In December 2013, a young lady named Justine Sacco tweeted something that would forever change her life, and not in a good way. While traveling through Europe before leaving for Africa, she shot off a few snarky updates to her 170 followers. Little things like:
‘Chili—cucumber sandwiches—bad teeth. Back in London!’
Not terrible, though not particularly generous, either. Justine specialized in the type of phrases that we say to our buddies in jest and occasionally (perhaps, regrettably) bring to print on our Facebook statuses. Just before boarding her 11-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa, she unknowingly lit the fuse to a personal H-bomb, by tweeting:
‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’
You can guess what happened from here. Somehow, a journalist from Gawker got a hold of the tweet and forwarded it to his 15,000 followers and the avalanche began. Quick analysis of the tweet by the mass public regarded Justine as an ignorant racist of epic proportions. Even worse, her long flight prevented her from even knowing about the public shaming frenzy that was happening while she slept on the plane. Calls for her firing were the most tame of the responses. The ugliness got worse and worse. Threats of rape. By the time she had landed, the hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet was trending worldwide.
Everyone was waiting for a picture of the evil monster that was Justine Sacco, walking out of the airport terminal in Cape Town. Someone went so far as to wait at the terminal to get a photo of her as she made her way to the baggage claim, just to upload it to Twitter and feed the sharks some fresh meat.
She cancelled the rest of the trip under threats of violence. She lost her job. No new employer would take her. She bears a label that acts as a tattoo. Her life was ruined. Because of a poorly worded tweet.
In her words,
‘It was a joke about a situation that exists. It was a joke about a dire situation that does exist in post-apartheid South Africa that we don’t pay attention to. It was completely outrageous commentary on the disproportionate AIDS statistics. Unfortunately, I am not a character on South Park or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform. To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS, or piss off the world, or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.’ 
Public shaming used to take place within controlled communities. Steal some bread, end up in stocks in the town circle. The community in which you committed your crime is the very crowd who levies the sentence of shaming whether by disapproving looks or a well-place throw of an overripe tomato. They were allowed this function because the health of their communal life was at stake.
The modern picture of public shaming is the fury of a faceless mob of aliases. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people you’ll never meet form conclusions about your character based on a 12-word throwaway tweet. In some ways, it’s like the shame you feel when you get pulled over for speeding. It’s not the breaking of the law, mind you, that causes the shame. I’ve never felt morally horrible about getting clocked at 70 in a 55 zone. It’s just a $100 fine and some inconvenient paperwork. The actual shaming resides in the hundred cars that drive by us and stare—all the worse if we get pulled over next to our office or church. Our faults are on display for the whole world to see; people with no faces and no understanding of context, but armed with a whole lotta judgment.
Some suggest that the solution is to develop a society free of shame—at least on the individual level. There are small-group workshops that attempt to drive out shame through radical honesty. If shame resides in the quiet corners of the spirit pushing you down into depression or dysfunction, could not the answer be to drag these dreadful things out into the light over and over again until your fear of being found out eventually subsides into nothing? Working at snake farm will eventually cure you of your snake phobia.
These group sessions, at first glance, operate like an AA meeting. Each person takes turns revealing things that are unspeakable (at least in the eyes of the beholder) in ordinary social settings.
‘I hate my wife.’
‘I’ve been embezzling funds from my business for years.’
‘I once killed a guy and got away with it.’
‘I want to have sex with you.’
Since everyone has something terrible to reveal, each revelation is not that shocking. It’s … normal. An enemy is not as terrifying when it finally emerges from the shadows.
The sessions attempt to empower the individual. When the great transgression is spoken out loud, the shaming public (hypothetically) loses its power. The participants are encouraged to speak whatever is on their mind at the time that they think it, even if it means violating social norms and offense is given to the others in the room. The group sessions practice eradicating shame that often follows an unconsidered or impulsive statement.
But I’m not sure that radical honesty is the way forward. Simply put, if I speak whatever comes to my mind as a way of ‘de-shaming myself’ – shame is never actually solved. It’s normalized. No matter what heinous act I do … if I do it enough, it will become a part of the tolerated spectrum of behavior that makes up my life. That’s why confession/absolution has an essential place within the Christian community. To remove the act of confession is to remove the realness of one’s own deathly condition. Sin ceases to feel fatal if I’m never confronted by the truth of its reality and effects.
Even more, to speak whatever is on my mind is not the picture of a liberated man leaving the shame of his hidden thoughts and/or actions. It is, instead, the nature of a petulant child. Children speak whatever is on their mind … at times honest, yes, but often it is the unrestrained passions of the human will. The tantrum life. I want this or that. You did this to me. I hate you. I love you.
This cannot be the answer. This behavior doesn’t really empower us after all. It binds us. Do we think that Facebook, on the whole, has made us more mature, wise, and thoughtful? Or, more superficial, angry, and whiny? Wisdom is available to men and women because we have the ability to restrain our first impulses and understand that our first response to any situation is, quite often, the wrong one.
“Sin ceases to feel fatal if I’m never confronted by the truth of its reality and effects.”
Shame functions both as a noun and a verb. As a noun, I’m inclined to say that it’s useful at times, and even necessary. I suppose we should set up some distinctions between guilt and shame, and I’ll admit, these aren’t totally satisfying .
- Guilt usually is related to something you do. Shame is related to something you feel you are.
- Guilt can be an objective statement about your disposition to the law. Shame is taking this experience to heart.
- One can be guilty without shame. One can also feel shame without being guilty.
Regarding #1, it’s okay to understand that we are sinful. Not just that we commit sin. This is counter-cultural, I know, but important nonetheless. Sin is not just committing acts against God. Sin also sits at the core of our being. Generational. Inherited. Inescapable.
Regarding #2, to feel shame (again, as a noun) is to go beyond the status of guilt to a state that is more affecting. It is the stark recognition that we often act as enemies of God’s will and that we have set ourselves in opposition to the Almighty. Shame comes when we know the futility and consequence of this and our heart yearns for restoration.
Regarding #3, those who feel shame without being guilty are a category unto themselves, though the solution, I believe, is the same. A child of divorce often feels disgrace and humiliation even though they had no part in her parents’ decision to separate. This type of shame is a result of a sinful world and no person wishes for this type of suffering.
The church-community stands in the gap. It must, if it is to be called the Church at all. Shame, by itself, is utterly destructive. Shame, in concert with reconciliation, is instructive for the Christian journey from spiritual infancy to true maturity. The church-community is honest enough to say that you are, in fact, a sinner—and equally honest to say that you truest identity is found in Christ. Therefore, you are royalty, a priest, a saint, a perfect child. The church-community surrounds the repentant and restores them with absolution, with the Gospel, and with the sacraments. Finally, the church-community can free the falsely guilty by both promising vengeance on the true oppressors as well as offer a new life found in the absolute declaration of God’s justifying love upon you.
“Shame, in concert with reconciliation, is instructive for the Christian journey from spiritual infancy to true maturity.“
The noun can be helpful. The verb may not be. As a verb (i.e., to shame someone), it is a disguised way to conform the ‘guilty’ to the likeness of the accuser, not God. If I shame you for your actions, it rarely, if ever, takes the form of a gentle nudge toward the law of God—and therefore necessarily fails to direct you to the Gospel that lies behind it. Instead, I shame you into failing to live up to my image, a way that I think you should live. Empty of true godly standards, empty of true reconciliation.
Shame is an indicator of absolutes. What would worry a parent more: A daughter who, at times, feels shame about a particular action or the son who cannot recognize his doomed disposition before an absolute Law, moving along with his life in utter blissful ignorance? Shame is the natural condition of being confronted—and affected—by the uncompromising standards of a holy Judge.
Therefore, while shame reveals an absolute law, shame is not the absolute itself. The profound message of Christianity is that the absolute law-giver is simultaneously the One who would free us from the ultimate penalty of our violation. The church-community draws the repentant heart into a life of healing, restoration, discipleship: the very way of Jesus himself. All the way to the cross. All the way to the empty tomb.
For this, Christians place their hope in the cross shaming shame to death.
 Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (New York: Penguin, 2015). Check out chapter 4 for Justine’s whole story. Ronson comes at the issue of Internet shaming from a variety of directions and helped open new ways of thinking for me on this topic.
 I realize that there are other, perhaps different or contradictory, distinctions between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame.’ Work with my usage on this. It needs further exploration, but hopefully you can make the connections I’m trying to elucidate and talk about them with others.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.