Shame – part 3
This Sunday, we completed our sermon series on shame and its toxic consequences. Having considered the themes from the Genesis narrative of hiding from God and blaming others, today we reflected upon how shame often leads to a low view of the human body.
Genesis 2:21 – 3:8; John 1:1-9, 14
In the film ‘Skin’ we are introduced to Bryon Wilder, a young tattoo artist in the Midwest of America who also happened to be one of the FBI’s most sought after white supremacists at the turn of the century. We watch and marvel at the true story of this troubled young man who had founded a gang of violent skinheads and later began to change his view on the world, spurred on by the more progressive views of his new girlfriend and new responsibility to her three daughters. As the film nears its conclusion, Byron has left his old movement behind, enduring death threats and harassment from his old gang, whilst attempting to turn his life around. There is one obvious significant problem with this, however…he is still entrapped in his own skin.
Skin which had been covered in tattoos that told his life story…the racism, the violence, the rage. Applying for jobs with a face covered with racist symbols and a hand which has ‘hate’ emblazoned on his knuckles, Byron was, unsurprisingly, rejected and condemned by many he encountered. He thus felt so unable to leave the past behind, the shame burnt into his skin for all to see, that he considered drastic action to remove the tattoos, even immersing his face in acid.
Byron’s story might seem alien to our more domestic context and yet I would argue that it contains universal truths…such as the fact that our bodies are the containers of our life story. Everything that has ever happened to us has happened to us in our bodies. The laughter and tantrums of our childhoods; the highs we’ve enjoyed and the griefs we’ve endured; every sleepless night, every bright new dawn; every lesson, every love, every loss…we’ve experienced them in our bodies and we’ve got the laughter and frown lines, the bruises and bumps, the scars and sags to prove it. And if our skin, our flesh is the embodiment of our story, then they can also be the embodiment of our shame – of the things that we have said, thought and done that haunt us in the dead of night.
This truth is what is played out in the human story from the very beginning. [ In the Genesis account read earlier, we heard how the innocently naked couple who felt no shame in God’s good garden became the intensely shameful couple who covered up their bodies and hid from their Creator…and so was born millennia of human prudery and hypocrisy; the rejection of, and obsession with, the body; and the multi-faceted attempts to hide our shame by hiding our bodies too. We are both the perpetrators and the victims of this shame game, with those whose bodies are in the minority through gender, ethnicity or different ableness being those most encouraged to hide from view…and the Church’s handling of the Genesis story certainly hasn’t helped matters:
‘Do you not know that you are Eve?’ Tertullian, an early Christian writer asks women in his work entitled ‘Modesty in Apparel becoming to Women’. He continues, “The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and…you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam.”
The guy clearly had ‘issues’! Yet whilst we might hope that Tertullian’s misogynist views here are long gone in truth, they live on every time women and young girls are encouraged to cover up, strip off, slap on, starve, overeat, use fillers and filters to hide their shame and try to look like a cookie-cut image of the latest definition of feminine perfection. It’s not just women that cover their bodies to hide their shame, of course. Minority ethnicities are sold whitening products, young men are targeted with steroids, and the market is flooded with wrinkle ridders and age defy-ers to hide the apparent shame of old age. In other words, body shame is an equal opportunities offender…as successful actor and occasional Time Lord, Christopher Ecclestone, reminded us this year when he described himself as a ‘lifelong body hater’, struggling with anorexia and body dysmorphia.
“I always thought of it as a filthy secret,” he acknowledged. “Because I’m northern, because I’m male and because I’m working class.” Body shame, then, pays no heed to gender, geography or social status. It can even affect middle-class male ministers from England!
To its actual shame, the body of Christ – the Church – has too happily colluded with this low view of the body through the centuries. Alongside the scriptural stories which have been used to shame women throughout history, the Church’s default position has been to see the body as something beastly to tame, to overcome and surpass…and yet I’d argue that this view comes more from the Ancient Greek’s false division of body and spirit then it does from our own family history for if we look back to those stories in Genesis, far from suggesting a disparaging view of the body, we are given a positive poem about its creation. After the opening lines that God’s creation was good, good, good, good, good, good and very good, the 27th verse of the Bible tells us;
27 God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them
male and female he created them.
God created humankind in God’s image…we’re told. In the image of God, he created them – we’re told again. And later, when Adam and Eve are waiting nervously in the wings, we’re told that God took the dust of the ground and breathed it into life. So our bodies have been sculpted by God; breathed into life by God’s very breath; made – as we are told twice in that opening chapter – in the very image of God! So much for a low view of our bodies… our scriptures instead tell us that they are bearers of God’s image! That our bodies might reflect something of God’s very being! And if each of our bodies are unique, then each of them might reveal to us something unique about God. Isn’t that just wild?! That whether you’re male, female, trans, pregnant, able-bodied, differently abled, black, white, wrinkly skinned or newly born…your body is a unique means through which God might reveal Godself! What if we truly accepted this? What if we chose not to hide our bodies but to celebrate them?! What if we chose not to view them not as dirty but divine; not shameful but sacred.
Well, if that sounds like a radical idea today, it was positively heretical two thousand years ago. Back then, one thing the Romans and Greeks could agree upon was that human life was cheap and the human body disgusting. And in spite of their stories of old, the Jewish authorities upheld this worldview – a view that was worked into a theology of shame and a Temple system which discriminated against those who held most shame in their bodies – the women and transgender; the ill and differently abled – for the divine and the human had to be keep apart. Then, in a sleepy backwater town at the edge of the Empire, a teenage woman was told that she would bear God-with-us. Then the eternal Word became flesh. Then, on an otherwise ordinary night in Bethlehem, a special baby was born and placed in a manger.
Whilst we had decided that God was holy, distinct and separate from creation Jesus came along – surrendering the set-apartness of God to be born and live in our midst. When we had defined the human body as the locus of our shame; God chose it as the vehicle to express divine love. When we looked upon our filthy flesh with disgust, the eternal Word came to share it and sanctify it, reminding us of its original goodness; of the inherent worth of all who are en fleshed. And in case we still didn’t get the message; in case we still clung to the shame of the body, Jesus touched lepers, washed feet and embraced women; he wept, laughed, ate and drank with gusto; lived, died and rose again in the body. This is the miracle that we celebrate at Christmas – the incarnation of God. This is, as the angels declared to the shepherds on that hillside, the good news of great joy for all people.
…And it was at this point in composing the sermon that I pressed a wrong button and erased two hours of writing! Yes…not a good day. But after expressing some less than divine language and debating just how angry Lynda would be if I threw the laptop out the window, I wondered, was the erasing of my sermon in itself a metaphor for our shame? We spend time forming and conforming to it; we expend energy thinking and overthinking it…and God simply deletes it all, offering grace in its place; speaking words of forgiveness, encouraging us to love self and neighbour, reminding us that we are blessed, beautiful, bodily wonders.
Some of us here might be ready to hear that. Some might be ready to let go of their bodily shame – to boss up and strut their stuff at the next Christmas social. Others of us might perhaps might still look in the mirror with a sigh and a sucking in of the stomach; might still view our shame and insecurities as stamped all over our bodies, just as prominent and painful as Byron’s tattoos. And if that is you, take heart for even Byron learnt that his tattoos weren’t as indelible as he imagined.
It took the love of family, the transformation of faith and the support of strangers; it also took twenty five operations but Byron came to be free of his tattoos and has made leaps and bounds in being free of the shame that they came to symbolize too.
This advent then, as we celebrate the birth of the Emmanuel – God with us – may we remember that everybody, that every body is made in the image of God and let that seep into our psyche; may we recall that everyone – whatever their gender, skin colour or body shape – is a sibling of Jesus and let that truth impact upon our relationships, faith and politics; and may we retell the story of the shameless Saviour – the incarnate one – who was held in the strong arms of a carpenter, who brought gruff shepherds to tears, whose mother gave him a peck on the cheek and kissed the face of God. Amen.
Much of this sermon was inspired, provoked or plagiarised (!) from Revd Nadia Bolz-Weber’s excellent book ‘Shameless: A Sexual Revolution’.
‘My Scar’ – John Henson
Some friends put make up on their faces,
but I have got a scar;
some sport tattoos in strangest places,
and others wouldn’t dare.
There are scars that I forbear to show,
which never from me part;
these are things that you can never know,
defacements in my heart.
But yet there’s a scar upon my knee
from falling as a child,
you would find difficult now to see,
but in my memory filed.
So some scars come and other scars go;
even tattoos erase.
Some you get quite accustomed to,
stay till the end of days.
Jesus was scarred or so they do say,
on hands, feet, abdomen;
and even worse in a grosser way,
by dint of customs Roman.
When through heaven’s gate our torsos parade,
nude, shroudless, unashamed,
no one will giggle or be afraid,
tattooless and unmaimed.
(John Henson 21/11/19)
May God bless us in our bodies – not save us from them.
May God bless our eyes and ears, our mouth, nose and all four cheeks!
May God bless our pigeon chests and pot-bellies; bless our double chins or bingo-wings; our lips, our hips, our fingertips.
From our tootsies to our temple, our neck to our navel, may God bless us, keep us and teach us that we are beautiful. Amen.