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.

 

 

 

Channeling Martin

Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_editWhat would Martin say if he were alive today? Maybe: ‘It’s deja vu all over again?’ On this the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are mindful that as a nation we are in the midst of a curious political season. The leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination is Donald Trump a demagogue who plays upon the ignorance and fears of many. His almost exclusively white followers seem enamored by his ‘us against them’ mentality.

In addition, the great sin of racism continues to be at work. We see it in the prison system where 60 plus % of inmates are black, while comprising only 12% of the population. Thanks to camera phones, we have citizens capturing rogue cops using excessive force and even murder against young black males. While I have no doubt that most police officers conduct themselves admirably, it is hard to deny that the judicial system doesn’t have a bias against people of color, particularly young black men.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his powerful book, ‘Between the World and Me’, writes to his fifteen year old son. As an African-American father he wants his son to understand that built into the psyche of the American story, is a bias against people of color. Coates believes that most white folk don’t understand it or see it. He wants his son to understand this dynamic and learn to navigate within in it. Those that don’t, points out Coates, ‘too often die young or find themselves in jail’.

What would Martin say if he were alive today? I think he’d call people of all races, religions and backgrounds to come together for the common good. I think he’d call us to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, which will not let us forget that systemic inequality persists (in the judiciary, economically and politically).

He’d persist in his commitment to non-violent resistance against injustice. He’d challenge our government spending more on the military than the next eight nations collectively, while social services go under-funded. He’d say the answer to terrorism is understanding and addressing the root causes of terrorism, most often rooted in poverty and despair.

And, I think he’d call us to continue to believe in the restorative power of love. “We cannot solve our problems through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus, “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” We must love those we fear no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. WE must meet hate with love.”

45 plus years since his assassination Dr. King’s words may seem hopelessly idealistic. But has violence, retaliation and demagoguery made things any better? No, the wisdom of Martin King remains. His Dream still inspires. It is a dream based in the wisdom of ancient sages, with names like Jesus, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Ruth. Are we listening?

Death Penalty for the Boston Bomber?

For two years the Boston metro area has been processing the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing. Four innocent lives were taken: Martin Richard age 8, Lingzi Lu age 23, Krystle Campbell age 29 died in the bombing. MIT police officer Sean Collier age 27 was murdered in cold blood. All had long lives ahead of them leaving behind family and friends. Over 200 others were injured, many losing arms, legs, sight, hearing. In truth the entire psyche of the region has been traumatized.

The perpetrators were two brothers Tamerlan age 26 who was killed during a manhunt by police and Dzhokhar Tsarmaev now age 21. This week a jury convicted Dzhokhar of 30 counts including conspiracy and deadly use of a weapon of mass destruction. Seventeen of the counts are punishable by death.

Now the decision of whether to put Tsarmaev to death is in the hands of the jury. The jury is asked to weigh what is a just and proportionate response to the monstrous act of murdering and maiming so many. Whatever decision they come to, the jury of our fellow citizens deserves our respect and gratitude.

Of course the debate as to what is a just and proportionate response is being debated throughout the region. Which is the most fitting punishment death or life imprisonment? What do you think?

Some argue that the death penalty is the most fitting price for such a monstrous act and a deterrent to others. Some believe that the death penalty is morally wrong and never acceptable. Others suggest that the Tsarnaev brothers were seeking martyrdom (in a perverted understanding of Islam) and that a death sentence would give the younger brother what he wants.

It is an open question whether the death penalty or life imprisonment will bring any degree of justice and closure to those maimed or who lost their loved one. Each person will seek their own path towards a measure of healing and acceptance and deserve our support and prayers.

While I understand the reasoning of those who call for the death penalty I can’t agree. On a deeply emotional and spiritual level I think the death penalty further inflicts an emotional and spiritual toll upon the psyche of a community. In short there is no such thing as a righteous killing.

Surely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev must and will be held accountable for the evil he and his brother committed. I don’t buy the defense strategy that the younger brother was a follower and not the leader. Each of us are accountable for our actions.

I believe that a life in prison is an appropriate punishment. With the loss of freedom this young man will be held accountable for this rest of his life. Will this bring a measure of healing and closure to those victimized? I hope so but I don’t know.

One lesson we have learned over these past two years is that there is a deep reservoir of compassion in the greater Boston area. Drawing upon this compassion has brought out the very best in us and provided an inspiring witness to our nation and the world. My hope and prayer is that we continue to draw from this deep reservoir in the months and years to come.