Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
May 10, 2020
Psalm 31 – John 14: 1-14
“Shame is the irrepressible memory of disunion from [our] origin. It is the pain of this disunion, and the helpless desire to reverse it. Human beings are ashamed because they have lost something that is part of their original nature and their wholeness…. Human beings are ashamed because of the lost unity with God and one another.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian and Martyr, 1905–1945, Ethics
When my sister Lise and I were kids, she used to receive one of those teen magazines that were so popular back then. They’d have articles about make-up and dating and boy bands. Lise was a charter member of the Bobby Sherman Fan Club. Who was Bobby Sherman, you ask? Exactly. There was a letters section whose title I’ll never forget. It was “Was My Face Red When…”. Girls would write in about something that caused them embarrassment. Let me say first I never read those letters. My own face is red even admitting I know the contents of those magazines. I think it was stuff like hair and makeup disasters and wardrobe faux pas.
But of course all of that is really about shame. Our faces turn red when we’re ashamed. We know the feeling—blood rushes to our faces so that everyone knows you’re embarrassed. You look down rather than looking at someone to see how horrified they are at what you did. You want to run and hide, and maybe even you do it.
In scripture the first appearance of shame is in Genesis 3, when after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit they realize that they are naked and run and hide from God, who to that point had been kind of a trusted companion. Shame is the first symptom of their alienation from God.
Recently I heard an NPR story on the topic of “The Corona Virus Guilt Trip.” In South Korea, NPR reports, “People who are stigmatized say they’re made to feel that they are the disease themselves,” because the government publicizes personal data on COVID-19 carriers. This is a deliberate strategy on the part of the government so that people will feel ashamed if and when they don’t practice social distancing.
But for many of us, we don’t need the government to make us feel ashamed of something like Covid-19. This is exactly the sort of thing that we naturally feel ashamed about. We often feel ashamed about things over which we have no control, and a pandemic is a perfect example. It emphasizes our inadequacy, and one of the main causes of shame is our sense of inadequacy. People with any sort of illness can feel it, but especially if you discover that you are a carrier and may have unknowingly infected others, that can be enormously shaming.
The late theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer viewed shame as an important theological category, and he writes about it in his Ethics. For him, shame is a deeper matter than the things that make our faces red. He writes:
Shame is the irrepressible memory of disunion from [our] origin. It is the pain of this disunion, and the helpless desire to reverse it. Human beings are ashamed because they have lost something that is part of their original nature and their wholeness…. Human beings are ashamed because of the lost unity with God and one another.
Shame, says Bonhoeffer, should not be confused with guilt or remorse. Guilt or remorse are associated with our consciousness of wrong doing, something over which we have power. But shame is not about sin—it’s about inadequacy and alienation, things that are part and parcel of the human condition. We were made to be in union with one another and with God and our souls long to return to that state of union. So in Psalm 31, our Hebrew Bible reading for today, when the Psalmist David asks God not to “put him to shame,” what he really means is not, “Oh God, don’t embarrass me,” like all of us used say, or will say about our parents when we are teenagers. What he means is that because of his persecution he feels alienated from God, and he desperately, desperately wants to feel that sense of unique union with God that seems always to have been a characteristic of David. He wants reassurance that God has not abandoned him—which is a feeling we can all relate to, especially in times of trouble.
Shame, Bonhoeffer points out, is not only not about sin, it is also not entirely a bad thing. Shame often serves a good purpose. Bonhoeffer for instance believed that every Christian should have a fellow Christian who is their confessor, the person they tell their secret sin to. But the point there is that it’s a secret sin. He didn’t believe we should just advertise our failings around to everyone; in fact, quite the opposite. He believed we must tell someone and that we must not tell everyone. Shame is not for public consumption.
The world we live in today seems to illustrate the reason why—showing it to all the world creates a kind of shamelessness. So much of our celebrity culture is fed by shameless behavior—people who do their bad deeds out in public and dare you to call them bad. That kind of shamelessness reinforces in us the idea that everything I do is right and okay, I am complete and whole in myself, and I don’t need other people and I don’t need God. It’s a type of narcissism and it doesn’t allow shame to play its important role in making us aware of our need—our desperate need—for others and for God. Shame is a manifestation of the restlessness that St. Augustine talks about in his Confessions: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Shame is our soul crying out its need for God: shamelessness is our self-centered defiance that cries, “I’m fine; I don’t need anyone or anything!”
Having said that, it’s worth noting that there are a lot of things of which we are ashamed, and which we keep secret, that are only shameful because we ourselves or our society makes them so. So many of those things that would have appeared in the “Was my face red when…” letters are exactly the sorts of things that should not cause us shame but do. How we dress, our personality traits, our loves and likes—if we lived in a different culture or time, we might be ashamed of entirely different things. They don’t really matter, except to us, because at some level they illustrate our sense of alienation. A teen worries about wearing the wrong shoes because he knows he’ll be made fun of: that’s really about his awareness of alienation and his desperate need to have friends.
Likewise the ways that we or society label things as shameful can do more harm than good. Until recently, for instance, to have a mental illness or to have a family member afflicted with mental illness was a matter of intense shame and also of secrecy—the kind of secrecy that made problems worse instead of better. Employers might fire you or friends might desert you or you’d never get needed treatment because you wanted to keep it all a secret. These days our attitude about these matters is much healthier. It wasn’t always the case, for instance, that people could admit to having depression or ADHD or being bi-polar, but now people feel freer to be honest about it. On the other hand, not everyone needs to know about it either. It’s wise to make sure that such delicate information is in the hands of the right people, doctors and family and good friends, and not those who are fearful, cruel, or exploitive.
Likewise sexuality used to be a subject of shame, to the point that people closeted themselves fearful of others but also fearful of their own bodies and their own identities which society told them were evil. Again, today we can be far more honest about these things; but society in its clever way can corrupt that too with pornography and an “anything goes” attitude that leads people to do foolish, cruel or dangerous things. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our sexuality, but we shouldn’t be “shameless” about it either. A lot of people, especially when they are young or lonely, have fallen for that myth of shamelessness and ended up hurt, damaged, or hurting other people.
Bonhoeffer observes that the “shame contains both an acknowledgement of and a protest against disunion, which is why human beings live between concealment and disclosure, between hiding and revealing themselves, between solitude and community.”
There is something very human in our need both to reveal ourselves and to conceal ourselves, he says. To have friends and loved ones to whom you can tell your deepest secrets is essential, it heals disunion, as also praying to God about it heals disunion; but also keeping these matters in the hands of God and a trusted few is also essential to avoid painful misunderstandings, abuse and further alienation.
A few months ago I received an email from someone in Dallas. He asked me what I knew about a certain big steeple pastor here in Fort Worth who was no longer their pastor but no reason was shown on the church website for why he was no longer there. “I don’t ask out of malice,” he said, and you should know that I go on high alert when anyone says, “I don’t ask out of malice.” “I and a few friends just want to know why a prominent pastor at a prominent church is no longer there and the entire thing is shrouded in secrecy.”
Well, that got me angry. The pastor has a sad personal reason he is no longer there. Nothing maleficent happened. There was no ethical breach, no betrayal, no wrongdoing of any sort, just a tragic turn of events. People all over Fort Worth know what happened. But the church and the pastor aren’t making a public matter of it. It’s hardly “shrouded in secrecy.” Some things aren’t secret—they’re just not anybody else’s business! I wrote back to the correspondent that sometimes things are not secret, but they are private, and sometimes other people should respect their privacy. “If people aren’t telling you the reason, then my guess is they don’t think it’s your business.”
Bonhoeffer observes that “To anyone who reads the New Testament even superficially, it must be apparent that here this entire world of disunity, conflict, and ethical problems seems to have vanished out of sight.” The NT, he says, maintains that “Instead, the rediscovered unity, the reconciliation, has become the ground, ‘the point of decision of specifically ethical experience.’ There is nothing problematic, tortured, or dark about the living and acting of human beings, but instead something self-evident, joyous, certain and clear.” His point is that this sense of disunity has been overcome through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Peter puts it in our epistle today, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” God has overcome disunity and made us God’s people again. Reconciliation and restored relationship are the heart of the gospel. Jews have a concept called tikkun olam, the healing of the world. The world is broken, damaged, shattered; our relationship with God is shattered. But tikkun olam is the whole work that God is doing to heal that damaged relationship and restore us to oneness with God and one another. We Christians believe that tikkun olam is accomplished through Jesus Christ, who restores us to union with God and one another.
In our Gospel, Jesus is telling his disciples about the characteristics of that restored relationship. We don’t know how to get there on our own; all we know is our shame because we feel so alienated. So we stand with Thomas when he asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” We long to get there, Lord, to that restored relationship; but how do we do that?
And Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He tells us he is at one with God the Creator, and because of that they can also be one with God the Creator. The pivotal line in the scripture, the one that has been subject to so much understanding, is when he says, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” People have interpreted this to mean, if you ask God for money and riches and fame and happiness and do it in Jesus’ name, you’ll get it. But such selfish requests are signs of our disunity with God and our fellow human beings. What Jesus means is specifically that we’ll be able to do his works—meaning his ethics, his teaching, his healing, his mercy. To ask in Jesus’ name is to ask for what Jesus wants—to ask for forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with neighbor and enemy, the ability to serve others in their need, playing a healing role in the world. Jesus is telling us that such prayers mean that our will has been knit together with his will, so we’ll be able to do what Jesus was able to do, and more even than that. I’ve seen that throughout the recent crisis. At the beginning people were wondering, “What in the world can we do to help all the people in need during this pandemic? We can’t touch anybody, we don’t want to infect anyone or get infected, but we want to help. How?” And because that is a heartfelt desire to do what Jesus would want us to do, somehow by the grace of God we’ve found ways to do those things, to provide for the needs of the sick and the homeless and of agencies that work with them. You’ve heard the expression, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” We Christians can modify it to say, “Where there is Christ’s will, we’ll always find Christ’s way.” The fact that we have been able to do such things is proof that what we’ve been praying for is also the will of Christ.
So in Christ, we have union. But we still feel shame. We still live in that dynamic tension Bonhoeffer identified, between disunion and union. In this life the union is never perfect, but by the grace of God we can continue to strive toward it. And in the life to come, the resurrected life in eternity, that union will be complete. Disunion will be defeated, and we will be fully united with humanity and with our Lord. At last, our restless hearts will rest in God.