Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

From Shame to Responsibility and Christian Identity: The Dynamics of Shame and Confession regarding the 'Shoah.'

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

From Shame to Responsibility and Christian Identity: The Dynamics of Shame and Confession regarding the 'Shoah.'

Article excerpt


Christians who wrestle with the Shoah face a problematic task: how to live with their history in light of that history's role in the Shoah. One need not recite a litany of scholarly quotes to make the point. The investigations of many scholars reveal a legacy of displacement and contempt that contributed significantly to an event that has marked history indelibly. How do critically reflective Christians live with that legacy, knowing how tangled it is with their confessional identities? The present essay seeks to address this question by utilizing a distinction that the literature of psychology makes between shame and guilt, asking how one lives with such shame without remaining ashamed.

Facing Shame

Facing shame is no easy task. While shame can be associated with an ambiguous set of emotions that range from mild embarrassment to intense disgrace, the full experience of shame involves facing aspects about one's identity that, when faced, tend to threaten the core of who one is. That threat includes possible separation or alienation and injury to the self.(1) As Thomas J. Scheff has pointed out, "In feeling shame, one experiences . . . the disintegration of the self, or its potential for disintegration."(2) By contrast, one's identity is not threatened by the experience of guilt. Indeed, the pain of guilt is dependent upon the identity that has transgressed an honored boundary or value. Consequently, guilt confirms identity even while it causes pain.(3) In guilt, one's identity remains intact,(4) but shame is experienced as a threat to the very identity of the one experiencing it. That identity must grow to incorporate the shame; deny, withdraw, or bypass the shame to remain intact; or disintegrate under shame's critique. In this sense, shame is a crisis of the self or the identity of a group or a people.

Still, shame is not simply an identity-related phenomenon. More precisely, shame is an identity-in-relation phenomenon. In all its forms, shame has to do with how one is seen by significant others. Whether the other is internalized or literally an external other, the persons or agents experiencing shame enter a self-referential crisis in terms of how they are seen by another or others whose view of them is vital to the maintenance of their identity. Some aspect of who or what one is seen by another leaving the one seen problematically exposed. In other words, shame is related to a vulnerability of self or of identity that is not chosen but unexpectedly encountered, revealing an unembraced nakedness to some other whose gaze counts significantly.

The phrase, "facing shame" is an instructive one. On the one hand it implies confronting a reality or dimension about one's life or history that requires a change in the level of awareness about an already present reality. It also implies that shame is more easily recognized and encountered for what it is when a "face" can be put on it. That is, the tale of discomfort that is the source of shame is encountered in naming the events that give rise to the affect of shame. Further, the events that give rise to shame generally have to do with the self in relation to some significant other, whether that other is literal or figurative, internalized or physically present. As well, the affect often precedes any awareness of what is at stake. Understanding and healing often follow from the naming, but naming alone is not enough. If all that happens is that the unwelcome exposure of shame is recalled, then the recalling doubles back on itself, with the recalling of the experience evoking further shame - and the shame perpetuates itself in a recurring cycle.(5)

Still, the primary task in dealing with shame is recognition. Shame must be recognized as present and as the unsettling experience that it is. Most often, that is accomplished by identifying the "other" in whose presence, whether internalized or not, the experience of shame has arisen. …

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