What a Shame


I grew up in an era when people talked about shame and understood it. Today’s permissive culture tends to excuse bad behavior in an effort to avoid appearing prejudiced or judgmental. Although past generations may have taken too severe an approach to shaming people guilty of committing social taboos, modern societies seem to have gone overboard in excusing misbehavior.

When I taught American literature, my classes always studied Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The story, set in Puritan times, tells the story of Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman who became pregnant by her pastor, Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale. Though married, Hester had crossed the Atlantic without her husband whose long delay hinted at his death.

Even if her husband had died, Puritan mores would have prevented Hester from having a sexual relationship with her Puritan pastor, the young, unmarried Rev. Dimmesdale. Unfortunately for Hester, she became pregnant and couldn’t conceal her condition for long. She refused to name her lover and thus bore the entire shame of her sin as her pastor certainly did not confess his part in the sin.

Puritans believed that public humiliation motivated people to obey laws and rules. Hester’s punishment began with her standing on a scaffold, holding her illegitimate baby while people hurled insults at her. That punishment only began her shunning. For the rest of her life, she wore an embroidered letter A on the front of her dress, permanently labeling her as an adulteress.

More recently, HBO produced a hugely successful series entitled Game of Thrones. Its script included a strict religious sect who could imprison and punish people for behavior the sect deemed sinful. One of the punishments the sect imposed employed a walk of shame. The guilty person had to walk naked through a gauntlet of accusers who hurled not only insults but objects at him or her. 

I am certainly glad that we no longer employ Puritan or other barbaric punishments for sins; however, I fear we may have become so permissive and lenient that many people feel immune to guilt or shame. Some even refuse to acknowledge historical wrongdoings rather than accept them as facts and learn from them.

When early settlers came from Europe to America, they pushed the indigenous people off their land. Because of the cultural differences between the clashing groups, the indigenous people succumbed to European power and strategies. 

As a result of their displacement, Native Americans live at one of the lowest socio-economic levels in this country. Their literacy rate ranks among the lowest, their suicide rate among the highest, and their addiction rate one of the highest in the entire population.

Following the displacement of Native Americans, early settlers began kidnapping and enslaving Africans. Thousands of Africans traveled to our shores in cramped and unsanitary ships in which many of them died. When they arrived here, the slave-traders sold them at auction to white landowners who often used and abused them. 

Some slave owners beat and raped their slaves. Any children born to slaves added to the plantation owner’s assets. In many cases, owners separated parents and children in an effort to kill emotional bonding that occurs in families.

In 1882, America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. California workers pushed for the law because they felt the Chinese would take their jobs from them. 

Over the years, many challenged the law and sometimes achieved alterations; however, the government denied the Chinese citizenship and the right to vote and mandated them to carry official papers to prove their legal residence.

During WW II, America detained Japanese Americans in internment camps throughout the country. Fear pervaded society with distrust of anyone of non-European descent. The government seized property owned by Japanese Americans, including homes and businesses, and treated internees as enemies.

Racial prejudice against blacks continued long after the abolition of slavery. By the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement had enough momentum and followers to achieve great change, but that equality has not been achieved yet. 

The Baptist faith group I grew up among did not address racial inequality on a national level until the mid-1990s. Recent racial uprisings have revealed the deeply divided reality in the United States. 

Another shameful reality of our country, as well as others, centers around the subjugation of women as a matter of practice. By banning women from voting, men maintained control of most aspects of American society. 

Women’s domain was the home and family. Their jobs included nurturing their children, keeping their homes clean and well-stocked, and cooking for their families. The Women’s Suffrage Movement included often violent demonstrations that showed the lengths to which some men would go to keep women “in their places.” Women in this country did not gain suffrage until 1920.

America has a sad history of war. Wars inevitably generate many shameful secrets. In many cases, the civilian populations never learn of the injustices and atrocities done in their name. The torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers held in Abu Ghraib prison shocked and saddened most Americans because those events usually remain secret.

Even though we recognize our often selfish, cruel, secretive, and greedy tendencies, we continue to exploit the weak and vulnerable among us. A modern version of these defects in human nature proves the level to which some can sink into an abyss of shame and degradation. Human trafficking has become a world-wide problem because powerful people feel entitled to comfort and luxury with no thought or regard for what that lifestyle costs others.

Amidst the animosity and division in America these days, I feel ashamed for the injustices, cruelty, apathy, hatred, and meanness not only of the past but also of the present. The time has come to say, “I am so sorry for your pain. I am ashamed of the sources of your pain.” Even though I may not personally have committed the offenses, my heart aches because of them. 

God calls us to righteousness, not to political parties. He reminds us in 2 Chronicles 7:14 KJV, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” Shame on us if we refuse to obey!

Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing


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