Judah confessed his previous failure to take responsibility for his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and when he made restitution. Guilt cultures rely on the internalization of external norms which become the enforcers of behaviour. Purely shame cultures rely on external sanctioning, external shaming, external humiliation. In a guilt culture, one has to learn to accept punishment for your misdeeds, but, at the same time, learn to respect yourself. Accepting responsibility for what you did is a first step. When you accept that responsibility, when you make up for the error of your ways, when you make restitution, you can forgive yourself, and forgiving oneself precedes anyone else offering forgiveness. And to do that, you cannot and should not be humiliated in the process, you cannot accept self-denial, you cannot and must not be humbled.
If Christianity is such a shame culture, how come there are so many beautiful Christians? I went to St. Michael’s College after I left medical school to complete my bachelor’s degree. One of my best friends was Vince Kelly. I only learned several years after we graduated that this beautiful smiling soul had hidden his homosexuality from me. And when he owned up to it, he recognized that at the time he would and could not realize his dream of becoming Prime Minister of Canada. If he had only lived to see Premier Kathleen Wynne, a lesbian, become the leader of our government in the Province of Ontario. If only he had lived to see the Supreme Court in the United States recognize gay marriage. He would have been a great Prime Minister. He was an extraordinary terrific president of the student council at the University of Toronto, leader of the young Liberals and campaigner to be one of the youngest Members of Parliament when he ran in Smith Falls, his home town.
When I was in medical school, when I was still in pre-meds, in fact, in my first year, Father Gregory Baum picked me up at the corner of Lawrence and Bathurst in his little Volkswagen beetle as he was coming down from the Catholic retreat where he lived. He gave me a lift to the University of Toronto. By the time we reached the university, we had become friends. Though we would much later have a falling out over Israel, I never ceased to view him as a beautiful soul. His mother had been Jewish and his father a secular Protestant. He had been recommended by a fellow internee, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, in the Canadian prisoner-of-war camps for German Jewish nationals, to explore attending St. Michael’s College because of his enchantment with the mediaeval world, though he would first earn his bachelor and master’s degrees in mathematics. St. Mikes then hosted the leading centre of mediaeval studies in the world. Gregory converted to Catholicism and, not long after I first met him, rose to be a very prominent theologian and advisor to Vatican II as a peritus or theological advisor. It was he who led the Catholic Church to recognize that the effort to convert the Jews, especially after the Shoah, was an effort in religious genocide and had to be abandoned.
When much more recently for twelve years I produced and hosted a television show called Israel Today, that show was financed by evangelical Christians, not because, as many wary Jews suspected, they believed that the path to salvation required the resurrection of Israel, but because many of them had learned not only to love Jews but to love the Jewishness of their own faith. When one watches President Obama at the service commemorating those killed in Charlotte North Carolina and leading the 5,000 collected there to celebrate the lives of those destroyed by a deranged racist, and Obama leads the multitude in singing Amazing Grace, one cannot help but admire and appreciate the positive and powerful spirit of that religion.
But it is not what it once was. And that is to the good. By and large and to a significant extent, it has left a theology of shaming and public humiliation behind. It has reconciled itself with its Jewish roots. In America with that country’s deeply religious faith in the American constitution and the rule of law, it has emerged there as a religion that stresses guilt for one’s specific misdeeds and the need to and possibility of recovering from error, including Whites recovering from their heritage of offences against Blacks, of heterosexuals for their offences against gays, from the White Man’s offences against the natives of North America.
But the genie of shame and humiliation has not gone far. It has become secular. It has been resurrected in our public life and on the internet in a much more virulent form.
We are all obligated to combat it wherever and however it appears.