I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. For many people – myself included – shame is a much more insidious problem than our guilt over our sins. Make no mistake – I’m not denying the reality of sin or of our need to confess and repent. Though I would like to see us pay at least as much attention to our systemic sins (such as racism) as we do to our individual wrong-doings.
As Lent approaches, I’m wondering if the attention we give to sin is the best way to go. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg asks whether ‘sin’ is the best way to name what is wrong and why we are lost. Not that he denies the reality of sin either. Borg doesn’t dispute that sin is a primary image within the Bible. But there are other images of our human predicament as well, each requiring a kind of healing. He writes:
To list some but not all of them: we are blind, in exile or in bondage; we have closed hearts; we hunger and first; we are lost. Each of these images for our problem has a correlative image; that is, each implies a remedy, a solution. If we are blind, we need to see. If we are in exile, we need to return. If we are in bondage, we need liberation. If we have closed hearts, we need to have our hearts opened. If we hunger and thirst, we need food and drink. If we are lost, we need to be found.
But what do we need to help us heal when we feel shame? And just to be clear: I’m not equating shame with guilt. Guilt is about what we ‘ve done; shame is about who we are. Some use the phrase “toxic shame” to describe the feeling that we are somehow inherently defective, that something is wrong with our very being. Toxic shame can come about for all kinds of reasons: being bullied as a child, being sexually assaulted, for example. Veterans diagnosed with PTSD often experience shame. Unhealthy family dynamics can bring about shame in children.
Unfortunately, the church has often been guilty of shaming its members – usually for sexual “sins”. And while the church does offer a path to confession and forgiveness for our actions, it’s much less equipped to offer healing for the shame that affects our being.
So how can we in the church promote this kind healing? As Borg would put it: If we have been shamed, then we need . . . what?
I suggest that the first step is acknowledging this as a human condition from which many of us suffer. Maybe instead of focusing exclusively on our sinfulness this Lent, we lift up all the ways we can be broken and out of sync with our true humanity. And instead of offering only confession and forgiveness, we also offer a listening ear and compassion.
For some, especially those who have suffered severe trauma, psychological therapy is also needed. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church could also participate in what author John Bradshaw called Healing the Shame that Binds You?
Marcus Borg used to tell of the Buddhist who once said , “You Christians must be very bad people—you’re always confessing your sins.” Maybe we could learn from that critique.