The Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” -St. Paul. ~Romans 10:11
Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. -St. Paul ~ I Corinthians 15:34
Shame is shameful. That may seem obvious but ponder this observation from the authors of Scenes of Shame: “Shame, indeed, covers shame itself—it is shameful to express shame.” Something so powerful that it can cover itself, with itself, is something to be reckoned with. Shame’s power leads to things like suicide, callousness, insecurity, expulsion from the group, and inner hatred.
Christians are not exempt from shame, although their relationship to it is complex as the two quotes from Paul illustrate. There are times when shame, in a biblical context, is appropriate, and times when it is not. Understanding that context is important because far too often Christians attempt to shame each other in ways that are themselves shameful!
Let’s try to define shame. Shame is the feeling of self-contempt; it is the self against the self. Shame is an attitude that prohibits self-respect and closes off the self to itself. Shame is shameful, it's humiliation and disrespect of the self. It shares ground with other emotions like fear, guilt, shyness, and embarrassment. But it is different, even if similar, because it is always self-mortifying. Guilt, in contrast, need not be this way. You can feel guilty that you committed such and such a trespass and still believe you are a relatively decent person. Your self-image is not necessarily undermined. But shame destroys. It goes deeper than guilt and changes your identity. Maybe this is because often (not always) shame is a public event (guilt is always a private one unless we are in the realm of a legal verdict). In other words, guilt can remain hidden and no one could be the wiser, shame—even if it begins in private, is always in danger of spilling into the public sphere and magnifying itself (that's why fear and shyness often accompany shame).
June is Pride month, and if you stop to think of it, Pride is a strange name for a celebration. LBGTQ+ people and their allies celebrate Pride because it represents a coming out of the closet. The closet: the metaphor for hiddenness, concealment, the place you lock something away that you don’t want visible. For LBGTQ+ people Pride is a defiant celebration against shame. And it doesn’t take too much imagination to see why this is the case. Imagine you grow up feeling like you are different from everyone else. Imagine you have a secret about yourself that only you and God know. You are sure and unsure about these feelings all at the same time, but you are terrified that if loved ones know (even loved ones who aren’t Christians) they will treat you differently (at best) and reject you (at worst). You get older and everyone starts dating, you want to date too, but to do so authentically you’d have to reveal your secret or lurk in shadows. You are scared. You know your church won’t accept you. You don’t know what your relatives and friends will think. What do you do? Such are the feelings and confessions expressed in John Shore’s book, Unfair, which assembles a collection of letters from gay Christians about their experiences. A brief look at some of the titles given to the letters is enough to make anyone sympathetic: “I did not want to exist anymore,” “An aching loneliness,” “I lived in terror,” “I was the worst of the worst,” “lying and hiding,” “desperate not to be gay,” “I destroyed my parent’s dreams.” The list goes on.
For many LBGTQ+ people growing up in the closet is an experience of shame and the liberation of Pride is so powerful because it offers a community that embraces, celebrates and affirms needs while removing shame. And everyone needs a community, to feel support, to experience love and companionship. Though Pride offers the promise of shame’s demise, according to the Trevor Project, (an organization that provides assistance for suicide prevention in LBGTQ+ youth), LBGTQ+ youth are five times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual youths, and the numbers skyrocket to 40% for transgender adults. An astonishing 92% of transgendered people have attempted suicide before the age of 25!
Christians who continually remind us all that a homosexual lifestyle is sinful need to also embrace the reality of dying children and millions of people living with deep shame. That embrace must manifest itself in more listening, more compassion, actual care, and a willingness to adapt to needs even if the overall moral principles remain impassible. And Christians must understand their historic culpability and continued homophobia that perpetuates a culture of shamefulness. Homophobia is not a liberal invention masked as a condemnation of those who hold traditional views on homosexuality. As a pastor who takes a traditional view on the homosexual lifestyle, I recognize the treatment of homosexuals by the church at large has been severe, essentially turning them into a “chief of all sinners” class. Pride celebrations don’t help bridge any gaps between sides, as such language feeds the fears of homophobia in traditional Christians, because Pride is interpreted as a celebration of defiance to God’s law. That is, Traditionalists see a mockery of God’s law in Pride, a celebration of impenitence.
In the second quote I chose from St. Paul that opened this article (and we could just have easily quoted Jesus) the most dangerous kinds of people in Christian communities are the unrepentant ones. The harshest words in Scripture are to the legalists and hedonists. So traditionalists like myself often struggle in knowing how to provide love, care and welcoming to LBGTQ+ in a manner they desire and maintain our theological integrity. And I think that is the case for most Traditionalist Christians. The gay issue is so divisive because it is pitted as a struggle between love and acceptance on the one hand, and the primacy in God’s Word and the purity of the Church’s witness on the other. Of course, we must ask, if we have problems with Pride, what else are LBGTQ+ people supposed to do? How are LBGTQ+ people to be emancipated from their pain and shame if the Church is not a safe place for them because it treats them in a discriminatory way? Can they turn to anything other than Pride if the Church is the place that perpetuates their shame? And how can the Church not perpetuate shame and maintain its theological-moral conscience? And if the Church requires LBGTQ+ people to remain celibate, is it willing to radically adopt them and share life with them together? What would that even look like? Do gay people see a loving God who sees them for more than their sins when they interact with us?
These are hard questions, but a careful examination of the debate shows that both sides are fighting the same fear, though not in the same magnitude of experience. That fear is shame. LBGTQ+ people, too long concealed and locked away in the closet, accepted only based on their moral performance, have received a works-righteousness theology from many Traditionalists. The message to them has been: “Dress, act, and do things that fit our cultural ideas of gender, obey our norms, do what we say—then we will accept you.” The Church has loved gay people conditionally. We are Pharisees to a group we think are hedonists. The pot really does call the kettle black. We have used shame to constrain behavior we don’t accept. And shame is always an easier weapon to wield, because grace, for all sorts of reasons that make us uncomfortable, is messy. The nature of law is hard and inflexible. The nature of grace is forgiving and relational. God is always demanding the Church use both.
Traditionalists, at least the overwhelming majority, don’t hate gay people and don’t want to be disliked by gay people. Many even wish they could accept a monogamous gay lifestyle as Divinely blessed—it would make their lives, or relationships with their gay children so much easier. Traditionalists want to be true to God’s Word (as did the Pharisees, by the way, and most gay Christians today), and the fear is, if you give too much ground on this issue, you will get into a slippery moral slope. In other words, the fear is, “If we accept this we will abandon God’s Word, and if we do that we should be ashamed; we should be ashamed to call something God says is evil, good.”
Shame is at the heart of the gay debate and pride continues to be the solution of both sides. LBGTQ+ people run to Pride because it offers a way out of the shame, into acceptance, and promises unconditional love. But from the Traditionalist perspective, it offers these things only by changing the definitions of what God desires for us. Traditionalists run to their own version of pride too, repressing years of shame and culpability towards gay people while simultaneously enraptured by the promises of doctrinal purity and moral superiority, a church without those kinds of sinners. But from the LBGTQ+ perspective, traditionalists continue to ignore the clear signs of homophobia, high suicide rates of gay youth and perpetuate a works-righteous/conditional love towards homosexuals.
So where to do we go from here? Certainly, the solution is not a, “meet in the middle” approach, since both sides find it impossible to give up certain ground. Integrity and conscience are caught up these debates, as well as fundamental aspects of our shared humanity: our identity, our capacity to love and be loved, our fears of what could or could not be. But sitting in and throughout the debate is shame. And while the Spirit is working to bring the two sides towards unity at some point, via His own wisdom and ways, the Spirit’s work is not totally invisible now. He continues to point everyone,--Pharisee and Hedonist--to the Man on the Cross, the man who was shamed so that the shame of being a sinner would be forever removed, in Him. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, despising shame,” the Scripture says. Despising shame-just like all of us do, but aren’t in a position to do non-hypocritically, since, as we have seen, no one is innocent and beyond deserving some shame.
Of course, the exegetical and moral questions remain. Traditionalists and Affirming people continue to have legitimate and important points to make to each other. But maybe the hope of agreement is too premature? Maybe we all need to listen more first instead of trying to quickly bring about resolution? We should assume that both sides will continue to disagree in the present future. If that's the case, I hope we can keep listening to each other. But throughout the stalemate of impassibility, while we live in the no-man's-land of moral dilemmas, exegetical integrity, and alarming violence—we can at least join together and admit shame remains a problem. We can admit we are all running from shame, and that whatever progress is to be made on this issue it will come when both sides feel personal integrity and freedom of conscience, under God. When we have these ingredients, together, issues will resolve. That freedom can only come by God’s Word: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
This article opened with two quotes from St. Paul. The quotes attempt to show the tension that exists in Christian theology with shame. It is living in that tension, like living between the poles of Law and Gospel, that deprives all of us of our ethical mastery and moral high ground. Jesus says, “Do not judge," Paul says, "Judge insiders." There you see the tension again. There is no contradiction here, only a tense interplay of polarities in which the clear demarcations push us back into the uncomfortable middle. I am not saying the “what” of Christian morality need be in question. But the “how” is in tension. “Love your neighbor” is clear enough. “How” requires wisdom and humility. “Do not commit adultery” is clear enough, but what constitutes adultery? (is it a look? A flirt? An imaginative fantasy?). The problem we all face—Traditionalist and Affirming-- is not that we have bad intentions, but that we value our moral reasoning often at the expense of loving our neighbor. Loving your neighbor isn’t code for “accepting what they do,” but it is a command that must draw us back to Christ, the Gospel and His wisdom. Because, at the end of the day, we do not know how to love our neighbors the way we should. Christ does, and His Spirit through the Word must guide us in wisdom.
My goal in this article has not been to solve the Traditionalists v. Affirming debate. Rather, my goal has been to show the complex relationship we have we shame, and that despite our disagreements the only solution to shame is neither pride nor moral purity, but surrender at the cross. Does that solve all the moral peccadillos? No. But maybe we move towards solving them when we are all set free from the shame that kills, the pride that offers false promises, and the fear that restrains perfect love. Only a Savior can rescue us from this. Only a Spirit’s fire can cauterize the wounds. Only a Father of grace can replace shame with peace. Then a strange and wonderful thing happens. Like St. Paul, we begin to boast with healthy pride—not in ourselves--but in the shameful cross. Paul says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and me to the world.”
Remember how we observed that shame covers itself with itself? Well, God outdoes its power. When Paul boasts in the cross he’s saying Jesus covers shame with shame, but that shame has been glorified. Through the workings of shame—the cross—God out-shames, shame. Christ puts shame to shame by shame. He took it, grabbed it, wore it, and glorified it. Shame was outdone by the only One who could wear it with pride, because, he had no sin in the first place in which to be ashamed, and the shame he wore was our own, not his.
Any believer, gay or straight, is clothed in His righteousness now. That’s where we begin. In the tension. Between the polarities: sinners who are saints, naked who are clothed, lasts who are first, the dead who are alive, the broken made whole, the lost who are found, the blind who can see, and the leasts who are the greatest. Lots of tension between those contrasts...But even more grace.