The Politics of Shame

Luke 18:9-14  He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:  (10)  "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  (11)  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  (12)  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  (13)  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  (14)  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

You know, the bible has a lot of practical lessons in it. All I had to do in my reading this morning was insert other words for “Pharisee” and “tax collector.” How about “two people went up into the temple to prayer, one was a man and the other a woman…” Or insert “Democrat” and “Republican” or “Evolutionist” or “Creationist.” Or how about “Two people went up into the temple to pray, one was Barack Obama and the other Sarah Palin….” You get the idea.  And yes, we can easily reverse all of the above insertions and still it would make sense. When I did all that, I knew I had to say something out loud.

During Advent, I always start questioning my spiritual beliefs, not because I am afraid of hell, as I used to be as a fundamentalist Christian, but because I’ve grown so much in the last couple of years that I have to check in with my own spirit to realize what it is I really do believe.  And I realize that we live in a culture of shame. Some of us are ashamed of our beliefs in the wake of backlash and some of us, who should be ashamed, aren’t. But I can’t be concerned about them. I can only change myself.Butterfly

Yesterday, I got my picture taken for our staff directory. In times past I absolutely hated to get my picture taken. It’s a rare person that loves it, but I have never loved it. So, when I got to view the results instantly on a digital camera, for the first time in my adult life, I was not ashamed of my picture. I was amazed at myself. Why? Because I’m fat. By everyone’s standards today, I am considered fat, even obese. Although some views of fat and obese are obviously skewed mightily by the diet industry funded BMI community. So, yesterday, when I saw my picture, I thought, “Yep, that’s me and it looks just like me.” For the first time, I felt at home in my skin. What was my miraculous turnaround attributed to? Love of course. The love of friends and the love of a man who loves me just as I am. This love has convinced me that if I don’t love myself, others will anyway, but I will just make it that much harder by my bitching and moaning about weight, when I don’t mind my weight at all. It seems to be others who mind it for me.  (to catch up on the politics of fat, read Kate Harding and her links)

Another thing that struck me this week, during this season of Advent, was how much shame is being generated by religion, some completely from biased individuals, but some unnecessarily from religion itself. Even I have wanted to distance myself from the Christian community because of the stupid acts of a few. Fortunately for me, I work in a church where pastors and members display acts of love and charity and caring beyond anything I’ve ever experienced outside the Christian community.  My counselor finds it significant that even though I have a love/hate relationship with God, I continue to work in a church and am fine with that. This is interesting. I think I do because it allows me to be part of the church, but with as much aloofness as I like. These people don’t spend their time arguing minutiae of doctrine or this and that “law.” They spend their time buying gifts for a community wide distribution day at Christmastime. They give to St. John’s Breadline which feeds the hungry. They donate their time to Meals on Wheels. They give blood to the Red Cross. They help the unfortunate in Darfur. They go on Mission Trips to repair housing for the poor.  It’s enough to make me ashamed that I can’t be bold enough to claim that I believe because of shame in the internet community.

This does not mean I endorse fundamentalism of any stripe. This does not mean the bible holds complete truth, as written by men. It doesn’t mean I have hard and fast rules about other people’s sex lives or that I automatically subscribe to everything other Christians believe. It only means that I believe in a Spirit that I can only call Divine. This means I believe this Spirit is best embodied in Jesus Christ.I don’t know what that means “doctrinally” and I don’t care.  I believe that it takes more that buildings, rituals, and texts to make a Christian who is filled with this Spirit. And I also believe that I can’t deny it in public any longer. Call me ignorant. Call me deluded. Tell me I’m fat and therefore stupider than most of the population. Tell me or call me anything you like. It doesn’t change the sweetness of the Spirit when I cooperate with it in my life. I will not be ashamed any longer.



11 thoughts on “The Politics of Shame

  1. That’s great, MOI! I am happy for you.

    I have rejected a lot of New Testament doctrine, but I still find Jesus’ teachings inspiring and moving. So I can very much relate to the kind of Christian you describe yourself as.

    I know what you mean about being ashamed of believing in something, too. I often feel embarrassed about wanting to believe in religion, or being attracted to it at least. But I can’t deny the fact that I just can’t let it all go and be an atheist or agnostic. Thanks for being so bold – it comes across very positive to me 🙂

    BTW I love the snow that is falling down your page… how do you do that?!

    • Thank you Laila! I’m glad it comes off as positive because that’s how I meant it. And yes, like you, I am always attracted to it and am tired trying to deny it. Thanks for coming by for the encouragement. I really appreciate it! As for the snow, WordPress does that during the Christmas season. I think all of us get it. It’s kind of cool, no? 🙂

  2. Do you think there’s a way to be grateful to not be something without coming across as superior?

    I know the point of the parable is the arrogance of what is termed the Pharisee. But I’ve found myself in situations where I watched someone behave and it made me so grateful that I wasn’t like that — and I wasn’t thinking of this in terms of superiority, or that I was better than someone else. It was a sense of humility almost, that my life experiences lead me to behave differently than what I viewed as harmful. And an awareness that had I had other experiences, I could in fact behave in such a harmful way. The whole “there but for the grace of God go I …”

    • OSS,
      Actually I think the point of the parable is someone coming off as a believer in one’s own secure position in the faith. The Pharisee thought that because he tithed, said his prayers daily, and did all the rituals he thought was necessary, he felt superior and assured of an “in” with God. It’s the smug feeling that one cannot possibly be wrong and the lack of self awareness to know one was so arrogant. It’s a presumption, an attitude that reveals the extent of our hearts; focused un-redeemingly inward or redeemingly outward. As for whether we are glad we aren’t paralyzed from the neck down or living in a cardboard house on the main street of town, sure, everyone thinks those things at one time or another. But the parable isn’t speaking to that attitude I don’t think.

  3. Thank you for this post, and for citing my favourite parable.

    The poor deluded pharisee: I don’t think it’s possible to believe in the Divine as the quintessence of everything to which we might aspire, and still feel completely righteous. Not that we should feel too born down by our imperfections of course. A loving parent doesn’t punish children for behaving like children.

    I think it’s OK to feel shame at our sorriest failures, and some pride in our successes, but this is an internal matter. Nobody but us knows whether, or how hard, we’re trying or not.

    In the public sphere, our culture is bedevilled by an obsession with categories. We like to clearly differentiate the in group from theout group; us and them; nice people who think what we think, and those others. We seek to shame those others into realising exactly how wretched it is to be them, and how much better it is to be us. Meanwhile, “they” are busy doing the same thing. This is clearly no way to sensibly discuss the health of the citizenry or the future of the planet.

    This can infect our private transactions as well. People can make all kinds of assumptions on the basis of someone else’s expressed opinion.So why can we be so easily drawn into this personificationof our beliefs via criticism? As if such a critic somehow acquires spurious authority. Some people are very good at pushing our buttons. I think part of my anger at this kind of discussion turned into a personal attack is resentment of how keenly I feel it, when I should have enough self-confidence not to, and part annoyance with myself that I can be drawn into something of which I so disapprove. That’s where the pharisee in me confronts the tax collector in me. How to avoid that kind of pointless brawling?

    For me, it helps to try to objectify my beliefs. Trying to understand what it is in my background that might make me think certain things, and then trying to stand back a bit to see if I really do believe those things and why. I need to get some separation between my value as a person and my opinions. If I believe that ideas shouldn’t be the stuff of personal attacks, then I have to separate my ideas from my person, otherwise I’m making exactly that mistake.

    • Reg,
      You wrote: “I think part of my anger at this kind of discussion turned into a personal attack is resentment of how keenly I feel it, when I should have enough self-confidence not to, and part annoyance with myself that I can be drawn into something of which I so disapprove. That’s where the pharisee in me confronts the tax collector in me. How to avoid that kind of pointless brawling?”

      How to avoid indeed? I think there is a bit of Pharisee and tax collector in all of us. The trick is to know the difference. However, I fear, that humans being what they are, we will never get beyond the petty bickering that shows our obvious insecurity at having our beliefs questioned, be they political, religious, or something as simple as our choice of clothing.

  4. **As for whether we are glad we aren’t paralyzed from the neck down or living in a cardboard house on the main street of town, sure, everyone thinks those things at one time or another.**

    Well, I meant it more along the lines — for I have had this very thought — of saying, “Thank God I’m not a fundamentalist.” But I don’t feel I’m saying that in terms of bragging, or trying to show how better I am. I say that out of gratitude because of the harm I see fundamentalists causing, and that I’m not causing that type of harm. And just gratitude that I am not in that lifestyle, for the sake of my own mental health. But it’s also with an awareness that I no doubt have areas where I am causing harm, and can’t just say, “Well, as long as I’m better than somebody out there, I’m an okay person.”

  5. Mystery,

    I think i too question. It is just recently i decided to give myself a break. My spirituality is love, compassion, a pursuit to not judge and to give without condition. Not sure what box that fits in, but it just may be, this year I won’t wrap it!

    Best to you.


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