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Over the past week, I finished reading a practical theological response to the prevalence of shame in late modern western culture. Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology by Stephen Pattison (Cambridge 2000) is, in my estimation, the best among a number of works that have attempted to address the crippling effects of shame on persons, groups, and communities. Pattison weaves together a significant array of psychological and sociocultural theories of shame. He assesses the ways that Christianity, intentionally or not, induces shame, sharing his own experiences of being shamed in and through ecclesial practices. Just this section of the book is worth the price of the whole. He concludes with an exploration of how theologians and church leaders might unmask the work of shame in Christian symbols, images, ideas, and rituals for the sake, as I would put it, of participation in Christ’s ongoing ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world.
Shame, as a topic, is rarely undertaken in major theological texts. Guilt and sin remain predominant concerns, and consequently shame is often misinterpreted as guilt in churches today. Briefly, guilt emerges from a sense of transgression, from having done (or not done), said (or not said) that which honors God and humanity. Guilt, when accompanied by the conviction of the Spirit, presses toward liberation, toward the freedom that comes with forgiveness. Shame, however, is an acute sense of unworthiness, defilement, and humiliation. If guilt cries, “I have done wrong,” then shame cries, “I am wrong” in the core of my being. Shame leads to isolation, withdrawal, and fragmentation of the self. It does not press toward reconciliation but rather toward annihilation. It is an expression of the power of the void, of the nothingness that haunts and threatens God’s good creation.
Throughout my eight years of teaching, I have encountered far more than a few students, ministers, and professors trapped by shame. Too often, their theology reinforces their shame. Since I’ve taught at both a Lutheran and a Reformed seminary and since in my own childhood, adolescence, and youth adulthood, I participated in Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches, I’ve encountered shame wrapped in the guise of at least four different theologies. But they have all a common core: an insidious denigration of the self.
In Reformed circles, it often manifests in vehement declarations of one’s own depravity (which, of course, eventually manifests in similar declarations about others) and in punitive applications of Calvin’s third use of the law. Shame feeds on these classically Reformed ideas, leaving too many people not only stuck in self-loathing but also transmuting self-loathing into a spiritual practice of sorts. Rigid, fear-based control of the self, particularly of one’s body and sexuality, stunts creativity, blocks relationships with others, and leads to despair, for no one can fulfill the perfectionist reaction to shame.
In Lutheran circles, where the third use of the law may be anathema, shame can be shrouded by bondage to Luther’s idea of the bondage of the will. The self is so crippled that human action is suspect. Practices that might break the power of shame are rejected. Instead, there is a narcissistic response to shame: an attachment to leaders who actually use shame as a form of control. Such bonding gives one a sense of goodness and importance, however fleeting.
Pattison is clear, and I agree, that eliminating all potentially shame-inducing ideas and practices in Christianity isn’t possible or advisable, since what induces shame for one person or group may not for another. At the same time, pastors and theologians—if they really are called to participate in Christ’s ministry of healing and reconciliation in concrete lives and relationships—ought to examine how the church’s teaching, preaching, and theological discourse induces shame. We ought, at the very least, to persist in the ongoing formation and reformation of our faith. As theologian Roberta Bondi persuasively argues,
“Theology . . . is about saving lives, and the work of theology . . . is saving work. First, it involves learning to see the ways in which false images of God, ourselves, and the world have bound us and taken away the life God intends for us. Second, it involves learning to know God as God is . . . Third, it involves imagining a future that is consistent with the God we have come to know” (Bondi, Memories of God; quoted in Pattison).
Perhaps it is time to seriously re-examine some long-held theological tenets, their expression in our churches, and their impact on human life. Perhaps it is time to give up the denigration of the self that reinforces shame and flatly contradicts Jesus command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”