Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects

Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects

Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects

Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects


Virginia Burrus explores one of the strongest and most disturbing aspects of the Christian tradition, its excessive preoccupation with shame. While Christianity has frequently been implicated in the conversion of ancient Mediterranean cultures from shame- to guilt-based, and thus in the emergence of the modern West's emphasis on guilt, Burrus seeks to recuperate the importance of shame for Christian culture. Focusing on late antiquity, she explores a range of fascinating phenomena, from the flamboyant performances of martyrs to the imagined abjection of Christ, from the self-humiliating disciplines of ascetics to the intimate disclosures of Augustine.

Burrus argues that Christianity innovated less by replacing shame with guilt than by embracing shame. Indeed, the ancient Christians sacrificed honor but laid claim to their own shame with great energy, at once intensifying and transforming it. Public spectacles of martyrdom became the most visible means through which vulnerability to shame was converted into a defiant witness of identity; this was also where the sacrificial death of the self exemplified by Christ's crucifixion was most explicitly appropriated by his followers. Shame showed a more private face as well, as Burrus demonstrates. The ambivalent lure of fleshly corruptibility was explored in the theological imaginary of incarnational Christology. It was further embodied in the transgressive disciplines of saints who plumbed the depths of humiliation. Eventually, with the advent of literary and monastic confessional practices, the shame of sin's inexhaustibility made itself heard in the revelations of testimonial discourse.

In conversation with an eclectic constellation of theorists, Burrus interweaves her historical argument with theological, psychological, and ethical reflections. She proposes, finally, that early Christian texts may have much to teach us about the secrets of shame that lie at the heart of our capacity for humility, courage, and transformative love.


Merely to write the words “my shame” is to perform a subtly transgressive act, albeit one already native to writing itself. What, the reader may wonder, with an impending sense of vicarious shame, is this author about to reveal? (Shame is peculiarly infectious.) Writing, however, is a place where we hide as well as reveal ourselves. Be reassured—and warned.

I am a fifth-generation Texan, as measured along at least one line of genealogy. in my case, this is to say that I am a child of both the U.S. South and its Western frontier—on my mother’s side, the descendent of Baptists who arrived in East Texas as cotton mill workers, on my father’s side, the descendent of Church of Christ folk who made their living in or alongside the vast ranches of the sun-baked Panhandle. Named for my two grandmothers, I am marked more than nominally by their doubled legacies.

From my maternal grandmother, I learned all too early of the dangers harbored within my very body, which seemingly could never be scrubbed clean enough—outside or in (don’t ask). I learned too about the damp stain of shame that seeped through the gaping cracks of poverty (alternately, love of luxury) and ignorance (alternately, false pride in “book learning”), the treacherous betrayal of a grammatical lapse, an ill-chosen garment or illappointed house, the unseemly display of female sexuality, or the more typically masculine thirst for drink or gambling. (“Your body is the temple of the Lord”—a favorite proof text of Southern Baptists.) From the embarrassed silence that surrounded the topic of her husband’s Cherokee descent, I now also apprehend with hindsight the particular (and particularly destructive) vulnerability of Southern whiteness to shame. That she had been divorced from her husband at her own initiative was something we likewise simply pretended not to know.

I learned much from my maternal grandmother, not to mention the many aunts, uncles, and cousins frequently joined under her matriarchal hospitality, about the joys of shamelessness as well, though these lessons were more difficult to decipher. Indeed, as a child, I was often slightly puzzled by the family habit of publicly recounting distinctly humiliating stories . . .

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