Posted by: Dan | December 19, 2007

A Politics of Shame: Proclaiming Peace with Penance

These prophetic calls to shame [i.e. the 'penitential prayers'] in the context of history are not calls to a paralyzing personal guilt or humiliation. It is a call to recognize the constant failures of living according to the alternative ideals and values—universally identified in the penitential prayers as the Mosaic laws. Shame, therefore, is not a psychology, it is a politics…

Radical nonconformity for the exilic communities means the creation of a radically different identity from that exemplified by the period of the monarchy, and this requires a heightened sense of the shame of acting in other ways….

In the end, shame is a mark of honesty—it is an admission that allows transformation because it offers hope that the new way will not repeat the acknowledged mistakes of the old way.
~ Daniel Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile, 120-22.

We are accustomed to thinking of shame as something to be avoided at all costs. In a twofold sense, shame makes us 'feel bad' — it makes us feel uncomfortable, and it makes us feel as though we, ourselves, are 'bad'. However, in the passage quoted above, Smith-Christopher suggests that shame, when properly employed, can be a very good thing.

In A Biblical Theology of Exile, Smith-Christopher argues that the so-called Deuteronomistic History (Deut-2 Ki) was significantly redacted and rewritten by exilic or postexilic authors, who rejected the power-politics of Israel's monarchy, and presented the kings and leaders of Israel in a negative light so that Israel would be able to discover a more faithful way of following the (sociopolitical) Law that is laid out in Deuteronomy. The past, as well as some present efforts, are presented as shame-full so that a new way of being in the present can be discovered and a new future can become possible.

Contemporary Christians must also recover this positive use of shame in relation to their past and some of their present efforts. Here two things must be avoided. First of all, rather than attempting to disassociate themselves from the history of Christianity — and Christendom, in particular — Christians must choose to carry the shame that comes with that name. Thus, for example, rather than eschewing the name 'Christian', those who acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus (and depend on the fellowship of those in Christ) must choose to identify themselves as such, fully aware of the baggage that comes with that language.

Secondly, rather than romanticising past Christian involvement in power-politics, Christians must begin to look for a new way forward, embodied in an embrace of an exilic existence in the present. Of course, even in Israel's exile there were those who longed for a restoration of power. This is the position that is prominently displayed in 1 Maccabees, and in the various Jewish nationalistic revolutionary movements found in Palestine at the time of Jesus. 1 Maccabees, and many of the Jewish rebel movements refused exile as a state of existence, and sought a return to sociopolitical power. However, although this option was open to Jesus (let us not forget the presence of revolutionaries in his inner circle), he ends up rejecting it, and the Church, and contemporary Christians, must do the same.

Here, Jeremiah's counsel, 'the word of the Lord', to the exile's in Babylon is especially relevant:

Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf (cf. Jer 29).

This passage is commonly quoted — but by those who exhibit a nostalgia for Christendom. It is usually quoted by those who seek to justify Christian involvement in power-politics, in corporate business, and so on and so forth. However, that is not the point that Jeremiah is trying to make. Rather, what Jeremiah is doing is telling the people to declare an armistice and cease fighting (violently) with the Babylonians. To build homes, and plant gardens, requires the people of Israel to 'beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks' (cf. Is 2.4; Mic 4.3). Thus, rather than seeing this passage from Jer 29 as a justification for Christian involvement in violent structures of power, it is better understood as an appeal to the people of God to abandon all aspirations to power, as that power is understood by the political and corporate structures of this world.

This, then, is what the politics of shame requires of us: it requires us to remember our shame-full past, and to confess our connection to that past, thereby ensuring that we do not repeat that past. Rather than longing for a return to power, we must embrace our status as a pilgrim people, sojourning in exile until the day when God descends to earth and welcomes us into the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, our true home.

The same approach applies not only to Christian attachments to power, but also to our attachments to wealth, comfort, and privilege. Given God's solidarity with the poor, and given the requirement to share all things with 'the least of these', I believe that we must, once again, be confronted with the shamefulness of our wealth, comfort, and privilege. Yes, when we have so much in a world where so many have so little, we should feel ashamed — especially if we profess to follow the God of the bible.

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with an undergraduate student about these things. When speaking in a class at a Bible College about God's preferential option for the poor, and the need for solidarity with the crucified people of today, a student raised his hand and, after noting that he was not very involved in such things, asked me 'should I feel guilty?' (cf. http://poserorprophet.livejournal.com/101527.html). Were I to answer that question today, I think I would say the following: “I don't know if you should feel 'guilty', but I do think you should feel ashamed.”

This, I think, is a part of what it means to follow in the footsteps of those like Saint Francis — those who proclaimed peace with penance. Peace is not possible apart from penance, and penance is not possible without shame. Here, I am reminded of the words of Dorothy Day:

Everyone of us who was attracted to the poor had a sense of guilt, of responsibility, a feeling that in some way we were living on the labour of others… Many left the work… because of their own shame. But enduring the shame is part of our penance (The Long Loneliness, 204, 216).

Yet how can we bear all this shame? Once we realise the extent of it all, it is so easy to become overwhelmed by it. Indeed, I think that we frequently do not embrace our shame, but rather run from it, precisely because it is so overwhelming.

It is the prior knowledge and experience of ourselves as God's beloved that allows us to carry our shame. Just as forgiveness enables repentance, so our being accepted by God enables us to confront our own shamefulness. Thus, rather than immediately removing all of our shame from us, God's embrace allows us to fully carry our shame for the first time. We rejoice because we are forgiven sinners, but we remember that we are forgiven sinners.

Furthermore, not only are we now enabled to carry our shame, but in this way our shame is carried away as we begin to discover new ways of sharing life together as members of a whole created order that groans under exilic conditions as it eagerly awaits the 'glorious freedom of the children of God' (cf. Ro 8). Thus, our shame is not, as Smith-Christopher says, a paralysing sense of personal guilt. Rather, our shame becomes an avenue to our own liberation, and the liberation of those around us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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