We Need to Talk about Shame
Judith Rossall on her forthcoming book Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves: Shame and the Bible
Why talk about shame? Let us be honest, the church doesn’t very often – we tend to talk about sin and guilt and forgiveness, but not so much about shame. What is the difference between them? You could say that guilt is the worry we have done something wrong but shame is the worry there is something wrong with us. I started looking at the subject of shame a long time ago and have had various opportunities to talk about it at college and with church groups. I have noticed this; every time I do, people come up afterwards and say – ‘that’s my story, that’s my real struggle. Why don’t we talk about that more?’
There are a lot of books out there about shame and many of them are really helpful. But so many of them have this in common; they assume that if you are struggling with shame you avoid talking about sin. Talking about sin will just make you feel worse about yourself, it will make you focus on all the things you have done wrong. But let’s compare that with what the Scriptures say. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, their very first response is shame; they go from being naked and unashamed to hiding and making themselves clothes out of fig leaves, before God gets to do anything. So, what if we take that really seriously? The forbidden fruit and our own, not very helpful, attempts to cover up our shame with fig-leaves somehow work together. Sin and shame are bound up together, but not in a simplistic way. What if we then look at other stories about sin in the Bible? Perhaps then we will see that the problem is not sin, but our understanding of sin, which is far too focussed on the individual and does not match the breadth of biblical thinking.
I can tell you this about shame, once you have noticed that it is part of the biblical story, then it comes up again and again. Once you have seen it you cannot unsee it. Biblical scholars have talked about this for years, but it doesn’t seem to have reached our churches. The bible has a nuanced understanding of shame, it speaks of people who struggle with shame because others have sinned against them. It talks about the shame that results from power being abused, it is honest that we are shaped and sometimes scarred by our experiences and that in covering up our shame, we sometimes hurt other people. And in the Christian bible you cannot talk about shame without recognising that on the cross Jesus was deliberately humiliated – he shared our experience of shame and transformed it.
So, I have tried to read the bible story from beginning to end asking not about the person who does wrong and needs forgiveness, but the person who is shamed and the person who is injured by the sins of others and who needs healing. I came to a lot of conclusions, but here is the main one – Christians, we have to start talking about shame.
Judith Rossall is tutor in Church History and Preaching at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, UK. She holds a PhD from Durham University on the theology of John Calvin and a ThM from Duke University, North Carolina, USA. She is an ordained Methodist Presbyter and served in two different Circuit appointments before teaching for 10 years at the Southern Theological Education and Training Scheme in Salisbury, moving to her current appointment in 2013.