on guilt and shame

It seems to be an unquestioned assumption in modern western culture that guilt and shame are bad, unhealthy and unhelpful.  Most of the moral discourse is dominated by statements that flow directly from these assumptions.

I can relate!  Who wants to feel guilty?  Who enjoys shame?  Not only that, both guilt and shame are shot through and warped with all kinds of unhelpful messiness.  Like power, sex, or money, they can easily be used poorly and people get hurt.

But are these concepts entirely worthless?  Is there any worth or value to them?  Here are some thoughts…

Good Guilt?

Guilt can be good.  As Auckland theologian Neil Darragh points out, guilt can be enabling guilt, in that it helps us to recognize and face our wrongdoing (or sin) and to seek and receive the help and grace we need to change and grow morally.  There seem to be two opposite extremes we can and do go to here.  One we might call false guilt or what Darragh calls ‘disabling guilt’.  Here the accusation is worse that the behaviour, or there may be no wrongdoing at all that matches the accusation.  At the other extreme, we have what we might call false innocence, or ‘getting off Scot free’.  Here there is an absence of an accusation (from others or from self), but a presence of wrongdoing or sin.  Both extremes fail to give us any help at ethical growth.

Good Shame?

Some of you might be thinking right now, “OK Dale, I take your point about guilt, but shame is another matter, it’s always bad…”  Perhaps, given a certain definition, that is correct.  But let’s try and get behind the word to the idea, and then we can think about what is the best word to use.  Hear me out :)

Some people, quite helpfully I think, have distinguished between guilt and shame by saying that guilt says what I did is bad, and shame says am bad.  That kind of shame is at best incomplete and distorted, and at worst crippling and harmful.  Another way to think about shame is in a relational sense.  When a society, community or family shares certain values, as they do, certain actions and behaviours will simply be in conflict with those values.  When a person does any of those certain things, they will naturally feel various kinds of shame, depending on how many people in the society, community or family know about it, and how much they know, etc.  This kind of shame seems to me to be natural and unavoidable.  And I’m willing to suggest here that it may even be helpful.

Having said that, I think a Christian influence on society, community or family will engender not just values concerning what actions cohere with those values, but also values concerning how to relate to people who act in ways that conflict with those values.  A Christian community, in this sense, has both standards and an impulse to restore those who break those standards.  In the remainder of this post, I’d like to suggest that the shame which seems unavoidable can serve a good purpose only in a community characterised by restorative discipline.

Restorative Discipline

As the two terms suggest, there are two dynamics are at work, I reckon, in how a Christian community deals with someone who breaks what they understand as Christian values.   One (discipline) has a necessarily negative posture, and the other  (restoration) is necessarily positive.

The positive dynamic is that of gentleness and restoration.   Galatians 6:1 says that when someone is caught in a sin (imagine all the dynamics involved when this happens… and imagine how it often plays out…) “you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness.”  As usual, Paul is writing these instructions as a corrective for what was happening.  In this case, it seems that some of the spiritual leaders at Galatia were not being gentle or restorative when people were caught in a sin.  Gentleness is appropriate because people whose sin is being found out are scared and defensive.  Restoration is the goal because God wants healing, community and forgiveness rather than brokenness, isolation and enmity.

It’s much harder to deal with the other more negative dynamic.  What words might we use?  We have all kinds of understandable discomfort with words like ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’.  I think a good deal of our discomfort here flows from times where the ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’ was seen to be disproportionate to the (mis-)behaviour.  But on the other hand, surely various forms of corrective action are appropriate for various kinds of misbehaviour.  Sometimes we need consequences to change.

At this point, it may be useful to remind ourselves of the need for a balanced view of human nature.  We can err on the side of viewing humans as ‘basically good’ or err on the side of viewing them as ‘basically evil’.  The tendency to think we don’t need corrective discipline (in appropriate forms) may flow from a belief that humans are so ‘good’ that they will quickly recognize their sin and repent of it.  The reality is that we are too often stubborn, dishonest, fearful and prideful.  Sometimes loving discipline (again, in helpful forms) is the only thing that can help someone come to terms with their sin.  This is the best context in which to understand Paul’s command to expel a member from fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.  Of course the other side of the coin is to err on the side of viewing humans as ‘basically evil’.  The belief that humans have little good in them may lie behind disciplinary actions that seek to force someone to repent.  God does not bring us to repentance through discipline that is over-powering, intimidating, harsh or insensitive.  Rather, it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance, as Paul seems to have needed to remind some ‘strong leaders’ at Rome (Romans 2:4).

Summary

Tying these threads together, I am basically suggesting that both guilt and shame, understood the right way and in the context of healing community, can be helpful and necessary.  We may have a thousand stories or personal experiences of why “they made me feel so guilty” or “that church heaped shame on me”, and many if not most of these could sadly be accurate indictments of leaders acting from control, fear, anger and power.  But I am daring to suggest here that if our community and the discipline of our community is characterised by love, honesty, truth, healing, then guilt and shame may just possibly be necessary wounds en route to repentance, reconciliation and growth.

on corporate worship

Two words: corporate and worship.  A few thoughts on each of those words that have been rattling around in my head.

Worship.  Worship is a thoroughly metaphysical and thus qualitative activity – and it is in between the lines of all that we choose to do.  What’s more, what is sometimes called the ‘rule’ of worship, is that “you become like what you worship”.  Keep on worshipping (or ‘giving ultimate worth to’) money (or any idol) and you will become the sort of person who looks at life through the lens of money.  Replace money with ‘x’ – you get the idea.  Worship is formative.  And the more a worship practice ‘seeps into our bones’, the more ‘a part of us’ it becomes, the more formative it is.  Like driving a car or riding a bicycle, you know a practice is ‘a part of you’ when you no longer have to give it much (if any) conscious thought.  The practice becomes automatic.

When it comes to riding bicycles, driving, making coffee or what have you, we appreciate ‘automatic’ practice as a good thing, that shows we have attained a level of maturity, competency or expertise.  You would want at least a few of the operative actions of a doctor to be a least a bit automatic!  (‘Let’s see, do I use the scissors or scalpel here..?’)  For some reason, however, when it comes to ‘worship’, some of us have been conditioned to see  an ‘automatic’ act of worship as being insincere, heartless, ‘dry’, or not genuine.  We call it ‘just going through the motions’ with no emotion.  I certainly do believe that an otherwise good action can be done poorly, and this includes doing it without sincerity.  But I am wondering if we throw out the baby (i.e. a specific type of practice) with the dirty bathwater (i.e. because it can be or has been done with little or no sincerity).

An example may help here.  Just last Sunday, the sermon was on Psalm 116, and after communion we sang a re-metered version of the Psalm to the tune of Amazing Grace.  The tune is so much ‘a part of us’ that we were able to sing the lyrics – which we had never even seen or read! – with a great deal of both heart and mind.  Because the tune (part of the form of the worship in this case) was ‘automatic’, our hearts and minds were more free to engage with the sentiments being felt and thought as we sung.  This is why when we are learning a new song, a new prayer, or any new form of worship, it is more ‘work’.  Naturally, we cannot join in immediately in a new form of worship that we do not (yet) know.  The more practiced we are, the more automatic the participation becomes, the more free we are to participate in the song, prayer, responsive reading, litany or what have you.

Corporate.  Corporate worship has similarities and differences with private worship.  It is the same God worshipped, and the same Gospel and same Faith that both are an expression of.  However, whilst private worship is primarily a personal, ‘you’-and-God expression of faith, corporate worship is about not just ‘you’ or ‘me’, but first God and second ‘us’.  Individual private worshippers will be able to use whatever words and forms (silence, free prayer, free song, etc.) that are helpful and relevant to them. Corporate worship, however, needs forms (songs, prayers, readings, gestures – even sights and smells!?) that everyone can participate in.  Corporate worship celebrates God, the Gospel, concern for the World, and the identity and mission of the Church in ways that are diverse and creative, but always in a form that the whole gathered congregation can share in.

I wonder if there is a tendency for the same forms that are perhaps most appropriate for all to join in, end up being the forms that are suspected to be the most heartless, insincere and dry?  After all, are we really to believe that every single one of these people singing this song all equally and fully ‘mean it’!!??  It is this concern which sometimes leads song leaders to discourage people from singing ‘if you don’t mean it’.  I’m not wanting to encourage hollow or false worship, but there is a rather obvious question lurking just beneath the surface here.  Do we ever ‘mean it’?  How can we tell, and who gets to say who can participate?  (Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for the exact reason – we must be in a ‘right’ standing.  Who, then, can ever take communion?)

In Christian theology, there is a distinction made between ‘over-realised’ and ‘under-realised’ eschatology.  Eschatology is the study of the ‘last things’ or ‘end’, and it is concerned with Heaven, or the “New Heavens and the New Earth”, and the final “Age to Come”.  Those with an ‘over-realised’ eschatological outlook will tend to be ‘idealistic’ and expect heaven to be ‘realised’ and experienced to a large degree now.  Those with an ‘under-realised’ view will tend to be ‘realistic’ and as a result not expect to see much at all of heaven to be seen in this dark world.  Theologians speak of a healthy ‘now-but-not-yet’ tension between the need to anticipate here and now the love and freedom and life of heaven, even though it will not come until it comes.  This distinction is seen in the topic of physical healing, but also in the question of do we ‘mean it’ when we sing or pray.  We will never ‘mean it’ perfectly, but we should anticipate what it would feel like to ‘mean it’.  We don’t have to ‘mean it’ perfectly to sing it – for who could?  But we also don’t want to slide into a lazy ‘it doesn’t matter if I mean it’ attitude.  Like riding a bike, ‘meaning it’ is a matter of practice.  There will be times where ‘meaning it’ might feel natural and effortless; other times it might feel false and laborious.  This too, is why corporate worship is so important.  Some days, ‘I’ may not ‘mean it’ very well.  At no time will ‘I’ ‘mean it’ perfectly.  Which is why ‘I’ need ‘we’ – ‘us’ – to be a community that seeks to ‘mean it’ together.

teleology & ethics

The word ‘teleology’ (from Greek τελος ‘telos’ – meaning ‘goal’, ‘end’, ‘purpose’ or ‘that toward which things tend’) is not a street-level term.  However, the concept of a purpose, goal, function or ‘end’ to things most certainly is.  It’s a common as anything.  Teleology is blindingly relevant.

Continue reading “teleology & ethics”

anthropocentric ethics

Anthropocentric Ethics – In Ancient & Modern Perspective

The author/composer/poet/community which produced the text we know of as Genesis 1 observed many things. Just one of these is the uniqueness of humans in relation to our environment.

Day and night, earth and sky, sea and land, vegetation, and fruits, creatures great and tiny, both in the sea and on land…

And then behold – human beings. These humans are at the pinnacle of creation and are invested with the task and responsibility of governing the entire earth. Continue reading “anthropocentric ethics”

porn parade – questions

The Erotica porn industry exhibition (forgive me for not hunting for a link – !!!) got free advertising by way of the now infamous and highly controversial ‘Boobs on Bikes’ parade.

Auckland City Council tried to stop the topless ride down Queen St., but Judge Nicola Mathers allowed it, commenting that it was ‘not offensive per se for women to be topless’, and that her court was not one ‘of morals and it was her job to stick to the law.’  She also said, “It may well be that the parade is tasteless but equally it may be that in a more mature society the vast majority might consider it harmless.” (source) Continue reading “porn parade – questions”

wanted: damon to play bonhoeffer

Will somebody please make a modern, well-produced movie about Dietrich Bonhoeffer!???

(existing works here, here and here…)

I think Matt Damon should play the part…  :)

i heart the internet…

I mean…

really…

Don’t get me wrong…

the internet is great…

but the by-line for this online ‘friend’ site…

‘be who you wanna be’…

scares me.

Online Identity…

yikes.

I hope humanity doesn’t forget…

how to have a simple meal together…

sharing food…

sharing time…

sharing conversation…

sharing LIFE with each other.

That would be very sad…

trust and believe… criminals!?

Do you trust? Do you believe?

I’m not talking (at least in this post!) about God – I’m talking about convicted criminals!

Tapu Misa has written another thought-provoking piece about –among other things– the house-arrest conditions of Bailey Kurariki, suggesting that the public needs to trust him to learn how to live in society.

Continue reading “trust and believe… criminals!?”

public service: worship and prayer included

Issues of culture, religion, politics and the like are of much interest to me.

This Friday, quite an interesting complex of issues will be focused in one event in which I’ll be taking part.

As a pastor of one of the churches in the Northcote area, I’ve been asked to take part in the ANZAC Day Commemorative Service, where we will (as the brochure will read) commemorate “those who have fallen in service of their Country.” My part in this event –which I will do gladly– will be (and I quote – again from the already printed order of service) to offer a “Call to Worship”, a “Prayer of Remembrance” and a “Benediction”.

Continue reading “public service: worship and prayer included”