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 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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Because God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

This sermon was prepared for Chapel at the United Theological College / La Seminarie Unie for November 16th, 2016. It was based on the following Sunday’s lectionary (Proper 29).

In the Luke passage, we hear Zechariah speaking to his newborn child. We hear, in this old man’s voice, both the expectancy of a father who looks at his child, so full of potential and the expectancy of a Jewish man of God waiting for his Messiah.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79 NRSV)

Darkness. The shadow of death.

A nation oppressed by empire; a people searching for their identity through God’s covenant with them. John the Baptizer was called to be the voice crying from the wilderness “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

Because God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

In the Jeremiah reading today Christians hear a foreshadowing of Christ’s ministry:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness. (Jer. 23:5-6)

Of course, the writer likely wasn’t imaging a wandering tradesman from Nazareth when these words were taken down. However, the Messiah figure, whom Christian believe to be Jesus of Nazareth, would be in his mind.

Messiah, a saviour king, who would come to restore Israel to its rightful place in this world—a special place for God’s chosen people.

The metaphor of the shepherd speaks of gathering a scattered flock, bringing them back home, and caring for them—ensuring their safety—so that they are able to prosper. It also brings to mind Psalm 23, images of compassion, prosperity, and righteousness.

As 21st century Canadians, we don’t hear a call to exiled community members—we don’t have the recent memories of the destruction of Jerusalem in our mind—we don’t live in fear of a foreign power. However, for Jeremiah’s listeners, this was their reality—oppressed by Assyria, they were a nation conquered and scattered.

Then, for 1st century Jews, these distant memories lived on as their reality under Rome—they were a nation that had been living in darkness—a nation that had been living under an oppressive regime.

You and I, however, still experience oppression, violence, and pain in our world. We still experience darkness, as communities, as individuals, and, as mortal beings, we live our lives under the shadow of death. And, there are those in our world who these words—promises to a people oppressed and scattered—reflect the desires of their own hears.

We think of new friends we’ve made in our communities who have fled their homes—they are called by many names: refugee, asylum-seeker, migrant. In their own stories, they have insight into these ancient ones. Ancient stories filled with timeless human emotions of fear, desperation, and hope.

And, some of us have sat on the other side of the table. We identify better with the Assyrians and the Romans. Maybe not through our own direct actions, but certainly through our communal history as peoples of privilege.

During the sentencing of a young Cree woman, named Josephine, in Toronto this year Ontario Justice Nakatsuru spoke of the darkness of Canada’s colonial legacy, saying to Josephine:

The trauma you suffered may not be unique to indigenous offenders. But it is unique how these traumas have been created or contributed to by the colonial legacy of our country. By some deliberate policies and laws of our nation. By overt and systemic discrimination against indigenous peoples.

The line between your identity and history as an indigenous person as well as the effects of the injustices done to indigenous peoples and your breach is direct and obvious. […] The life you lead as a young woman. With its dangers. Its lack of meaning. These problems are ones that many in the indigenous communities face. They are problems that have their origins in the way indigenous people have been treated.

The shadow of death falls on us all in different ways, sometimes it is circumstance, sometimes it is our own body that feels like it is betraying us, and often it is at the hands of other people.

But, God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

This king figure, whom Zechariah and John, point us towards… This shepherd who their ancestors waited for—expectantly… Would come and transform us through a message of peace.

However, in our story, today, we have yet to meet this figure. This week we are still in the liturgical season of Ordinary Times, next week marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of our journey through Luke’s account of the conception and birth of the Messiah figure.

For now, we are left to contemplate the promise God provided the Jewish people through Jeremiah, through Zechariah, and then through John. The promise of a shepherd. The Most High. A figure, who…will bring the break of dawn…bring light into our darkness…bring a new pathway of peace.

And so, as Advent draws near we imagine ourselves as those scattered sheep, waiting to be taken home.

Justice Nakatsura, at the close of her sentencing of Josephine made this statement:

It is the most natural of human instincts to want to go home. Even when memories of home are at times tinged with sadness, fear, or regret. Because I am not talking about someone’s actual home. Or a home from one’s childhood. We all nurture in our heart the idea of “Home”. The idea of home is about a place of safety. A refuge. A sanctuary. Where love resides. Home is a place of hope. A place of potential. A place where every one of us can feel like we can become better. Every one of us has such a home.

And, God said: I will give light to those who sit in darkness

The Good News of our gospel story is that, in the midst of all this darkness: this violence, pain, and oppression, there is a God who cares enough about us, who values us, who hopes for us.

This light, we will soon discover, is a light of hope, a light calling all of us towards a home, filled with relationship, safety, and potential. A light breaking through our darkness, like the rays of dawn cutting through the night.

Thanks be to God.

Book Review // Scott Evans’ “Beautiful Attitudes”

Lately, I’ve found myself delving into the trifecta of Scott Evans’ writing; if you haven’t heard of him he is a scruffy writer/speaker from Ireland. A bit of a wandering prophet (not necessarily a compliment, thinking of the eccentric prophets of ye Olde Testament), he has produced three books all worth a read: Beautiful AttitudesCloser Still, and Failing from the Front.

Scott and I had the chance to meet on two separate occasions, included the most tedious game of Settlers of Catan I have ever played. That aside, I found him to be a genuine person with pragmatic compassion, someone who could speak both quiet and obnoxious truth into your life–my favourite kind of person. These encounters drove me to begin reading his three books, all of which I will be reviewing over the next month. Alas, in no particular order I shall begin.

Beautiful Attitudes: Living Out the Christian Manifesto by Scott Evans

IMAG0075I have read a number of devotional books in my time, most of which I find a balance somewhere between Hallmark-ian and so outlandishly mystical they speak little to my person. Beautiful Attitudes started as a series of blog posts, which lends itself to short chapters easily picked-up on a bus ride or waiting at the doctor’s office. Each vignette is a dissertation on a verse from Matthew 5:3-12, otherwise known as the Beatitudes.

An overdone piece of scriptures, some might say, but Scott does an excellent job of providing his reader with a different lens to explore the ideas of this Social Gospel. He writes about Jesus, the revolutionary, and the counter-cultural blessings he is declaring for the marginalized, the oppressed, the broken and the poor. It is easy, two millennium later, to forget about the radical implications of the Sermon on the Mount, and especially these specific verses, but Scott does a great job of showing us this new “manifesto”.

The Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for the disillusioned and disenfranchised. They gather as people who have experienced the Kingdom of God and this sermon is an invitation for them to become participants, to be builders and citizens in a new Kingdom, one that is not of this world. An otherworldly way of living. (Pg. 3)

In the age of Millenials (young adults born 1980’s-2000’s), there is such a desire to delve into the implications of the Gospel and social justice, ethics, and spiritual growth. Scott does a great job of exploring these ideas and really fostering an invitation to explore one’s faith in this light–.

When someone is first interested in learning about Christianity and Christ (hopefully more so the latter) I often struggle with suggestions for books. Friends will often ask for suggestions of gifts to give others, something not too heavy or long. This book is an excellent introduction. Scott refrains from pretentiousness when it comes to Biblical knowledge, and explains stories and parables in all of his writing with the skill of a great storyteller. I would not hesitate to lend this book to others as a glimpse at the essence of Christ’s ministry, using broken people as blessings, working through suffering to establish a new kind of kingdom.

I should add, if you are looking for a traditionally sanitized piece of writing to give teens, don’t buy this book. In fact, if you want a book that speaks of total redemption, overcoming temptation and living a life of purity, don’t buy any of Scott’s books. He has chosen to share, vulnerability, his own story, struggles included, which speak more to the progressive transformative power of Christ than of battles won. It is a meaningful story but it is also very honest, and if that kind of honesty offends you then it would be best to simply not pick it up.

But, for those who want a different perspective on an overdone idea, it is a great book, especially for young adults looking to explore their faith in a broken world as a broken person.

And, lastly, here is the scale:

General-Readability: ★★★★☆
Overall Message: ★★★☆☆
Challenging Ideas: ★★★★☆
Memorability: ★★★☆☆