The Case for Shame: We’ve Lost The Delicate Moral Paradox

There’s a more real problem within the Church and society, that we no longer can discern the difference between shame and shaming.

In 1992, Peggy Noonan penned a brilliant eulogy for American moral delicacy, titled “You’d cry too if it happened to you.” Allow me to quote liberally from it.

We have all had a moment when all of a sudden we looked around and thought: The world is changing, I am seeing it change. This is for me the moment when the new America began: I was at a graduation ceremony at a public high school in New Jersey. It was 1971 or 1972. One by one a stream of black-robed students walked across the stage and received their diplomas. And a pretty young girl with red hair, big under her graduation gown, walked up to receive hers. The auditorium stood up and applauded. I looked at my sister: “She’s going to have a baby.”

The girl was eight months pregnant and had had the courage to go through with her pregnancy and take her finals and finish school despite society’s disapproval.

But: Society wasn’t disapproving. It was applauding. Applause is a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart. And yet, in the sound of that applause I heard a wall falling, a thousand-year wall, a wall of sanctions that said: We as a society do not approve of teenaged unwed motherhood because it is not good for the child, not good for the mother and not good for us.

The old America had a delicate sense of the difference between the general (“We disapprove”) and the particular (Let’s go help her”). We had the moral self-confidence to sustain the paradox, to sustain the distance between “official” disapproval and “unofficial” succor. The old America would not have applauded the girl in the big graduation gown, but some of its individuals would have helped her not only materially but with some measure of emotional support. We don’t so much anymore. For all our tolerance and talk we don’t show much love to what used to be called girls in trouble. As we’ve gotten more open-minded we’ve gotten more closed-hearted.

Message to society: What you applaud, you encourage. And: Watch out what you celebrate.

We are now fully upside-down from Noonan’s “moment.” A Christian teen, Maddi Runkles, is pregnant. Her Christian school disapproves, and has banned her from walking with her class to get her diploma. It is no longer an act of courage for a young girl, large with child, to walk in a graduation–society approves of this.

It has become an act worthy of outrage for a school, or any authority, to disapprove of a moral failure that caused this pregnancy. There’s only one way for a girl to get pregnant, and from a Biblical morality viewpoint, outside of her prevenient marriage, it is a moral failure.

The school has taken the delicate sense of general societal disapproval and the particular acts of kindness and charity, and thrown both to the wind. But that’s only because society as a whole has lost that delicate paradox.

Pro-life groups have rallied to Runkles’ cause, stating that Heritage Academy is exhibiting the cold-hearted shunning that drives young girls to abortion clinics in the first place. Kimberly Ross excellently argues this case in RedState.

It is one thing to deal with the pregnancy privately. Instead, the school’s refusal to involve Maddi in graduation sends this very public message: “Choosing life should be frowned upon.”

The school has an extraordinary opportunity to promote wholeness through adversity by treating Ms. Runkles as they would any other student. This does not negate the serious nature of the situation, but reinforces that life can – and does – continue for women and their unplanned, unexpected children.

This is true, in a morally-relative sense. Young girls who find themselves in what they see as an impossible situation of carrying a child while planning to walk out of childhood themselves are confused, stressed, and terrified. Why would anyone want to shame them?

The answer is precisely the one Noonan gave 25 years ago. “What you applaud, you encourage. And: Watch out what you celebrate.” Christian authorities, like schools, should rightly promote a sense of shame for moral failing. That’s not condemnation–we are all sinners. But these groups and leaders should not celebrate the sin–yes, it’s sin–that caused the situation for which we should all, rightly, have compassion.

But American society has lost the delicate paradox of loving the sinner and hating the sin. Therefore, it’s become impossible for a Christian school to maintain Biblical standards of behavior without being condemned by society for shaming those who sin. It’s become impossible for a school, or a church, to show charity, kindness, and compassion to those who have fallen to sin without also celebrating the sin itself.

The two things have become inseparable to us, because we’ve lost the delicate paradox.

I’ve been involved with a crisis pregnancy center for a number of years. I know what the ministry and the service-centered clinical facility associated with it, stand for. They do not judge. They do not preach. They extend a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to cry, and an arm to lift up and support the cause of life. They offer hope to women who feel trapped by a decision they never thought would result in their lives being inalterably changed.

Each of these women are a particular case. There is not societal “approval” or “disapproval” attached to them, only love.

Yet, in a larger sense, society, especially Christian authorities, need to maintain the case for Biblical disapproval of sin. Forcing a Christian school to embrace immorality because the pro-life movement requires unbridled permission to celebrate pregnancy is really working against the cause of Christ in the larger sense.

Maddi Runkles, the product of a society that’s become simultaneously more tolerant and closed-hearted, expressed her distress to the New York Times.

“Some pro-life people are against the killing of unborn babies, but they won’t speak out in support of the girl who chooses to keep her baby,” she said. “Honestly, that makes me feel like maybe the abortion would have been better. Then they would have just forgiven me, rather than deal with this visible consequence.

Ross cited this as the “very real problem within the pro-life movement.” But I think she misses the larger point. There’s a more real problem within the Church and society, that we no longer can discern the difference between shame and shaming. Shame is brought upon oneself for sins committed–it is a ministry of conviction administered by the Holy Spirit. Shaming is a very human act of condemnation of others for acts they bear no responsibility for.

We should not shame the disabled, or the mentally ill, or the poor, or the sick. But an unmarried teen with child is not being shamed, she bears her own shame in the sin. To say there is no shame in sin is to say there is no sin at all.

Now, all that being said, society now accepts without comment pregnant teens walking in high school graduations (or even middle school these days). It’s no longer a cause to celebrate for bravery or grit. Therefore, the school would be well within societal norms, and really not sending any message whatsoever for the pro-life movement to use if Maddi Runkles walked with her class and collected her diploma.

I daresay that it wouldn’t be news at all, of any kind. It wouldn’t be discussed, or known. Runkles would just be another teen with another unplanned baby. We should celebrate that life, and rightfully support Runkles for choosing life. But we should recognize that as a Christian, it’s her duty to celebrate that life herself, and to carry it into this world.

If Runkles had followed through with an abortion because she felt “like maybe the abortion would have been better,” would she have not brought more shame onto herself? Would the pro-life groups have said she has no shame in choosing abortion to avoid the shame of being a teenage unwed mother?

Without shame, and without the delicate paradox of a general disapproval of sin versus a particular application of grace and kindness, our society has become a culture unable to advocate any cause, oppose any sin, or maintain any standards of Biblical morality.

Noonan was right a quarter century ago. Now our society has come full circle, and it’s a very sad day indeed.

For all our tolerance and talk we don’t show much love to what used to be called girls in trouble. As we’ve gotten more open-minded we’ve gotten more closed-hearted.

About the author

Steve Berman

The old Steve cared about money, prestige, and power. Then Christ found me. All at once things changed. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I spent 30 years in business. Now I write and edit. But mostly I love. I have a wife and 2 kids and a dog and we live in a little house in central Georgia.

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