Today's post is a part 2 from Friday's.
I recently came across a news article about a church in Arizona reaching out to college students that went too far. The church had at least five different front groups for the church) - pursuing funding, aggressively promoting one thing but actually doing another. Students were pushed to aggressively recruit, live with other members in houses that were ridiculously over-crowded, absolutely pack their days from dawn till dusk with church meetings and work. Students were told to ask permission to change their majors, date, make trips home. Students were manipulated and controlled - primarily through - you guessed it - shame.
Organizations and social groups that support our faith practices exert incredible influence on our lives simply by virtue of what they're about. Over the years - I've met a number of people who have endured abuse in churches and ministries that used shame to enforce compliance or worse - silence. Shaming isn't leadership. Unfettered shaming in organizations is about the leader's own unaddressed shame.
Shame is the gas-pedal we go to when we want to speed past finding the courage to listen or humbly give the time to understand what God's doing in their life. Shame is the social dynamite we lob at others when we think we can know in a blink what someone needs. It's how we tsk, eye-ball roll, and dismiss someone whose experience is far enough outside our own that to understand it we have to expend effort. But shame isn't just impatient. It comes in many other forms - and they're all toxic.
In other words - shame is a lethal and false work-around. I say lethal - because it only works when it's killed off my ability to ignore my God-given value and wait for another to tell me that I'm okay, valuable, desirable, or enough. Shame only exists as long as we're not really okay with who we are. All the best research shows that everyone is vulnerable to some amount of shame though - so we all love to be validated. I believe that Scripture offers us Divine grounds for living resiliently to shame - though; but what a mess when that message gets mingled with shame. I say it's a false work-around because when I give shame space in my head I've just layered even more shame on the parts that already had shame. It's like fighting shame with shame. Shame only exists where my soul hasn't yet grasped God's love for and truth about me. It's not possible to use shame positively any more than it's possible to use abuse positively. Period.
Bottom line: if shame were that great of a motivator - wouldn't God have shamed Jesus onto the cross? Wouldn't John 3:16 then say "For God was so ashamed of the world ..."
But what if faith communities quit shame altogether?
I heard a story - I believe on a podcast - and I'm so bummed that after hours and hours of rummaging all over the net to re-find the original material I haven't found it again. Anyway - the story was about a struggling small town hospital. The hospital hired a new administrator who put a number of new policies into place. Big whoop - right? One of the new ideas everyone agreed to was that as a place of healing - they were going to use no language related to death or violence. They wanted to only use language of healing. This meant that if a cancer patient came in for chemo - you can imagine maybe someone telling that patient that "we're going to target that tumor - and we're going to attack it - and we'll keep attacking it until it's dead." Instead this hospital chose to say things like "We're going to find the tumor - and we're going to give your immune system everything it needs to heal - and we're going to keep supporting you and your body until the tumor is replaced by healthy tissue again." The staff overwhelmingly sighted the change in language as being a decisive factor in the hospital not only no longer being in danger of closing - but in their achieving unprecedented treatment outcomes.
If language of violence can be considered the opposite of language of healing - what is the opposite of shame? Most people agree that it's empathy. I would even go so far to say that by putting ourselves in a position to even just be open to generously giving others our empathy is better for us than carrying around shame in our heads. But actually speaking to others with empathy - and receiving their empathy - imagine the feast for our souls that would be! I feel fortunate to attend a church that doesn't thrive on shaming this group or that group from the pulpit every Sunday - but I wonder how much good shaming anyone from that platform does - given how caustic and harmful shame is. What would happen if we went to church - determined to give some empathy to this one - and say - look them in the eye and say "I'm so glad you're here!" or hug them and genuinely say "I'd hoped to get to talk to you!" Not everyone wants to be on the spot with their words - but we could send a little note - and tell that someone who's always faithfully serving at church - that "I'm so encouraged to serve every time I see you in action." Even if we don't have the perfect words - sharing heartfelt joy at the good we see those in our faith community doing and being could have a radical impact on the way those regular services feed our own faith.
What would happen to our communities if even just a few churches intentionally backed away from open shaming? What would change as a result? I have to imagine our willingness to hear it elsewhere would change. I'm afraid at the moment - some of us are numb to it. What if our churches, and ministries, and families were sanctuaries where we could heal and gain strength to resist the onslaught of shame? What if to be like Christ looked like shaming no one.