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Good Friday: Shame and Worth

By Terry LePage

Terry LePageWe have heard the Good Friday story too many times.  We do not hear the strangeness of it.  The first Christians had a hard sell.  “Your leader died as a criminal, in the most shameful way imaginable.  And he is what, the son of God?  God?  Right…”   A public, shameful death is hardly the way to claim to be a spiritual leader, or a foundation from which to start a new religion.  (Jesus’s resurrection, however you understand it, was neither public nor publicly demonstrable.)  Christians did not use the symbol of the cross to decorate their bodies or their worship spaces until after Emperor Constantine abolished crucifixion in the fourth century.

What is the scariest, most shameful situation you have had to endure?  In the ancient world, the pain of the cross was recognized as formidable.  But the shame of the cross, the slow torture, exposure, and execution of naked slaves and traitors, was the most horrible fate imaginable.

Being labeled a criminal, in any era, is shame enough.  I’ve been to jail. I was on the outside of the bars, visiting a church member who had despaired of completing his alternative sentence.  He had no financial resources and no family to help him.  He broke his parole by using a substance and testing positive for it, and thus got to spend a couple of weeks with room and board paid by the Orange County criminal justice system.  It was the most soul-killing half day I have ever experienced in my life, and all I had to do was visit him.  How do they make prison so ugly?  So demeaning?  How do they make you feel worthless and valueless and hopeless just by walking into the building?  Picture Jesus in an orange jumpsuit, behind bars; three strikes, he’s out. Then you will get just an inkling of the shame heaped upon him by his crucifiers.

We are nice, law-abiding people.  We don’t do things that subject us to that kind of shame.  Some of us don’t even have relatives who can shame us very effectively by pulling such stunts, though some of us do.  And perhaps more to the point, many of us have resources to protect us and our families from such a fate, resources like the color of our skin, protected environments that don’t offer the lure of illegal activities, and, if we do get into trouble, money for good attorneys.  We want to hold ourselves above such shame and degradation.  Many of us succeed.  But many of God’s children cannot.

We might like to believe that people who suffer such soul-crushing shame deserve it.  Setting aside the question of whether any human being deserves such treatment, I suspect in the circles Jesus traveled, as for many people today in our own country, a small transgression, or being unlucky, could lead you to the shame of prison.  He lived in a country occupied by the Roman army, in a time when debt slavery was common.  So it would be very easy to land in prison for some trumped-up charge of treason for disrespecting a Roman soldier, or for simply not being able to pay your bills.

Shame cuts us off from belonging, and from any sense of our own worth.  Shame makes us want to hide, to avoid others before they can cause us the pain of being shunned or judged. It was recognized in Jesus’s culture, as we cannot say aloud in ours, that anything that makes a person less than a fully participating member of their community can expose that person to shame.  Foreignness.  Unemployment. Disability.  Illness.  Sexual impropriety, even if you’re the victim.  Poverty.  Social and ritual transgression; they called it sin.

Those kinds of things, when we see them, cause us instinctively to keep our distance.  And those very things drew Jesus toward people in our Gospel stories. His grace negates shame.   And at the end, he took the worst shame imaginable upon himself.  In struggling to make sense of Jesus’ shame, his followers found Isaiah 53: “He was despised, shunned by all, pain-racked and afflicted… we despised him, we held him of no account, an object from which people turn away their eyes.”  Was Jesus paying our cosmic debt to a legalistic God on that cross?  I don’t buy that interpretation.  Or was he joining us at the core of our human vulnerability and shame, so that we would know that the shamers do not have the last word, and that however shame may disconnect us from those around us, it does not disconnect us from the God of infinite love?

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The maven of shame in our culture is Brené Brown.  As a professor of social work in Texas, she has done research on shame.  She might be on to something, because her TED talks have been viewed on the internet about 30 million times.  Shame and guilt in our culture are different, she says.  Guilt says, “You did something bad.”  Shame says, “You are bad.”  Guilt says, “You didn’t do enough.”  Shame says, “You are never enough.”  Of course we don’t tell people this in polite conversation.  We don’t have to.  We all learned, from parents or teachers, from mean kids in middle school, that look that tells you that you are “less than”.  And we don’t even need someone to give us that look.  We can shame ourselves all by ourselves.

Brown points up another important difference between guilt and shame.  Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, bullying, eating disorders, even suicide.  Guilt inversely correlates with all these things. Guilt says, “You made a mistake; do it differently next time.”  Shame says, “You are a mistake, so don’t even bother trying.”

Three things, says Brown, cause shame to multiply exponentially.  Secrecy, silence, and judgment.  Jesus had some things to say about judgment.  And our Christian tradition has some healthy tools to overcome secrecy and silence, like confession, witnessing, social action, spiritual direction, and spiritual friends.

Brown says only one thing can eradicate shame.  Receiving empathy.  Being heard compassionately by another person: not just anybody, but someone who cares, and doesn’t judge you, and maybe even says, “That happened to me too.”

And here is the risen Christ, who has been through the worst shame imaginable.  Our tradition says he is reaching out to us today.  He can touch us with a heart as big as the whole universe and he understands. He has experienced the depths of shame and overcome it.  If we do not need him to reach out to us, because we happen to be free of shame on any given day, then we who follow him can reach out with him, to those who do need empathy, because we are his body.  We can transmit his empathy.

But dear readers, we are all functional people.  Many of us are quite high achieving.  Do we need to be rescued from our shame and despair?  Maybe.  How many of you have gotten in the front of a room and done your thing, and received loads of affirmation, and one negative comment.  Which feedback went home with you, and kept you up that night?

How much of our worth do we get from our job, our achievements, our marriage, our kids, from our cute face or our able body, from our bank account or the car we drive, from somebody’s good opinion of us, from being better than somebody else, better than what we would dread being?  We may get to find out, because these things don’t last.  But before we find out the hard way, maybe we can pre-emptively ask the question: how hard are we trying to earn all those things, to prove to someone, to ourselves, that we are worthy?  What if we stopped working so hard to avoid judgment?  What if we really trusted the crucified and risen Christ to give us our worth and acceptance, and didn’t need to get it from anyone or anything else?

What would we be like?  We would be humble, in the original meaning of the word: earthy.  Not high and mighty, not debased, just feet planted firmly on the ground, wonderfully unique, a part of the whole.  We would be vulnerable: people would still judge us, and we would feel their judgment.  But we would not be shamed or controlled by that judgment, because Christ, and Christ’s friends, would see our true worth, and reassure us of it.

“King of the Jews.”  It was written on his cross.  “King” is a title humans have given Jesus to show his great worth, to give him honor.  But he doesn’t need our honor.  If it separates us from him, he doesn’t even want it.  He wants our love and our loyalty; our vulnerability, and our joy.  We don’t have a title for the kind of vulnerability he showed us entering into the shame of the cross, that leaves our hearts gasping in wonder.

The story says God emptied himself, became the lowest of the low, endured the shame of it, to show us the way to freedom, joy and gratitude.  This is not business as usual.  This is not religion as art, or for social control.  This is truly Gospel: Good News, that frees us from the abyss of shame, and from the separation and fear that shame causes.  And if enough of us really lived this Good News fully, the social consequences would be revolutionary.  No danger of that at present.  Still, we can try to do our small part.

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I am happy to report that the church member I visited got out of jail, and recognized that he did have family: his church family.  He kept drug free, and “graduated” from his alternative sentencing program.  He did it in large part because his church friends, far from shunning him in his despair and shame, truly became family for him.  They invited him into their homes and their lives, not just telling him but showing him his worth in the loving eyes of God.

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