The Church Culture of Shame

I was way too young to understand anything that went on in the Monica Lewinsky scandal that grabbed America’s attention in 1998. I can’t even remember when I first heard about it, to be honest with you. I would have been 5 years old back then, so even if I had known, I would have had no reference point for what adultery was or how crazy it was that the President of the United States was involved in it.

I still didn’t know all that much about it until today, when I was looking over a list of nominees for the 2015 National Magazine Awards on longform.org. Having graduated from college with a degree in journalism and still loving to write, I enjoy a good longform story. I perused the articles and found a link to Monica Lewinsky’s first-person essay in Vanity Fair that was published in May of last year. You can read it here.

She starts out her essay this way:

‘How does it feel to be America’s premier blow-job queen?”

It was early 2001. I was sitting on the stage of New York’s Cooper Union in the middle of taping a Q&A for an HBO documentary. I was the subject. And I was thunderstruck.

Hundreds of people in the audience, mostly students, were staring at me, many with their mouths agape, wondering if I would dare to answer this question.

The main reason I had agreed to participate in the program was not to rehash or revise the story line of Interngate but to try to shift the focus to meaningful issues. Many troubling political and judicial questions had been brought to light by the investigation and impeachment of President Bill Clinton. But the most egregious had been generally ignored. People seemed indifferent to the deeper matters at hand, such as the erosion of private life in the public sphere, the balance of power and gender inequality in politics and media, and the erosion of legal protections to ensure that neither a parent nor a child should ever have to testify against each other.

How naïve I was.

She ended up answering the question. I really encourage you to read the whole piece because 1) it’s incredible writing, 2) it’s historically significant and 3) it reveals something we may already know.

We are a culture who likes shame. We don’t like to feel shame ourselves, of course, but when it comes to others, shame sometimes seems to be our first reaction. Monica Lewinsky, the Washington Redskins refusing to change their name, Barack Obama’s failure to attend a march in France, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences”snubbing” the MLK-centered film Selma from some major awards categories. We love shaming people and places and organizations that have fallen short in our eyes.

And through Lewinsky’s essay, we get a really good glimpse into what that looks like. Another bit from her essay:

Yes, we’re all connected now. We can tweet a revolution in the streets or chronicle achievements large and small. But we’re also caught in a feedback loop of defame and shame, one in which we have become both perps and victims. We may not have become a crueler society—although it sure feels as if we have—but the Internet has seismically shifted the tone of our interactions. The ease, the speed, and the distance that our electronic devices afford us can also make us colder, more glib, and less concerned about the consequences of our pranks and prejudice. Having lived humiliation in the most intimate possible way, I marvel at how willingly we have all signed on to this new way of being.

Let me say this: I don’t excuse her choices or her actions. Monica Lewinsky messed up, and Bill Clinton messed up, and they definitely have no excuses. And in the essay, Lewinsky says she wishes she could go back and erase that scandal happening.

But the stigma of being “that woman” will stick with her for the rest of her life and then onwards because that’s the society we live in today. She may not be convinced that we “have become a crueler society,” but I think there’s lots of evidence that we have become just that. We are generally unforgiving and unaccepting of wrongs as a culture. We revel in other’s misfortune, whether they earned it or not. We gravitate towards wrongdoing. It’s like that old saying about a car crash. It’s ugly to see, but you just can’t help but look.

Some of this gravitation towards wrongdoing is necessary and right. Racism? Yes, we should be talking about it and working against it. We should be speaking out and saying that all of mankind is created equal in the image of God, and each one of us deserves respect no matter the color of our skin, the ethnicity of our parents or the size of our bank accounts. Sex trafficking and slavery? Yes, we should be talking about it and working against it. No one should be forced to be a slave to anyone for anything, particularly for the perverse pleasure and sexual fulfillment of mostly men.

But the culture of shame that perpetrates through celebrities’ marriage troubles and political decisions is a shame. We don’t give others the benefit of the doubt that we beg to be shown to us. And, unfortunately, I think this has creeped into the body of Christ.

A Guy I Admired, He Sinned. 

I wrote a blog post back in October about “selfish holiness,” and how often I fall into the trap of overly-criticizing Christians for being critical of Christians. I admit it: I do it. My self-righteousness is a constant weight on my back, eating away at my attempts to bring God glory in all I do. But I want to re-emphasize what I said while looking at Mark Driscoll.

For those of you who don’t know who Mark Driscoll is or what his story is, he was the pastor and founder of Mars Hill Church, which was a multi-campus church on the west coast that was based out of Seattle, Washington. He was known for his aggressive yet conservative style of preaching. An example:

 

He’s right, by the way.

But the yelling and the language and the confrontation got to some people in the wrong way. And then there were reports of plagiarism in some of his books. And then a lack of submission to confrontation from others. And overwhelming pride. And some comments on a forum under a different name a long time ago. And some other things. Read this story here for some more context.

All things that were sinful. Not questioning that. And I’m not questioning that those things should have been brought to the light. But the tenacity and the thoroughness with which Christians investigated and shamed him is upsetting to me. There’s a whole website dedicated to it, for goodness’ sake, filled with articles nitpicking and analyzing anything and everything that Driscoll has said or done in his ministry.

Just like we do with Barack Obama. Just like we did with Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. The culture of shame has entered the church. We are best at shooting down our own. In this video of Driscoll at the Gateway Conference in California back in October, he says that his family had to move three times to avoid death threats:

 

Something that Robert Morris, the pastor at Gateway Church where the conference was held, says in the video struck me (emphasis mine): “We could crucify him (Driscoll), but since someone has already been crucified for him, the other choice is we could restore him with a spirit of gentleness considering ourselves lest we are tempted. It’s sad that in the church we are the only army that shoots at our wounded.”

It seems as if there’s no freedom to sin in the church. There’s no freedom to mess up and get an honest second chance because things get ruined for you when you mess up the first time. And it might seem like it’s just the leaders. But is it too unrealistic to think that this might be affecting the church as a whole? Our attitude towards people like Mark Driscoll can encourage a church-wide shaming of people who sin, so we might be afraid of being honest about our sin.

I really enjoyed listening to Mark Driscoll. Just about every time I listened to a sermon of his, I was challenged and encouraged with strong, bold biblical truth. I loved it. I loved his ministry to the Gospel-starved city of Seattle. And when he “fell,” my first response, honestly, was disappointment. When anyone lets you down, there is bound to be disappointment. But as the saga wore on and as I loosely followed it, I was disappointed by the reaction of the Christian community. Should he have been removed from his positions in different ministries, even his church? Perhaps. But the vitriol and the lack of forgiveness after repeated apologies made me wonder, “What in the world are we accomplishing by this reaction to a guy doing what he does every day, sinning?”

This Is Where The Gospel Makes Sense.

After capping off the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

I am incredibly guilty of not following through on this. I still hold things against people from years ago, and it’s life-sucking and joy-killing. I refuse to forgive, I refuse to move on, I refuse to let go. I ignore the fact that other people sin and fall short while expecting them to be perfect. Honestly, my unrealistic expectations of others might be more sinful than their actions.

The thing is: God loved and forgave those of us who are believers when we were defined by our sin – “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). As sinful people, we will fall short of echoing this kind of love perfectly. But it is the call on our lives, as Jesus said, to forgive others and love others how God forgives and loves us.

I’m afraid that we’ve missed this and instead are quick to shame and to criticize. I was talking with a girl in a small group a couple weeks ago who hadn’t been to church in a long time and I asked her why she hadn’t. She said that she felt judged and condemned and never really wanted to go back. Someone called her a really bad name. To her face. There had been no effort to reach out and love her and seek to show Jesus to her. Instead, there was only quick condemnation, shaming glances. No grace. No love. No acceptance of who she was as a human being, someone broken and in need of a Savior.

This is where the Gospel makes sense. This is where the love of God should be shown to Monica Lewinsky, to Mark Driscoll, to Barack Obama, to Dan Snyder. And I think only when the grace and love of God is made clear is proper confrontation of sin godly and biblical. I think of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (a story I’m loving right now and wrote about a few days ago), and Jesus’ words to the woman – “Neither will I condemn you; now, go and sin no more” (v. 11). He starts with a reminder of who she is in Him – saved, no longer condemned. It’s a perfect practical picture of Romans 8:1, in which Paul says there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. There is correction and discipline, but no condemnation. Then He tells her that she is to go and no longer sin.

Will she follow that 100 percent? No. But no matter what, she’s forgiven and loved because she submitted her life to Jesus, called him Lord (v. 11). We should be giving the same response to guys like Mark Driscoll, guys like the pastor in your church who might be a little prideful, guys like your friend who unintentionally insulted your wife, people like your college roommate who left dirty dishes in the sink way too often. (That was me, by the way.)

We should be saying: “I don’t condemn you or hold that against you. But try harder! Pray to God for the grace to grow, for the Holy Spirit to convict you of your sin, for the Bible to show you how to live properly, and for your heart to accept God’s forgiveness of your sin and to change in a way that’s glorifying to Him.”

Man, I hope and pray that I can go that way, speak those words and really have that attitude of not holding sins against others and not seeking to shame someone into oblivion. I mean, that’s how God operates, right?

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2 thoughts on “The Church Culture of Shame

  1. That is all we ever asked of MHC… Where is your compassion? Where is your balm? Where is the restoration? Where is the reconciliation? It was always my husband and I who tried to initiate conversation or reconciliation, yet, because we did not seem ‘spiritual enough’ in their eyes we have been tossed aside like a piece of poop.

    By whose ‘spiritual enough’ criteria are we to come under? MHC members? The pastors? Where is that list?

    The brick and mortar churches are so full of themselves. The church is not following the true Christ. The church is where the worst things in life ever happened to me and I am glad Christ showed me the hypocrisy. I am awake! Christ is peace, love, joy, patience, kindness and all things good. So, stop looking at man and start looking to Christ.

    By the way, God removed Mark Driscoll. If it was not Him, then those like you are all saying the devil, or the evil one, has more power than God Himself. Our prayers have been answered where Mark is concerned… and I know in Whom I believe!

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