Do You Know How to Blush?
Several years ago I preached a sermon titled “Whatever Became of Shame?” In the sermon I said that without a sense of shame we have lost our basis for morality. In light of all that is happening in our country today, I got the sermon out and read it again. It seems more relevant today than when I preached it about five years ago.
What is shame and what role does shame play in our life? Shame has been defined as a consciousness or awareness of dishonor, condemnation, or disgrace. That consciousness stems from thought, from weighing options before making decisions — albeit the wrong decisions. This is why animals have no sense of shame, for an animal acts by instinct. For him there is no awareness of disgrace, and no shame involved in his actions, no matter how disastrous the results.
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman said that the Jewish teaching in the Talmud says that one of the distinguishing features of the Jewish people is that we are baishanim, that we have a sense of shame. Shame is our distinctive characteristic. Without it, the self is easily debased, and we are like animals.
The barriers of shame in general have been gradually toppling around us. What was once shameful and kept to one’s self is today a matter of pride and public display. Instead of being embarrassed by certain behaviors, it has become acceptable to flaunt such behaviors, as if a sense of shame were a defect of character, a personal disability. In our selfie culture, where personal satisfaction and enjoyment reigns supreme, we are being taught that the healthy person has no sense of shame. We have lifted the taboos, so that shame itself has become shameful.
But beginning with Adam in the Garden who is ashamed because of his sin, that sense of shame is what makes us human.
Shame operates as a force of self-restraint. It reminds us of behavioral limits, of boundaries which we will not cross. A healthy sense of shame reminds us of our natural human obligations to others and to ourselves. This is very crucial, because history teaches one major lesson: when shame goes, the demise of civilization cannot be far behind. Which is a worrying factor today: without embarrassment, everything goes, and the concept of shame is fading from our lexicon.
The words of Jeremiah leap from the page, “They should have been ashamed at the abominations they committed, but they felt not the least shame, nor did they know how to blush….” (Jeremiah 8:12).
The sense of shame is what makes us human. It is the last refuge of the sinner. When, as Jeremiah puts it, we have forgotten how to blush, that’s when civilization is in trouble. Shame is nothing to be ashamed of.
God give us a sense of shame. Amen.
Offered by Rev. Dr. Michael Elmore
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