The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today are all concerned with shame. Whereas guilt relates to what we have done or failed to do that we ought to have done, shame relates to our identity, our sense of self.
Shame is the game whenever we ‘victim-blame’—and, indeed, even that term is a source of shame, for the popular usage of the word ‘victim’ has shifted from ‘one who has been wronged’ to ‘one who, by their nature, attracts trouble like a magnet attracts iron’.
We shame women who have been raped (the man is guilty), saying that they ‘we’re asking for it’. We shame men who take a beating from their girlfriend (the woman is guilty), saying if they were ‘man enough’ they’d walk away from the relationship. We shame children who suffer anxiety, dismissing their fears as inconsequential. We shame workers who are cowed by arrogant bosses. We shame people for coming from a given city, or part of the country, or because of where they went to school, or the choices they never had, or for receiving benefits they are entitled to under the welfare state (though, interestingly, we rarely shame employers who don’t pay their workers a living wage).
We shame others in a doomed attempt to feel less ashamed ourselves; to lift ourselves up, relative to others, by putting others down. And though we have become adept, as a society, at passing-the-buck when it comes to guilt, shame clings to us and will not be shaken off.
Shame is massive in twenty-first-century Britain; but it is not new. Isaiah knew the life-taking ways of shame, and shaming, and shouted-back into the gale, ‘and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.’ The writer of the letter to the Hebrews (who may have been Priscilla, the only female author in the New Testament) had these words to say about shame: ‘let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame’.
Crucifixion, you see, was all about shame: heaping shame on a family, a community, a nation.
In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus put shame to shame. Did you notice how, in his dealing with Judas, the eye-witness John recalls, ‘Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him’? Jesus is concerned that none of his disciples will have to live with shame: not even his betrayer.
The antidote to guilt is forgiveness. Some things are undoubtedly harder to forgive than others, but forgiveness is relatively easy (and if we struggle to forgive ourselves, that is often because shame has complicated matters). Shame is harder to deal with.
If the fast-working antidote to guilt is forgiveness, the life-long antidote to shame is honour.
Jesus honours Judas by not exposing him in front of the group.
He honours him by holding out intimacy, by which I mean the radical choice to be with someone and remain with them; to remain open to them; to share bread with them, even if there are no words that can be offered back.
He honours him by respecting his freedom, to walk away; demanding no reciprocation, not requiring Judas to fill or sate the well of sadness and agitation that is opening-up within Jesus.
The Passion and crucifixion of Jesus deals with shame as much as, and perhaps even more so, than it deals with guilt. And yet I come across so little mention of this, in our hymnody and sermons…