Jesus said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” – John 8:7-11 NRSV
It has been all over the headlines recently and in countless pictures floating around the internet: shame. From the release of thousands of users of the Ashley Madison website, to pictures of dogs with signs hung around their necks, shaming has become an everyday occurrence in 2015. Frankly, that worries me.
There is no doubt that shame can be a powerful tool to promote change. Jennifer Jacquet suggests that the power of shame is that it can be used by the powerless against the strong. She cites the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example. She says the movement was essentially a shaming campaign against the upper echelon of society, known as the 1%. The movement sought to bring to light practices and structures that the rest of society does not view as acceptable. Shaming has also been used to promote changes in attitudes toward Native Americans and other minority groups.
Jacquet says the power of shame is that it can be used to spark transformation at any scale. Shame can be used against governments and multi-national corporations just as effectively as against the individual. However, she also notes that “just because shame can be effective doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.”1 Jacquet explains that shaming is best-suited for use in situations where there is no obvious route to punishment or where there is a defined impact on boarder society. She says shame “should be reserved for bad behavior that affects most or all of us.”2
Is shaming acceptable behavior for Christians? Yes, and no. In the case of pets who soil the carpet every time the doorbell rings, probably not. Animals cannot feel shame in that way, so it is not about changing behavior as much as it is sharing our misery as pet owners with others. There is also the issue of power. Personally, I have a hard time when someone with power shames someone without power. Which is why I become so frustrated when I see similar shaming pictures of children. I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to have my picture posted on the internet with a sign around my neck, telling the world what mistake I’d made.
I believe the powerful shaming the powerless is an example of bullying. And bullying is never acceptable. Whether we believe it, or not, parents have a great deal of power in relationship to children. When shame leads to fear, I question how ethical it is as a way of encouraging transformation.
Before we throw out shaming altogether, however, we should consider the scripture above. In this passage Jesus turns the tables of shame. A group of men has gathered to stone a woman caught in adultery. This is a very public and likely fatal form of shaming. When Jesus arrives on the scene, however, the situation is transformed. Instead of the powerful men shaming a powerless woman, they are the target of the shame. Simply by inviting anyone without sin to throw the first stone, Jesus defuses the situation.
I think it is important to note one more piece of the equation. In this instance, Jesus does not shame the men. He does not say that they have sinned. He does not declare them unclean. Instead he simply invites them to assess themselves before throwing stones at someone else. In my experience, this is the best way to employ shame as a tool for transformation. Instead of publicly announcing their faults, Jesus boldly invites each person to reflect on their own shortcomings. Through the power of a question Jesus not only saved the life of a woman, but he opened the opportunity for transformation in the life of each man preparing to stone her as well.
Is shaming a powerful tool? Yes. But it has been said that with great power comes great responsibility. It is my prayer that our words and our actions will bring about much-needed transformation in the world. More than that, however, I pray that we will act with the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
1Zoë Corbyn, “Jennifer Jacquet: ‘The power of shame is that it can be used by the weak against the strong’” The Guardian. Accessed August 24, 2015.http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/06/is-shame-necessary-review