* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mark 10: Inappropriate Shame

Following some difficult words on wealth, Mark 10 contains a third prediction about Jesus' death, which can be taken as a literary device of either foreshadowing or framing the stories of Jesus' activity. We will consider the implications of these predictions at greater length when we come to the passion narrative. Then, there is a request by James and John to be given a place of honor in the kingdom they think Jesus is establishing. As the gospel of Matthew tells the story, it is their mother who makes the request on their behalf, and the gospel of Luke's version not only doesn't mention James and John by name, but also suggests a place of honor for all of the disciples, in contradiction of the message about being of service. Given that the author or editors of the gospel of Luke may well have been attempting to legitimize the authority of the leaders of the early Christian sect, it is perhaps more worthwhile to look at what these passages hold in common.

Incidentally, this same message is conveyed through Jesus' act of washing the disciples' feet portrayed only in the gospel of John. To wash one another's feet in the context of that time and culture was to perform the lowest duties of the most base servant, making the message in the gospel of John even more extreme than the more bland teaching of the gospel of Mark. What is it that the authors are suggesting through Jesus' words and actions? What value does that have for us?

In the first century, as now, prestige had value. One's position in society was an indication of one's worth and value -- a sign of one's merit. James and John are asking here for positions of authority in the new world order they believe Jesus will establish. These fishermen desire to be in positions of power. They seem to have missed the point of Jesus' teaching up to this point. Jesus corrects them by pointing out that things don't have value just because the world thinks it so. He is not establishing a way of being that looks just like the old way of being, just with different personnel. He is establishing a new way of being -- a new way of defining self and others and relationship. He is defining a way of being that does not revolve around having power over other people, but rather of recognizing one's own power to positively effect the lives of others. His disciples, like many believers today, seem to have thought that the rhetoric was just a nice way of expressing regime change and a domineering claim over society. Doublespeak. Spin.

One of the most devastating issues that humanity has yet to deal with effectively is the issue of shame. We use shame to control other people, and it's a very effective control. I think we use shame against others, though, because we don't know what to do with our own shame. Shaming others makes us feel superior, which alleviates our own sense of shame, however inappropriate or misguided any of that shame may be. James and John may have felt some shame at being fishermen and having no real power in their society. There's no real reason for this, except perhaps that they believed what their society said about some people being worth more than other people.

In our own society, we still use shaming others to make ourselves feel better. When one says to a panhandler, "Why don't you just go get a job instead of begging for money?" the panhandler is not often given the chance to respond, "Because I have a mental illness and no access to adequate medical care. I don't even have enough money to keep a roof over my head, and I don't know where my next meal is going to come from. I have no way to shower for a job interview and no clean clothes to change into, and I've developed an addiction because it's the only respite I have from this hopeless way of life."

We have become accustomed to shaming the homeless. We shame the uneducated. We shame the mentally ill. We shame the poor. We shame the unemployed. We shame people who need assistance to provide for themselves and their families. We shame addicts. We even try to find clever ways to shame people who look different from us, come from different cultures than us, speak a different language from us, or love different people than we do. We think of and treat those people as if they are worthless, or if not utterly worthless, at least worth less than we are. Therefore, we can feel proud of our jobs, our education, our homes, our mental health, our resources, our marriages, and our more socially acceptable addictions. We can ignore our own shame because there's someone we can point to who "should" feel more shame than we do. Sometimes our jobs, our education, our homes, and our resources are actually sources of shame for us, so we try extra hard to turn them into points of pride.

Some of our shame is appropriate. The shame that we feel when we have caused harm to another person is appropriate shame. It isn't pleasant, though. So, often we contrive a way to shame the victim in order to alleviate the shame of the culprit. Nowhere is this more blatantly apparent in our society than in the issue of rape. There is nothing that a person can do to warrant being sexually assaulted, and yet by shaming the victims for their behavior or clothing or naivete, the culprits somehow become satisfied that their actions were justifiable or permissible. In all honesty, those culprits most likely feel some degree of shame -- I have to believe that their humanity demands that they feel some degree of shame. Yet, we may not even recognize the feeling of shame if we've spent a lifetime blaming others for our own harmful behavior. We may even see ourselves as victims who deserve more power, authority, wealth, or respect, without ever considering how the pursuit of those things aligns (or fails to align) with our guiding principles or the world we most want to create.

We can't actually even know our guiding principles clearly if we are bound by shame. Even those of us who carry around inappropriate shame (which is probably all of us) have to figure out what to do with that shame. Most of the time, we choose one of two responses. We either give in to lies about ourselves or we combat them with every ounce of our being. Many of us buy into the inappropriate shame that someone put on us and believe that we are lazy, worthless, stupid, ugly, unlovable, incompetent, failures, or at the very least, less important than everybody else. We live out that identity in our decisions and our relationships, playing a role less than the reality of our authentic being. This does not truly serve anyone.

On the other hand, many of us do everything we can to convince ourselves and the world that we are not those things. We overwork ourselves to prove that we are not lazy. We earn as much as we can to prove that we are not worthless. We enter into and remain in shallow or abusive relationships to prove that we are lovable. The problem is that we can never do enough to eradicate the fear that the lies are true -- that deep down inside we are shameful beings. And despite what some people may tell you, no amount of positive affirmation will convince you of something that your mind just doesn't believe.

How do we address inappropriate shame, then? One way is to stop trying so hard to prove ourselves. We may discover some truths about ourselves just from being willing to look honestly at who we are and what matters to us. Dismantling lies that we have held onto since we were kids, though -- that can take some time. It's almost a lifestyle choice to look honestly at why you believe what you do about yourself and to decide who you want to be in the world. Self-examination is a discipline, and like many disciplines, it is often easier to practice in community with other people. Certainly, such a community must be a safe place, and finding that can sometimes be a challenge. If we are committed to releasing inappropriate shame from our lives, however, we absolutely must get to the heart of the lies we believe about ourselves and dismantle them.

How do we know what the lies are, though? Maybe we are honestly ugly or stupid or lazy, right? Well, first of all, the reality of who we are is probably not the same as our poorest, most critical image of ourselves. Secondly, we don't need to define ourselves only by superficial characteristics. For instance, why does our physical appearance matter so much? If it's a matter of wanting to be healthier somehow, there are probably some habits that we can change to improve our physical health. If we're worried about our physical appearance just because we think we need to fit with someone else's ideal of beauty, then that's a lie worth dismantling. Understanding why we believe the things we do about ourselves is hard work sometimes, but what we get out of that is the ability to be more authentic and whole in our lives.

This authentic wholeness is what the conversation in Mark 10 tends toward. Positions of power can't ever convince us that we are worthwhile individuals if we believe or fear that we are worthless. When the title can't convince us, we may try to extend our power or we may abuse our power to control other people's lives. Even then, there is never enough that we can do to prove our own worth if we are trapped in inappropriate shame because of some lie we've been told about our identity and value. When we stop trying to prove ourselves and inhabit our authentic selves more fully, we have the opportunity to see other people more authentically as well. When we recognize our own inherent worth and dignity, we can connect more meaningfully with others. The work of dismantling our lies about ourselves yields the opportunity for us to connect with our own deepest, most noble selves as well. We can create a purpose for our lives beyond trying to prove ourselves or trying to shift our shame to someone else. We can discover what is truly meaningful for us, and we can live that out more consistently, more joyfully, and more courageously.

Ultimately, we can hopefully recognize that we are enough as we are. We do not have to feel shame for not living up to someone else's expectations. We do not have to be anything more than or less than who we are. This is not a selfish declaration, although it is something that focuses on accepting who we are, honestly and authentically. Dealing with our inappropriate shame, dismantling the lies that we believe or fear about ourselves, serves the world too, because it allows us to engage more meaningfully and passionately in creating something better than what we know today. Let's stop carrying around inappropriate shame, and let's stop foisting shame on others. Instead, let's do what we can to find out what a world full of authentic, compassionate, courageous, creative people looks like.

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