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The Absence of Shame

May 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Book Club, Vicki Burbach

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The Sinner's Guide (Week 6 of 16)

The shame and dishonor of sin form another torment for the wicked. It is natural for man to desire esteem, but who can honor the sinner? – The Sinner’s Guide (Chapter 16, Paragraph 6)

These days, rather than being shamed, sin is celebrated in brash fashion on a daily basis. We pay homage to it via art, music, movies, television, the internet, and print media, not to mention on educational campuses throughout the country. Sadly, virtually the only shame associated with sin is that which the Holy Spirit breathes into our ill-formed consciences. Consciences so sin-stained and dark that we can do little but choke on such supernatural aid.

I have struggled with the concept of shame for many years. On one hand, we have the individual, who, while living a life of sin, may be in need of a little spiritual work of mercy in the form of admonishment; but this is not the same thing as “shaming” him, which is no doubt counterproductive and potentially even destructive to the human person.

On the other hand, we have the sin itself, which, as members of Christ’s body, we must confront as an evil disease that can spread like wildfire among our cells if not brought under control. The sin must be addressed as shameful, or it becomes acceptable. There is no middle ground.

From its inception, America has enjoyed a Judeo-Christian culture.  This is significant, because for most of our history, even were one not religious, there was a good chance he still adhered to the Ten Commandments as a standard for morality.  Shame served as an effective consequence for challenging God's standard, as most people did not wish to risk being ostracized by society.

Unfortunately, shame has long since failed to be an effective deterrent to sin. I posit two reasons for this, each of which has been the subject of many a book:

  1. Moral Relativism. In his book Truth and Tolerance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger called the phenomenon of relativism “the greatest problem of our time. Via relativism we have done away with God altogether, and therefore with the notion of truth itself. Absent a universal moral truth, notions of right and wrong become relative to the individual. What is right for me may not be right for you. Ultimately, there can be no moral standard, for all values are “relative” to the whims of the persons involved. Consequently, there can be no shame, for shame requires some objective standard by which a particular behavior can be judged moral or immoral.
  2. Soft-Serve Christianity. Perhaps as a direct result of relativism, many Christians have adopted a watered down, but more accepting version of the Gospel. Its demands are, well, paltry. Gone is the strict God of the Old Testament in favor of a more loving and understanding New Testament version. Never mind that God detests sin no matter where you look. Most telling, in this new, whitewashed version of Christianity, hell is nonexistent. And far be it from Christ to actually judge sinners. Rather, He loves and accepts them just as they are, no strings attached. In other words, unconditional love drowns out His call to the sinner to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

In this toxic environment, where there is no absolute truth and Christ does little more than sing Kumbaya, it becomes virtually impossible to discourage sin, much less promote virtue. As a result, sin has run amuck, and chaos has ensued.

And the chaos will only increase, as the young are fast forming their consciences according to whim, rather than to what remains of the old Judeo-Christian standard. Case in point, recently I spoke with a young high schooler (not my son) who had been given an in-school suspension for cursing. He was rather indignant about the situation. When I asked whether cursing was against the rules in his school, he quickly stated that it didn’t matter, because the word he’d used wasn’t a curse word for him. “They may call it a curse word, but for me, it wasn’t one,” he declared, arguing that it was unjust to punish him according to any belief system other than his own.

As illustrated by the above example, when there is no standard for behavior, an environment is born where anything goes, and remorse is necessarily a thing of the past.

With the advent of relativism, we have even lost the ability to lovingly admonish the sinner, or to even address his behavior as sin. And that brave soul who possesses the courage to practice this spiritual work of mercy? He is deemed a hater, and his loving advice falls on deaf ears.

In fact, the concept of shame has been turned entirely upon its head. Rather than shame sin, we have begun to shame virtue. I would argue that shame has even been co-opted as a political weapon to use against Christians, as liberals use it very effectively to flog anyone who questions their progressive agenda. In such cases – Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson are just two recent examples – shame has been loud, public and very political.

It’s as if the devil himself has stepped onto his earthly throne and declared a new law of the land. John Chrysostom noticed something similar in his own time:

Be ashamed when you sin, don't be ashamed when you repent. Sin is the wound, repentance is the medicine. Sin is followed by shame; repentance is followed by boldness. Satan has overturned this order and given boldness to sin and shame to repentance. 

These prophetic words are emblematic of today’s culture.  Unfortunately, whether we address sin or not, natural law wins out in the end. In A Map of Life, Frank Sheed explains,

Emancipate the razor from its old humdrum task of removing hair from the face – defy the maker’s statement that razors are only meant for shaving – use your razor for chopping wood and you will have a piece of twisted metal, fit only for the scrapheap. God’s law is not something altogether apart from us: the knowledge of it may have to come from outside, but the law itself is, in a special sense, inside us. For it is a statement of the way we are made. Any action against it is therefore an action against our own nature and is consequently destructive.

What is true for the individual is true for society as a whole. While we may argue that our sins are our business, the fact remains that through baptism we are all part of the Body of Christ, so intricately related that disease in one cell quickly infects all its members. What we do in private makes its way into the public realm, ultimately gaining strength by public acceptance and spreading like the bubonic plague.

With shame no longer serving as a potent vaccine for this monstrous plague, the Church – overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims – can do little more than bandage the wounds. And at the current level of contagion, the prognosis (in this world, anyway) remains to be seen.

NOTE:  We apologize for the late post this week.  There were some technical difficulties with the site, but hopefully, they are now resolved.  Your patience and participation are much appreciated.


Reading Assignment:

Week 6: Chapter 17-19


Discussion Questions:

1. Shame is a difficult thing because we don't want to make people feel bad; and yet, not addressing sin can be dangerous to all of society.  How would you propose to make healthy changes in the current environment?

2. Do you feel shame for your sins? If so, how do you avoid the cultural messages that promote sin and deny accountability?

Feel free to comment on anything from our assignment this past week!


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About Vicki Burbach

Vicki Burbach is a wife and homeschooling mother of six children ages four to sixteen years who relishes the calm inspiration of spiritual reading amidst the roller coaster of life. A passionate convert to the Faith, Vicki is an avid reader who started the book club so she could embark with like-minded bibliophiles on a spiritual journey through some of the greatest Catholic books ever written. She is author of the new book How to Read Your Way to Heaven - A Spiritual Reading Program for the Worst of Sinners, the Greatest of Saints, and Everyone in Between. You can also find her at

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