The Problem with Shame Based Religion
By Charles Rush
July 8, 2007
Matthew 13: 44-50
(mp3, 7.2Mb) ]
thought I would begin this morning with a passage that critical scholars say are quite likely the ipsissima verba of Jesus. The first two analogies that Jesus makes are characteristic of the Joy that Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God. It is like a guy who finds a buried treasure or an antique dealer that finds a tremendous pearl for cheap in the back of a mideastern bazaar.
And most critical scholars will say that
the analogy of the Kingdom of God being like a guy who catches fish in
a net was also something Jesus probably said. But the focus of this last piece
is on the editorial hand of Matthew, because it is characteristic of the way
that Matthew interprets Jesus. I have mentioned before that Matthew takes
particular relish in the judgment of the after-life and you see it here again.
Here you have
two wonderfully positive images but they just don’t seem quite rounded for Matthew. Matthew
thinks we need a little more judgment and righteous fear thrown in so he puts some words in the mouth of Jesus, having him say, ‘The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
You do not find this line in the other gospels. It is characteristically
Matthew to focus on people getting thrown into the fiery furnace. It is
characteristically Matthew to predict much future weeping and gnashing of
And when you just read this passage as
a whole, the positive nature of God’s grace is pretty quickly overwhelmed by this eternality and severity of
The message is pretty clear, ‘you can love
the ways of God or you can burn forever. This is pretty much the view of God that the Church adopted, pretty much the tradition that most of us were taught.
Gerard Hughes says that he grew up
with a view of God like an uncle. “God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of
the family, very powerful and interested in
all of us. Eventually we are taken to visit ‘Good Old Uncle George.’ He lives
in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and
threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family. At the end of the visit, Uncle
George addressed us. ‘Now listen, dear’, he begins, looking very severe, ‘I
want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to
you. ‘He then leads us down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend,
and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle
George opens one. ‘Now look in there, dear’, he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing
furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit
Uncle George or failed to act in a way he approved. ‘And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go,’ says Uncle George.
He then takes us upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad. As we go home, tightly clutching Dad with one
hand and Mum
with the other, Mum leans over and says, And now don’t you love your uncle
George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And we, loathing
the monster, say, ‘Yes I do,’ because to
say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. At a tender age
religious schizophrenia has set in and we keep telling Uncle George how much we love him and how good he is and that we want
to do only what pleases him. We observe what we are told are his wishes and dare not admit, even to ourselves, that we loathe
That is pretty accurate. I got a note
a friend of mine,
a southerner, who now teaches at Andover Newton Seminary in Boston. It was a quote about our youth from a book about Texas. It said ‘There were two things that they taught us growing up in Lubbock. The first is that we
are awful, sinful, miserable creatures who are going straight to hell and God loves us. The
other was that sex was dirty, nasty, immoral and disgusting but it was so special you should save it only for the
one you love. And people wonder why we grew up crazy.’
Guilt and shame have been major motivators in the past several
centuries. They are effective and important motivators on a social level to
prevent anti-social behavior from destroying the fabric of our communal life. You may recall the judge in the first World Trade Center attack upbraiding Ramsey Yousef for his glorification of
terrorism in his final speech before the
judge. The judge used shame to attack Mr. Yousef’s interpretation of Islam as ‘despicable’ and said ‘you don’t
worship Allah, you worship death.’ He called him a coward and sentenced him to life in prison, solitary confinement, with no contact with his family.
We use shame and guilt for control and they are
important because we need very strong
taboos against terrorism, against child abuse, against sexual violence, etc. But it
is also clear that the history of Western Civilization too often overemphasized guilt and shame to keep their citizens in order.
And all too often the church was more than willing to add the weight of eternal judgment to the temporal judgments of men. Furthermore, it is unquestionable that the
leaders of the church took their cues on the meaning of authority from the political leaders in society.
They relied far too much on fear of damnation and coercion to produce uniformity of belief, just as the political
leaders used fear of corporal punishment and coercion to produce unity of
valued far more
and control was far more important that dissent or independence. Even to this day in many places in the world, people
cannot conceive of the separation of politics and religion, as we know it in America. In the troubled Balkans, the one
assumption shared by all of the various
parties, is the slogan: One faith, one people, one government (or as they used to say, ‘one king’).
It is true that the church bears the lion’s share of responsibility for this
over-emphasis on guilt and shame through the centuries. But I point
out the connection with politics because the church is never any more (nor any less) than a reflection
of the values of the society in which it exists. And if it weren’t for the
political need for unity, surely the history of guilt and shame would not have been quite what it
with judgment creates a religion that is rule bound and it leads to a piety
that is principally concerned about keeping an ever-growing list of rules for
holiness. This zeal runs from the mundane to the profound. I once read in a NY Times magazine on the back page about a
Rabbi reflecting on the fact that Oreos were now kosher. When he was a child, Oreos
were not kosher and Orthodox Jewish kids either pined to be ordinary Americans who could dunk one in milk or they ate them in secret and worried about it for months afterward. Or Frank McCort in
‘Angela’s Ashes’ talks about being an acolyte in the Catholic Church in Ireland
in the 40’s when he was a boy. You not only had to have the whole mass memorized in the Latin but God forbid,
you should drop the host after it had been consecrated, the body of Christ
there on the dirty slate floor. Your career was over in an instant with one
slip. When I was a child in the south, once the preacher began his sermon you just didn’t leave the church
for any reason (and you didn’t think of making any noise either). I remember Lee Conway crossing his legs,
squirming, and finally wetting his pants
rather than get up to leave the service. That is the atmosphere when guilt and shame predominate the ethos of religion.
Of course it is
more profound than that too. How many gay people have moved from their homes to New York because they were objectively ashamed of who they were. And the church
community usually compounded that sense of shame to boot. Andrew Tobias, the
well-known author on finance, says that being gay was the one big secret that
‘no one was ever going to find out about’. Despite the fact that in their
official encyclicals the Catholic Church says that there is nothing wrong with
being gay, the atmosphere in the church twenty years ago was such that it was
the last place in the world, he would ever let such a secret be known.
Sex and guilt
is a whole sermon
in itself. Shame
based religion has surely focused way too much on sex and created a certain
schizophrenia. In the Bible belt there were two types of girls you dated, those
that were fun and those that you brought home to Mom. It encouraged a Madonna/Whore complex in budding teenage boys. Girls
you might marry, you elevated to a discarnate
status where sex would ruin the quality of the relationship. Or you ran around
with girls who were promiscuous and sex was something done in the dark of the night,
far away from
home, with people who had no soul
connection. Sex was not naturally integrated with your heart. The church of
judgment certainly did nothing to help
young people put their hearts and their hips together, so that sex was positive
and loving, joyful and integrating.
more for certain. They knew that they
were pretty and they also knew that they were responsible for controlling
They had more guilt and shame as a result. That stress came out in all kinds of ways that undermined their self-esteem. I read one story of a woman writing about her eating disorders
in her youth. She was somewhat driven to eat less because thin is sexy but it became a compulsion because she didn’t want to be
beautiful and have to be so responsible, worried about the guilt and the shame. Years later she realized that she
had turned her anger in on herself and was destroying herself. Unhealthy guilt
and shame (and the fear of them) will do that.
compounds real guilt and can make it crushing. I’ve only had a few
occasions to talk to women of my generation who have had abortions. Abortion creates real
guilt because there is life involved and almost always because people realize
that the relationship that they are in cannot bear the responsibility that they
have been putting on it. The only people I have ever talked to approached
abortion with deep regret, solemnity, grief and guilt. This guilt is real and tangible. That
is bad enough but when you add the weight of shame based religion, some people will interiorize that to
such an extent that they feel they are beyond the pale of redemption, that they are dirty and not
They hate themselves
in way that cuts to the heart of their being.
It seems to me that a principal part of what Jesus
tried to tell us was that we are never beyond the pale of redemption. Whatever is meant by judgment in the thought of Jesus, it is a
judgment that heals us. When the woman was caught in adultery and the shame-based religionists around Jesus wanted
him to pass judgment on her, he would not. He was
clear to communicate acceptance of which she was as a person. In the
teaching of Jesus, over and over, he tells us that we are all children of God.
We are accepted by God. He does tell the woman ‘go and sin no more’ but it is a positive statement like ‘Go and be healed’.
spirituality that Jesus taught was positive in its approach. It is joyful like
a lost son who has returned home, like a treasure that was found in a field, like a pearl of
great price that you discover. Jesus calls us to the positive acceptance of God
in grace and to live out of that healthy self-esteem and become joyous, positive people.
Judgment encourages us to live out of our
negative energy where grace encourages us to live positively. Consider the simple, yet profound difference between Harold
Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Both of them won gold medals at the Olympics and yet what different paths
they took to get there.
out of his negative energy. He was a Jew at Cambridge in the twenties. He never felt
accepted because he wasn’t WASP and it was clear to him that WASPWASPs really ran the upper
echelons of British society. He was a social and a career climber and it deeply bothered him that he was born with this built in
limitation because he wanted to be part
of the British elite. Because his self-perception was that of an outsider who
wanted to be an insider, he was incredibly competitive. He wanted to beat other
people to show that he was worthy of being accepted, to be catapulted toward
recognition and acceptance in the elite. He beat most of the students to get into Cambridge. At Cambridge, he ran a traditional race around
the school quadrangle and became the only person in 700 years of racing to make it under a minute. He hired a personal trainer to
coach him in track, reputedly the best trainer
in all of England. He was compelled to win. By virtue of his
success on the track, he met one of the leading actresses in England and they struck up quite an affair.
He became a star. Yet all along the way, Abrahams
was never satisfied. He was never really happy. He had one more goal to achieve, and presumably then he would be happy. He had
fleeting mirth to be sure but lasting
satisfaction eluded him because he lived out of his negative self-image and he was never really able to
one competitor that he had to beat, the
Scotsman Eric Liddell. As a Scotsman, Liddell too was an outsider
because the Scots were second-class citizens in the British Empire. But Liddell was raised by parents
who were missionaries to China and they gave him a very positive faith that emphasized the love of God for other
people. Liddell was one of those people who are quite at home with themselves
and who they are. He never appears to have been intimidated by the fact that he was not at
Cambridge, just at the University of Edinburgh. He exuded positive regard about
everything he did. Like Abrahams, he ran like the wind. At certain points in
his race, he appeared to pull into himself with a blast of energy and speed
that was breathtaking to all that knew him. Like Abrahams, he made the Olympic team. Like Abrahams, he had a girlfriend
but she was not the trophy babe, just a girl he knew from his youth group. In fact, she
thought he should stop his running because somehow the whole competitive world at the Olympic level would change him and make him less religious. His response to her,
in part, was this ‘God made me fast and when I run I can feel the pleasure of God’. Imagine that you could feel God smiling down on you, shining down on
you. Liddell lived out of this positive energy. Before the start of a race, he
would shake hands with all the runners and say something like ‘do your best.’ It was
unusual enough that he got quite a few blank stares.
Abrahams were to race the 100 meters. You probably know the story that Liddell
dropped out of the 100, though he was the favorite to win, because he would not
run on Sunday. Though all of Britain worried for him, he did not because he didn’t view
it as something he missed. He was just making a positive statement of his faith. Few people could
understand it. Later in the week, he did run in the 400, for the first time in a major race, and he won the gold. Abrahams
ran the 100 and won the gold for Britain. Curiously, after the race, he was
not ecstatic. He met with his coach. It was a meeting filled with silence. They
repeated over and again that they had grasped victory but somehow it wasn’t satisfying to Abrahams.
After his coach left, he cried to himself.
were many things that went into those
tears. But part of it was a reminder that no amount of victory, no material success, no personal beauty
or sex appeal, no standing among one’s peers can ever be genuinely satisfying if you are not
at home with your self. It all appears as
an apparition, it appears as merely props, but there is no pleasure in it.
As Jesus told
us, we cannot simply will our self-acceptance because self-acceptance is a
by-product of a transcendent acceptance. We have to know and feel that we are
loved and accepted by God. We have to know that, no matter how broken we are,
God wants to heal us and make us whole. We have to feel the pleasure of God beaming over us and through us. We need
to be surrounded by the people of God who will accept us where we are, as we
are, and be there for us come what may. We don’t have to like everything about each other; I’m not saying that. But we need the
confidence that others will take our limitations and our faults and deal with
them in love, in good will, in support.
We need to be around people who will not take advantage of us. That is the
Spirit of God moving
in our midst in a surprising, transforming way. That is the positive energy
of love that Jesus came to tell us about. That is the grace that can heal our guilt
and our shame.
Brothers and sisters, live free. Amen.
Note: A version of this sermon was preached by Dr. Rush on January 11, 1998.
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