Seeing Through Shame

Victor Chininin Buele

I’ve spent a lot of time in an analytic mode lately–reading the Word, reading about failure, forgiveness, words, civility, abuse, polity. Trying to digest some of these big ideas is not easy because at times you can get disconnected from the metanarrative that connects it all–the gospel.

Failure only exists because sin entered the world, and we fall short of God’s glory.  The use of our words is only compromised because our first parents fell prey to the sinful misuse of words to deceive and alter the truth. Forgiveness takes us to the fundamental question–I have been forgiven much, will I forgive as Christ has forgiven me? Civility is a struggle because not being civil always seems right to us in this side of eternity–it’s our default setting, so to speak. Abuse is a serious problem that destroys relationships and trust. Polity can be broken in a world of broken promises and self-preservation. And all of these problems are easier to see without than within. We need help.

One of the things I am seeing is how shame is integrally connected to all of this. Shame appears in some of the most unsuspected places, but it is there, driving our actions. I learned that the Thai word for being shamed means “to tear one’s face off so they appear ugly before their friends and community.” And that in Zimbabwe, it means “to stomp or wipe your feet on my name.”

Consider how avoiding or covering up failure can be driven by shame. Failure is inescapable since we are finite creatures with limited knowledge and compromised wisdom. We are going to fail. When college students ask me about career advice, I often tell them, “You will always hear ‘No!’ It matters greatly what happens after ‘No.'” We will face failure–we are not good enough, we are not smart enough, we don’t anticipate every eventuality, we cannot possibly ever buy sufficient insurance against risk.  Rich or poor, smart or not so smart, sophisticated or careless, we will all fail.  And we fear failure and will try to do whatever is necessary to avoid it. A door opens to shame people to prevent failure or to prevent failure from getting out. We can end up building cultures of failure avoidance and/or of failure cover-up that are in reality cultures of shame. We can live in them for years and not even blink an eye.

Consider how forgiveness gets entangled with shame. The call to forgive is impossible for a human being this side of eternity.  Forgiveness is not our default setting at all.  We need to look to Christ, we need to be forgiven by Christ. Look at the now famous speech by Greta Thunberg (and I wonder how long it will be until everyone forgets about it). It is a deeply religious call to overcome what amounts to sin from her secular context: the unpardonable sin of ignoring climate change and not doing anything about it. She utters god-like judgment towards those who refuse to repent–“We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this.” Because forgiveness is tied to exposure, shame can creep in unnoticed.  Greta needed to make her definition of sin known before she could ask us to repent of it.  And here is where things get tricky–what if I don’t see it? Or worse, what if I say that I don’t see it but I truly do and am too ashamed to admit it? That’s one way that shame gets in. We could shame the other person by labeling her all sorts of things so that she can just stop talking and reminding us of the true weight of what we’ve done.  But shame can also get in during the exposure. We can avail ourselves of all sorts of dark tools of rhetoric and belittling and shaming to force a confession that condemns the other and vindicates us, so to speak. The Christ says we must forgive and forgive infinitely many, many more times than we think we are supposed to forgive. The Christ never shamed anyone while convicting him of sin.  Jesus Christ spoke hard words of judgment that were never separated from words of redemption.  And that we must imitate.  No shaming of our neighbor.

Consider how our words can get venom attached to them because of shame, even these words I write are affected by shame one way or another.  Being made in the image of God, we are storytellers, that is truly a marker of the hand of the Almighty Creator in us. And we can use our stories to glorify Him or to shame others, to build narratives to keep people where we want them or need them to be.  Shame works quite well to accomplish that. We know things about them. We make things up about them. We reconstruct reality. Gossip is serious–the sharing of things about somebody from a bad heart, with ill intent.  Slander is poison–the sharing of false reports, of lies, about somebody.  Labeling is dangerous–the quick overgeneralization of a person’s traits into one label–heretic, unbeliever, weak, coward, abuser. And it is possible to be passive-aggressive about this all. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Go ahead. We can pause. And yet, we are not to remain there. We all fall short. Have we not been guilty of gossip, slander, labeling, passive-aggresive sinful behavior? There would be no gospel if Christ would just leave us there. Our words matter, and our definitions cannot be defined from shaming or by using shaming.

Consider how civility is affected when we are unable to speak because we’ve been shamed into not saying anything about something or when we know we are going to fulfill some narrative already crafted about us.  Civil and meaningful dialog cannot happen when the very first thing we fear is reports of us that say, “You see! You are a slanderer!” That comes from shame and produces shame.  Christ never shamed anyone even when they fulfilled the prophecy.  Let’s look at our beloved and unfaithful Peter.  He was so brave and courageous–I will never fail you, Lord! Jesus told him he would deny him three times.  Peter said, “No way, José” But he did.  Three times.  And not to some big authority or under duress but in the shadows of a mock trial and to people whose names history has erased. Christ does not come to him later and say, “You see, you are a betrayer. You did exactly what I said you would do.” There was no crowd preparation for the people to look at Peter and say, “Yes, it’s true. Look at how this is happening exactly according to the filth in this man.” Christ asked Peter to feed his lambs, and that is us, folks. Three times. Once for every time he denied the Lord. There is redemption, no shame, in the gospel.

Consider how abuse thrives in shame.  And how abuse is perpetrated by shame and through shame.  Abuse needs shame to exist.  It becomes a vicious cycle: the abused is shamed into never saying anything about it, even to those with the right standing or position or ability to do something about it, even to someone they trust and open up to to help them see what may be wrong in a situation.  Shame breeds shame.  The cycle has to be broken.  And only Christ, who never abused but was abused by sinful men, can bring redemption in that darkness and redemption from that darkness.  And light instead of shame. Neither abuser nor the abused are powerless to be freed once and for all from the chains of abuse.

Consider how polity is affected by shame. This is an unpopular word these days, but it refers to the way things run.  Everything has a polity.  There are rules we set out, procedures, ways of running things, routines we can go to when we are in trouble.  Have you seen the emergency plans that are displayed in the break room at your work? That’s polity.  You never read it and hardly ever pay any attention to it (unless you are so desperately bored and alone and your phone died and there is no WiFi anywhere and you have to make it until 5 o’clock somehow so that you stand there and mindlessly read it), but it’s there so that when that tornado watch comes, you know where to go by following the steps.  Polity is not Scripture, but it can be helpful and authoritative so long as it is rooted in the Word.  But because it is not Scripture, it can get infected by shame. We write procedures to handle the things that shame us. We shame people by the procedures. But Christ has a way to fix that, too.  If we are open to hear the errors of our ways even from those we think are our intellectual and spiritual inferiors.

A dear sister in the Lord and I were talking about the difficulty of certain questions in the Christian life.  We can give answers for them when they are theoretical questions without much hesitation. “This is what I would do…” But when the questions become real because we are in the middle of the thing we thought was only theoretical, things all of a sudden get really murky and complicated.  She wisely suggested that the reason that is comes from the fact that we stop trusting and believing that God’s hand is in the thing that is happening to us.  We don’t really believe in a sovereign God.  Now we find all sorts of qualifiers, buts, howevers, nuances, exceptions, and cries for mercy. Many times the answer is really the simple answer we gave when the troubles were away.

Failure is real, and we can get through it in Christ without shame and without shaming others. Forgiveness is possible through the cross of Christ who bore all my shame at the hand of sinful, slanderous people.  My words can and are being made more like Christ’s day by day as he makes me more and more like him every day, one degree of glory to the next. I’m seeing ways in which I have failed to be civil by both allowing others to shame me and by shaming others–sin is that deep, but repentance can restore civility. Abuse dies when Christ takes over shame, when repentance takes over shaming. Polity indeed shows us the way out of a tornado watch when we are willing to proofread it according to The Standard. Shame dies when light comes.

One of the things that has been impressed the most in my mind and my heart is this: “My resistance to vulnerability is feeding my deepest shame (J. R. Briggs, Fail)” I have a choice daily–what am I going to feed? Will I feed my deepest shame by not being vulnerable and sitting in a corner ashamed? Or will I feed my love and passion for Jesus Christ by being vulnerable to those he has brought into my life to walk with me? What will you feed? More shame?

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