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Reflections on Sin and Shame

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Sexual scandal is always an attention grabber, so it's not surprising to see the media frenzy that has accompanied the latest revelations about NYC mayor hopeful Anthony Weiner. The details of Mr. Weiner's bizarre behaviors are widely known or easily accessed elsewhere, so I won't bother repeating them here. Suffice it to say, Mr. Weiner engaged in some salacious sexual indiscretions through the medium of cyberspace.

It remains an open question, however, whether the American media will have the moral courage to condemn Mr. Weiner's behavior or whether they will stick with the notions that Weiner's actions merely bespeak "poor judgment" and that Weiner can't be trusted because he lied that the behaviors at issue were behind him.

No matter how low one may descend on the morality scale, when it comes to sexual behaviors, the talking heads on television consistently fall over each other trying to give the Wieners of the world an out: "Why should the public care about the personal lives of public officials?" "Isn't their job performance all that matters?" "Who am I to second guess their sexual preferences?"

Even those commentators who are willing to be a bit more critical still tend to tiptoe around the morality of Weiner's behaviors: "He has a disease." "He's self-destructive." "He's working hard with his therapist."

Our culture has largely abandoned the concepts of sin and shame. To publicly declare that one should be "ashamed" of any form of sexual activity has become the greatest sin of all. Such behaviors are all now "personal choices" not to be judged by others or "conditions" to be treated with therapy.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky gets to the heart of the matter in a recent piece:

"Shame was murdered when morality was reduced to a lifestyle preference that is completely subjective. There was a time when a married, two parent (male and female) family with children was not only the norm of American life but socially desirable. Today, people boast about families existing in all forms, with different configurations and lifestyles on which any moral judgment redounds to the detriment of the putative judge."

When individual choice becomes the greatest good, ethics fall by the wayside. Once choice becomes the highest value, there is no right and wrong. Moral standards, honor, and shame become obsolete. Sin and moral failure are reduced to mere personal peccadilloes. As Pruzansky says,

"Every lowlife can retreat behind the wall of 'personal morality,' and then, as has become customary, wrap himself in the warm blanket of 'therapy' which transforms the scoundrel into the victim or patient."

The motivation behind this moral equivocation is understandable: We all sin, so who wants to cast the first stone? It's simply easier to individualize, personalize, and marginalize all sins. However, our collective moral guilt does not excuse our individual failings. It just points to the need for our individual and collective repentance and reformation. If we refuse to call sin by its name, we excuse it and ignore our need for salvation and regeneration.

When, as a culture, we excuse sin and eliminate shame, we inevitably descend to the lowest common denominator. As a result, we have to live with the consequences of refashioned social norms: disposable human beings (abortion, infanticide, euthanasia) and broken families (on-demand divorce, cohabitation, gay marriage).

Conservative political theorist and statesman Edmund Burke pointed out the vital role that shame plays in a society. It reinforces moral standards and social stability:

"Whilst shame keeps its watch, virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart; nor will moderation be utterly exiled from the minds of tyrants."

Historically, notions of sin and shame have played an essential part in forming the mores that lead to the self-governance of people within a society. Unwritten rules backed by transcendent moral authority often have had a far greater impact on society than those enumerated in government's law books. Inevitably, however, when shame is exiled from the public square, moral standards are evicted as well.

Americans would do well to reclaim our personal and cultural standards, acknowledge that we all fall short of them, and pray for redemption and reformation. We should also re-embrace the concept of shame, for cultural standards are meaningless if there is no pressure to uphold them. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays summed it up well when he penned these words:

"It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.

"It is not a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled. But it is a calamity not to dream.

"It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, But it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture.

"It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars. But it is a disgrace not to have stars to reach for.

"Not failure, but low aim is a sin."

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