Remember this one: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”
It’s a lie.
I grew up going to church every time the doors were open. Debbie, a friend of mine, was tall and twice as committed to church as I.
The congregation prided itself on knowing the truth about God and having all the right beliefs that lead to heaven.
One Sunday, the pastor invited Debbie to speak to the congregation. “How wonderful?!”, I thought.
Except it wasn’t wonderful at all. It was terrible. And I will never forget it.
At 16 years old, Debbie was forced to confess publicly to having become pregnant.
“How horrible?!”, I thought. “What kind of church would do this? And what kind of God would require it?”
The spectacle seemed to last forever. I remember the crying, hers and mine.
The pastor spoke after her, denouncing her poor choices, her bad behavior and her now ruined life. He said he hoped God would forgive her, but wasn’t sure if he could.
In biblical times, sticks and stones were used to hurt, sometimes kill, people who had stepped out of the line that “faithful” people must toe in order to belong. I think sticks and stones would have felt like a reprieve after the hurtful words that Debbie had to speak, then endure.
I never forgot. I have since spent the majority of my adult life — first as a minister and now a therapist — researching, seeking to understand and working to combat the dark art of shame and its tragic ill-effects on human life.
What do I mean by shame? Many confuse it with guilt. In short, guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame is “I am bad.” Of the two, guilt can inspire change while shame strips us bear, threatens our sense of safety and makes us vulnerable to the recitation of negative, self-defeating messaging that leads us to believe that we are not worthy.
Shame is the fear of not being loved, of not belonging, of not being able to connect with another. The fact of the matter is this: we are hardwired for social connection; it is what, in part, gives our existence a sense of purpose, of meaning.
Shame is the fear that we have become someone who is not worthy of being loved, of belonging. It is a fear of being disconnected from others based on who we are, and it manifests itself as an intense feeling of emotional pain. And the pain is real.
In 2011 researchers discovered that, where the brain is concerned, physical pain and the experience of social rejection trigger the same receptors.
So, when I say shame is painful, I mean shame hurts, like breaking a femur hurts. The brain does not differentiate.
Advances in neuroscience confirm what our children have always known: emotions can hurt. We need to talk about that; it’s the only way to heal.
In my practice I hear so much of shame. While there are those who believe shame is a helpful tool to keep people from misbehaving, the fact is that is both wrong and dangerous. Shame is correlated in scientific studies with addiction, violence, depression, eating disorders, bullying and suicidal thinking. According to the data, shame has no positive outcome, does not encourage better behavior and is likely to inspire negative effects. And yet, I hear of it all the time.
Gossip, blaming, bullying, fear-mongering, favoritism, name-calling, harassment, dehumanization and the exclusion of people are cues that shame has permeated a particular culture.
Without a doubt, we are soaked in shame, which is painful. But what we don’t realize is that perpetuating shame is just as painful. And no one knows how to do that with such precision and sophistication than religious people in religious communities.
More often than not the shaming stories I hear stem from the church. How ironic?
What can be a gathering of people with whom we are included by grace, nurtured in faith and equipped to carry out a life in ministry has for some become a place of judgmental deliberation about who’s “in” and who’s “out,” of deciding what beliefs are right and who holds them most sincerely, of excising the poorly behaved ones and calling it an act of obedience to an exacting God.
Any faith communities that criticize, chastise or otherwise demean — then exclude — persons for any reason should remove the word “church” from their signs.
In Greek, “church” means “those called by God.” Nowhere in all of Jesus’ teachings are people of faith commanded to ridicule, condemn, discredit or exclude someone on the basis of what they believe. The “do this and dislike those who don’t in order to be accepted in our group” mentality is a middle-school bullying tactic that is unbecoming religious communities and unbefitting their God. Whatever happened to “all are welcome?”
No matter how firmly you believe that you speak for God, you are mistaken. Only God speaks for God. For those of you who disagree, you do so at the risk of suggesting that God is dependent on you. In so doing, you just created God in your own image.
This is the height of blasphemy. Be careful there. God doesn’t need our help.
God is perfect all on God’s own. Which means God’s love is perfect love. Where there is perfect love, there can be no fear. We are not to fear God, but to revere God in wonder, in awe and in acts of faithful service to all of God’s people, regardless of what, if anything, they believe. If we aren’t to be scared of God, then we mustn’t be scared of God’s people either. No fear means no shame. Without shame, churches would have no power to require a certain belief or behavior as a prerequisite for membership.
Shaming people is all about power and control. I would bet the farm that God is not pleased about that.
For the love of God, please stop shaming people for thinking, believing, loving, voting, dressing or living differently than you do. Jesus never did that. Why do you?
There is nothing good about shame. It hurts everyone, including perhaps most especially the shamers. We all want to belong and to be loved. Trying to make others feel bad about themselves for that only highlights how lonely you really feel.
Why aren’t we talking about that instead of talking about each other?
And to you who know shame. Tell somebody. Talk to yourself like you would someone you love very much. Own your story. Relinquish the self-doubt. Shame is a lie someone has told you about yourself in order to control you. Let them go, then let it go, and with your free hands, grab hold of the truth of your life, whatever that may turn out to be. Maybe there you’ll find God yet.