Speaking Our Truth Without Shaming Those Who Don’t See It: The Soul of Shame

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Linda Kay Klein

One of the most meaningful influences on my ministry and work today is Dr. Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame — a Bible-based exegesis of shame authored by a psychologist most comfortable in the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spirituality.

At a time of tremendous national division, I wonder if some of us have become too comfortable with the notion that we and our kind are “right” and “good,” while others are “wrong” and “bad.” For example, I recently heard a pastor say that she would not speak with anyone from “the other side” unless they first admitted to her that they were a bad person. The room full of similarly-politically-minded pastors and other religious leaders mmhmm’d in agreement.

I am uneasy with how easy shaming has become among us. And I fear that, if left unchecked, it will continue to lead us down a very destructive path.

After all, that’s just what shame does.

Let’s pause for a moment and talk about what shame — or what Thompson calls “the primarily tool that evil leverages, out of which emerges everything that we would call sin” (page 22) — actually is, and how it affects us. From a research perspective, shame is different from guilt, humiliation, embarrassment or any of the other words we tend to lump together.

For example, researchers consider guilt the feeling “I have done something bad,” and shame the feeling “I am something bad.” The effects of these two neuropsychological states on people’s lives could not be more different. Whereas guilt makes us reach out to people and connect in an effort to repair relationships, shame inspires us to disconnect — perhaps we withdraw, lash out (either at ourselves or others) or hide.

It is important to name and fight for what we see as right, and against what we see as wrong. But when we engage in shaming — dehumanizing others by declaring them, rather than their positions or actions, to be wrong or bad — we create what Thompson refers to as “states of aloneness within us and between us, and most substantially between us and God” (page 54).

It is the disconnection that shame and shaming engenders within and among us that causes Thompson to refer to shame as “the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity” (page 13).

For communities that are, like me, trying to find ways to unapologetically speak and fight for our truths while honoring the humanity of those who disagree with us, Thompson’s book is a resource. He presents meaningfully about the nature of shame, which can help us understand the dangers of shaming, and offers Biblical tools for growth and healing. Thompson’s review of Biblical stories through the lens of shame also makes it a particularly strong tool for those interested in offering sermons and Bible studies on the subject.

Linda Kay Klein blends research and stories to expose unseen social problems and devise potential solutions. Her current project centers around the developmental effects of purity-based religious sexuality education programs on the lives of girls as they grow into adulthood. Formerly, Linda was the founding director of the Work on Purpose program at Echoing Green, a social entrepreneurship accelerator best known for helping launch Teach For America, the Freelancers Union, City Year, and over 600 other ground-breaking social change organizations.

It’s Not Your Fault

Editor’s note: The Revitalization Team of Community Church in San Juan Capistrano, CA has been working hard on the adaptive challenge before them to be the faithful church in today’s culture, guided by their Paracletos coaches. This team (of five “lay people” and the pastor) reflects on a piece of new insight and the importance of bringing the broader congregation along with them in this work

Some denominations are really good at guilt. We Presbyterians are not leading that pack, but we do dish it out at times. We tend to be thinkers who reflect on things – and, seeing trends, we tend to blame ourselves.

We wrestle with membership and attendance levels that are lower than we’d like.  We beat ourselves up about that. Yet we’ve learned from our consultants that we are relatively healthy at Community Presbyterian Church. We’ve learned we are not a small church when compared with other Presbyterian congregations.

That said, many authors and researchers have confirmed that the culture has changed.

“The sea change is external or contextual. There once was a world that was eager to be hospitable to Christian churches and supported “blue laws,” soccer-less Sundays, eating fish rather than meat on Friday, public prayer in schools and at nodal events, deferring to clergy by way of discounts, weekly religion sections in urban newspapers, and greeting others with “Merry Christmas.” Adapted from A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope by Peter L. Steinke, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute.

We forgot to look around us – it’s happening everywhere, to all denominations, even to evangelicals.

“Evangelical Christianity in America is losing its power—what happened to Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral shows why.” Orange County Register, “Where are the people? 2014. Jim Hinch

Still, we got centered on ourselves and we’ve missed opportunities. The culture has changed and we have not. God, however, has not changed – he’s not done with us yet. We need to address change relative to our culture.

“Change is difficult, and should not be embarked on impulsively; but change is necessary, and should not be opposed stubbornly. We must hold in tension those two truths. If we either initiate change without sensitivity to tradition, or oppose change for the mere sake of tradition, we will jeopardize the health of the organization in question.”  “Murky Waters”, by Travis Collins, Director of Mission Advancement and Virginia Regional Coordinator for Fresh Expressions US and as a consultant with The Center for Healthy Churches

While it’s not our fault, it is our opportunity – to think differently! Remember, we want to do Both/And – “Both” those things we do well, “And” find new things to address a changed culture.