Recently, Jo and I went to see Chris Hannan’s stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment at the Liverpool Playhouse. It is a wonderful production, in every regard.
The whole production is steeped in shame.
Shame has been defined as:
the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.
a fact or circumstance bringing disgrace or regret.
Shame differs from guilt in this respect:
we experience guilt in relation to what we have done, or failed to do;
we experience shame in relation to who we are.
The drunk, Marmeladov, is ashamed, that he is an alcoholic, that his daughter is a prostitute; ashamed of who he is: “When I see goodness I’m like a cockroach in the light.” [Act 1, scene 5] And as Hannan explains in the notes, “It’s not just that he’s ashamed; he has to act out his shame in front of a big crowd.”
His wife, Katerina Ivanovna, is ashamed, of her terminal comsumptive cough, of her poverty, of how her life has turned out – “What’s the meaning of walking in here like this, do you know who I am! I am Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladov; my father held a very senior rank in the civil service.” [Act 1, scene 15]
Their daughter, Sonya Marmeladova, is ashamed: as Marmeladov describes her debut, “Sonya went out at six in the evening, came back at nine, walked straight up to Katerina Ivanova and laid thirty roubles on the table…Then she hid her face with her shawl – this shawl – this very shawl – and lay down on the bed with her face to the wall. I was there. I heard everything…When I see goodness I’m like a cockroach in the light.” [Act 1, scene 5]
As a devout Christian, she does not experience guilt in relation to being a prostitute – her circumstances give her no choice in the matter. No, she experiences shame. But she also knows that she can come before God with her shame.
And, of course, there is the anti-hero, Raskolnikov, who murders the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta. Ultimately he will be undone not by guilt – throughout, he justifies what he has done, appealing to the difference between “ordinary” men and “extra-ordinary” men
Raskolnikov: “...I say the great man is by his very nature criminal. Think of Napoleon Galileo Christ. They not only break the old laws, they entirely set them aside. They’re destroyers…The great man makes new laws, he sees things in a new way, he utters a new word…”
Porfiry Petrovich: “Fascinating. When you were writing your article, did you surely you must have identified with the extraordinary man, the man who utters a new word as you put it.”
Raskolnikov: “Possibly.” [Act 1, scene 16]
Ultimately he will be undone not by guilt, but by shame, as the magistrate Porfiry Petrovich confronts him with the reality – the shameful truth – that he is not extraordinary at all.
We’ve also been watching the latest series of Downton Abbey. You understand, of course, that the role of period drama is not escapism from our lives into the past, but an anachronistic projection of the issues of our day into another context, in order to allow us to explore our values and vices. And Downton, too, is steeped in shame. From time to time, a character experiences guilt; but the far greater matter is shame: Carson is ashamed of his past in the theatre; Anna feels overwhelming shame when she is raped; again and again, shame, shame, shame.
The biblical understanding of sin is an understanding of broken relationships. This includes both guilt and shame. But we cannot face up to our guilt until our shame has been dealt with. That is why – before they are expelled from the garden – God makes durable clothes for Adam and Eve, to cover not their nakedness but their new-found shame in relation to their nakedness. That is why Jesus deals with the woman caught in adultery by addressing her shame before her guilt, and sets her free from a ‘life of sin’ not ‘sins.’
Guilt relates to doing; shame to being.
We live in such a broken society that guilt is for many an alien or at least a rare experience – we justify the wrong things we do as a response to, or consequence of, the ways in which we have been wronged – by others; by God (why doesn’t God…?) Our culture is steeped in shame, the dominant experience of sin in our mission context. We justify our guilt; but we are painfully aware of our shame – of who we are, at how life has not turned out the way we had hoped it might.
Jesus addresses our guilt and our shame. The Church tends to focus on guilt – or at least on dealing with guilt before we can move on to dealing with shame. We need to address shame first.
The accounts of Jesus healing lepers are a great place to start (and we have one in the Lectionary reading for this coming Sunday). Unlike other conditions, where Jesus healed people, he cleansed lepers: dealing with the deep shame, the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous even done to them by the disease, and by the response of other people to their disease.
Just as Crime and Punishment takes on a different light and relevance in twenty-first century England than it might have done in nineteenth century Russia, so the Gospels take on a particular relevance for us two thousand years after the events. Leprosy in the Gospels is a powerful symbol for shame in our own context.
Like Jesus with lepers, like Sonya with Raskolnikov, are we willing to embrace the person who is utterly steeped in shame (ourselves, as much as others) in order that they might be cleansed and so restored by love?