Who would Jesus publicly shame?

June 16th, 2015

A few weeks ago, a member of a large, triathlon-centered Facebook group of which I am a part posted a screenshot of a stranger’s Facebook post. She had taken a picture of a cyclist on the road and expressed her frustration at the cyclist holding up traffic by wishing she could run him off the road. For those of us who spend time on bicycles sharing the road with vehicles larger and faster than we are, that viewpoint is frightening and unsettling. The person who posted the screenshot to the Facebook group included the person’s full name and encouraged members of the group to bombard her and her family members with messages and posts on a variety of social media channels. She closed her post by saying, “Public shaming works.”

Apparently, enough people were incensed by the post and eager to share their anger that this woman eventually had to shut down her account on all of her social media channels. I suppose if the goal was to drive someone off of the internet, the campaign was successful. However, if the goal was to educate about the rights of cyclists, I doubt the original poster learned a lesson. It appeared to be an instance of self-righteous public shaming crossing the line into bullying.

Public shaming seems to be having a moment in the spotlight as more and more of us live out our lives online and in the public sphere. No longer relegated to celebrities and politicians, a thoughtless comment or a joke in poor taste can land anyone in hot water. What we used to say out loud to a friend or two is now broadcast to thousands of Twitter followers or Facebook “friends.” And when it goes wrong, it can go very, very wrong, causing some people to lose their jobs, as this New York Times Magazine article highlights.

The impulse to publicly shame someone is hard to fight, especially when racist or sexist comments or threats of physical harm and violence against a class of people are made in the public sphere. It can scratch that self-righteous itch to right a wrong, to prove that I am a warrior for fairness and justice by rallying others to my cause simply by typing a few sentences and sending them through digital space. It is much easier to do that than to get involved on the ground in my own community, forming actual relationships with those who suffer or with those who hold different opinions. It is easier to nurse my faux outrage against someone I’ve never met than it is to do something tangible in the world around me.

"Duty Calls" by xkcd. https://xkcd.com/386/

Throughout the gospels, Jesus often publicly decries the hypocrisy and greed of groups of people, but he appears to stop short of publicly shaming individuals. In John 8, when the adulterous woman is brought to him for judgment, he responds by saying, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” saving her life as those assembled realize that none of them is without sin.

How might our public discourse change if we recognized our own sin before casting stones at others? What if we prioritized actual relationships over our self-righteous anger and desire to prove how right we are?  Maybe instead of bullying people out of the arena, we could actually change hearts and minds.

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