Lifting The Burden Of Shame

van-gogh-stary-nightWe live in an age of shame. We are instructed endlessly to feel ashamed of almost everything. We are constantly afraid of a slip in how we say things–someone is sure to pounce. Those of us who are doomed to be male are supposed to be ashamed, even though we acknowledge the historical mistreatment of women, maybe even our own. Those of us who are white are condemned to shame, even though, once again, we ask forgiveness for the stain of slavery and the ongoing consequences of privilege. We are taught to be ashamed of our country, for the wars we have created, the displacement of native populations, for the destruction of the landscape. We are scolded these days to be embarrassed by patriotism.

This word of shame comes down hard on Christians. We are told to be ashamed of all kinds of things, the dark chapters of the Crusades or the Inquisition, the way we have treated those who are different, the purported hypocrisy of changing our views. We are even told to be embarrassed that we claim our faith to be true: “Who’s to say what is true?” Christians should harbor no pride, we are told, in their history or their teaching or the blessings of their way of life.

I am tired of all this shame. And so here’s the question I’ve been asking: Is it possible to shed this awful burden of shame? We’ve heard comments recently about our faults being “irredeemable”—but wait a minute—doesn’t our faith, actually most faith traditions, say we can be forgiven? “Oh happy day,” the old pop-gospel song rings so exuberantly, “when Jesus washed my sins away.” Shame can be lifted. Joy can be restored. Shame paralyzes. We are condemned to wallow, limp along, cower in the corners. If there is no way out of our guilt, I don’t see how we can possibly get better or how we can possibly offer something good to anyone.

Coincidentally, I was reading this morning in the Psalms, as I try to do every morning. I was located this morning in that marvelous string of Psalms beginning with Psalm 73. Throughout these great passages, there is much to be ashamed about. There is anguish over failure. There is constant worry that God has abandoned his people for good reason. There is deep consternation that bad people win all the glory and get all the goods.

“I set my mind to understand this,” the Psalmist confesses, “but I found it too hard for me.” “My mind was embittered,” he laments, “and I was pierced to the heart.” This is what shame does to us.

But just then, the poem turns. We suddenly get that all-important refrain of our ancient faith: “Assuredly God,” the Psalmist begins, “is good to the upright.” Here we get this touching note of remembering something profoundly good:

Remember the assembly of your people,
taken long since for your own,
redeemed to be your own tribe.
Remember Mount Zion, which you made your dwelling-place.
Restore now what has been altogether ruined. . . .

Is it possible for Christians anymore to claim that we are “redeemed” to be God’s “own tribe”? Is it possible fondly to remember “the assembly of your people,” the possibilities of gathering into his “dwelling place”? Is it possible to hope that what has been ruined can be altogether restored? Or must shame blot out this powerful memory? Must shame distort a vision for a better day?

Coincidentally, or providentially, I also read this morning in Isaiah, Chapter 56, where the “foreigners” and the “eunuchs” are invited to join the circle of God’s gathering people. Isaiah is unashamed to claim the joys of community for those who follow God’s vision. There is an element of appropriate pride. There is pride of belonging. There is pride of being blessed.

But then something remarkable happens in this passage. If we can take appropriate pride as God’s gathered people, then can we welcome into our fold the outsiders. These too, says the Lord,

I shall bring to my holy hill
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations. . . .
I shall add to those who have already
been gathered.

The vision is a gathering people. It is a worshiping people. It is a joyous people, appropriately proud to belong to God’s tribe. This is not a people of shame. We can become a redeemed people. Oh happy day!

And here’s the deal: It is only from this posture as redeemed people, only from appropriate pride and not shame, that we can possibly welcome those outside the circle to “come on in. You too may receive this blessing. We can be joyous together.”

Too prideful? Arrogant? Well, perhaps, at least according to the voices of shame. But only as we ask forgiveness, only as we are released into joy, only as we take appropriate pride in our gathering communities—only then can we open wide our doors for others to come in. Perhaps then we can celebrate together this liberation from shame.

[By the way, check the book page of the blog. I have a bunch of new books I am eager to share.]