Tony Campolo, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University. A Baptist minister, a well-known and respected public speaker about all things Christian, an author, a funny man who has great stories. I have read his books. I saw him speak in person back in the late eighties. Since that time, he has become a leader in progressive Evangelicalism, championing the right of the LGBTQ+ community in Evangelical churches. He tells this story in one of his sermons he preached on the Hour of Power about four years ago.
A group of my students from Eastern University went to work with Mother Teresa for six months. They were there a short while when one of the young women said to one of my other students, “Shane, I feel like such a hypocrite. I’m a lesbian and I have a feeling that if Mother Teresa finds out about who I am and what I am, that she’ll ask me to leave. That she might condemn me. Should I tell her? I can’t go on playing this game of hypocrisy.”
Shane said “well I can’t tell you what to do.”
About a week or so later, he asked her, “did you ever talk to Mother Teresa about being a lesbian?” She said “yes I did.”
“Well, what did she say?”
And this young woman said “it was weird – she bowed her head and prayed for a long, long time and then she looked up and smiled at me and said ‘Sarah, would you read the scripture at mass tomorrow morning?’”
And Tony Campolo went on to say. What a wonderful response. No judgment, but rather this – there’s a place for you in the household of God. There’s a welcome here. You’re part of the body of Christ. You’re welcomed here. Oh, that the entire church would be able to function like Mother Teresa did on that crucial day for that young woman.
Paul wrote. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Mother Theresa didn’t condemn her. And not necessarily because Mother Theresa agreed theologically with same sex relationships, but because Mother Theresa didn’t believe in condemnation.
But Condemnation is the culture we live in. I recently responded to a post on Facebook against my better judgement. It was a post condemning the Religious Right calling them heretics.
I put a post on Facebook saying that I was nurtured in faith by the Christian Right. I said that to label all the Christian Right as the same is fallacy. The Christian Right is very diverse and there are wonderful people in the Christian right.
I said that blaming and shaming are not helpful techniques to bring about meaningful change.
I am not sure my words made any difference and I was criticized for saying them.
But to condemn, blame, shame, and label millions of people is just not helpful.
And it not that I disagree with the one condemning the Christian Right, that elements of the Christian Right have acculturated imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, violence and prejudice into Christian Religion. But it is the denouncing and condemning of the people of the Christian Right and lumping them all together as evil monsters.
It is like saying all Muslims are terrorists. It is like saying all Catholics are cannibals because they literally eat Jesus, or that all Aboriginals are addicts, or all Black people are lazy or violent. It is the labeling and shaming of one group as if they are all the same and they are all bad, and often using misinformation and prejudice.
It is so easy these days for people, ministers, politicians, Facebook trolls and others to talk about good and evil and point the finger as others. Blame them. Shame them. Accuse them. Condemn them.
But we all need to list to some words from the great Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from his book, the Gulag Archipelago, who wrote:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained”
It is one of the reasons that Jesus tells us not to judge others. We are ourselves are a mixture of good and evil, and often our judging does much more harm than good.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel about 170 years ago, that I believe is as contemporary a story as ever one is. It is called the Scarlet Letter. It is a fictional story about Hester Prynne who in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts in the mid to late 1600’s has given birth to a baby of unknown paternity.
She is put on trial and sentenced to standing publicly and being shamed on a scaffold for three hours, and then wearing for the rest of her life a scarlet letter “A” as the sign of her shame.
Shame. It is one of the most powerful weapons that humans use, and one that has devasting effects on the recipients.
And everywhere you look there is shaming going on.
Let me start with a definition by Brené Brown, a professor, researcher and noted author who writes about shame. I quote:
Shame is an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
It's an emotion that affects all of us and profoundly shapes the way we interact in the world.
It affects all of us.
Let me share how common shame is and list some sources of shame
Being compared to a sibling and continuing to negatively compare yourself to them now
Being scolded for making a mistake and internalizing the message that you were bad
Making a mistake that resulted in someone else being hurt and not forgiving yourself
Being bullied in school for how you looked or some other trait you became ashamed of
Receiving love that felt conditional upon your performance in school/sports, etc.
Growing up in a house where it was shameful to show or talk about feelings
Having a deeply guarded family secret you were expected to keep and protect
Feeling ashamed from where or how you grew up, how much money you had, etc.
Parents or caregivers who had unrealistic or perfectionistic expectations of you
Being subjected to frequent criticism, comparison, or disapproval
Having an absent parent and believing you were unloved or unwanted by them
Children and teens are most vulnerable to internalizing painful experience, and believing themselves unworthy, but everyone has shame, and everyone has particular things that trigger shame for them.
One of the terrible things about shame, is that shame lingers inside. It festers, or grows and can affect a person a long time after the particular incidence of shaming.
Shame is often kept secret. Those who are shamed feel unworthy and so the person doesn’t want to talk about their insecurities and fears, for fear they won’t be accepted or understood. But paradoxically not being vulnerable and not sharing, keeps one from developing friendships and keeps one from total acceptance, and the one who keeps secrets feels even more isolated.
And yet this is not how we are supposed to live. In the beginning of the bible Adam and Eve are living naked in the garden of Eden and are unashamed.
Let us understand that emotionally for a minute. When you are naked emotionally it means you are free to talk about anything… to share your whole life. When you are in Eden it is a safe place to be vulnerable and to be totally emotionally naked.
I expect some of us here have friends or counsellors with whom we can be emotionally naked and share everything and find, love, acceptance, understanding, compassion, wisdom, guidance and the freedom to be ourselves.
But Adam and Eve would eat from that tree of the knowledge of good and evil, trying to be gods and things changed.
Instead of being in a safe place where they could be emotionally vulnerable and naked and find acceptance, they entered a world of judgment, of good and evil, of condemnation, of pointing fingers, of blame and shame.
And ever since then, we humans like the Pharisees, love to judge one another, blame one another, point fingers at one another, shame one another, to try and shift the focus onto the other as the bad person, or to try and make ourselves feel righteous.
We try to be gods making pronouncements on everybody on everything.
But we are not God, and all we do is alienate, hurt, separate into sides, or withdraw from others.
When we judge and blame and shame, nobody is safe. When we judge and condemn and shame, we hurt people emotionally.
When we judge and blame and shame, we deceive ourselves who are not perfect.
And Christ did not come to condemn us, to blame and shame us, but to love us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis during World War 2, wrote about the knowledge of good and evil. He argued that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they broke union with God, so their judging was based on their new source of knowledge – themselves. In other words, they judged by their own standards.
Since none of us is God, when we judge, it is by our own standards, and judging becomes our way of life, instead of loving.
Think of it this way. A person comes into hospital with a gunshot wound. The doctors do what? The doctors treat the person because the person is hurt and needs help.
The doctor doesn’t ask if the person is good or bad, or deserving or worthy of treatment.
The person needs help and so is helped.
In a similar fashion, I think Bonhoeffer would say that if a person come into your office, or your home, or your life and they need help, it doesn’t matter what they have done, or who they are, or their sins, or their moral history.
If a person needs help, instead of judging, help them.
Loving a person and judging a person just may be incompatible. Spend the time loving them, accepting them, helping them. If they have done some great sin, or living a life of which you don’t approve, it doesn’t matter.
Spend the time loving and helping and not judging.
I love the story of the woman taken in adultery. It isn’t that Jesus approves of people being unfaithful in marriage.
But Jesus looked at her and determined what she needed for healing. She didn’t need blame. She didn’t need shame. She didn’t need a Scarlet “A.”
She needed someone who understood, someone who cared, someone who forgave her unconditionally, someone who loved her unconditionally.
Spend the time healing, not judging, not blaming, not shaming.
Brené Brown in her book I thought it was just me, (but it isn’t)…
…says that the way to deal with shame is first to identify that which causes you shame.
Second to examine or analyze it in detail, asking big picture questions like: What are community expectations?
Why do these expectations exist?
Who benefits from these expectations?
How do the expectations work?
How is society influenced by these expectations?
For instance, let us deal with a very common shame issue. Body image
If you have shame around how your body is, or what it looks like, besides identifying the issue…
...you can look at the big picture, of how advertisers use shame and body image to fuel huge industries of clothing, cosmetics, diet, health food, vitamins, supplements, health clubs, cosmetic surgery and on and on. We are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars.
We are fed a steady diet of unrealistic images and expectations of our bodies and they do tons of damage.
The answer is to see the big picture, understand that most people struggle with weight or looks, and talk about it.
That is the third thing Brené Brown says: talk about it.
- Understand shame and what triggers it.
- Understand the big picture. Analyze it.
- Talk about it. Share your story.
Two things I have learned in counselling over the years. One. It is okay to be me. Two. Telling your story changes lives.
People in shame telling their stories, not only frees them but frees the listeners.
Tell your story of pain, of shame, or rejection, or hurt, of making mistakes, or failure. It changes your life and it changes those you tell it too.
And the fourth thing to do when you are dealing with shame.
Reach out to others. Find a connection network. Find a safe place or safe places to tell your story. Become a listener. Help listen to those who have stories to tell you or pain, shame, hurt and guilt.
Know who is reaching out to you.
Know who you can reach out to.
I do know that we need to talk about shame more in church. The church has been a major culprit in spreading shame, using blame, pointing fingers, separating the sheep from the goats, so to speak. Treating certain minorities and people as unworthy, or less than, or savages, or as evil personified.
Public shaming was a part of the Presbyterian Church. Even a hundred years ago, an unmarried woman could be publicly shamed. At one time rich people got preferred pews. And we all know of residential schools and our part in treating people as less than worthy.
But is not the gospel that we are not worthy? Isn’t the gospel that we are all sinners?
No. The gospel is that we are all sinners and we are loved anyway. The gospel is that we are sinners but are not condemned. Instead, we are forgiven.
The gospel is we are treasures and are precious to God. The gospel is that God works amazing transformations in people and nobody is worthless and nobody is beyond hope.
I remember my preaching hero the late Fred Craddock telling this story one time:
I was vacationing with my wife Nettie in the Smoky Mountains, eating hamburgers in a restaurant.
An old guy comes up to us and asks us who we are, what I do for a living, how long we plan to be there, etc., It was making me antsy. Then, after finding out that I am a preacher, the old man says “I have a preacher story.”
So reluctantly I asked him to sit down.
The old man pointed out the window and he said, “you see those hills?” He said “I was born in those hills. And as I was growing up, you know what they called me? They called me Ben the bastard boy, because that’s what I am. Mister, I’m a bastard. My mother would never tell me who my father was. I’d walk down the street and I had the feeling that people were staring at me and saying ‘there goes Ben the bastard boy. I wonder who his father is.’ I don’t know whether they were saying it. It didn’t make any difference. I thought they were saying it. That’s all that really mattered. I was shamed.
Then this preacher came to our church. Everybody talked about how wonderful he preached so I went to hear him, and he was wonderful. I always came late and left early so nobody would talk to me either coming or going because I was so ashamed of who I am and who I was. But one day he was so good, I forgot to get up and leave. And as I tried to make my way out of the church, there was a heavy hand on my shoulder, I turned and this tall preacher man looked down at me, he said’ hey, hey boy, what’s your name, boy?’ And before I could answer, he asked me the one question I didn’t want anybody ever to ask me: ‘Who’s your father, boy? Who’s your father?’ The one question that pierced me.
I looked up into that preacher’s face with trepidation, not daring to say anything.
The preacher said: ‘You, son, you are a child of God. Never forget who you are. You are a child of God.’
The old man said: When the preacher said that, it changed my life.
He wiped a tear away from his cheek as he told the story that moved his own soul, and walked away. The waitress hurried over to the table and said, “do you know who you were talking to? Fred said “I think he said his name was Ben?”
She said “that’s Ben Hooper. He used to be the governor of Tennessee.”
You are a child of God. You are somebody special. You are loved and treasured and have immense worth.
Do not be ashamed of who you are. Amen.