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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A theology of ‘chosen family’ liberates us from toxic relationships

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on April 2, 2018

Does Jesus call us to forgive, accept, and maintain toxic relationships with family? Does Jesus want us to honour abusive parents?

For too long the church has preached a message that calls victims of abuse, both physical and emotional, to keep open painful and dangerous family connections for the sake of “Christian family values.” This kind of thinking always infuriated me, and I asked myself, is this how Jesus wanted us to live our lives? But, after turning to the Gospel of Mark, my answer to that question is now an emphatic hell no!

In Mark 3:19b-35, we read a strange story of Jesus rejecting his family. At the beginning of the chapter he goes home, and arriving there is swarmed by a crowd. His family hears about this and goes to investigate. Apparently, his behaviour post-Baptism and desert experience is radically different from before. Frankly, his mom and siblings are not happy about it. He’s just so different than we remember, maybe it’s who he’s been hanging out with? Maybe it’s a phase?

They try to intervene and a discussion ensues as to whether he has been overcome with an evil spirit. Sound familiar to any of my queer friends? Of course, little do they know he has been “overshadowed” by a spirit–but one of divine origins.

Fast forward a bit … in Mark 3:31-35 I think it is no coincidence that Jesus’s family is outside the gathered crowd of believers and followers; they are both physically and socially outside his circle. When the crowd tells him that his family is calling him, he responds with a question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (3:33 NRSV)

Cold, right? Well, who are these people who tried to shut him up, tried to stop him from being who he is? Jesus makes a clear distinction between those within his circle and those outside of it—despite biology, it is faith and obedience that determine kinship for him. “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (3:34-35 NRSV).

This promise of a new kinship is especially interesting in light of later developments in Mark. In Mark 10:29-31, Jesus says:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (NRSV, emphasis added)

With this new kinship comes a rejection of the old, but it appears to me that Jesus is not merely calling his followers to reject their families. This rejection serves a purpose: to better allow them to serve God and live out their faith. Jesus’s family attempted to hinder him in his work, from living out who he was after his transformative experience, so he rejects them. So, too, his followers might need to reject their own families if they try and prevent them from being who God calls them to be.

The Christian witness begins with a counter-cultural message that focuses on constructed kinship over biological ties, as seen in both Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letters. There are many similarities between the two, including the idea of faith and obedience as the key indicators of kinship in Christian community (Galatians 3, Romans 4). Paul’s communities are ruled, above all, by love, which has no place for toxicity (1 Corinthians 13 for the win!).

However, a shift takes place over the next few centuries of Christian thought, and we begin to see the biological family emphasized as a microcosm of Christian community (such as in later texts like Colossian, Ephesians, Titus, 1 Peter and 1 Timothy)—i.e. it became institutionalized. This shift led to what many contemporary Christians now view as the idealized “Christian family values.”

Yet, there is space within the biblical text for the idea of “chosen family”—for families we create for ourselves with or without biological connections. Jesus’s new kinship is based not on biology but on faithfulness, and prioritizes healthy community-based in mutual love and respect.

Jesus encourages his followers to disconnect from harmful relationships that hinder their faith journey, and I believe a modern parallel can be drawn with the LGBTQ2IA+ community’s emphasis on “chosen family.” For those who have been abused or rejected by their family, Christian community at its best offers a new family that honours each person as they are. Jesus, the liberator, frees us from the power of sin, death, and toxicity.

More Than You Can Handle // Suffering & Faith

As some of you know I’m currently working on a unit of the Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer. I have the privilege of visiting with patients in Halifax, learning from some amazing spiritual care providers, and doing a lot of reflection. This piece has come out of a number of conversations I’ve had with very similar themes. So, without further ado, let’s talk about suffering and faith.

There is a harmful adage that has been floating around forever, and it goes as follows:

God will never give you more than you can handle.

I was visiting with a patient in the hospital who parroted that to me when we were talking about how overwhelming her diagnosis was. I asked her “Do you really believe that?” She stopped for a moment and laughed, she said: “No, I don’t”. I told her “I don’t either. I think that’s bullshit, frankly.” We both laughed together at that, and she turned to her roommate, who sat in his chair by the bed next to her, saying, “I like this girl.”

I have a whole list of problems with this adage, which I believe promotes just plain-old bad theology. Some of them I’d like to share with you.

God gives you the suffering, pain, heartache and horrors that you need to endure.

How did we get from the God of love to this god? A god that doles out horrors to his children? Who is this abusive, vengeful God who punishes? It seems so inconsistent with the parent Jesus speaks of.

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit[f] to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13, NRSV)

The pain you’re experiencing should, and can, be endured.

This particular part makes me furious and leads to comments from others about how weak someone’s faith must be if they are overwhelmed. As if God did not hear the cries of the afflicted. As if God did not see fit to end people’s suffering because it was too much.

Part of the reason why folks end their lives, why they kill themselves, is because they are trapped in worlds they cannot endure. The same goes for self-medication and other escapist coping strategies. By believing this adage we minimise the suffering of others, trivialise their experiences, by claiming that the situation–one that is not our own–was endurable.

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When we quip about “all things being possible” through God, we seem to forget that Jesus, in Matthew, was speaking about how we are able to enter into the sovereignty of God despite our humanity (Matt. 19:16-30). This wasn’t a teaching on suffering quietly, but one about people who claim piety. It is not a call to suffer unbearable pain happily, but for those who live in privilege to truly sacrifice in the name of God’s vision for creation.

The fact of the matter is, people across the globe are given more than they can handle. Earnest people of faith across the globe are given more than they can handle.

Hearts fail. Lives are taken. Minds break under the weight of trauma.

So, let’s stop trivialising, minimising and erasing the very real experiences of people–ordinary people–who are suffering. Let’s stop using grotesque clichés that warp our theology and lead us to victim blaming.

Instead, let us respond to one another in kind. As reflections of the God of steadfast loving kindness. A god who does not bring suffering, but comfort to the afflicted, and rest to the weary. Let us be God’s hands and feet, helping to alleviate the suffering of others; offering our companionship so that they not to carry their burdens alone.

Amen.