Have you ever noticed how if you say a word over and over it starts to sound weird? That happened for me this past week as I read the word “shame” a lot. A word can really lose its power, too, if just treated like a combination of letters. Perhaps by the end of the sermon, I’ll say the word “shame” enough that it’ll start to lose its power.
Shame is a word that often is meant to pack power in it. A parent may shout “shame on you!” to a child for his or her actions. A disgruntled client may yell “you should be ashamed of yourselves for conducting business like this!” College students everywhere like to impose the phrase “walk of shame” upon their peers. A pet may get “the cone of shame” after surgery.
There are a few instances of what counselors may call “healthy shame” - a minor embarrassment, especially as we’re growing up, that helps us to realize and learn how our actions can be hurtful to other people, such as calling someone an insulting name.
But more often “shame” is meant to pack a negative connotation - meant to humiliate or cause distress over a certain behavior or preference. Maybe it’s shame over our bodies, shame for mental illness, shame for a past action, or shame for who we love. This imposed shame, if we don’t confront it, can often cause us to withdraw, forming gaps in our relationship with ourselves, God, and other people.
As we continue our look into shalom, using Lisa Sharon Harper’s book The Very Good Gospel, this week we are reflecting on shalom with self. How do we restore a peace-filled relationship with ourselves? How do we not beat ourselves over the head? How do we appreciate all of our life experiences and what they have taught us?
Some of you may be thinking “I have a pretty great view of myself. I don’t have any shame!”
And that’s great - if you feel you are at peace with who you are, the actions you put forth into this world, and the personality traits you have.
However, we all need to be aware of the broken relationship many people have in this world with themselves. The rates on eating disorders, harmful self-mutilations, and suicide (among teenagers, among military, among seemingly successful celebrities) tell us that people are not living in shalom with self.
Literally, as I was writing this sermon, a news story buzzed on my phone from CNN about suicide rates increasing by 25% in the last 2 decades and, of course, we had two high-profile suicide cases this past week, not to mention the estimated 100+ suicides per day that happen in the United States.
As a whole, we are not at peace with ourselves. Our brothers and sisters in humanity - and ourselves - have experienced or are living in shame over loss of jobs, weight issues, past actions, addictions of many varieties, and much more.
It is important we all know that living with shame creates a brokenness in our relationship with self - and that is not what God’s good creation is intended to be.
In the story of Creation, in Genesis 3, we see Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree. It is the biblical author’s way of introducing the brokenness that we know exists in our world.
It is in eating this fruit that their eyes are opened to see their vulnerability, their nakedness. Enter shame. Enter humiliation. From there, they try covering themselves, they try hiding from God.
Adam says to God that he hid ...because he was afraid ...because he was naked. Adam was exposed!
Nothing changed for the humans - other than the fact that now they were aware of their nakedness, their vulnerability. It’s not like they were once covered and then they weren’t. It’s only their awareness, and subsequent embarrassment, that changed.... and then when they experienced that shame, they tried hiding.
Even as Adam and Eve try concealing themselves from God, God sees them. In Psalm 139, we read that God’s response to any one of us trying to hide ourselves would essentially be “nope. I see you.” We are reminded in this Psalm that God knows us from the inside out. There is no hiding our vulnerabilities from God. There should be no shame, no trying to create a barrier.
This section of the Creation story shows humanity’s desire to gain knowledge and take in more, just like how a kid desires to learn and take in information as they grow. And as they mature, they are made more aware of themselves, society, their actions, and their vulnerabilities. Gaining the knowledge is not bad. It’s simply seeing what’s already there. It’s how we react to gaining the knowledge, and how we choose to not believe the lies that the shame is trying to tell us, which matters.
In our present day, we follow a similar reaction to that of Adam and Eve. When we see our vulnerability exposed, we try covering it. Maybe even hiding.
We hide pieces of ourselves from friends. We withdraw from church. We only stay within a community of people that will support our actions.
We let ourselves feel ashamed and embarrassed - maybe over a bad business deal, maybe over not fitting into a certain size clothing, maybe over realizing that we do categorize people based on their nationality, maybe over being attracted to the people that society tells us we shouldn’t be attracted to.
Society will try to shame some people for simply who they are or the decisions they make. And it creates barriers and unhealthy relationships with self.
The antidote to shame is not necessarily being proud of our actions, because not all of our actions are praise-worthy, such as times that we pre-judged a person based on their appearance. We are not perfect creatures; we make mistakes. But we don’t have to live in shame - beating ourselves over the head.
Other pieces of ourselves that society tries shaming us for we should be proud of - such as loving a person of a different skin color or of the same sex.
The antidote to shame is voice. Harper references Brene Brown a lot in this chapter of her book. Brown, a research professor, has committed her recent studies to shame in our society and how to overcome it. One of the great insights she offers is that giving voice to the things that cause the shame helps to silence the shame.
I love Harper’s interpretation of this - as the quote on today’s bulletin - “Voice is to shame as water is to the Wicked Witch of the West.”
When our eyes are opened and we are made more aware of our actions or upbringing, we may, like Adam and Eve, realize our vulnerability and try covering up, hiding, or creating a barrier out of shame. And yet, we cannot hide from God, we cannot hide from ourselves forever.
A friend of mine lost two immediate family members around the late 90s/early 2000s - both to suicide. She told me that on both of their death certificates the county coroner listed their deaths as “gun cleaning accidents.” The intention from the coroner, I have no doubt, was kindness, but it’s an example of trying to hide something out of potential shaming.
Suicide for a long time has carried with it a societal shaming on the remaining family members. Humiliation for a family member that couldn’t “handle life.” In recent years, thankfully, more voice is being given to the rates of depression and suicide, and it is an effort to void out the shame that has been previously placed upon mental illness.
In other examples, more people are giving voice to struggles with eating disorders, alcoholism, and racism. I’ve shared with a few of you a discussion guide published by the UCC on White Privilege. It’s meant to bring awareness to racism in our society, but it’s not meant to shame.
In thinking about following Jesus’ way to reach God’s intended peace, shalom, and how shame gets in the way of that, I thought of the story of Jesus talking with the woman at the well. Jesus acknowledges that she has had many husbands, which for that time was a big opportunity for shame, but Jesus doesn’t try humiliating her for that. He names it, but doesn’t beat her down for it.
When we bring voice to these issues and share our experiences with them, the vulnerability is exposed, the barriers are taken down, and we can stop letting shame keep us from growing and maturing and understanding ourselves.
Harper suggests a great process, inspired by Brown, to lead to shame resilience. After all, shame encourages disconnection and we want to move toward greater connection.
Recognize shame and understand your triggers. Think about when you have felt ashamed. When have you felt humiliated for an action or belief?
Practice critical awareness.
Name the lie you’re tempted to believe about yourself. Did that shame lie to you, saying that you were unworthy or inherently bad?
Also, did you try hiding it? Did you withdraw from relationships over it? Did it create brokenness for you?
Reach out - share it with a friend. Maybe this is the hardest step, but this is the step that brings voice to our shame and ultimately dispels it.
“Shalom says that we are all connected.” (Harper) Trying to place barriers and hiding humanity’s vulnerability is anti-shalom; allowing shame to rule works against restoring wholeness to creation, as God intends.
I pray that we do not let shame dictate how we see ourselves...that we do not let it hold ourselves back from feeling connected with one another, with God, and within ourselves. Amen.
Scripture:Genesis 3:7-10; Psalm 139:13-18