The Ineffectiveness of Shame

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height… The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7

When engaging in social issues, we must remember that the above scripture verse is true of the victim and the victimizer. God sees people differently than we see them. We see a “scary black man” and the Lord sees a gentle friend and father. We see a “blue collar white guy” covered in demonic-looking tattoos and the Lord sees a teacher and a mentor to young men.

One thing we learned when we started a nonprofit to fight human trafficking in the Baltimore area was that you can’t create cultural/systemic change with shame. We saw some organizations trying to do just that. But shame creates either defensiveness or hiddenness in the person who needs to hear your message. They will either become more entrenched in defending their sin or just learn how to hide their sin better. Trying to shame people into change is the opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only that but, practically speaking, shame doesn’t work.

Instead, the message must be delivered with hope. We must see people the way God sees them, past their sin and into who God created them to be. In our case, instead of trying to shame men into not buying sex or pornography, it looked like inviting men to be the protectors and defenders of the vulnerable that God had created them to be. It meant not only raising awareness but raising hope and rejecting shame.

Shame disempowers and debilitates people into inaction. It does this to the very people you need to be active and engaged. If shame is your primary way of trying change the culture of racism, it’s time to find a more effective tactic and one that aligns with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is what is so radically different about the gospel. God looked at Saul (who would become Paul) and instead of just seeing someone who was persecuting the Church, He saw the future apostle who would write most of the New Testament. If Saul the persecutor lived in our culture today, one group would try to shame him into changing and another group would just want to sentence him to life in prison. If it was up to these groups in our country, Saul would have never become Paul.

Whenever one person dehumanizes another, they themselves become dehumanized. Whenever one person degrades another, they themselves become degraded. Both the victim and the victimizer simultaneously get degraded and dehumanized in the same act of injustice. The antidote is seeing the image of God in the victim and calling out the injustice. The antidote also involves seeing the image of God in the victimizer and bringing conviction instead of shame. Conviction is a combination of hard truth mixed with hope and love. Conviction says your actions are wrong but your identity was created for more. It speaks to the heart of who God created a person to be.

True conviction always carries with it hopefulness. This is what allows a person not to retreat into defensiveness or hiddenness. It’s hope and love that help someone face their sin long enough to move into repentance. Shame can never do that.

Jesus, help us to have eyes to see people the way You see them. Help us to see past the sin in a person’s life and into who You created them to be. And move us past shame, Lord. Convict us of our own sin and give us the hopefulness of the gospel, that You are changing us from the inside out through Your Holy Spirit. May we not shame ourselves or others. Instead, Jesus, may we move from conviction into repentance. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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