WHEN preaching on the cross, as many do on Good Friday in particular, many ministers have traditionally sought to focus primarily on guilt and the need for redemption. But they might gain a better hearing if they concentrated first on shame, before turning to sin and atonement.
The problem of shame in contemporary society has been highlighted by writers such as Jon Ronson and Brené Brown. Ronson’s bestselling study of public humiliation So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Pan Macmillan, 2015) told the stories of people who found themselves victims of a shaming culture, often on social media. Many were “ordinary people” who fell foul of an online “mob mentality”.
“We can lead good, ethical lives, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm it all,” he concludes. “The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”
Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy or love and belonging”.
A study of shame published by the ecumenical Mission Theology Action Group, argues that shame can be different from guilt “in that one can feel shame if wrongly accused or if no wrong has been committed”.
The Church “is not immune to causing people to feel shame”, they say, which can put them off joining a church. “Shame”, they write, “can be attached to being gay, divorced, childless, old, to not being sufficiently believing, ignorant of faith, being doubters, backsliders, or a host of other sins and guilts.
“Trying to be part of a Christian community under a burden of shame can be spiritually disabling and destructive and ultimately intolerable.”
THOSE who work at the interface of faith and mental health see the scale of the shame challenge. “Shame is in the atmosphere and in us,” the Revd André Radmall, a priest and psychotherapist, says. “Social media has weaponised shame as a tool to eviscerate anyone who crosses the line of public taste.
“Concepts of right and wrong and therefore guilt have become largely redundant, but the isolation and social trauma that accompanies shame is everywhere. Shame degrades and disrupts at the core of identity. If we are to have a relationship with a loving God of total acceptance, the first hurdle to overcome will be our shame.”
Rebecca Winfrey writes in The Cross and Shame (Grove Books, 2019): “We say in the church that Jesus can heal us from anything and that the salvation that he provides brings wholeness of body, mind and spirit. So that means that he can heal shame.
“We might help people by praying for physical healing or encourage them to acknowledge guilt and the need to forgive and be forgiven. But there has been very little talk of how to heal shame.”
A sign of the growing interest in addressing shame was the response to a conference in October 2020, organised by the Transforming Shame network, which sold out two weeks before its online launch. Conference topics included shame and its relationship with mission, racism, and sexuality, and the talks remain online (News, 6 November 2020).
Ms Winfrey sets out the challenge: “Given that many of the people we are talking to are struggling with shame, we need to speak of God’s unconditional acceptance before we talk to people about their guilt.”
This approach can be seen in Jesus’s interactions with the Samaritan woman at the well, the tax collector Zacchaeus, or the woman accused of adultery: he shows compassion and affirms the dignity and worth of the individual — addressing their shame — before implying any guilt.
CHURCHES can play a key practical part in combating some of the causes of perceived shame by supporting debt advice, addiction counselling, and other vital welfare services.
In addition, Ms Winfrey suggests ways in which church leaders can offer pastoral help for people experiencing shame. These include preachers’ talking of the new identity God gives in exchange for our old shame-filled identity, before they discuss the challenge God presents to our behaviour.
It could also mean teaching and modelling a true humility, including acknowledging the challenges that leaders face with shame themselves; creating a caring community in which shame can be admitted and a sense of belonging experienced; and encouraging the use of Ignatian-style meditation, in which encountering Jesus in a Gospel story can have a healing effect.
Other recommendations include teaching new Christians that they might face shame in a secular culture, and encouraging them to memorise and to reflect on scripture verses that express their identity and value in God’s sight.
The Revd Peter Crumpler is the SSM Officer for St Albans archdeaconry, and a former director of communications at Church House, Westminster. He is the author of a Grove Books booklet, Responding to Post-Truth (E197) (Comment, 24 July 2020).