One of the best things about moving to Houston, Texas, a year ago (other than the Mexican food and Blue Bell ice cream) is that I now live in the same town as Brené Brown. As such, I’ve been able to hear her twice: once as a speaker at the church where I work and just recently at a gathering of clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Many of you have watched her 2010 TEDx talk on vulnerability (which went viral Gangnam style). And she’s been on this here blog here, here, and here. In May, she gave a TED talk on shame—and like her first foray on the TED stage, it’s a grab-the-kleenex-because-you’re-gonna-have-a-catharsis-all-over-the-place doozy. The insights and ideas of her work hum with such deep resonance with the theological concepts featured on this blog—things like grace, honesty, redemption in suffering, living through dying—she’s become impossible to ignore. Her talks do what a good sermon does: Make one feel deeply seen (maybe even exposed)—yet understood and thus (dare we say it?) loved. She doesn’t talk about God, but his fingerprints are all over the place.
When I heard her speak last month, Brown kicked me in the existential ribs with this truism: “In the absence of connection, there is suffering. And we would do anything to stay connected.” The world is full of people trying to get and keep connection. As The Smiths’ classic “How Soon is Now?” goes: “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.”
She then went on to say that the way we get connection (that sense of love and belonging) is vulnerability. The problem with that is you have to show people who you really are. And the problem with that is so very many of us are ashamed of who we are. (Clarification: Brown helpfully points out that shame is different from guilt. Guilt is about behavior: “I made a mistake.” Shame is about self: “I am a mistake.”) Shame drives our fear of ever being vulnerable—if people see me, they will reject me. So we hide deeper and deeper, or work harder at numbing ourselves. It’s what I call the “everything’s fine” two-step. This is true in our relationships with people, and it’s also true in our relationship with God. We know that God has forgiven us (dealt with our guilt through the work of Christ on the cross—something we talk about a lot on this blog), but we don’t really believe he likes us (that’s the shame talking: “You are bad and unloveable.”) So we hide from him too (evidenced, for example, by the completely contrived, superficial, and jargon-laced prayers one hears in churches and Bible studies—we only talk that way when we’re hiding; we don’t talk that way to our grandma or our therapist or anyone else from whom we do not fear rejection).
What does the Gospel have to say to what Brown identifies as the “epidemic of shame” in our culture? A lot. But I think the church has some work to do here on recovering it. We talk really well about how Christianity deals with guilt. But we don’t bring the Gospel resources to bear on the blanket of shame that covers our congregations (and our families!). I don’t have any silver bullets here. But a good place to start is taking a good long look at how Jesus treats people who are clearly dripping with shame.
Look at how he treats the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. She’s had a string of failed marriages and is now unmarried, but living with a man. Jesus knows everything about her, yet he initiates a conversation with her, singling her out for compassionate attention. And when he reveals that he knows everything, he simply continues the conversation without a single word of judgment or exhortation. He then implicitly tells her that the Gospel is for her, too (“you will worship” v. 21), and does her the great honor of revealing to her that he’s the Messiah (Like Clark telling Lois he’s Superman). That is, Jesus is vulnerable with her! Jesus has made her vulnerable by outing her, but then he stoops to join in her vulnerability by outing himself. (A claim to be Messiah is certainly a risky, vulnerable thing to say! Try it at your next social gathering.)
And look at how Jesus treats tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19. This Jew-turned-Roman-lackey was a total sell out. He betrayed his own people to line his pockets. And like the Samaritan woman, he is just full of shame. (Note that the biblical text tells us Zacchaeus was so short, v. 3, that he had to climb a tree to see Jesus. Short men are often given lots of reasons to hate themselves physically.) So Zacchaeus, in being so desperate to see Jesus that he does the undignified thing of climbing a tree, makes himself completely vulnerable. (Everybody could see him up there!) But when Jesus sees him, he offers no rebuke, no listing of Zacchaeus’s sins—just says, “I must stay at your house.” Jesus wants to honor this sinner’s house with his presence. Again—don’t miss this!—another vulnerable move by Jesus. By not throwing the book and Zacchaeus and then staying at his house (!), he opens himself up to public criticism for being “soft on crime” and scorn for palling around with bad characters. Jesus meets vulnerability with vulnerability. This is called empathy. And Brené Brown says it’s the only thing that kills shame.
In these and many other encounters, look—really look!—at how Jesus treats people. He behaves towards them how he does to the confused young man who approaches him in Mark 10: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” In the pages of the New Testament, Jesus, trying to be heard above our internal monologue of shame, shouts: “I see you. I see all of you. I see your shame. And I love you!”