A Pastoral Response to Public Shaming

June 2, 2017

Nearly every day someone tweets something idiotic. Recently, apparently in the middle of the night, the President tweeted an indecipherable message that included the combination of letters “convefe.” He’s been mocked for it mercilessly.

A day or two later, comedian Kathy Griffin, well known for her comedic insults of celebrities, posed for photographs holding what appeared to be a bloody mask resembling Donald Trump. When the photos leaked, she was soundly denounced by the Trumps themselves, their supporters, and even by her own fans and friends. Denunciation of the action was justified, no doubt, but that quickly turned to insult, mockery, and a festival of public shaming.

People do and say stupid things all the time. Social media mistakes are remarkably easy to make, and access to instant global communication means that our mistakes and failures are magnified. The internet is like a power tool: it enables you to make a big mistakes even faster.

It is easy to become outraged because people really are thoughtless and cruel.

And we can become equally thoughtless and cruel in our response.

The Scarlet Letter, perhaps the quintessential American novel, deals with this very subject: public shaming. Aside from the obvious lesson that our culture still hasn’t figured out that this is a bad idea, the great teaching of that book, and of the Bible, is that everyone is guilty so shaming others is merely a way of ignoring our own sin.

In fact there is great freedom in owning your shame, as Hester Prynne was forced to do, rather than denying it, like the pathetic Arthur Dimmesdale, or using shame to punish others, like the evil Roger Chillingworth.

Confession is the road to healing. Denial is pure hypocrisy. And shaming others is just wrong.

Jesus dealt with a notable example of public shaming in the case of a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery (see John 8). It’s difficult to imagine something more humiliating, especially in that day. She was dragged before Jesus for his judgment.

Rather than pile on the insults—and without excusing the evil of adultery—Jesus subtly turned the situation on its head, somehow casting the prosecutors in the role of defendant with a few words scratched in the sand.

We’ll never know what Jesus wrote. Like a deleted tweet, those words are gone forever. But they did have an effect. One by one, the outraged accusers dropped their stones and walked away.

What might be the result if, whenever tempted to pile on in mocking others for their obvious failings, we instead tweeted a confession of our own selfishness or stupidity. Would it transform the internet—and our neighborhoods, homes, churches—into kinder, gentler places?

Maybe not.

But it would at least remove our voices from the chorus of trolls and put us a bit more in tune with the one who said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”

Lawrence W. Wilson


I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.