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The Dead-end of Shame

Artist's rendition of The Scarlet Letter
Artist's rendition of The Scarlet Letter

In the last few weeks, I've seen an uptick in social media posts about the evils of pedophilia and adamant, disgust-filled prescriptions ranging from "get serious help" to "just die".

Isn't that the same language our society used to find acceptable when discussing homosexuality, transgenders, multiracial marriages, etc.? I am not comparing pedophilia to LGBT+ or racism. I am comparing our reaction to things we don't understand or that we disagree with.

When it comes to shame I think we have it wrong in the West, the U.S., and within our faith communities.

Shame has played a significant role in enforcing social norms for millennia, but is it the most effective approach?

I believe it is both lazy and counterproductive. It is based on a mistaken understanding of human nature and has only negative consequences. The alternative is much more difficult but has better outcomes.

Shame drives behavior underground, making it taboo in conversation, and leaves those who are different or struggling alone in self-loathing and bereft of compassion, understanding, and connection.

It makes the rest of us (who don't struggle with that specific thing) think we are exempt from applying the Second Great Commandment to those who struggle. We feel justified in shunning, demeaning, and persecuting them or their behavior, in person or online. This failure to come face to face with the humanity in others and the challenges others face stunts our compassion and retards our discipleship - and leads to great epochs of persecution that eventually comes back to haunt society. Yes, it's much more convenient for us when people around us are "perfect" - they place little demand on our patience, energy, or time. But we don't grow.

It is a mistaken understanding of human nature because it places an expectation on humans to understand, value, and integrate the lessons of history, basically from birth.

It fails to acknowledge or appreciate that every human being awakens to imperfections and inclinations, often to their own surprise and detriment, and often initiates a life-long journey of desperation.

Society may have come to believe through hard-won experience, for example, that dishonesty, bad temper, gambling, or pre/extra-marital sex are harmful to society, but every person coming face to face with those challenges has to be kindly shown the beginning from the end of their particular demons. They deserve our compassion and understanding, remembering that "there, but for the grace of God, go I."

From 2015 to 2020 I served in the lay clergy position of Bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In that role, I met frequently with individuals who struggled with issues ranging from pornography, infidelity, bisexuality, gambling, substance abuse and addiction, pedophilia, etc. Not once did I find that shame was the proper tool to address those situations. Always, the imperative was to recognize the humanity of the person across the desk from me and to speak to their best intentions and best self. Nor did I find shame to be the proper tool when speaking in front of groups or the congreation as a whole.

There is a wide, dangerous, frightening range of human behavior. But rescuing someone from those behaviors is not facilitated by shame. And rescuing should be our objective.

This doesn't mean we disregard the First Great Commandment, to love God and honor his law. It is a challenge to reach for God with one hand while simultaneously reaching out with the other to those struggling with His laws, including ourselves. We must find ways to advocate for humanity's best practices without alienating the very humans who need those best practices the most.

Loving those who "sin differently than us" (Dieter Uchdorf) or are *just different* requires us to stretch, grow, and get outside our echo chambers. Our role is to express compassion and support while advocating for God's standard in the most articulate, loving, and accessible way we know. Anything else, at least for Christians, is un-Christlike.


  1. What role does shame play in your worldview?

  2. What benefits does shame play in society, if any?

  3. What are the downsides of shame?

  4. Do you feel loved, understood, valued, and inclined to change or even keep trying when others employ shame on you?

  5. What are the long-term effects of shame on the individual? On the collective?

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