Thesis: The Christian Church is the greatest "guilt-reducing" institution through its message that Christ forgives sin.
Corollary: The Christian Church may be the greatest "shame-inducing" institution through its collective expectations and its cultural styles.
Definitions (not scientific): "Guilt" is failure before God; "shame" is failure before our fellow human beings.
Observation: Guilt exists primarily in those societies where there is a deep sense of accountability before the divine, such as in the Christian West. Shame exists primarily in those societies which have a poor or nebulous understanding of the divine. But it inflicts all of us!
Case Study: Jassie wanders into our church in the West confused about life, desperate for meaning, hurt by experience, and culturally far removed from those that she meets in our nice orderly church. She may come from another geographical or socio-economic culture, has little understanding about what church is, but in her desperation, seeks something to repair or give meaning to her life. Perhaps she is unemployed, divorced, kids out of control, home is a mess. Can the church help?
She hears a vigorous message of salvation, of a God who repairs lives. How she yearns for the hope and the "blessings" that the songs invoke; that the people around seem to exude!
When an invitation is given, her heart leaps with hope. She steps out to the front, confronts Christ, and for a memorable moment, senses that guilt is gone, she is forgiven, unshackled, overwhelmed by grace. Peace overflows her. God is in heaven; all is right with the world.
We embrace her. We love her. We smother love her! A brand plucked from the burning.
Over the next few weeks, we have her well-programmed. She is invited to eat in our homes, join our programs, attend our classes, become like one of us! She is given a Bible, a devotional book, a membership card.
However, it's a slow process. She isn't like us. Her son is in jail, her rent is behind, she still smells faintly of cigarettes, her dress is skimpy. She doesn't quite fit in. She tries, but it is awfully hard.
We ask lots of questions of her to find some angle of contact. "Where does she live?" She's not sure she wants us to know. "Where's her husband?" Daah. "Education?" Not much. "Would she read for us in the Bible?" The words stumble out confused. She's red-faced. Shame!"
Reciprocal gift giving" is a phrase used often in anthropology: the best relationships take place among people of similar socio-economic levels, who can exchange their resources equally. You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.
However, if I am the recipient of kindnesses and can not reciprocate them, I feel shame! Jassie is invited over to Sister Clarice's house for the big Sunday afternoon meal. She almost enjoys it. She knows that people care deeply for her. But, saints preserve us, she doesn't dare invite them to her house! It's a mess! And the gifts and the gestures all are too good to be real, because Jassie doesn't have the means to offer equivalent kindnesses back. Shame grows!
She thinks: "They say that God has forgiven me. Then why do I feel this growing weight of failure before these people? They're so darn nice, but I don't fit. They ask me awkward questions. They seem to have it all together----the language, the church style. They quote stuff from the Bible, know when to stand up and sit down, can name call a bunch of people I've never heard of, and they've all gone to the same denominational schools. They're kind of like a club, and I still feel like the outsider."
Shame grows! "Maybe God didn't do such a great thing in my life." "Maybe it's all an illusion." "Maybe these people are too good for me!" "Maybe I don't belong."
In the sixth week of Jassie's conversion, she skips church, because it is feeling increasingly uncomfortable for her. Ah, but this is a well-organized Church. They send the posse out the next day to find out what happened to her. At her door, she mumbles something about not feeling well. Shame grows! Then slowly she disappears, out of sight, out of mind. We have decided that she wasn't really a very responsible candidate for salvation. Lost!
Reflection! I find this happening a lot in our churches. We fail to realize just what a sub-cultural experience our institutional world has become. For those who feel shame, there are potentially three unfortunate responses: 1.avoidance, 2. anger, 3. apeing. Jassie has chosen avoidance. Most do. The anger response doesn't make sense, because kind gestures don't jive with anger. And sanctified Christians are not supposed to get angry (or so we implicitly suggest). And apeing, mimicking Christians, is awfully hard to do.
So the Jassies of our church world disappear. That fruit so ripe for the picking rots!
So what should we do? Here are some suggestions:
1. Acknowledge that guilt and shame are two very different emotions. The one, guilt, is universally experienced when confronted by God. But shame, sometimes necessary and appropriate, is a very relative emotion that may signal just as much the pathology of those who shame as those who are shamed.
2. Keep affirming the work of God in freeing one from guilt. Don't doubt it. Don't question it. Jassie has become a child of God, despite any feelings of shame.
3. Admit that perhaps our sub-cultural worlds are often overlaid with subtle shame-inducing practices. Tactless questions, undue expectations, smother love, kindnesses unreciprocated, subtle manipulations, often done innocently that short-circuit the work of the Holy Spirit.
4. Remember St Augustine's maxims: "every meeting is a divine encounter," and "every meeting is an exchange of gifts." This person has been given as a gift to you, to expose your own self-satisfaction, your own neat presuppositions, your own simplistic solutions.
5. Find neutral areas of common ground. Listen carefully to their hearts' cry. Do not offer easy solutions or ready quips. Resonate with their perceived needs.
6. Relate your own tortuous, confused, and amazing journey of grace, rather than describing some finished product.
7. Discover their gifting and let them express it in some tangible way back to the community of faith. As Jesus did with the woman at the well, be the needy one, asking for the "cup of water" to satiate your own need.
8. Give them permission to be angry with you, without censure or commentary. They may have hit on something worth examining. They may be God's conscience to you.
9. Don't see them as failures; see them as family: as messy and as awkward as an infant in Christ, worthy of your pride and joy.
10. Don't let your loyalty ride on their productivity or success. Remember, "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
It is said of Jesus, that he "despised the shame." My younger friends would say, he "dissed" it. Methinks we've got to find means to do the same, for those difficult people whom God has graciously sent our way.