by Scott McClare
A few weeks ago, about 150 Ottawans—mostly women—held this city’s fourth annual “SlutWalk.” Similar events have been held in other cities throughout Canada and the United States on other dates. This grassroots movement began in April 2011. A Toronto cop speaking at a campus-rape forum suggested that women could protect themselves against sexual assault by avoiding bad neighbourhoods and not “dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” This was not seen as helpful advice by many women. The first SlutWalk drew over 3,000 participants at Queen’s Park and police headquarters in Toronto, as a reaction to an attitude seen as enabling rape culture, victim blaming, and “slutshaming.” Organizers also wanted to reclaim the word “slut” as a positive term for women in charge of their own sexuality.
My Oxford dictionary defines shame as “a feeling of distress or humiliation caused by consciousness of the guilt or folly of oneself or an associate.” Feelings of shame are associated with feelings of guilt, but shame is not the same thing as guilt. Feelings of guilt result from awareness that one has transgressed a law or his or her own values. On the other hand, feelings of shame result from fear of the consequences when the transgression is known by others.
Shame is misplaced when it comes about through no wrongdoing of one’s own. A woman might be ashamed of her body, even though her genes are not her fault. An Olympic athlete might feel that he has brought shame on his family and country after being beaten in competition, despite doing his best. Jesus’ disciples once asked him whether a man’s own sin or his parents’ caused him to be born blind. The question implied the cultural assumption that a birth defect was shameful because it was deserved. Jesus repudiated this assumption when he said that his blindness was not the consequence of sin, but a chance to show God’s glory, and then he healed him (John 9:1-3 ESV). Jesus was not ashamed of the man, even if his culture was. We might also be shamed when we strive to do the right thing, while everyone else is doing the wrong thing, and they resent us for it.
Although there is no shortage of misplaced shame, there is also justified shame. A man who has cheated on his wife may feel so ashamed that he can hardly face her—as he should, because he is guilty of a serious sin. A billionaire financier who is caught swindling his clients’ fortunes to build his own, ought to feel ashamed. If he does not, we rightly wonder what is wrong with him. In these instances, the shame is deserved because a real transgression has been committed, and it has resulted in real guilt.
This is the pattern we see in Genesis 3, in the story of the fall of mankind. Immediately after Adam and Eve broke God’s law by eating the forbidden fruit, they became ashamed of their nakedness and covered themselves up. Then, they hid from God as well (Gen. 3:6-8). Sin led to real moral guilt; because of their guilt, they could no longer face God (justified shame), and they could no longer face each other (misplaced shame).
Our culture doesn’t like the reality of shame. A few months ago, a woman in the States was arrested for attacking a pro-life demonstration: verbally abusing and assaulting the demonstrators and kicking over their signs. Inevitably, her vituperation and vandalism found its way onto YouTube. Criminal charges against her were later dropped, in return for paying restitution to the pro-life group for the damage to the signs. That should have settled the matter, but not long afterward, the woman’s mother filed suit against the pro-life group. She alleged that the video recording of her daughter’s misbehaviour had shamed her and caused “emotional distress” to her family.[i]
SlutWalk began with a valid concern about misplaced shame: a woman is not to blame for being sexually assaulted, nor does the manner of her dress lessen her rapist’s responsibility for his actions. However, many women at the marches protest misplaced shame by celebrating immodesty, a cause for justified shame. They wear tight clothing or lingerie, or might even go partially nude. A woman wearing skimpy clothes in public doesn’t deserve to be raped; that’s a given. But as a protest against perceived sexual profiling, it begs the question, not only of how dressing immodestly is supposed to empower a woman, but more fundamentally of whether she ought to be wearing skimpy clothes in public.
Society has given a new commandment unto us: Thou shalt not shame the shameless. I wonder if this new taboo against the reality of shame has come about because many people’s worldviews deny the reality of sin. If you feel you have no sin to be guilty of, you have no reason to be ashamed of yourself. But if sin and guilt actually exist, then they can’t be expiated merely by saying they don’t. In the Christian worldview, there is no such thing as shamelessness. “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Christianity teaches that justified shame is universal, because all of us should be legitimately shameful of some acts we have committed.
Jesus Christ was the righteous man who was shamed through no wrongdoing of his own. Though he was guiltless himself, he suffered the death penalty the guilty deserved, by dying in their place by crucifixion. A Roman cross was such a shameful thing that it was never spoken of in polite society. Around 100 BC, Cicero said, in defense of Gaius Rabirius, a senator charged with treason and facing crucifixion, “the executioner, the veiling of heads, and the very word ‘cross,’ let them all be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears. . . . the mere mention of them are unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.”[ii]
Yet this infamous symbol of Roman cruelty became Christianity’s greatest symbol of triumph. “[F]ar be it from me to boast,” writes the apostle Paul, “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). How is this object of shame a cause for boasting? Only Christ, as the sinless Son of God, has the ability to take away the guilt of sin. He willingly accepted the curse of crucifixion: he “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). As the perfect High Priest, he now pleads the cases of sinners before his Father, who does not fail to show mercy, because his Son has satisfied his justice.
Jesus’ life demonstrates that sin is real and justified shame is legitimate. Only his atoning death on the cross deals effectively with them. Shame can’t be defeated by marching in the streets. It can’t be wished away by denying the sin and guilt that brought it. Christ alone answers the problem of justified shame by removing its cause through the forgiveness of sins. He also answers the problem of misplaced shame through his people, the church. Ideally, we are a people who ought to welcome those who have also been unjustly shamed because of sexual abuse, family history, prejudice, or another injustice, and help them to heal—because we, too, might be shamed for Jesus’ sake (Matthew 10:22). To our (justified) shame, the church has not always loved such people as we should; may we learn to do better, by God’s grace. Only Christ is a solution to shame; and “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33).
[i] Steven Ertelt, “Mother of Abortion Activist Who Attacked Pro-Lifers Sues Pro-Life Group for ‘Emotional Distress,'” LifeNews.com, August 29, 2014, accessed October 9, 2014, http://www.lifenews.com/2014/08/29/mother-of-abortion-activist-who-attacked-pro-lifers-sues-pro-life-group-for-emotional-distress/.
[ii] Cicero, pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo 16, tr. C. D. Yonge, Perseus Digital Library, accessed October 9, 2014, http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0474.phi012.perseus-eng2:16.