The Shame That Drives Us

shame

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The Shame Game

By and large, churches are still trying to shame people into right living.  Some of the biggest-selling books on Christian living in the past few years are shame-based books. Shame-based books are written by (usually well-intentioned) shame-based people who live shame-based lives and preach a shame-based gospel.  You’d think after centuries of the shame-game, we’d realize shame, fear, and threats do not work.  If they worked, the Catholic countries would be the most moral countries on the planet, but they’re not.  If they worked, the Holocaust could never have happened in “Christian” Europe, but it did.  If they worked, Christians would be known the world over for their compassion, their generosity, their love, their kindness, and their openness to people who might think differently from them, but we’re not.

Adventures in Missing the Point

As long as I have been in ministry, my message has always been, “There’s something wrong with the way we’re preaching the message.”  We’re  not getting it, and we’re not getting it on very deep and fundamental levels.  Levels that lead to depths of violence and lovelessness that are stunning to those who are  not Christians.  This is not about shame.  This is not about feeling guilty for anything.  This is not about working hard now so I can know God later.  This is not about earning the reward, it’s about finding that after all our years of trying to earn it, we had it all along.  But shame won’t allow us to take it.

How shame keeps religion in business

In a Christian world without shame, many pastors would have little to preach about.  In a Christian world without shame, many Christian authors couldn’t find readers.  In a Christian world without shame, many of the people who now flock to our churches to receive more lashes every week would find that the relentless love of God does not demand more of them but less — and then eventually leads naturally and easily to the “more” we are all seeking in our tortured efforts.  But we’re shame-based people.  Taking something we haven’t earned is — well — shameful.  We must deserve it and if we don’t deserve it, we must reject it.  That is why the lavish grace of God, freely available to all people, languishes on the shelf.

I hear regularly of preachers who will not do weddings for couples who live together.  After all, it’s important to stand on principles, isn’t it?  After all, if preachers don’t create those firm boundaries, who will?  But the point of the gospel, the point of the Christian god being a bloodied and naked man hanging on a piece of wood, is that love has no limits.  Love does not seek to divide.  Love does not say, “I care for you, but it’s important no one gets the wrong impression, so I cannot be open to you in the following ways…”  When love is truly love, it dies for the one it loves.  It suffers the humiliation and pain that sometimes comes with love, taking pain into itself and  never seeking to make victims of anyone else.  Isn’t marriage what we want to see, pastors?  Don’t we want to see people making those commitments to each other?  But we stand in judgment over them for living together without marriage, then refuse to actually bring them into matrimony because they live together, and then judge them for living together?  Is this madness?  Scratch that — it really wasn’t a question.  Yes, it is madness.

How shame gets in the way of love

Love wills the good of the object.  That’s love.  Love wants what is best for the one loved.  If a pastor believes marriage is better than living together, and loves the people in front of him/her, then he/she will seek to “love them into marriage.”  Turning people away because they are wrong (regardless of how strongly we feel about their lives, choices, behavior, etc.) is exactly what Jesus NEVER did.  How do we come up with so-called Christian systems of ethics that not only endorse things that Jesus never did, but that actually claim that our Jesus-less way is the most moral and ethical thing we could do?  Until we can come up with a way of understanding Christianity that actually allows us to love people the way Jesus did, instead of creating systems of excuses for not loving them, we’re missing something so critical that our entire message is in danger of being invalidated completely.  Attesting to this trend are millions of God-seeking and God-loving people who have found the church to be an inhospitable place for them or people they love, and dropped out in pain and frustration.

But this is what shame does, and the only thing shame can do.  Many who can no longer stand the shame and are hungry for love (which, of course, is what the message is supposed to be about to begin with and which, ironically, almost no one denies, even while we continue to teach shame) end up leaving the church.  For those who outgrow their shame-based identity and hunger for love, it becomes difficult to find a Christian church that preaches that gospel.  Those who remain in the church are often (though not always) those who haven’t  yet gotten enough of shame and fear and guilt and are not yet ready to receive grace.

And guess what?  God loves them all.  Because that’s what God does.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • Interesting thoughts. I’d hate to see monasticism dismissed because some monks did weird things. This doesn’t mean they were wrong about everything. But interesting about how the faith was highly punitive to begin with. This is what attracts me to mysticism. The mystics always had a totally different take on what this thing was all about.

  • Jeff Vannest

    I recall a conversation I had with (I think it was…) my Dad. He said that over the past few centuries that preachers frequently used shame to motivate. In contrast, the modern church has for the most part stopped using shame and started using guilt instead. Although they are essentially the same vehicle guilt seems more respectful of people but both are still entirely wrong. The message of Jesus was pretty simple, love God and others.

    One of Elaine Pagel’s book, The Gnostic Gospels, has an interesting analysis on how martyrdom made Christianity extremely unique among the many religions of the Roman empire. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book Christianity goes a step further to suggest that Christian monasticism developed in large part because Christians were no longer being martyred. In other words, monks sat on stone floors flailing themselves because the Romans stopped doing if for them. And why shouldn’t they? Tertullian himself said, “But carry on, good officials…Torture us!” This was the message that the Christian church was all about.

    I wonder to what extent the entire Christian church was taught the mindset of self-flagellation (whether literal or psychological) during this time in history.

    • I don’t really go for the attempt to divide guilt from shame. Shame comes as the result of guilt. Guilt is usually attached to specific instances (though not always), whereas shame is a deep sense that there is something wrong with us as human beings. Shame-based people, who feel deeply defective, will naturally use guilt as a motivator, and guilt is what leads to shame.

      I would say the older church used high intensity guilt which resulted in shame, and the modern church uses lower intensity guilt which results, still, in shame.

      • And another Child of God begins to understand that the way to heaven is not written in either shame or guilt but in simply learning to love the Father and each other for we each have His fragment within us and are our neighbors. The Family of God is within.

        I believe he did this through the intensified Spiritual energy being sent to earth and without even finding the Urantia Book revelation.