Guilt and Shame

Do you live in a guilt-based or a shame-based society?

Guilt is assigned by law, quantifiably based on right and wrong, and it usually goes away after punishment. Shame, by contrast, is assigned by the community, it is much harder to quantify and only disappears when a person’s honour is restored. It can potentially destroy a person’s standing in the community permanently.

In a recent book by author Steve Bell on explaining the gospel to those from an Eastern context, one of the points he makes is that Western Christians often explain the gospel in terms of guilt: “I was guilty before God, and Christ took the punishment for my sins”. This is true, and gloriously so, but Eastern societies tend to be based on shame, and this does not resonate with people from them. There is, however, also a telling of the gospel based on the concept of shame: “My sin shames me, but Jesus has taken away my shame and given me honour”. In expounding this point, he writes (p.12):

The unfortunate thing is that the Western focus on ‘guilt’ has developed to the exclusion of the eastern focus on ‘shame’…

This got me thinking (as all good books do) about the relative places of guilt and shame in UK society today. As would be expected for a 21st century Western country, I think that we are almost entirely a guilt-based society. Politicians no longer resign if they are caught in moral turpitude. People argue that private lives should have no effect on public status. Few actions which used to lead to shame do any more – in fact, “shaming” someone is in some quarters considered to be a great evil.

What consequences does this have? If people only have the ability to understand the world in guilt-based categories, then I wonder if they will tend to take their ideas of what is right and wrong from what is legal and illegal. “This is legal, so it must be OK.” This then means that people attempting to make something socially acceptable campaign hard for its legalization, because they believe it will then lead to its social normalization and acceptability. And, in a society with little concept of shame, they may well be right.

2 thoughts on “Guilt and Shame

  1. If you reserve the term “guilt” for conviction under a formal legal system and “shame” for community-assigned blame, what word do you use when a person is condemned by some other party (e.g., by the perpetrator’s own conscience, by an individual close friend or family member, or by God)?

    • The book intersects the idea of conscience with guilt and with shame in an interesting way – I’d need to provide quite a long quote to demonstrate it, though. Perhaps you could buy a copy instead ;-)

      Friends and family would be ‘shame’ – they are your community. God can be both; he doesn’t suffer from the problem of wrongly emphasizing one over the other. :-)