Shared by our minister Rev Dr Phil Wall
Genesis 2:21 – 3:8
In his latest book, Welsh journalist Jon Ronson looks at the escalating epidemic of public shaming in society and online. In , ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’, he interviews everyone from pastors to porn stars about their experience of shaming, offering the reader numerous tragic examples of individuals who have made mistakes in public and who then have to live with the quick and widespread shaming that follows as a result; examples like Justine Sacco a young PR executive from New York who tweeted a joke in poor taste to her 170 followers as she got on an 11 hour flight to South Africa. By the time the airplane landed, her joke had been shared by tens of millions around the world as she became the number one trending topic on twitter, leading to her immediate sacking, hounding by paparazzi and a landslide of online condemnation. She had been shamed on a global scale.
“[Shame is all…]‘about the terror, isn’t it?” one character suggests in the book. “The terror of being found out.”
The terror of being found out…Whether you’re an avid user of social media or a Luddite like me, I wonder if you’ve ever experienced that terror. I wonder whether you have some part of you that you’re terrified others will discover; whether you carry around some hidden secret about something you’ve said, done, fantasied about that you know, if revealed, might change what others thought about you. Or whether, perhaps, you’ve already had to face the reality of others discovering that your life is not perfect; whether you’ve carried around a label that seeks to define and demean you in the eyes of the crowd – a label like ‘liar’; ‘addict’; ‘adulterer’…
If you can empathize with any of the aforementioned, then you’ll know something of what it means to experience shame. It’s not something that we often talk about at church – perhaps because it might cause all of us, ministers included, to look down at our shoes and squirm – and yet it’s something that appears throughout our scriptures, from King David’s belated shame at sleeping with a married woman and the many negative consequences that came from that to Jesus’ refusal to allow the scribes and Pharisees to shame…well, most of the women in the gospels for one act or another! But it’s within the first three chapters of the Bible, in that garden in Eden, that we first encounter shame and its damaging consequences.
Now, the story of Adam and Eve, the serpent and the fruit is one which has been used and abused by Christians over the years to pile shame on various groups of people – most of them female – and today there are many helpful and faithful interpretations which turn the traditional explanations of the story on their head…more in future weeks…but whatever the interpretation, the basic plot points are the same:
- Serpent talks with Eve
- Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil
- The couple discover their nakedness, are ashamed, so clothe themselves.
- They then play hide and seek with God and when found, begin the blame game.
In other words, right there, in our family history, we have a vivid vignette of the consequences of shame – one whose fruit could be tasted in systems of prejudice and patriarchy over the centuries; as well as in the attack on self-worth, the rise of male suicides and the obsession in and judgment of body image that we see today. Shame has long been a barrier from loving self, neighbour and God as we see in the events of that Genesis account where shame leads to a hatred of the body; a blaming of others and a fear of, and thus hiding from, God.
Well, between today and advent…yes, Christmas is coming people…I’d like us to spend a couple of services contemplating those three consequences of shame – the hatred of the body, the blaming of others and the fear of God – and what the gospel might have to say about them for if shame and its profound, pernicious consequences are indeed an epidemic of our time, then it is the gospel – the good news of God’s extravagant love, amazing grace and enduring hope for all – that could be the cure.
First, though, the question – what is the difference between guilt and shame? Well, let’s hear one view of this as we’re reminded, once again, that clergy certainly don’t have all the answers! We join Father Michael Kerrigan as he meets for a second time with Roz, a single mother who has stolen tens of thousands of pounds from her workplace to pay for her gambling addiction and does not think she can bear living with the shame…
We watched a short clip from BBC programme ‘Broken’
So for Roz guilt is feeling bad for the negative things you’ve done…shame is the world defining you by it. Psychoanalyst Helen Lewis (Shame and Guilt in Neurosis) explains the difference in a similar way – “The experience of shame, “she explains, “is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus.” In simpler terms, then, guilt can be likened to the thought “I did a bad thing”; shame is the thinking “I am a bad person.” In the Genesis story, such thinking led Adam and Eve to fear the One who breathed life into them and so they hid from God. Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon with someone who wanted to do the same.
After a wonderful lunch at The Otley Arms (other eating establishments are available!) I visited someone not of this church who is currently quite unwell. His family informed me how, over the last few months, they have seen his spirit broken as memories of the past have mixed with fears of the future to create the perfect cocktail of toxic shame. My heart was broken as I sat with the gentleman, a kind man in his 80s who normally has a glint in his eye and a joke on his lips, as he wept uncontrollably and asked me to pray for him. Over the next couple of hours, he told me of some experiences of his past for which he was deeply ashamed. Much of these occurred in his youth and early adulthood and all of which he had kept secret for decades, the shame of his experiences locking them tight in his heart. It was for these misdemeanours, he explained to me, that he was being punished will ill health. It was thinking about these episodes that kept him awake at night, that caused him to fear death for how could God forgive him for what he had done? How could God welcome him in his shame into God’s kingdom?! And so he feared meeting God…he wanted to hide from God…for his shame was literally damning.
I wonder whether you’ve heard such thinking from others. I wonder if there are people in your life for whom church is anathema not because it’s boring or irrelevant but because they fear they’re not good enough for God, so they try not to be seen. I wonder whether in the dark of the night, you’ve even shared a similar thought. Whether you’ve allowed yourself to question if God really could welcome you – you with your foibles and pretenses, doubts and mistakes – into God’s realm. You certainly wouldn’t be the first follower of Jesus to do so.
Two thousand years ago, one such follower decided, like Roz from the clip earlier, that their shame was too great to live with. And so, we’re told, Judas took himself to a field, chose a tree and there ended his life. Those of us who went to see ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in Sophia Gardens last month, might well remember their disturbing depiction of this.
Like Eve, over the last few decades, much has been written to rehabilitate Judas and his part in Jesus’ death. Perhaps, for example, Jesus encouraged Judas to bring on the end – he does, after all, tell Judas to ‘Do quickly what you are going to do’.
Whatever the case, it can be argued that Judas’ most destructive actions resulted from his loss of hope. Stuck in the quagmire of his own shame, Judas did not – as the priest encouraged Roz to do – ‘choose hope, not despair; life not death’. Judas’ shame was so great that those promises of God’s forgiveness, those acts of God’s goodness, those stories of God’s radical love that Judas had seen and heard in the life and ministry of Jesus, were forgotten or ignored. Unlike Peter who was wracked with guilt which he would later confess to the risen Christ, receiving forgiveness, restoration and a brave new mission, Judas had lost sight of God’s grace, he was swallowed up by his own shame and so walked a path to desperation and death.
But I don’t think the thief on the cross was the only sinner to be welcomed into paradise by Jesus that day. As suggested in another production of ‘Superstar’ that some of us went to a few years back in which Judas and Jesus returned and embraced after the final song, I believe that Judas’ story did not end with shame and death but with restoration and hope, and it would seem that I’m in good company…
“Perhaps someone might think, ‘this pope is a heretic…’” Pope Francis said as he explained his hope for Judas in a television interview two years ago. “But, no! They should go see a particular medieval capital of a column in the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalen in Vézelay, Burgundy…”
The Pope went on to describe this column – a photograph of which he keeps behind his desk on which to meditate.
On the left we can see an almost comic looking Judas, lost in his shame, hanging on the tree. On the right, we see his body being carried by a man…a man who elsewhere in the Basilica represents Jesus.
Perhaps, then, on that medieval column we have another vignette of shame, of its human consequences and its divine subversion. Perhaps, like Eve and Judas, like the fictional Roz and the very real gentleman I visited last week, you have felt lost to shame. Perhaps you have found yourself walking a path where others or even you have judged yourself to be defined and damned by the sum of your worst thoughts and actions. Perhaps you are tired of carrying that part of yourself that tells you to fear, to hide, to die and you have been tempted to give up on yourself, on God, perhaps even on life.
If that is you, Christ is there ready to carry your broken body back to God. If that is you, hear God whisper, ‘I see you, I breathed life into you, I love you and nothing you can do can make you love you any more or any less’. If that is you, listen to God’s words that you are wonderfully made in God’s image; that your sins are forgiven and your life restored; that God’s ridiculous, reckless love bathes you in grace, hope and a reminder that God sees you not as the worst that you have done but by the wonder that God has created you to be.
Shame is not of God. Shame is that poisonous and addictive force that is counter to the good news of the gospel. It’s been a barrier to God’s law of love ever since some fig-leaves were stitched into designer underwear and continues to limit lives and love in our society. Today, by God’s grace, we are called to live out a much greater truth and declare a more beautiful story. One that speaks of divine goodness, forgiveness and grace. One that points to a God who took on flesh, blood and vulnerability in order to demonstrate God’s limitless love for the cosmos. One that declares that that love, not human shame and sin, will have the final word. Shame simply has no place in this story. As the ever-inspiring Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it;
Who told you, you were naked? Who told you that you have to lie to be accepted? …My moneys on the snake. And he’s a damned liar.
 See for example Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless or John Henson’s The Love Line – both published this year, evidencing our continued interest to interpret and reinterpret these stories in faithful and fruitful ways.