For the past four Sundays this December I have been attending Advent services at at local Boise Anglican congregation, where I have participated in the Eucharist meal, after several years abstaining, returning to again partake in communion. Something of an ‘outsider’ I join those willing (eager?) to listen to the Pastoral Team explain the terms on which the Advent season unfolds and why we Christians should reflect on our spiritual condition as they also lead the congregation in worship aimed at eliciting the courage to open ourselves to the hope, peace, joy and love offered humankind by God’s grace and Christ’s redemption, remembering Jesus’ birth. This is a community of listeners; these listeners are no doubt at different places in their development who each take away different meanings as individuals seeking how to apply these spiritual aims to specific situations marked by struggle and respite, resentments and restorations, the vicissitudes of the life of faith.
For about an equal amount of time I’ve wanted to start a conversation about listening and BS: BS is abbreviation for Blame and Shame. How do we as listeners negotiate these facts of everyday life? BS cannot be reduced to irrelevancy; relationships dis-integrate for these very forces; I speculate that the effects of BS are widespread, such that few if any go untouched. As one of those who have dished out blame and shame, I can attest personally to having effectively estranged even those I believe I otherwise love; in some painful instances the hell I wreaked remained unbeknownst to me until too late.
Shame is in the air, everywhere; Shame is underfoot, veiled; androgynous, archetypal; offspring of accusation and because; Shame lives invisible in silence and silencing, passing frequently as purity, righteousness and wisdom, served up in the inhale and exhale of Blame and Ex-Communication. Fallibility and Law see to Shame’s abode, Shunning the backdoor master-key to its domain; who enters Certainty, the front door, is at liberty to judge unashamedly. To rid these barbed briars is no easy task — one cannot attempt to cut through them without accumulating punctures and scarring scratches; how does one, in listening, clear a path through the pathological forest of Shame and Blame and potential Excommunication? Is integrity anywhere to be found in the company of Shame? More, simply can integrity coexist with Shame? Can one walk in their integrity without Shame?
I awake with shame, joust with shame throughout the day, and return to sleep with shame each night. How does one hope to avoid shame?
To the priest is assigned the domain of mediation of guilt; to the king is assigned the administration of humility in justice, to the prophet is assigned the domain of shame and repentance: “O My people how sinful are thy ways; turn now to the Lord!” Do we live in a culture of shame? Is it possible that a good deal of BS is cultivated by our Christian traditions, BS unwittingly integrated into our belief systems, and how ironic would that be?
Until I belatedly heard the weary, beleaguered soul-travail of my partner (loved one?) it was lost on me the impact of BS. In retrospect I wonder how I thought I was loving, and what might have been different had I listened to the BS they had listened to (and in the worst case had unfortunately taken to heart)? What if I had listened sufficiently to have become aware my BS? There are many therapists and people who seek and consult professionals to learn of the impact of BS, to thereby obtain healing; but that is usually too little too late and after the fact. How much hurt might be avoided if we instead cultivated a listening ear tuned to discern the BS refrain and in recognizing it as such disavow BS, refuse to let it linger or to fester, just as we would any other hurtful untruth or ugly rumor?
Virginia Burrus in her book Redeeming Shame; Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects, argues there is redemptive value in shame; (as I recall it was a relief to me when I read her point of view, gladdened that I was justified in administering — afflicting? — healthy doses of BS when it suited my purpose). But there is a point to be made and I’ll defer to a recent reading from an Advent devotional by Walter Brueggemann, Gift and Task. There Brueggemann argues that the church has but one commandment: ‘to love one another!’ And goes on to state that it’s as simple as recognizing that what that means was made clear by another of the Apostles, Paul, who also adds that we are ‘to look to the interests of others’ not only our own interests. Brueggemann warns that “as always, but now acutely, the church faces ‘deceivers’ who want to talk us out of that commandment that is at the core of Christ’s teaching. Among us now, the deceiver is most likely to be the voice of consumerism or the urging of individualism that regards the self as thee goal and culmination of all well-being. That is the big lie that the church, with its voice and body, must contradict. . . . In a culture of greedy self-preoccupation and self-regard, notice of the other at the expense of our own hungers and thirsts is a core obligation of faith.”
So there is in this analysis room for some healthy BS; at root the church has obligation to live up to this law of love; when it fails to do so blame is inevitable — soulful accountability dictates that we know there is but selfishness to blame; and that inevitably leads to shame, not a destructive shame but a corrective that lays the axe to the root of the tree. I believe we all feel the smarting lashes when we overdo self-preoccupation and inordinate self-regard (many examples of my own come speedily to mind); isn’t that a good time to own the shameful self-defeating attitudes and behaviors and seek repentance and forgiveness so that the Advent hope, peace, joy, and love might be manifest in redemptive attitudes and acts worthy of the calling we profess to follow? Indeed for those who can hear it and bear it there may be a vivid metaphorical contrast in the new testament — where the saint’s wardrobes consists of robes of righteousness or the counterpart, the woe of being clothed in shame and dis-grace. Personally, I don’t think this is bs or religious bias — it’s a matter of trust and humility; both too often wane in me and particularly when I refuse to do the work of listening, which doesn’t happen without confronting one’s psyche where shame can be brought to the light and love before it dis-graces oneself or others; it’s truly good news when that is offered and received.
This is where I come full circle; there is little question that churches that follow Jesus (and I don’t for a minute believe all do just because they confess they do) must take responsibility for how BS is managed. The falsehoods taught in churches who do not take Jesus’ command to love one another to heart are the very reason (‘the cause’! Read, ‘to Blame’!) so many in our society are disfigured, bloated with shame. Church of all places should not be where listening is rewarded with wrongheaded, mean-hearted incitement to BS. Too often though, the source of BS comes in the ‘sheep’s clothing’ form; ‘bad news’ mongers (many call themselves ‘evangelicals’) whose delight it seems is to affix to anyone who don’t live up to the moralistic zeal expected by promoting the church and its social preferences, or the unfortunate one who is ‘entangled in sin’ or falls short in any number of ways that we all do (including those who affix blame and shame); in such contexts the result is that people are not occasioned an opportunity to listen, i.e., to hear, the good news that forgiveness is a better way to love. We are taught rightly when we hear that our ‘hope does not make us ashamed.’ In retrospect perhaps I should have entitled this Listening and Love: how to manage BS. In any case my admonishment is simply this; let’s put a stop to this BS. Train your inner ear to recognize self-talk that can distinguish between redemptive shame (that has recourse to love and forgiveness to keep hope, faith, joy afloat among your family friends and ‘odd’ neighbors) and the destructive blame and shame that eventually dehumanizes and dis-integrates; learn to recognize it well enough in yourself that you can quickly identify it to the community and bear witness to the awful but irrevocable consequences of unbridled BS.