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Healing Shame, Changing the World

Perhaps you’ve seen the random placard in a football stadium crowd with “John 3:16” written on it. If you grew up like I did, you probably memorized that Bible verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”

That’s supposed to be a life-changing snippet of Scripture, and it certainly can be. But for me, the two verses that come right before it prompted a profound re-orientation to Christianity entirely. This is rather odd, actually, because those verses are pretty obscure and they refer to a bizarre story from the Hebrew Bible.

I’m convinced that there are nuggets of spiritual insight here that carry the potential to change the world. To get there, I would invite you to consider that modern Christianity has focused so much of its attention on sin and guilt that it has left virtually untouched the issues of bodily shame and social violence.

“Redemptive Love of Christ,” Bronze door of the Grossmunster Church, Zurich

My own work as a teacher and pastor, my understanding of Christianity and the role Christian faith communities can play in the wider society, indeed my own life and sense of self changed significantly when I turned more directly to the problem of shame and its consequences (it prompted me to write a whole book rooted in this insight called Divine Communion).

What I’m referring to here, in shorthand fashion, is this: the problem of guilt says, “I did something bad”; the problem of shame says, “I am bad.”

Consider the difference between those two statements—having done something bad and being bad—it won’t take you long to feel the difference in your own body.

One of many social science researchers working on this issue is Brené Brown, and I would urge you to watch her videos and read her books just as soon as you can. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling…that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…”

Unworthy of love and belonging? That’s heartbreaking…and far too common.

We’re told this about ourselves almost constantly—our culture of celebrity; our idolization of wealth and popularity; mass marketing and advertising aimed at making us feel needy and empty without certain products; fitness crazes that make us hate our bodies; the list goes on.

Brown says that shame is likely the source of many destructive, hurtful behaviors; this sense of being unworthy of connection, she says, “can make us dangerous.”

She means, dangerous to ourselves (when we isolate and self-medicate) and dangerous to others (when we project our own unworthiness on those who are different from us and then punish them for it).

Needless to say, there’s a lot of resistance to dealing with issues of shame; ironically and tragically, a lot of people find it shameful to talk about shame—the problem feeds on itself, in other words. As Brown puts it, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”

If, however, we cultivate our capacity for naming it and addressing it, we can weaken its power over us. We can, at long last, find healing—for ourselves, for our relationships, and for our communities, dare I also say, for our nation.

All of that is preface to the rather odd verses in John’s account of the Gospel that introduce the more famous one so many of us have memorized. In those verses, John’s Jesus says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” (3:14).

Stick with me here, because we need to know two interrelated things for this peculiar verse to make any sense.

First, the image of a serpent was a powerful one for ancient Mediterranean societies. Among the several meanings of this image, serpents could symbolize healing—the shedding of a snake’s skin evoked renewal and new life, for example. Serpents could also be dangerous and deadly, and this was important, too. That mix of risk and hope lingers in the old aphorism about how to soothe the effects of a hangover—you just need some “hair from the dog that bit you.”

More directly: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

The second thing we need to know is that the story John’s Jesus refers to is from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a story about the ancient Israelites as they are bitten by poisonous serpents which make some of them ill and more than a few of them die.

God instructs Moses to do a very strange thing in response: to make a bronze image of a serpent and then lift it high upon a pole. Anyone who looks upon that image, God says, will be healed—and they were (Numbers 21:9).

Some have suggested that this story influenced the development of the familiar image of a snake wrapped around a pole as a symbol for the medicinal arts. Others have suggested that the “rod of Asclepius” wielded by the god of the healing arts in Greek mythology is the origin of the healthcare symbol. In any case, across these cultural contexts, the insight remains: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

John apparently wants us to think about that ancient story in relation to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. If so, John invites not a mechanism of atonement to secure forgiveness; John wants us to gaze on the source of our pain for the sake of our healing.

If unnamed, untreated bodily shame can make us dangerous, as Brené Brown says, then let us seek out the cure for that disease within the disease itself—being fully human. God actually does this for us in Jesus—God becomes human, becomes the very source of our shame so that God can also become our cure, lifted high for all to see.

I am truly convinced that naming, addressing, and healing bodily shame would change the world. So much of our distress, our self-loathing, our fear and hatred of the “other,” our destructive behaviors and ecological suicide erupts from that grim pit of unacknowledged shame.

That’s not an easy trail of ideas to follow, I realize. Thankfully, John’s Jesus offers multiple ways for us to see his meaning. The very next verse, the famous one, is Jesus making his meaning plain: “for God so loved the world.”

That’s the key, right there—God’s love.

“For God So Loved the World,” Marguerite Elliott

Forgiveness is a great antidote for guilt, and we all need it, but it won’t touch our shame and it won’t mend our violent divisions and it won’t soothe our social heartache.

The only thing that will touch all of that and then heal it is love—and not just any kind of love, but the love of God, who does not love us from afar—as if ashamed of us—but instead becomes one of us.

Not to condemn the world, John says, but so that the world might be saved.

For God so loved the world…

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Living Temples

Worshipping in Jerusalem involved a fairly complex economic system put in place by the ruling class and religious leaders of the temple. The poor were exploited, collusion with Rome was manifest, and Jesus tossed up the whole thing.

Sometimes referred to as the “cleansing of the temple,” this Gospel story of social disruption is a pivotal one in the narrative arcs of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the religious and political establishment in Jerusalem finally decides they’ve had enough of Jesus-the-troublemaker, and they begin to plot his demise.

“Cleansing of the Temple,” Peter Koenig

But John, as usual, is different. John’s version of this drama at the temple appears in the second chapter, which is way too early for anything “pivotal” (John 2:13-22). Why would John put this story right up front?

Back up with me for a moment and recall one of the many significant differences between John and the other Gospel accounts: John has no Eucharistic narrative. This is rather shocking, actually, but true: John’s Jesus does share a final meal with his friends but he does not refer to the bread as his body or the wine as his blood at that meal.

Does this mean there is no Eucharist in John’s Gospel? No, not necessarily. Some commentators have supposed that all of the stories John tells were recounted week by week around the Eucharistic table in John’s community. In that sense, every chapter in John’s gospel is either about Eucharist and Easter or points to Eucharist and Easter. This, it seems to me, shines a wonderfully peculiar light on the cleansing of the temple.

The temple story comes right after another notable moment when Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine. A wedding, a feasting table, wine—aha! It’s a story about Eucharist!

Moreover, John begins the second chapter by noting that Jesus goes to that wedding “on the third day.” Now that’s an odd detail to include, unless we recall that Jesus was raised from the dead on the “third day.” Easter!

All of this frames what comes next, when Jesus goes to the temple. Our attention falls quite naturally on the physical disruption Jesus causes there, but that’s not really where John seems to want our focus. Rather than the crash of overturned tables, the crescendo in this story is the invitation to see what the true temple of God’s presence really is and where it resides—it is not a building; it’s a body.

“Destroy this sanctuary,” Jesus says, “and I will raise it up in three days.”

There’s the third day again!

This story really is about Easter, and it’s also about Eucharist, about the bodily presence of God.

Remember, this is the same Gospel that begins by declaring that the Word of God became flesh. In this second chapter, John could not be more direct: when Jesus referred to the Temple, John writes, he was speaking “about the sanctuary of his body,” his flesh as the temple of God’s presence.

As John makes clear throughout the stories he tells, it’s not only the body of Jesus that manifests the presence of God but the bodies of many others, too, including the flesh of the doves, the sheep, and the oxen, all of whom Jesus liberates from their marketplace captivity in the temple.

The micro-economic system Jesus disrupts, in other words, reduced bodies to commercial goods; it turned the flesh into a commodity for buying and selling.

“Jesus Drives Out the Moneychangers,” Douglas Blanchard

This is clearly not a problem that is neatly sequestered in first-century societies. Reflecting on this Gospel passage for today, I thought back to my years of living in California and the many things I learned there; some of them were deeply troubling. I’ll mention just three.

First, in the central valley, lined with farming communities, it’s not uncommon for a gay teenager to come home from school and discover the locks on his house have been changed and to find his belongings piled on the front lawn. With nowhere else to go, he will likely migrate to San Francisco and live on the streets as best he can.

I also learned that Interstate-5, running like a spine through the middle of the state, is a primary corridor for sex trafficking, for transporting young women, even girls as if they were livestock, from ports of call to brothels. California actually has the highest rates of sex trafficking in the whole country.

And third, the fresh produce I loved in California was of course picked mostly by Mexicans and others from Central America who are forced to keep picking even during wild fires and during this pandemic and always in the midst of toxic chemicals with no safety gear.

The bodies of gay teenagers tossed out of their own homes.
The bodies of young girls trafficked by sex traders.
The bodies of migrant farmworkers picking our fruit.

These are the temples of God’s presence, just as our own bodies are also sanctuaries. How often do we treat bodies as temples? Do we ever?

How would our lives be different, how would the world around us change, if we treated bodies reverently, with reverence? Not just some bodies, not only the bodies like ours, not only the bodies of our own species, but all bodies as living temples? What would that be like?

This story from John unites the sanctity of bodies with the critique of religious economics. And just as he does in all of John’s stories, Jesus presents his own body in that temple as the very presence of God. John then reminds us in that when that body is rejected, betrayed, humiliated, tortured, and killed, God raises it up.

This bodily reminder of Easter can shape the rest of our Lenten journey in some profound ways. I’m praying for the courage to let this story renew my commitment to treat every body with the reverence it deserves—as the temple of God’s presence.

Will you join me?

“Christ Overturning the Moneychanger’s Table,” Stanley Spencer
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The Beauty of the Cross

“Take up your cross and follow me.”

This invitation shapes the hard road in Lent toward Holy Week and therefore, one might say, the challenge of the whole Christian life. But what does it mean?

“Take Up Your Cross Daily,” Stephen Hanson

The image of the cross and the urging to “take it up” (as many Christians heard from Mark’s Jesus just yesterday), has certainly meant more than just one thing over the last 2,000 years. Some of those meanings have been hurtful and damaging, and we might spend some time this Lent seeking forgiveness for how we Christians have used our central image in harmful ways.

We might recall, for example, those moments when someone might say, “Well, that’s just the cross you have to bear.” They say this as if violence is just obviously a means to a greater end, or perhaps (more insidiously) that some of us must bear burdens so that others may thrive.

Not long after coming out as a gay man (way) back in the 1980s, I remember some of my Evangelical friends assuming I would be leading a life free of sexual intimacy because, you know, that’s just the “cross I would have to bear.”

More severely, battered women in situations of domestic violence are sometimes told to stay with their violent husbands because, well, that’s just the “cross they have to bear.”

People say things like this, often with the very best of intentions, usually because they don’t know what else to say, and also without any awareness of what this implies about our relationships with each other and our conceptions of God.

To say to someone who is suffering, maybe even terrorized, likely afraid or even alone, that their situation should be embraced as a spiritual discipline is simply not the Gospel; it would certainly not come from the God of Jesus Christ.

Among the handful of things I am absolutely sure about concerning God, this is one of them: God does not demand sacrifice from us in order to love us. I don’t mean that sacrifice itself is inherently bad—many of us make sacrifices both small and large for our children, our spouses, our friends, and good causes of all kinds. But God does not demand that we make sacrifices to earn divine favor.

Realizing this about God eventually convinced me of this: God would never, ever intend harm. Honestly, if each of us chanted that as a mantra every day during Lent, the world would change for the better.

But what about the cross?

That’s a big question that deserves a range of responses. Here’s just one proposal for the Lenten season and it begins by going back to Christmas.

Back then, on that most holy night, we celebrated the Word of God in the flesh—but not just any flesh. It was the vulnerable flesh of a newborn baby, newly born not in a house but a barn, a baby born into a province occupied by an imperial power, a power that regularly terrorized and oppressed his people.

That baby grew up and told his friends about his impending death—but not just any kind of death. It would be a death after bodily humiliations and with public shaming for political purposes and through the means of state-sponsored execution.

From cradle to tomb, Jesus experiences the fullest possible range of human life: care, tenderness, joy, and friendship, and also the precarious qualities of mortal existence on the margins of society and among the least powerful of his world. Jesus experiences all of this not only by the “accidents” of his birthplace but through his own choice to live and act in solidarity with those even more marginalized than himself—fishermen, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the demon-possessed, the outcast, the forgotten.

The cross stands as the supreme example of the solidarity he lived his whole life, not only with his own conquered people but also with the betrayed, the abandoned, and the tortured.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell

Why would anyone stand in that kind of solidarity with anyone else? Why would anyone freely choose to follow that way of the cross?

I can think of only one answer: love.

That’s what makes the cross a thing of beauty and not only an ugly reminder of state-sponsored torture. That’s why the fourth-century deacon Ephrem of Edessa could imagine the cross as a tree that blossoms in the spring. That’s why an ancient Latin hymn brings me to tears every Holy Week:

Faithful cross! above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

This life I live, Jesus says, and this death I die, this is what God’s love looks like.

So, how then should we live?

Mark’s Jesus suggests this:
Give yourself away.
Lose your life.
Take up your cross.

Mark phrases this exhortation to individual disciples, but I think it applies equally as well to communities of discipleship, to the work of creating communities of radical love.

I’m not sure the world needs anything more than just that right now, I mean something like this:
communities who are safe standing with those under threat;
communities of the powerful standing with the weakest;
communities born in the center of privilege standing at the margins;
white communities standing with people of color;
human communities standing with other-than-human animals.

Communities like that, standing in solidarity and vulnerability—standing in love—might be the most beautiful thing in the world.

That’s a Lenten road worth traveling.