The young woman stood there crying and shaking, barely noticing the soreness of her wrists or the stinging of the cuts and grazes on her legs from when the men had dragged her out of the house, just minutes before. She grabbed the loose sheet covering her body more closely around her and shut her eyes – but it didn’t help. She could still sense their angry, threatening presence close by and smell their hot breath and body odour. She was paralysed by fear and overwhelmed by feelings of shame.
The full account of this shocking story and the beautiful, sensitive way in which Jesus cared for this nameless woman, can be found in the gospel of St John. It is one of the many accounts of his meeting with individuals whose behaviour or circumstances were deemed sinful or shameful by the religious authorities and as a result censured by wider society. Jesus’s response to these shamed people was to talk to them, touch them, eat with them and befriend them. Those self-same religious leaders had brought this woman to Jesus, demanding his opinion on what to do with her. She had allegedly been caught in the act of adultery, for which Jewish law at the time demanded death by stoning – for both partners. Predictably they brought no man to this face-off. Had it been a set-up, a honey-trap to find a convenient victim? Or was it more likely, just a typical, everyday example of the way in which women were systematically discriminated against and the man allowed to leave. The religious leaders’ behaviour and language says everything about how they viewed the woman. “They made her stand before the group”. “We are commanded to stone such women”. She was like an object and of no value, simply a pawn in the game of those who wanted to trap Jesus. He ignored their questions, bent down and started to write on the ground, choosing not to gaze or stare at the woman in the way the men who surrounded and accused her were already doing. But they kept on questioning him. “What do you say we should do to her?” If he said stone her, then he was flouting the Roman rulers who had sole authority about the death penalty. If he said not to stone her, then he would appear to be disobeying the religious law. Finally, Jesus stood up and spoke directly to the accusers. “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” He bent down again and carried on writing in the ground. Gradually the arrogant, self-righteous men, clothed in all their religious finery, so keen to point the finger of shame at this woman, recognised their own spiritual nakedness before The Teacher, and slunk away, until none were left. It is only then that Jesus stands up and speaks directly and compassionately to the woman herself. Far from condemning her, he affirms her and sets her free from guilt and shame to lead a transformed life.
Guilt and shame are often spoken of in one breath and whilst far from distinct, there is nevertheless a difference. Guilt is feeling a sense of remorse for something we have done whereas shame is the feeling that if people knew what we had done or thought, they would no longer respect us, like us, care for us or love us. Or as the ever enlightening Brené Brown puts it, Guilt is about saying to ourselves, “I did something bad,” whereas shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt is about our behaviour, shame is about who we are, and we tell ourselves that we are a bad person because of what we’ve done. The woman in the story maybe felt guilt, but the way she was treated was all about shame – “we are commanded to stone such women”. Such women? To those accusing her, she hadn’t just done something bad, she was bad.
Shame is perhaps a deeper emotion and as a result less easy to fix. It goes to the heart of living, the importance of feeling valued and above all of being loved. And this is deeply rooted in experiences of having been rejected because of things we have done in the past. In some cases this has been a subtle process, in other cases we are explicitly told that our actions have made it harder to love us or that we cannot be loved as much because of something we have done or intend to do. In consequence it can make us very preoccupied with appearing to be doing the right thing, to prevent people discovering the shaming things we do or think, so that the love we need and long for is not withdrawn.
In the popular TV series Breaking Bad, one of the most interesting relationships is that between mild mannered, underachieving chemistry teacher Walter White and his former pupil, less than competent drug dealer Jesse Pinkman. They team up to cook crystal meth, and make large amounts of money from doing so, but as the series develops we see Walter taking more extreme and increasingly brutal measures to protect the business, whilst Jesse has growing misgivings about each new step, plagued by guilt at what they have already done and shame at what his parents, younger brother and girlfriend will think of him. He even takes the blame for his brother’s cannabis to protect him from receiving the same shame and rejection that he has already experienced from his parents. Towards the end of the final series Jesse is overwhelmed by guilt and the “blood money” that he possesses. He attempts to deal with this by throwing a bag of money out of his car window and trying to give it away to people in need, or those to whom he has a connection. Whilst we may all use various means of anaesthetic or mental justifications and rationalisations to be like Walt and protect ourselves from feeling guilt and shame, in reality most of us are more like Jesse. Even if we pull it off, it is exhausting and ultimately can become overwhelming.
People in 12 step recovery seem to understand a lot about guilt and shame and the difference between them. I would go so far as to say it is the only treatment or help for addiction that considers or even goes near these concepts – which possibly explains its success rate. I’ve heard plenty of talk about guilt within Christianity, but not a lot about shame. Which is kind of curious because now that I understand better what shame is, and can identify with the experience of being shamed, it seems to me that it’s a pretty central part of human social life. Even more to the point, as we’ve already seen, it appears to have been something that was well understood and opposed by Jesus. He never spoke of it directly, but his actions and behaviours were very intentional and were always about not shaming people. In the gospel accounts of his three years of active teaching, he met with people who were already marginalised and cut off because of shameful things. Sexual behaviours, financial misconduct, health conditions. And his consistent message was that these people were all okay. He accepted them, restored them and set them on a new path. Jesus made a constant habit of sharing meals with all kinds of people so that the religious leaders regularly questioned whether he knew what sort of people they were. He did know and he didn’t care one jot – eating with them became a very public statement of their acceptance and worthiness.
As Christians, there can be an unconscious tendency for each of us to concentrate on polishing our glittering images and ensuring that our best side is always on display. To do otherwise makes us fear that we might be seen as bad Christians – extremely shaming, even though we know that none of us is perfect and accept the importance of regular confession and forgiveness (generally a safe private affair.) It’s also natural for us to avoid showing our ugly and broken bits because this is what we’ve done all our lives, yet the more we see others’ shiny selves, the harder it is to admit our own bad thoughts or actions and the more shame we feel. Within 12 step fellowships, people accept the reality of guilt and shame and in undertaking steps 4 and 5 admit the nature of their past actions to another trusted person (and to God). In doing so, they lay bare their real selves and discover that they are not shamed for what they have done and admitted, which offers great release. Perhaps such “confession” and honest sharing is something that Christians need to do more of, helping us to recognise ourselves for what we are without shame and so accept others without judging or shaming them. We can then be a vehicle for them to experience God’s grace and love. As Henri Nouwen says, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
Shame says, because I am flawed I am unacceptable. Grace says, because I am flawed I am cherished. Anonymous
Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself. Anais Nin
You feel the shame, humiliation, and anger at being just another victim of prejudice, and at the same time, there’s the nagging worry that maybe… you’re just no good. Nina Simone
Even the President of the United States sometimes has to stand naked. Bob Dylan
I decided that the single most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed. Anne Lamott