As the sad events in Afghanistan have unfolded, I’ve been struck by the number of people, often who served in there, commenting on the sense of shame they feel at the way we as a nation have treated those Afghans who helped our armed forces. I don’t think you need level any criticism at politicians to understand and share this feeling; to leave people behind, in fear of their lives, is a terrible thing, even if it may have been unavoidable. For different reasons, I am not always proud of some things that the Church has done; collectively we should feel shame at the way we have failed to protect vulnerable individuals from abusive priests and others.
There is however another side to shame and that is at ourselves; in church jargon, to think about our personal sins. Today we hear much talk about self-empowerment and we are encouraged to think positively about ourselves; in some quarters, to have any negative thoughts would appear to be sinful. Using fear of sin as a weapon of control is tantamount to abuse, but I worry that denial that we have any dark side is also damaging. We may need to go well beyond the traditional seven deadly sins, but characteristics such as anger, impatience, self-importance and undue ambition can all corrode us and injure those around us. I have been impressed by a recent speaker who challenged his listeners to recognise their favourite sin. Christian and Jewish teaching has always placed great emphasis on self-reflection and self-knowledge and if this is done honestly, I suspect it will reveal things about us all that we do not like. The aim of this is not that we then fall into a pit of self-hate and loathing, but rather that we are aware of our own weaknesses and so can better work around them, to live our lives to the fullest. Shame is collective and personal and in both cases, it can be a force for good if it brings about change.