More Guilt? Yes, Please! How Our Church Has Co-Opted Shame and Disguised It as Guilt

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on May 21, 2018

Have you ever heard the phrase “near-enemy” used before? No? Well, a near-enemy is when two things look very similar but are intrinsically different. I first read the phrase in a Louise Penny book, where she wrote about a woman who appeared compassionate and caring, but in fact wanted others to be totally helpless so they would need her. The woman seemed to have good intentions, but she was, in fact, hurting others so that she could receive gratitude from them. A near-enemy appears to be one thing while in reality it is another; it masquerades as a more noble version of itself.

Shame, in my opinion, is the near-enemy of guilt. Shame is a debilitating sense of humiliation or sadness; it immobilizes us and disintegrates our confidence. Guilt, on the other hand, is a pro-social reaction to how our actions affect others. Guilt helps us make our way through the world — it is the internal compass of our decision making.

Our churches have co-opted shame and parade it as guilt.

Here is an example. When I was little, I was told that to have a sexual thought in my mind was just as bad as if I committed the act (see Purity Culture). That’s an idea with a biblical basis (see Matt. 5:28). So, every time I had an even remotely sexual thought, I felt ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of my body, of my mind, and genuinely believed I was a bad person because of it.

Logically, this idea is absolutely ridiculous! Natural responses to stimuli from the world around us shouldn’t be morally policed. I developed depression as an adolescent and I believe this type of thinking played a large part in that, because it extended into so many areas of my life. No matter how hard I tried, I saw myself as a “bad person,” because all I could do was fail the impossible standards the church set for me. I was trapped in a body that, I felt, kept betraying me. I could never achieve the behaviour that I thought God wanted from me; which, apparently, was a totally sexless, emotionally unaffected, and endlessly generous saint — a goal I’ve since given up.

No wonder I was depressed! I’m lucky to have had some amazing counselors and fellow people of faith who’ve been able to speak into my life and start to put an end to that horrible way of thinking. I know I still have so much damage to undo, and more shame to deconstruct and put to rest.

Shame is a self-destructive cycle; guilt is a pro-social feeling.

Shame is a feeling of humiliation, of hopelessness, that can become chronic. It can poison us and erode any sense of our own goodness. Guilt, however, helps us to learn from our mistakes; it invites us to reflect on how we treat others, their feelings and needs (hence it is “pro-social”). Guilt also motivates us to apologize, and experiencing it allows us to forgive more easily. When we understand what it means to be on the offending side, to experience guilt, we also come to understand what it means to be repentant.

Let’s return to our example. If I had been sexually active at the time, the questions I should have asked include: How do my actions affect others? What are my intentions? Am I honouring myself and my sexual partner? Am I respecting them, their body, and their autonomy? Do I see them as a whole person or just a sexual object?

If I had indeed been harming others with my actions, then my concern would have been warranted. But that wasn’t the case, instead I was immobilized by shame, which prevented me from honouring myself the way God made me — a sexual being.

There is no repentance without guilt.

Nowadays, we see folks leaving the churches of their childhood, saying, “I can’t stand the guilt.” A church in Calgary even has a sign outside it that says “We don’t do guilt!” Theoretically, I love that, but I wish I could cross out the word “guilt” and pencil overtop the word “shame.”

I hope I’ve convinced you that guilt isn’t a bad thing. It’s a big part of living in community and doing justice work. In both instances, we invite people to reflect on their actions, and, if necessary, repent. We can never be truly repentant if we don’t have guilt. If we repent because we’re terrified of an eternity of pain, then we’re only paying lip service to a God who controls us with fear. Guilt is about wanting to be in good relation with the world around us — our neighbours, our God, the earth — making amends, and choosing a better path.

So, let’s put the guilt back in church!

I want to hear folks shouting like the biblical prophets at people who put their greed over the lives of their human family. I want to see folks feeling convicted (i.e. guilty) because they’ve helped to propagate white supremacy, which harms racialized people in countless ways. I want men to feel the pang of guilt when they realize the ways they’ve contributed to misogyny in their lives. Then, I want all of us to do something about it. Shame festers and immobilizes, whereas guilt calls us to new ways of life and relationship. Honestly, that sounds a lot like the Gospel.

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