A guest blog from Jonathan Draper, General Secretary of Modern Church, our associate partner…
It is a huge privilege for Modern Church to have had a have a hand – along with Canterbury Press – in enabling Nadia Bolz-Weber to be at Greenbelt this year. As you can see from her many writings, and even from her article for Modern Church’s magazine Signs of the Times (free at the festival G-Store), Nadia has deep wisdom to impart – and she does so with considerable wit.
In Signs of the Times there is also a review of her latest book Shameless (published by Canterbury Press) in which she seeks to liberate the Christian from a religiously-induced shame as the basis of their spiritual and ethical life.
Shame is an interesting notion. On the one hand, shame can be used as a tool of oppression: where the powerful seek control over others by creating a sense of guilt and shame over what might otherwise be seen as normal, even good things. There is something strange about the fact that this often has sex and sexuality at its core, when so many other truly awful things are ignored. On the other hand, and as we have seen so vividly in our political and public life in recent times, there seems to be no sense of shame over lies, deception. misogyny, racism, and downright bad behaviour: ‘shameless’ in this context is almost a badge of honour.
Jesus seems to use shame from time to time to point out to some people their hypocrisy or self-righteousness. When the self-righteous mob bring Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8: 3-11), and baying for a stoning and to be proved right and that he was wrong, Jesus lets them stew in the juices of their self-righteousness for a while before suggesting that the one without sin should cast the first stone at her. In shame, one by one, starting with the ones who had the most to lose, they all slink away. Shame, in its most important sense of allowing a person to see and understand their hypocritical self-righteousness for themselves, has been, in this story, a powerful tool for good.
Oppressive uses of shame seem often to come from a powerful person’s own agenda, perhaps even from the things they fear most, or feel they have the least ability to control. Think of those prominent preachers who have made a name for themselves inducing guilt and shame in their followers about homosexuality who are themselves caught out in a homosexual tryst; think of those who have railed against sex and sexual sins, only to be found out having affairs or sexually abusing those in their care. Oppressive uses of shame and guilt are often either a simple abuse of power, or a kind of public expression of the demons against which the oppressive person is fighting – and losing.
But proper shame – shame that comes from realising the way in which I have abused others – is often the first step to repentance. If I feel ashamed about the way in which I have treated another person, it may be that I then seek that person’s forgiveness. Shame leading to repentance might be the first step towards change, towards the liberation from sin and shame and guilt which lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. And that liberation might just be the first step towards a new life; a life of abundance and joy – the abundance and joy that Jesus promised to those who follow him.
But let’s not mistake this for the shame into which people are driven by the obsessed and the powerful: this is not liberating shame, this does not lead to joy and abundant life. We should, as Nadia Boltz-Weber encourages us, seek a Christian ethics ‘based not on standardised “thou shalt nots” but on concern for each other’s flourishing’.
‘Mutual flourishing’ is the key wisdom on offer here. It is a thing most lacking in our politics (and often in our churches). Misplaced attempts at controlling the desires and flourishing of others is a mighty sin in our spiritual life, often based on fear and ignorance and misunderstanding: often based on strange ideas about God. The God whom we see revealed in Jesus is better than that, wants more for us than that, gives himself to free us from the excesses of the religiously pure and privileged. The Christian Gospel is liberation from shame and guilt, and an invitation to life in all its fullness.
Modern Church looks forward to seeing you at Greenbelt in just a few weeks time.