The second talk at the recent Festival of Theology was by Dr Sally Nash, Director of MCYM based in Nottingham. She says:
Genesis 2.25 tells us that Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. In the next chapter of Genesis after they have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they realize they are naked and hide from God. We can infer they are now ashamed of their nakedness. Shame is present from almost the beginning of the human story and while discretion shame is necessary for the functioning of society (if it gets hot in here I don’t envisage anyone will take all of their clothes off) some uses of disgrace shame I think are inappropriate.
Multidisciplinary literature on shame broadly supports the distinction that guilt is about what we have done and is oriented towards others whereas shame is about who we are and thus is oriented towards and affects our sense of self. Shame is contextual: what causes one person shame isn’t necessarily true of another. This is all in the context of most churches having norms and mores which there is a pressure to conform to or comply with, and for those who cannot, shame is often a consequence.
In this session I am going to be talking about what Lewis Smedes calls ‘the shame you don’t deserve’ and will purposefully not discuss topics over which there is significant theological disagreement—so apologies if that was what you were expecting! What can happen is that people experience what Stockitt describes here:
This is the heart of shame, the awful dread that tells us we don’t belong, that we don’t deserve anything, and we shouldn’t even be (2012: 11).
I believe we should be ashamed of shame in this context. I am broadly speaking from my practical theology PhD which I did for ordination training.
My interest in studying shame derives from an incident when I was at primary schools where some teacher had the bright idea of doing a practical maths task – we were going to work out the average weight of the class. I feigned illness to get out of the class as I was too ashamed to be weighed in front of everyone and when I got back lied about my weight. The institution shamed me and it was completely unnecessary and was probably unthinking and inadvertent. I would have been fine with an average height exercise but that would have been problematic for others. I have probably had a bit of scepticism towards institutions ever since, and for many church is an institution which shames. In some of my research that was given as a reason why people don’t want to engage with church or have drifted away.
As part of my ordination service the Bishop said this:
Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross. It is to him that you will render account for your stewardship of his people.
I do not want to have to explain why I shamed people, made them feel bad about who they are, over issues which are cultural, often class bound, expressions of Christianity. Paul, my dyslexic husband who left school with one GCSE, was doing some training at a missionary college – and someone came up in the break to correct his grammar! They shamed him, and I wonder what do they wanted him to disclose – his disability or his class? Who he was wasn’t enough for that person – he was insufficient! This was a key word which came out in my data analysis.
When I was a young adult, Janis Ian’s song At Seventeen resonated with me: ‘I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens…’. One of the exercises I have done with people is to get them to rewrite this song; and this is one person’s version, one which has echoes of my experience in church in my early 20s:
I learned the truth at 23
That church was meant for men, not me
That girls should learn with quiet grace
And never run about the place
I learned that leaders had to be
Clothed in respectability
And women should modestly obey
And know the proper words to pray
And not be excited or too loud
Or speak their mind, ‘cause that was proud
And turn up everywhere on time
And always toe the party line…
Can you imagine what that does to you day after day, week after week, not being able to be who God created you to be because the expectations on you were so oppressive? It is difficult not to feel shame when we are not what others, whose opinions we value, want us to be? I know that feeling well although have largely managed to move beyond it most of the time.
This is how John O’Donohue describes it:
When you are shamed, the space around you is eviscerated. Now your every move draws negative attention. Hostility and disgust are flung at you. It is impossible from outside to even imagine the humiliation that shame brings. All the natural shelter and support around your presence is taken from you…Everything about you is telescoped into the single view of this one shameful thing. Everything else is forgotten. A kind of psychological murdering is done. The mystery of your life is reduced to one thing. You become a ‘thing of shame’ (O’Donohue, 1998, p.115).
I devised a typology of shame in the church out of an analysis of the empirical research – anonymous questionnaires (262) and focus groups (11) – and identified words for each element of the typology which give an indication of how and why people experience shame. The six domains are personal, relational, communal, structural, theological and historical shame.
- Personal shame which relates to shame experienced by an individual as a consequence of his or her relationship with the church.
- Relational shame which is experienced as a consequence of identification with people who commit shameful acts within the church, particularly, but not exclusively, leaders.
- Communal shame which relates to shame which is experienced at a group or congregational level.
- Structural shame which relates to shame that is a consequence of what the church or organization says, does, or believes at an institutional level.
- Theological shame which is experienced when people’s view of God or their core beliefs are challenged, opposed, ridiculed or misrepresented.
- Historical shame which relates to something which has happened in the past that is often not spoken about but still has an impact.
Because of the limits of time I will talk only about the personal domain which I understand to involve such shaming can occur as a consequence of practices, structures, processes, behaviour, attitudes and liturgy that people encounter through their involvement in and with the church.
Dualistic lifestyles of young people (and others) can be a case in point:
When I was growing up in church I felt unable to be honest about how I lived my life. This led to a dualistic lifestyle, where at home and church I was completely different to at school and with friends. I have felt that church had made me feel like I needed to appear sorted, like I had no issues and that I couldn’t be open and vulnerable with people, because if I was, I was rejected or made to feel dirty, bad or shameful!
Perceived judgement of others affects us deeply; some have found church leaders fine but church members difficult. Some parents I know gave up on church because of the shaming by congregation members of their parenting skills (or that is how they perceived it): Bad Mum or Dad can’t control their child is what they heard even if the words were not expressed. We all have tender points:
I think that sometimes there are things in your own experience that perhaps make you prone to feelings of shame and you can perhaps … be very vulnerable to it.
Welcome to the world of the barren – imagine being unable to have children, and read the Bible in that light and see how hard it is not to feel shame for all sorts of things, not to mention conversations with well-meaning Christians! ‘Have you got a family?” is a really unhelpful question for many, and I am never sure what the point of spouse and child details are attached to a biography for a conference!
Others felt shame when they did express struggles – the word ‘insufficient’ was identified to cover some of this. I feel I am an insufficient Christian: all I want to do is go to church and all you want me to do is go on the rotas! You might laugh but it stopped some people going to church: if you make me feel bad why would I want to keep coming back. My theological ‘every member ministry’ can be seen as bossy lazy clergy!
A feeling of being a nonentity was the experience of others. I have heard that a little from older people in the congregation who feel that they are compared unfavourably to the younger people who can still do things and are not valued or particularly wanted. Diocesan vision statements are not always helpful in this regard.
You can feel shame by both complying and conforming and non-complying and non-conforming – it depends where you stand in relation to your church! As one respondent suggests:
If you have done anything wrong in your life we will judge you when you come in here. We are goody two shoes and don’t tolerate sinners. We will try and change you, then we take your money.
Caring for those who have been shamed
This is how it feels to some people:
Just as the notion of “grace” designates a feeling that God approves of what he sees, the concept of “dis-grace” designates a feeling of disapproval, an experience of others – who have seen how we have disgraced ourselves – are looking on with contempt and scorn (Kilborne 2002, p.6).
It is so much about who we are not what we have done.
- Self awareness – know our triggers and process our own shame
- Conscientization – what is shame and how different from guilt – preaching, liturgy. The Anglican Prayer of Humble Access is so unhelpful for some.
- Storytelling, from the Bible and other sources, facilitates reframing. A variety of biblical stories may also be useful in helping change self-perception such as David and Uriah (2 Samuel 11); the woman with the haemorrhage (Luke 8.43-8); the woman caught in adultery (John 7.53-8.11); the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-32); Jesus responding to Peter (John 21.1-19); Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10).
- Quality of relationships can be particularly important in shame. One person was happy to talk about concerns in a context where she felt loved and that those talking to her wanted the best for her. She was not receptive to judgment or condemnation. This is backed up in literature.
- Explore how you can develop the ‘carrying capacity’ of the community – a functioning body of Christ where people can be cared for and held.
Finally, a quotation which returns us to Genesis from John Swinton:
The doctrine of the imago Dei (Genesis 1.27) is a deeply pastoral doctrine which offers hope to the hopeless, comfort to the downhearted and a wholeness to those whose lives have been broken and damaged by fate and circumstances” (Swinton 2000: 32).
I hope not damaged by a church that shames when it shouldn’t.
If you want to explore shame through a story Ignatian or Godly play style then the woman at the well in John 4.4-26 is a good place to begin, not least because it can be used in relation to a wide number of contexts and issues. In keeping with my understanding that I need to explore my own shame first, I have used this story to look at some of the issues in my life since, despite being very well aware of what shame is and what triggers it in me, I still experience it. These are my responses.
I wonder which part of this story you like best?
I like the part where Jesus sat down by a well because he was tired. I don’t always find it easy to rest, particularly in “work hours” although I know I do more hours than might be expected. That Jesus felt tired helps me to see that he was fully human and that if I gave him a chance to talk to me he might well say, Sally, come and sit down and join me by this well. We can have a drink and relax together. I find myself finding it hard to justify self-care choices sometimes while encouraging them in others. Somewhere there is still a sense of shame in not getting everything done that needs to be done. I am not a good Centre Director, priest, daughter, wife, and so on, if I have not…
I wonder what part of the story is the most important?
The most important part of the story is where the woman responds positively to Jesus and asks him for the living water; she wants to receive what it is that Jesus has to offer. She is receiving from someone who first asked her to give to him, there was a mutuality of sharing even though a differential in what was given.
I wonder where you are in the story? I wonder what part is about you?
I am the woman, the person with the baggage and history that sometimes holds her back. My baggage is different from hers, but there are times when I try to hide a bit or avoid situations or see myself in her at the beginning of the story rather than the full-of-joy messenger of good news at the end of the story.
I wonder if there is any part of the story we can leave out and still have all the story we need?
I don’t think we need to know what it is that she has done wrong in the past, perhaps just that she has done something wrong, but that Jesus talks to her and sets her free.
After a time of wondering there is usually, in Godly Play, an opportunity to make a response to the story and questions. Having done this activity, I am visualizing (I might draw if I had the materials nearby as they would be in Godly Play) Jesus sitting on top of a pile of my baggage; he has it now, he doesn’t want me to pick them up again and the thought that even if I can leave just one bag it would be progress! Ideally the bag full of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ would be left with Jesus.
O’Donohue, J. (1998). Eternal Echoes Exploring our Hunger to Belong. London:Transworld Publishers.
Kilborne, B. (2002). Disappearing Persons. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Stockitt, R. 2012. Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame. Eugene: Cascade Books.
Swinton, J. (2000). Resurrecting the Person. Nashville: Abingdon Press
Come and think about the End of the World and Christian Hope at the teaching morning on 10th November 2018.
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