Shame

I’ve been a pastor for thirty-five years.   I’ve had the privilege of being invited into  lives during the most difficult of times.  What I’ve learned from accompanying others and from my own 61 years, is that no one has their life completely together.  To one degree or another we are all train wrecks.

By this I mean that we humans are incredibly complex and complicated beings.  We have the capacity for bringing healing and hope and the capacity to tear down and diminish. Psychologists call this our ‘light and shadow’ side.

All of us have things we’ve done which we’re not proud of.  Our words and actions (and sometimes inaction) have consequences.

I’ve been thinking about this as men of power have been outed for their harassment and abuse of women.  As I wrote in my recent blog entitled ‘Tipping Point?’ my hope is that this will be a time when enough people say  ‘we will not be silent in the face of harassment and systemic gender inequality’.

Men who have been involved in predatory behavior must be held accountable.  Those of us who have been silent or complacent must speak out and stand with those who have been victimized.

I’m wondering too about those who have been outed.  Those who have lost their jobs and reputation.  What about them?

Let me pose a theological question: ‘Is anyone beyond redemption?’  The word redemption means to be redeemed or restored.

I can imagine a variety of responses to what I just raised:  “To hell with them. There must be consequences.   They are monsters. The victims must have justice.”

I agree that the perpetrators must be held accountable.  The systems that have protected them must be torn down.  Those victimized must be heard and cared for.

But again I ask: ‘Is anyone beyond redemption?’

Over the years I’ve sat with people who made very bad choices.  Bad behavior that hurt others. Behavior that became front page news and resulted in great loss personally and professionally.  Some even went to prison.

Often we talked about the ‘shame’ they felt.

Granted, religion has often used the guilt and shame card to keep people in line.  To require conformity for the sake of narrow religious parameters as to what is pure and right.

But sometimes ‘shame’ serves an important purpose.  There are words, behaviors and actions that we should be ashamed of.  Being sincerely ‘ashamed’ can be the first step in the process of becoming whole.

Being ashamed means taking responsibility for the harm ones action or inaction has caused others.  Being ashamed means knowing that there are consequences for inappropriate behavior.  Shame means knowing you are wrong.

Shame however need not be an ending.  It can mark a beginning.  When claimed with sincerity it can be the first step on the path toward self-awareness.  A first step to becoming a healthier person and when appropriate, making restoration to those one has wronged.

Those in the Twelve Step program know this to be true.  Our actions when under the influence of alcohol or drugs often does great damage to family and friends.   People caught up in addictive behavior often speak of shame.

But shame paradoxically can  be a gift.   A gift that leads one to do the hard and relentless work of becoming sober and clean and staying on the path.  Shame can lead to a change in behavior and a change of attitude.  One day at a time.

What I’ve learned in thirty-five years of being a pastor is that no one is beyond help. No one is beyond redemption.

My Christian tradition call this ‘grace’.  Grace is rooted in the belief that God’s essence is love and that no one is beyond the reach of this love.

Philip Yancey the theologian puts it this way:

There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more.  There’s nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Yes, people need to be held accountable for their behavior.  Yes, unjust systems that have and continue to allow for abusive behavior must be named and dismantled.

Yet let us not forget that no one is beyond redemption.  We are all in need of grace.

 

 

 

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