It’s been an unresolved thought at the back of my mind for some time now that Christopher Lasch’s essay “The Abolition of Shame” is wrong. Shame is everywhere wallowed in. The soul of wit, today, is a shrewd sense of “awkwardness” and highlighting cringeworthy personal failings. Louis C.K. built a successful career on jokes about his own depravity completely at his own expense, and his fall has come because those things turned out not to be so insular and innocent. Without an acute sense of shame in common with his audience, C.K.’s humor would have had no purchase. True, oversharing our shames has the effect of sublimating them into nonjudgmental vapor (that is, until things get out of hand) but the disappearance of shame cannot be what’s amiss in polite society. Instead, we’ve abolished honor.
Honor is the positive flip-side of shame. It’s a currency that one accumulates through good works and justly earned success and if you’ve got it, people will want to put you forward to represent them. But the funny thing about honor is that it accrues slowly and evaporates instantly. A notorious moral lapse in a culture that values honor is enough for your community to instantly and forever dismiss you from your role as their representative. Somewhere along the line we all decided that was a bad deal, and instead opted to become a more open culture where personal moral failings are shared openly: either through the public confessional of cringeworthy comedy or on the other side of the spectrum when Christian sports stars like Josh Hamilton make their paths to healing and faith part of their professional journey and promise for success (with mixed results.)
However, the case of Christians defending Roy Moore this week, exposes how getting rid of honor has had bad results. Such would not have been imaginable just a few decades ago, but we’ve stopped trading in honor, so Moore and his partisans really only have an election to lose. Then as now, no sin, properly repented of, can separate us from love of God. But honor does demand that notorious sin separate us at least from the public eye. God does not judge us by our honor, but that does not mean it shouldn’t exist as a meaningful category in public life, especially for famous people and officeholders. Honor does not diminish grace. Instead it guards it, making sure that earthly consequences are not lost on the way to divine forgiveness, and so that what communities represent are not confused by who represents them. It’s not judgmental to demand, as Paul does in 1 Timothy 3, that those representing your people be above reproach.
For honor to mean anything it has to be self-imposed. Communities need to be ready to repeal and replace the figures that stand for them the moment they slip. This doesn’t mean disowning them, but it does mean getting them out of the public eye for some span of time between indefinitely and forever. Christians are promised forgiveness and eternal life; nobody is promised fame and success. Let honor be weighty that grace may abound.