Shame on us

Dec 22, 2014 by

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Visible sins bring shame. The holiday picture of pregnant Mary reminded me of an earlier time when an unwed pregnant female would stand in front of the church and publicly confess her sin. Most of us now doubt whether this shame-filled method brings healing.



We can imagine unwed pregnant Mary experiencing shame from town talk. Mary doesn’t sound shamed. Her song sounds confident. Her words declare that it is the proud and the powerful who will be brought down (Luke 1:46-55).

These days shame is not a popular topic. That’s why a recent public comment was startling.

There in the middle of a church meeting, for all to hear, a brave woman said, “Shame on us.” This woke us up. What actions should we be ashamed of? Can talking about shame motivate us to openness and healing?

Shame was still rattling in my brain when A National Shame entered my email box. Ruby Sales and Susan Smith want to remind us of the national shame surrounding the killing of black people. They cite a 2012 report that found white police officers, security guards or vigilantes in the U.S. killed an unarmed black man, woman or child every 28 hours. Shame seems like an appropriate response.

Shaming was part of Jesus’ culture, but he doesn’t shame the usual victims. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He chats with the Samaritan woman who came to the well at noon to avoid the shame of others.

Jesus seems to echo his mother’s song. It is the powerful and prideful who will be brought down.

Jesus isn’t fooled by self-righteous cover-ups. He reminds the scribes and the Pharisees: You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. You want the best seat at banquets, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled (Matthew 23). His words shamed the powerful.

Healthy shame reminds us that we are all sinners, but shame turns toxic when it makes us feel worthless. We laugh at The Far Side cartoon where the dogs are gathered for church and the minister dog says, “Bad dog! Bad dog!” We don’t want to go back to hearing how bad we are.

It is easy to flavor shame with judgmentalism. We put anonymous notes in someone’s church mailbox and feel no shame for our lack of courage and accountability. We shame people by putting them in categories: educated, uneducated; rich, poor; legal, illegal; connected, outsider; right, wrong; the list goes on. We know who is valuable even if we don’t say it.

There is a place for healthy empathy-flavored shame. When we treat each other in ways we wouldn’t want to be treated, shame should wake us up. When we divide people into us and them, shame should move us to repent. When we are tempted to keep sin hidden, shame should move us to truth-telling. When we look the other way in the face of police brutality, shame should remind us all lives are precious.

Too often we veil our shame in a curtain of pretentiousness. We are too busy straining out gnats to notice that we are swallowing arrogant assumptions. We’re too busy pointing at other people’s visible sins while we ignore our invisible sins of greed, smugness and favoritism.

Along with our Christmas latte, let’s sip in a little truthfulness about the messiness of our lives and our world. Let’s remember that, like Mary, we praise a God who lifts up the lowly and brings down the arrogant and self-righteous. Let’s own up to our mistakes and accept the gift of grace that rescues all of us from shame.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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