By Tad Monroe
In my role as Ecumenical and Multifaith Minister at Seattle University I facilitate a program called Interfaith Dinners. A couple of times a quarter we gather primarily undergraduate students from a variety of religious or spiritual backgrounds to talk about common issues from our differing perspectives. We do this to learn about the traditions and journeys of others, as well as to mine and highlight the differences and commonalities of our perspectives.
This past January we held one of these Interfaith Dinners and our topic of conversation was liberation. The intent was to hear from one another about the ways our traditions, practices, and experiences define liberation and facilitate liberation in our own lives and in the wider world.
I anticipated that our conversation would stay pretty informational in nature regarding the different ways we define liberation and that we’d probably get in to some good conversation about the way we understand the work of liberation in the world from a social justice perspective. I was surprised though, and I’m not sure why, by what happened.
I don’t remember exactly where it began, but at some point someone began to talk about a very personal need for liberation in their own life and in the lives of others from the toxicity of shame.
For a better part of an hour the flood gates opened and people began to share deeply profound struggles, sentiments, and experiences in their own lives and the lives of those closest to them as it related to shame.
Now I am no stranger to shame in my own life or in the stories I’ve heard from countless others in my role as a pastor and spiritual director. I have been convinced for some time that rather than releasing us from shame our religious and spiritual traditions have more often than not been a part of the mechanism that perpetuates these deep feelings of shame.
While I know this experience well in my own Christian tradition it was striking to hear it articulated with equal urgency and passion in a group made up of Muslims, Buddhists, and those who identify as Agnostic or spiritual but not religious. It occurred to me that this deep experience of shame is not simply a product of our religions but a deeply human experience that transcends our religious traditions. And yet our traditions, many of which have frame works, practices, or theological perspectives that address the issues of freeing us from our shame, still they often just end up reinforcing it.
Interestingly on this particular night, it was shame that was the unifying factor. I found myself in a room of bright, articulate, sincere, and passionate young women and men with deep commitments to the work of social justice, spiritual and religious understanding, and their own deep and personal faith commitments. Collectively what I heard from them was that as they try to make their way in this world to live authentic, compassionate, and engaged lives – they often are wearied in their own work as liberators, by their own lack of liberation from the deep shame they encounter in themselves.
I was struck again by just how foundational this work is. I was re-invigorated by the urgent call to people of faith everywhere to cultivate a deep commitment to theologies, practices, and frameworks that address the issue of human shame.
If the work of liberation in the world is going to continue, we must not forget that those called to the front lines of that work are they themselves in deep need of liberation, and they are looking to their own communities of faith and faith leaders to be attentive to that work.
I am not suggesting that we cannot do the work of liberation until we ourselves are fully liberated. It is always happening side by side. As the Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen taught us, we are all wounded healers. We do not serve or participate in the healing of others from a place of perfect health or enlightenment. We serve alongside – not only as witnesses to healing, transformation, or liberation but as those seeking the same.
Someone once told me that we need to learn to differentiate between shame and guilt. Guilt is not always such a bad thing. Guilt is the inner conscience at work or the Spirit of the divine at work, bringing our hearts and minds to rest in the realities that each of us is prone and capable of participating in the death, destruction, and evil of this world – in large and small ways. Guilt is a healthy recognition of those truths. I’ve made a mistake – I can acknowledge it and seek forgiveness and offer a form of penitence to the offended or hurt.
Shame is an entirely different thing. Shame is not being sad or remorseful for something we’ve done or a wrong we’ve committed or participated in. Rather, shame is being sorry for who we are in the most fundamental sense. Shame is grounded in a deep hatred and distrust of our very humanity and our very essence.
I believe because of shame itself we perpetuate a vicious cycle that never even allows us to authentically confront our guilt. The only thing that can allow us to take a deep and honest look at ourselves is the belief and trust in our sacred worth. When we are convinced that we are children of God or simply a beautiful creature of great worth (whatever our faith, spirituality, or philosophy teaches us), we can acknowledge that while we may be flawed, we remain beautiful, sacred, and of unfathomable worth – each of us.
I am reminded of an exhortations from my own Christian tradition found in the New Testament. In the exhortation the author gives us two images – one of a veil and the other of a mirror. We are invited to take off the veil – the veil we hide behind and the veil that obscures our own vision. I often think of this veil as shame. [It is important to note that some cultural and religious traditions use veils not in the context of shamefulness, but for other commitments such as modesty and I am not intending to demean or criticize such practices.]
In the same section of the scripture the author offers us an alternative image or metaphor – that of a mirror. Unlike a veil that hides, a mirror reflects. As Christians we are invited to look into the mirror with boldness and without shame. In it we will see ourselves – a human face. As a Christian that human face reminds me of the human face of God in Jesus Christ. We are then reminded that we are held in the deep unending love and mercy of Christ and in the humanity of God we are reminded of our great worth and God’s great effort in reminding us of our worth.
Perhaps all of our faith traditions, spiritual practices, and human philosophies should reflect deeply on attending to their own unique ways in which they invite people to a mirror where they are reflected and see in that reflection their great worth. We can also, each of us, invite others to take off the metaphorical veils of shame from their faces and eyes so that they might be further liberated themselves, as they continue to work for the liberation of the whole world.
Tad Monroe is the Ecumenical and Multifaith Minister at Seattle University; he is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA, a high school football coach, writer, and arts programmer. You can read his writing at http://www.tadmonroe.com, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/DrunkenTelegraph.