5 min read

Should you be ashamed of yourself?

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Shame powers cancel culture, yet its historic role is guarding community boundaries. Henna Cundill takes an in depth look at shame - and empathy.
The word 'SHAME' spray painted onto a grey hoarding in lime green paint.
Anthony Easton/flickr: PinkMoose, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Put on this dunce’s cap and go and stand in the corner!” cries the teacher, and immediately we are transported to a scene that takes place in a schoolroom of centuries past. Likewise, if nowadays we were to see a woman being led down the street wearing a scold’s bridle, we might assume that there was a very odd sort of party going on; we might even intervene or phone the police. Why? Because these are not the scenes of 21st century Britain. We don’t do public shaming anymore – at least, we like to think we don’t.  

But the truth is we very much do; in fact, shame is essential, at least to a certain degree. For a group to survive with any sense of collective identity and purpose, something has to prevent each person within that group from becoming too greedy, or too lazy, or too dishonest. That something is often the fear of being shamed, not even punished – just shamed. It doesn’t feel nice to be judged and found wanting, or to fear that you might be. 

Think back to the last windy day when your recycling bin blew over – did you experience a passing moment of concern about the public pavement acrobatics of your wine-bottles, cake boxes and ready-meal trays? No need to blush – your neighbours probably rushed out ahead of you to hide their own multifarious sins. Studies have long shown that installing self-checkouts at supermarkets dramatically increases the purchase rates of “stigma items” such as alcohol and unhealthy foods. Oh, the things we do when we think no one is watching… 

So, shame is, on one level, a functional tool which does the essential job of guarding the life and boundaries of a community. Perhaps one or two of us still eats a little too much and drinks a little too much, but shame is one of the things that keeps most of us from going too far, too often – or at least the threat of shame tends to discourage. As Graham Tomlin has recently explored – we still live in a society that equates over-indulgence with a lack of virtue.  

It’s one thing for shame to guard certain moral boundaries (as long as we can all agree what they are) but we’re in a troubling place with the social ones. 

However, when an individual does step out of line, then the shaming process has two modes of presentation: exposure or exclusion, sometimes both. This is most clearly seen in a court of law, where an offender is first ceremonially declared to be guilty (exposure) and then is subsequently sentenced (exclusion) – often “removed” from society, at least for a while, via a custodial sentence or a curfew. In this very clear way, shaming plays a functional role for the well-being of society as a whole.  

But these two prongs of the shaming process can also happen in rather dysfunctional ways, some of which are dangerously subtle. We fear the recycling bin disgorging its contents because there is a certain social shame in being seen to consume too much junk. Fine. But what about the teenager who is compelled into a cycle of disordered eating because a schoolfellow has pointed the finger and said the dreaded word, “fat”? Likewise, many people love a chit-chat, and the fear of being excluded from a social group usefully prevents most of us from being too fixed on one topic, or from appearing inattentive or impolite. But in my research with autistic people, some have shared that they feel shamed out of social groups entirely simply because “chit-chat” is not right for them. Some have a language processing delay, others find “small talk” a bit confusing and inane and would rather talk about something specific. It’s one thing for shame to guard certain moral boundaries (as long as we can all agree what they are) but we’re in a troubling place with the social ones. Some of this shaming doesn’t sound very functional, not if the wellbeing of society is supposedly the goal.  

The inverse of shame is empathy. Where shame excludes, empathy shows attentiveness. 

Perhaps the saltiest example of this problem is the now infamous “cancel culture”. I know – even I can’t believe I would risk bringing that up as a writer, that’s how charged this debate has become. But de-platforming, boycotting, or publicly castigating someone for the views that they express – these are shaming activities, an attempt to render an individual exposed and excluded. It can be a very tricky argument as to whether this counts as functional shame, guarding the wellbeing of society, or dysfunctional shame, guarding little more than social norms.  

We ought to try and take it on a case-by-case basis, but even then, sometimes what one person takes as a moral absolute another person sees as a social choice. At the same time, those who hold dearly to certain moral absolutes sometimes lose sight of the societal impact of what they say. The result can be a strange kind of war, one where there is virtually no engagement between two opposing factions, and the only weapons are a string of press releases and a whole lot of contempt. Eventually, often regardless of there being no engagement and no progress, both sides vigorously declare themselves to be the winner.   

Jesus once said a strange thing when he was talking to a crowd. He said: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way.” In other words, “Just have a chat first,” says Jesus, “and see if you can’t come to terms.” It was part of a much longer discourse where he also told the crowd to “love your enemies” – and this with the kind of love called agape, a love which favourably discriminates and chooses someone – very much the opposite of shaming them.  

For my own research I have looked in depth at the shaming experience, and one of the conclusions that I come to is that the inverse of shame is empathy. Where shame excludes, empathy shows attentiveness. Where shame exposes an individual, empathy draws them into discussion. To empathise with someone is not to agree with them, but it is to recognise they are human just the same, and that through openness and dialogue it is possible for people, even those who have very different experiences of the world, to explore each other’s perspectives. The end point of that exploration may not be agreement – it might still be everyone back to their corners. But in the process no one has been shamed, no one exposed or excluded, no-one othered or dehumanised.  

Of course, it is far easier to point the finger, to expose someone to the court of public opinion, and then to turn one’s face away, nose in the air, mouth clamped shut in an apparently dignified silence. On the surface this seems like the elegant response – live and let live – but in fact it is not: to designate someone as not worthy of attention is to very publicly inflict shame. We might as well clamp them into a scold’s bridle and lead them down the street. And, as we do so, let’s hope it’s not a windy day – or if it is, let’s be sure that we have firmly tied down the lids of our recycling bins.   

7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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