Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World


Written by: on December 1, 2022

Truth be told, I could not figure out how to apply my quick-read formula to Shelby Steele’s Shame, How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.  I read the entire book, carefully, cover to cover.  I feel like I need to read it again.

Summary of Steele’s Book

Steele presents an in-depth, well thought out description of his perspective on the political and moral upheaval of the 1960’s and the ways in which Americans’ reactions to that upheaval caused the divisions we experience today. He focuses his discussion on the evils of racism, and also touches on the harms done through sexism, and militarism, and destruction of the environment, saying that, “in the 1960’s, America underwent what can only be described as an archetypal ‘fall’ – a descent from ‘innocence’ into an excruciating and inescapable self-knowledge.[1] Following the Civil Rights Movement, no one could claim that America had always been a country founded on freedom and equality for all human beings.  Steele continues, “In that era, a remarkable convergence occurred: So many hypocrisies were established as legitimate complaints against America that the nation fell into arguably the worst crisis of moral and cultural authority in its history.”[2] He points out that it was difficult for people to reconcile how a country claiming to operate as a democracy could exclude an entire race of people from living freely, could neglect to honor women as equals, could engage in the horrors of the Vietnam War, and could deal devastating blows to the environment.[3] The unveiling of these truths opened American eyes to the fact that our country was not innocent, had never been innocent, and was indeed, riddled with imperfection. Anti-Americanism emerged as an acceptable moral authority within the culture, “bifurcating” American mainstream authority and creating a new, “authentic” worldview that highlighted and resisted America’s hypocrisy and inauthenticity.[4]

Steele believes the movements of the 1960’s intended to bring America to a point of humility, so that the country could grow forward into a true society of freedom for all.  The problem, however, was that they went too far and got caught up in a self-centered “arrogance of power,” which led to a particular harm, in and of itself.[5] This new American identity, according to Steele, led to a new American liberalism that focused on dissociating from mainstream politics and morality.  Eventually, this new liberalism, in Steele’s view, attempted to redeem white sins and guilt – white shame – by setting up social programs to “help” black individuals and families overcome the oppression they had experienced for four hundred years and move fully into pursuing their potential in American society. “Such was the shame of America after the 1960’s,” points out Steele, “that it generated a liberalism grounded in dissociation rather than principle.”[6] In a sense, it was a reaction to guilt and shame, as opposed to a proactive attempt to reconcile and seek forgiveness for wrongs done. Steele believes that the goal of new liberalism coming out of the 1960’s was immunity from past evils, never the development of minorities.[7] It enmeshed the longings for equality among minorities with white longings for redemption.[8] Once again, according to Shelby Steele, the heroic system is created with white interest at the center. He suggests a more conservative system that inspires people to take initiative and responsibility for their own future, for it is in this system and through these opportunities, he believes, that true freedom can be experienced by all.[9]

The Overwhelm of Shame

Shame.  What do we do when we’ve been found guilty and we and others see that our innocence was a delusion? What do we do when our hurts and the hurts we’ve inflicted as individuals, families, communities, and countries are found out and we are exposed?  We can hide and disappear, we can shift blame and shame others, we can stand undefended to the accusations and attempt the hard struggle toward reconciliation and redemption.


My thoughts jump to Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and the insistence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to acknowledge the evils committed and then to grant forgiveness.[10] The process was excruciating, and healing.  It was also too hard for some who chose instead to hide or blame others. Could America have tried such a courageous approach?  Where would we be now if we had chosen that road?  Is it still possible to choose such a path? Is it too late?

In his book, The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson writes that the remedy to shame is vulnerability.[11]  It is in offering our true selves to another, acknowledging the harm we have inflicted, and remaining fully seen in order to be known, that we can overcome the power of shame, and heal together. He believes, “This process of being known opens the door not only for healing but for the expansion of our capacity to co-create with God renewed minds and hearts, out of which burst…beauty in the face of shame’s withering onslaught.”[12] Do Americans have the courage to stand together and be seen for the imperfect collective that we are?  For the imperfect individuals that we are? Might we be able to put down our defenses and say we don’t have the answers needed to fix the schism in our country? To acknowledge the hurtful ways we have approached racism? Might we have the courage to acknowledge and address our lack of innocence and our ignorance? Would it be possible to set our agendas aside to listen to others among us, ask questions, stay silent, wait for wisdom together?  Could we bring ourselves to think of what is best for others, even if it means giving something up ourselves?

I once heard a Native American presenter say that if our goal is to shame people into hearing us and changing their ways, we will never be successful.  Shame is not a true reconciler, nor can it bring healing.  Somehow, we have got to figure out how to deal with shame, for left unaddressed, it compounds and complicates damages done and creates nearly irreconcilable divisions.

We know how shame enters our lives.  Perhaps our next challenge is to figure out how it exits.




[1] Shelby Steele, Shame, How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015), 55.

[2] Steele, 77.

[3] Steele, 77.

[4] Steele, 61-62, 176.

[5] Steele, 66-67.

[6] Steele, 142.

[7] Steele, 183.

[8] Steele, 184.

[9] Steele, 197-198.

[10] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999), 45-46.

[11] Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 115.

[12] Thompson, 132.

About the Author

Jenny Steinbrenner Hale

12 responses to “Shame.”

  1. mm David Beavis says:

    Jenny, thank you for sharing your thoughts on Shame (both the book and the experience of shame). You summarized Steele’s book brilliantly, and you brought up some fascinating questions. My question for you is this: You highlighted that Steele calls out the hypocrisy of neo-liberalism when it comes to disassociating from the sins of America’s past. What examples of this kind of disassociation have you seen? Also, I feel like Steele’s confrontation of liberalism’s hypocrisy and disassociation from America’s past sins is justified, however, I do believe he left conservativism off the hook. I wish he would have confronted both. Do you have thoughts on this?

    • Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

      Hi David, Thanks for your comments and thoughts. That is a good question! Regarding an example of dissociation from American past imperfections and support of our country, I think one area where I have seen people not want to be associated with the US is in conversation with college youth to whom I am close. Starting in high school, they began to see the “evils” of some of our American actions throughout history and they wanted nothing to do with those actions. This resulted in their having nothing good to say about the United States currently. I do think it’s ironic that they (and we) continue to enjoy some of the positives of living in America. In some ways I agree with them, in other ways I disagree. It is definitely a long and careful conversation we are having over time. Thanks for this thought-provoking question.

      Also, yes I completely agree with you! I think Steele’s book focused on his anger and frustration toward liberals and I think he has a good point there. However, I was really hoping he would have some more thoughts on and critique of conservatism. He didn’t seem to want to go in that direction, but I would have been interested in his opinions.

      Thanks, David! I’m so grateful to be able to discuss these ideas and learn from you and the rest of our cohort.

  2. Great Post, Jenny,
    I like how you brought brought about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
    I think the Mandelas were emulating MLK and others around the world who had faced similar challenges before them; making America the leader in this area of Peace and Reconciliation. Would you agree?

    • Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

      Hi Jean, I’m so glad you brought up this point. I had not been thinking in that direction, but I think you are right. It is so interesting that we in the US could not carry this idea of peace as far as others in some countries. We definitely have an incredible model for peace and equality in MLK.

      I am so appreciative of your thoughts and comments and for the chance to learn alongside you and the others in our cohort. Thank you!

  3. Caleb Lu says:

    Jenny, I too felt myself pulled from my skimming of the book into a more careful read, even now I’m a little afraid I’ve mistaken Steele’s intents. I suspect you’re onto something as your draw from Thompson and the power of vulnerability to cut through the effects of shame. I found Steele to be at his best when giving us a window into his own experiences. I continue to be grateful for you and everyone else in this cohort who continue to share their experiences so that I can learn and be encouraged to untangle the complexities we face.

    • Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

      Caleb, Thank you so much for your comments. I agree, Steele really was at his best when he was speaking from his personal story. He gave me much to ponder.

      I, too, am so grateful for you and the others in our cohort and the opportunity we have to work through these complex issues together. It is a unique space to find where you can trust people to speak, listen, ask questions and continue valuing each other.

  4. Alana Hayes says:


    I am glad that I am not alone. I felt overwhelmed by this book and it swallowed me up a few times. I picked it up and read it….. then I listened to it on audible. I sit here a few days after it was due… scared to death to write a blog over it.

    • Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

      Alana, I so appreciate your honesty and your comments. That’s such a good idea to read and listen to our books on audible. I want to start doing that.

      This was such a challenging read and even harder to write on! I’m thankful for the chance to struggle through this process with you and the others in our cohort.

  5. mm Daron George says:


    You asked the question, “Do Americans have the courage to stand together and be seen for the imperfect collective that we are? For the imperfect individuals that we are? Might we be able to put down our defenses and say we don’t have the answers needed to fix the schism in our country?” This is a great thought and maybe just maybe if we are able to say we do not have the answers we will feel the freedom to actually find them together.

    Thanks for engaging with the reading. I know this can be uncomfortable for all of us, but so good to actually dialogue about it.

  6. Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

    Hi Daron, Thank you so much for thoughts and comments. I really like your comment that “maybe just maybe if we are able to say we do not have the answers we will feel the freedom to actually find them together.” That makes so much sense and it’s interesting that we could feel free in letting down our guard and humbly showing that we don’t know the answers… and out of that would come a fresh creativity to work together and find something new. That takes a lot of trust. I’m grateful for you and our cohort and the chance to write, listen, stay in the conversation, and learn.

  7. Jenny,
    Your last thought; we know how shame enters our lives, now we need to learn how shame exits. This is such a good thought. In facing and understanding shame we can begin to heal, yet the nature of shame is to avoid understanding or acknowledging it. So then learning how it exits becomes elusive. It is a circle of misunderstanding and shame. I think you ask some very good questions around the power of forgiveness and the South African models we have studied this semester. I don’t know the answer but healing is certainly needed.

    • Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

      Hi Sara,
      Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I agree with you! It is so interesting that the very nature of shame, something we try to avoid, keeps us stuck and diverting attention away from the very thing that could offer us healing: recognizing our shame and beginning the healing. Appreciate your thoughts.

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