Racism and its Grounding in Shame and Disgust, Part II

2020 Fellowship of St. Moses the Black Conference

A Talk by Fr. Stephen Freeman on Shame, Part II

Part I can be read at http://joyofallwhosorrow-indy.org/2020/10/28/racism-and-its-grounding-in-shame-and-disgust/

Some years back when I began doing this study on the topic of shame, which frankly was out of a deep personal need to deal with issues of shame in my own life, I was privileged to spend some time with Archimandrite Zacharias in Essex, that’s the Monastery of St. John. He writes a fair amount about shame, sort of scattered across his books and lectures. Saint Sophrony, his teacher, instructed him and told him that when he first began to hear confession, particularly with young ones, he said, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” So in  my time with him I asked him about shame and he spoke about sitting in the presence of God, acknowledging whatever shame it was I was feeling and praying, “Oh God, comfort me.” At its best, this can take place in confession and I’ll add parenthetically and this is very important – that shaming others is not the job of a confessor. When he said, “Teach them to bear a little shame,” he did not say make them bear a little shame. Teaching is a much different thing. It’s never the job of a confessor to shame others and it can be extremely toxic. The abuse of shame is at the very heart of spiritual abuse, and I just want to underline that because it’s important.

This gentle exposure, which generally is an exercise in vulnerability in the presence of God, unjudging, forgiving, comforting, and profoundly human. On a personal level, in therapy sessions (and I note that Mother Katherine is familiar with the technique) I’ve worked with shame in the context of EMVR, processing these powerful emotions so I could come to a place that was bearable, that I could in fact – there’s one thing that was shameful experience in my early childhood that I had never been even able to mention in confession until I was 58 years old, but was tremendously liberating when I did – deeply therapeutic. Some psychologists have described shame as the unbearable emotion. It’s painful even in small amounts. Nobody likes it. Most of us avoid embarrassment even in very light forms. Rather than experience shame, we very often transform it, sometimes just simultaneously into a different emotion – most commonly anger or sadness. That we are a culture that is currently caught up in a vortex of anger – vortex isn’t even a strong enough word – that we’re caught up in a vortex of anger is simply symptomatic of the fact that shame is currently at an epidemic proportion. It makes the pandemic look like nothing. Those with whom we disagree, for instance, we do not think they are simply wrong, we think they are evil. We think and feel that and this judgement brings with it feelings of shame and of shaming. The language of shame has become mainstream. It is also a language practice that brings about  transformation. You will not transform anybody by shaming them. It doesn’t happen like that. Instead it brings about anger and depression and various forms of hiding – reactionary cliques – all kinds of things.

And this brings us to the Orthodox practice of bearing a little shame – healthy shame. We understand that repentance is made possible by God’s grace, but that God’s grave makes us aware of our sin. It reveals our shame, but in doing this, God is not crushing us. He is revealing Himself to us and in that light we see light – the light of the truth of our own self and of our culture as well. It’s good to understand that God himself has led the way in this, especially in the verses from Isaiah applied to the Messiah, “I turned not my face from the shame and the spitting.” [Isaiah 50:6] In his Pascha, Holy Week Pascha, Christ enters into the depth of human shame. Saint Sophronia of Essex says, “Christ has entered the depths of hell and is waiting for his friends to meet him there.”

Descendent of Slave Owners

I’m the descendent of slave owners. The culture that created slaves is part of my inheritance. There have been material benefits that come from that fact, although I have to say my grandfather who was a direct descendent of those slave owners had very little land and farmed. My other grandfather, who was a pretty strong racist, was himself a sharecropper, so their benefits were not like inherited money. But worse still, part of my inheritance has been a heart that was darkened from childhood with shame and disgust, not just racially but elsewhere as well. The entire culture of black and white as we think of it in America, is itself born out of slave culture (or a culture that practiced slavery) and is marked by numerous lies. My authentic existence cannot be found within such a culture. My authentic existence can only be found in the light of Christ and coming out of and being free of the lies of that culture. But we also need to fit with the truth, including the shame that goes with it. We should sit with it quietly in the presence of God. As it says in the Psalms, “I have quieted my soul like a weaned child at its mother’s breast.” [Psalm 131:2] This is the place where healing begins to take place. It’s a transformation of the heart. America and its modern mythology seeks political solutions for every ill. That’s the hallmark of the modern world – a confidence and trust in the political. And there’s no doubt that there are areas that can only be addressed by governing authorities – that laws should change. But such attempts at justice do not and will not heal shame and shame is the far greater disease. We make bad laws because our hearts are bad. The hearts need to be healed as well.

As an aside, historically human beings have used various liturgies or liturgical events in the healing of collective shame. It’s certainly one of the most powerful aspects of liturgy. American culture struggles with this. Often our liturgical events are co-opted by division and recrimination, which only makes the problems worse. For example, the Civil War can be seen as a liturgy of sorts. A bloody effort to exorcise a demon that having inhabited the land for so long and hymns associated with the Civil War like The Battle Hymn of the Republic revealed the deep religious nature of that conflict and some would argue it wasn’t that to start with. Well, yes it was. Abolitionism was a deeply religious movement based on religious teachings and theology and by the end of the war had pretty well overwhelmed every other aspect of things. It was a terrible, bloody liturgy. But then over time it failed because it was insufficient and then got swallowed up in the institutions of Jim Crow. I think that the civil unrest, protests, and riots that we’ve been having recently are themselves liturgies of a sort. We want to do something. We want to gather. We want to shout. We want to express rage. But I also think these will not be effective in the healing of shame. Indeed, they are dominated by the language of shame whether its deserved or not. My shaming you, or even pointing out your shame will not heal mine. It just doesn’t work that way.

The role of the church, and thus the role of Christians is to live fully and completely in the role of Christ himself. We walk as he walked. We live as he lived. It’s in that kind of thought that I’m going to offer some suggestions as the conclusion of this talk. If we think carefully, for instance about the text of Holy Week, we’ll notice that the focus is not on the pain of Christ’s death, but rather it’s the mocking and the shame that we pay attention to. The nature of the crucifixion isn’t that it’s a death, but that it’s a shameful death. As Paul says, “Even death on the cross,” (Philippians 2:8). It is therefore part of our path to acknowledge and bear the shame created in racial relations. We bear it so that in Christ it might be healed. The hallowed ministry, for instance, of fools for Christ consists of a willingness to bear shame. That’s really what a fool for Christ is – someone who walks around bearing shame. And that willingness to bear shame and in bearing it to bring healing to others.

Four Strategies

I’m going to suggest four strategies. I’m sure there’s more, but these came to mind as I was working with this. First, we have to tell the truth, especially about yourself to yourself. We will not be healed by our excellence, by saying, “I’m not a racist.” We are not healed by our excellence; we’re healed by our weakness. “In your weakness my strength is made perfect,” [2 Corinthians 12:9] Saint Paul was told. So we should look through our story and look for the feelings of shame and disgust within it. Identify them.

Second, bring that truth into the light and sit with it. We can do this with trusted persons including in the context of confession, though there’s oftentimes not the sort of time in confession for this. And I would emphasize that it needs to be voluntary. No one can or should demand that we expose our shame. That’s a great way to make it toxic. And be sure that you are in a safe context with a safe person when you expose it. And by safe, I mean someone who is not judging – someone who will not use the shame as a weapon against you, but will allow you to expose it and be present with it and be a healing presence with it.

Third, we need to overcome barriers where possible. That is, you can’t be reconciled to others when we don’t know them face to face. And we have to recognize that these barriers are charged with shame and embarrassment. Frankly, I think lots of white people (I can’t speak for anyone else because I am what I am) are deeply embarrassed about not just their own racist feelings, but about the whole situation and are afraid to have conversations with blacks over their feelings or over the situation. It’s very difficult. It’s hard to do this. It’s one of the things that I think is the deepest value of the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black is that it is very present and conversation reminds the Orthodox Church that racism belongs to the Protestants, when it’s jolly well our problem too because we live here and that’s who we are. Having just the existence of this fellowship and its presence and conversation reminds us all of the shame that we would like not to admit. Its existence doesn’t need to be suddenly a signal to say, “Well I’m not racist. I’m part of the Fellowship. I’m not racist. I talk to others about this,” or other ways we have of trying to signal our virtue. This just doesn’t get us anywhere. All of this is necessary to the church in North America, so we need to acknowledge it and give attention to its healing and hope that more of this can happen – that doors are being opened to conversations that have oftentimes not taken place. I’ll add, by the way, that I read something about an organization in Atlanta – sort of a loose organization of black and white pastors, mostly evangelical that have formed prayer groups and gotten together and had people getting together across racial boundaries and building relationships. I was very impressed by that. It’s something they organized back in 2017 after the events in Charlottesville and the kind of thing that I would pray would spread to other places across the country. It needs to happen far beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy.

Fourth, as much as we can we need to bear our shame and not displace it, even though our thoughts and feelings are a product of a culture that we ourselves didn’t create, we have to take responsibility for ourselves. In this I think the role of the holy fool is an important example. I could kind of easily imagine an American version of the Russian novel Laurus  – a wonderful modern novel about a holy fool. The bizarre behaviors would doubtless scandalize us all, but I can think of any number of ways this might be displayed and it would reveal the depths of our heart. Christ, I think, is in fact walking that path somewhere in our midst and so I pray for us that we’ll have the courage to take up that path when it’s made clear to us.

Fr. Stephen Freeman is an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America and serves as pastor of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He was educated at Furman University, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, and Duke University. He is the author of the popular blog Glory to God for All Things, and of the weekly podcast Glory to God, on Ancient Faith Radio.

Bible verse addresses were inserted for reader convenience.

Talk transcribed and used by permission.


This talk can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYxlcPmCBFY

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