Shame

Let’s talk about shame.

In today’s psychotherapeutic culture, we have a rich conceptual language and vocabulary for internal states. When I mentioned shame two sentences ago, you probably thought about an internal feeling of shame. Over the past few years, we have also begun to speak again about shame as an external experience, something that someone else can do to you. (Hence the discussions of fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and so on.)

Once upon a time, public shaming was how societies regulated themselves, to a degree unheard of today. Under that system, there was  no vindication except public vindication. The shame was public; the vindication had to be as well. When the psalmists called on God to defend them, they were asking God to definitively, publicly forcing their enemies to bow the knee and admit that they were wrong.

That was what it meant to be vindicated by God.

And conversely, if that didn’t happen, you were shamed. You could know you were innocent, but that did you no good; everyone else thought you were guilty and treated you as guilty. Avoiding this ugly fate is what “let me not be ashamed” (a common prayer in the psalms) means. No one sat serenely, calmly assured in himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong, even though every one else believed he had. No, they did what Job did: Cry out to God to show the world their righteousness!

Before the cross, this was just common sense. Jesus destroyed the entire system of public shame. By being convicted and shamed by the system, He definitively demonstrated the injustice of of the system. If it can convict God Himself, the system is irretrievably flawed.

What God did next introduced both a new form of vindication, and a new way to live. 

God vindicated Jesus in such a way that the chief offenders didn’t have their faces rubbed in it. It wasn’t in any way unclear — Jesus rose from the dead — but neither was it entirely public. It’s true that “these things were not done in a corner” as Peter said in his sermon, but at the same time, Jesus did not conquer His enemies and make them grovel before His feet. The twelve disciples did not ascend twelve thrones and rule Israel. The risen and victorious Jesus did not march into Caiaphas’ house and Pilate’s court and force them to admit that they had failed in their duties.

If you wanted to know whether God had vindicated Jesus, there was enough evidence that you could be sure. And if you didn’t want to know, you could pay off the guards, as the Jewish leaders did, and just go on with your life. You could kick against the goads, as young Saul of Tarsus did.

By this semi-visible approach to the resurrection, God the Father introduced a new kind of vindication in the world, where you can be definitively, decisively vindicated by God in the eyes of heaven, and you can be sure of it even now on earth…and yet no one will be forced to acknowledge it. This form of vindication forces the earthly powers to reveal whether they are seeking the truth or not. It makes them tip their hand, and that’s a beautiful thing. 

Our challenge is to live in the confidence that we have been vindicated by God, even if others refuse to acknowledge it — to ignore the social proof and trust God. This is the example Jesus sets for us, and Paul explains.

Trust that God will vindicate you visibly at last, but if Jesus can wait until the last day, then so can you. 

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