Shame – part 2
We heard part 1 on September 8th
Genesis 2:21 – 3:13; Mark 12:28-31
For the majority of the Church’s history, most Christians had greater access to Bible stories through art than they did through the written word and whilst some of these decorative depictions are profound, others are more priceless in terms of their humorous and often erroneous interpretation. I’ve shared with you before how many depictions of Moses – including this one by the great Michelangelo –
depict him with horns due to a mis-translation of the Hebrew word ‘keren’ which can either mean ‘radiated light’ or ‘grew horns’! Amazing!
Well, artistic depictions of the events of Genesis chapter 3 are certainly no different as many of the world’s great artists reveal their confusion or theological bias through their work. There’s Titian’s ‘Fall of Man’ in which he paints an apple tree…..classic but not Biblical
…alongside some sort of tentacled baby as the serpent….….which is just creepy.
But when you speak of creepy, it’s always hard to beat Hieronymus Bosch, whose ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ is typically replete with ghouls and goblins, alongside an effete, male God, expectant Adam, submissive Eve and scenes of the non-Biblical consequences of their action……….eternal damnation.
William Blake ramps up the sexism in all of his versions of the scene, showing Eve as dancing with or even kissing the serpent whilst her poor, innocent husband sleeps or looks aghast;
and who even knows what’s going on here in Van der Goes’ painting. I mean, what is that serpent?!
However, for all it’s Euro-centric, patriarchal sentiment, I’m rather taken with this next painting…Domenico Zampieri’s ‘The Rebuke of Adam and Eve’.
So, starting from right to left, we’ve got God…in the form of David Bellamy apparently and being flown in by chubby cherubim…giving his best ‘I’m not angry, just disappointed’ look. Then, in response to this rebuke, Adam stands strong as a man and accepts full responsibility for his actions. Only joking…Adam instead gives a perfect ‘women….what you gonna do?!’ gesture, to which Eve points to the snake, who is himself slipping away whilst a scared lion and snooty lamb gaze on aghast! It is an over the top yet, I think, strangely wonderful depiction of the ultimate passing of the buck…and that’s why I do think that there’s something to Domenichino’s painting. For whilst there’s no mention of ‘original sin’ or ‘fall’ in the Genesis account, I would argue that the real crime, if you will, is the blame that results from shame.
Let’s recap then…in the Biblical version of events God breathes life into Adam, tells him not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and creates a partner for him – bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. This partner – Eve – enjoys a theological debate with a serpent; Adam and Eve then choose to eat from the banned tree, feel shame, cover up and hide from God. When God confronts the pair with what they’ve done, suddenly their union, their interdependence, is reduced to a blame game. Adam’s no longer “She’s bone of my bone” but “It’s all her fault – and you’re the one who put her here” – blaming Eve and God for his actions, whilst Eve passes the buck onto the serpent. There is no shared responsibility; no personal repentance but the pointing of fingers and the blaming of others. Shame in oneself thus led to the blaming of others.
Well, I believe that this this origin story, told under a million stars by a tribe of travellers thousands of years ago, contains within it a fundamental truth of human nature that even today, we’re only really beginning to grasp for this scripture shows us that inner shame leads to outer blame. Inner shame leads to outer blame. In other words, as individuals and a society, we scapegoat others, projecting our undesirable attributes, energies and actions – our shame – onto them. “It’s all their fault”; “She tempted me”; “He made me do it”; “That lot are the problem with the world today”. Whilst the projection itself can remain ingrained, invisible and insidious, the consequences of this scapegoating are quite clear for all to see – from one particular nephew of mine always blaming his brothers for that missing biscuit to Brexit negotiators playing a ‘stupid blame game’; from footballers’ wives enthralling their twitter followers with mutual finger-pointing to entire communities and minority groups being blamed and punished for all the troubles in society.
And this is where another consequence of shame rears its very ugly head. For shame not only leads to blame in word but in violent action.
In his excellent book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?’ Welsh journalist Mark Ronson evidences how childhood shame often leads to adult violence. As part of his diverse research, Ronson interviews James Gilligan, an American psychiatrist whose years of working with the US Government looking at prison reform has led him to the striking observation that;
“Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they were keeping a…central secret. And that secret was that they felt ashamed – deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed…I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected or ridiculed.”
Gilligan goes on to describe how one inmate told him “You wouldn’t believe how much respect you get when you have a gun pointed at some dude’s face,” before concluding that “[A]ll violence [is] a person’s attempt to replace shame with self-esteem.”
Personally, I find that a remarkable yet believable suggestion. From the playground bully who’s told he’s stupid and worthless at home to insecure gang members who have to prove themselves real men by carrying round knives…if most violence really was an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem, then ridding the world of shame could transform it! Through a divine rejection of shame, perhaps we might even return to Eden and the intimacy with God that Eve and Adam enjoyed before their shame shook paradise with a flurry of finger-pointing. If so, the path to paradise resides, once again, in our origin stories.
You see, before serpents and fig leaves came on the scene – before shame slipped into our psyche – God created the cosmos and called it good. In the very first chapter of Genesis, God deems creation good, good, good, good, good and very good. There is, then, original goodness; there is talk of blessing and abundance and life. God then forms us, makes humankind in God’s image…and what is God but love itself. We are born of dust and divine love. If we still don’t get the point, God repeats it over and over and over again – you are wonderfully made; you are loved with an everlasting love; my steadfast love will not abandon you; I have called you by my name, you are mine.
And when we still didn’t listen – when our shame kept the cycle of blame and violence rolling on – God came as one of us to demonstrate God’s world-shaking love for us; to show up the scapegoating system for the heresy it is; to take all our shame and finger pointing and hatred on the cross and respond with compassion, forgiveness and new life. In other words shame, which is not of God, leads to blame and death. Love, which is God’s only way of being, leads to resurrection, new life and an ever-widening circle of blessing. For Jesus directed us to “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” But how can we do anything but judge and blame our neighbours if we are full of shame ourselves? Perhaps you know Dorothy Nolte’s famous poem, ‘Children Learn What They Live’ which teaches us ‘If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn’. That’s it in a nutshell. Live with criticism, live with secret shame and you will more likely condemn and hate your neighbour as you do yourself. And you don’t have to work with those incarcerated for violent crimes to see this bear fruit. Time and time again, those I meet through work who are the most bitter, judgmental and critical of others are often those who struggle to love themselves; those whose parents perhaps, or ex-partner, religious upbringing or social media account tells them they are unworthy of love, shameful or inherently bad. The converse is also true. Those I meet who are often the most compassionate, empathetic, selfless of people are those who have a healthy understanding of their own worth; of their inherent dignity as a beloved child of God. Those who really can love their neighbour because they have heard, welcomed and rejoiced in God’s love for themselves.
So whether you recognize yourself in either of those descriptions or not, this morning, once again, perhaps we might dare to hear God saying to us…to you as an individual sitting in this church building this morning… you are wonderfully made…you are loved with an everlasting love…my steadfast love will not abandon you…I have called you by my name, you are mine. Dare to look to the cross and empty tomb, rejoicing that God will never let your sin or shame have the final word. Dare to even begin to believe that you are not whatever label other people have given you, you are not defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done or by that secret shame in your heart…but rather that you are a beloved child of God – a mysterious, magnificent creation made of dust and divine love. Dare to truly love yourself so that you might love your neighbour with a profound, non-judgmental, transformative, love. And dare to try all of this as if the peace of the entire world depended upon it. Because it does! Amen.