Safe Places and Untouchables

When the church does not provide a “safe place” for the hurting and confused, it effectively eliminates itself as a source of counsel and wisdom, not to mention a place of sanctuary and healing. But “safe places” and a shame-based discipline system are incompatible with each other.

My History with Shame

For all of my life, in many circles I have inhabited, shame has been a primary tool used to drive conformity. I grew up in that general culture.

Just a few years ago, I had a rather strong argument with a family member about shame. I argued that shame was a useful tool in helping to shape behavior. I believed that telling a child “You should be ashamed of yourself” was appropriate and helpful. The concept of saying “your actions brought shame upon this family” seemed like a good thing. In fact, shame seemed Biblical to me – there are many verses in the Bible that discuss shame as discipline. My family member was persuaded that I was deeply wrong, and that my position misrepresented the heart of our Father in heaven.

I’ve found that I no longer believe that shaming into obedience is a wise approach, and I find that it has deep implications for how I interact with people who violate my sense of right and wrong. But I also recognize the Biblical roots of my original viewpoint.

Shame as a Tool for Persuasion

Lyn Bechtel’s 1991 paper titled “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel: Judicial, Political, and Social Shaming” (Moravian Theological Seminary) (1) describes how the Bible presented shame as a tool for control, and identifies how a shame-based discipline culture affects different types of societies.

Essentially, Mediterranean cultures – and especially Biblical cultures – have a strongly group-oriented (sometimes called “collectivist”) orientation. Western cultures – and especially the United States and Great Britain – have strongly individualistic cultures. Bechtel speaks of these two extremes as “group” (collectivist) and “grid” (individual).

In fact, our American society has been assessed as the most individualistic in the entire world. But within that individualistic context has always coexisted a very group-oriented society within religious circles.

Bechtel considers shame to be more focused on the group orientation, because it primarily requires external social pressures to do its work. For example, modern Eastern societies (especially Asian and Arabic) have this group-oriented mentality, and their strong use of shame as a tool is evident.

However, America has always been much more individualistic, limiting the value of shame as a tool, although its strong Christian practices and expectations tempered this individualism for many generations.

The Sanction of Shame

Bechtel writes about the “sanction” of shame (its use as a threatened penalty):

The functions of the sanction of shame are primarily:

  1. as a means of social control which attempts to repress aggressive or undesirable behavior;
  2. as a pressure that preserves social cohesion in the community through rejection and the creation of social distance between deviant members and the group;
  3. as an important means of dominating others and manipulating social status.

The Old Testament is filled with the use of shame as a control mechanism – even formally sanctioned in the Books of the Law. The New Testament, too, often describes discipline in shame-centric language. Nearly all ancient societies were strongly group-based, and individuals derived their identity from the group. Any deviance resulted in shaming, which threatened separation from the group. It was thus a very powerful tool.

Bechtel identifies, however, that the problem with shame is that it inherently focuses the attention on personal inadequacy rather than the consequences of misbehavior. It becomes about maintaining appearances and behavior modification, not growing the individual or the tangible benefits to society from right behaviors.

Bechtel wrote this in 1991, before the social media explosion. The modern-day practical consequence of social media is that we are transitioning even more strongly than ever before to a “grid” society, where individualism is increasingly rearing its head, and the church is losing its ability to force conformance and groupthink on society, even nonbelievers. Thus, the aspects of American society that used to be strongly collectivist are losing their authority over culture.

Modern Changes

I’ve watched the outrage over this individualism growing inside the conservative Christian community. There is deep fear that people separated from group thinking will have no need to conform to expected norms of behavior, and won’t have that innate need for strong community that has historically held American culture together.

However, and somewhat perversely, the explosion of social media in America has also led many people, especially young people, to discover that their own often confusing and still-maturing self-identities are not unique, and that the long-held picture of group conformity in American society is in fact somewhat fictional. Previously, the use of shame in the mainstream of society was used to force conformance to a single norm. But nonconformity still existed, and in some ways flourished – but beneath the radar of the collective-based church culture.

What we see developing now is this amazing patchwork of variety – instead of a single massive norm, we see a wide array of norms now acknowledged.

What looks like fragmentation could instead be considered acknowledging what was already there.

The concept of gender is of course one of these variations. Within certain parts of society, the idea that there are only two genders is rather out of vogue. Even “he/she” pronouns are suspect.

Along with that is the concept of sexuality. The idea that one is either straight or gay is suddenly not universal. Pansexual, bisexual, asexual, demisexual… the list is still growing.

Race is another area where the group dynamics are suddenly changing. Mixed-race relationships are not even notable in most circles now. The latest census has even more race categories than ever before.

And of course, since the 1960s the traditional family structure and lifetime monogamous marriage have been waning – and are considered actively “under attack” in the parlance of conservative Christians.

Things Long Hidden

A perfect example of the long-hidden undercurrent of reality is the “intersex” condition. Depending on the study or the source being consulted, it is widely medically acknowledged that at least 1 of 1000 infants born today have ambiguous gender characteristics. This includes unusual chromosome mixes, as well as normal chromosomes but mixed or ambiguous genitalia. This rate is generally true worldwide.

This presents a sharply-defined problem for a conservative Christian who insists that God recognizes only two exactly-defined genders. When a baby is born with both a penis and a vagina, or an XY (genetically male) baby is born with no penis but a fully-developed vagina, what can a Christian say? Did God make a mistake?

For decades, the medical response to ambiguity has been an immediate surgical “correction,” followed by raising the child in the “assigned” gender (often resulting in life-long psychological and physical damage to the individual).

This covered up the “problem” for the immediate family but doesn’t address the deeper issue: while the cause of these variations may be environmental or (from a Christian perspective) due to the long-term effects of Adam’s original sin, the fact remains that these variations exist, are fairly common, and a loving and faithful God allows them to be born.

Today, the LBGTQIA community affirms these non-normative individuals as just another intriguing variation, not to be “corrected” to suit a religious view, but to be welcomed and honored as just as human as any other.

So while this sudden burst of LBGTQIA activity is distressing to conservative Christians, at some level it is simply revealing what has always been there – but has just been carefully covered up and ignored in our society.

As another example, pedophilia and homosexuality have only recently been uncovered as widespread within Catholic church leadership – but well hidden for generations.

As another example, it is well-documented that the infidelity and divorce rate within conservative Christian families are actually comparable to that of the world around it. If marriage and family are under attack, it’s not only from outside the church. And as with the intersex condition, it’s a problem that the church has largely hidden for generations. Those who divorce are often shunned from conservative churches, leading to the mistaken impression that the church is only full of faithful marriages.

Consequences for the Church

Clearly these changes are troubling for someone raised in a traditional Christian thought process. Only heteronormative, cisgender, binary people in monogamous faithful lifelong relationships are acceptable members of traditional Christian circles.

What may be less clear, however, is that the result of these social changes has not lessened group culture – it has simply shifted to allowing more diverse groups to coexist, and in fact to specifically seek to honor each others’ group identities, rather than to deliberately try to suppress and gain dominance over all groups other than one’s own.

In secular circles, it has become less about domination, and more about cooperation. One might even argue that modern secular culture is learning to show grace to those with vastly different viewpoints and persuasions.

Yet the church, on principle and with plenty of scripture verses to back it up, staunchly and vocally resists these changes. If anything, it shows even less grace today than the world does.

Where does this intersect with shame?

Looking back at my life, it’s clear that the way church culture norms were enforced was shame, pure and simple. If you violated them, you were shunned in one form or another. The shame extended well beyond the confines of the individual: the entire family was shamed if a child violated these norms. This is definitely still the case in many churches today.

If shame is in fact a Biblical concept, why is this problematic?

These culture changes, within the communities where they are happening, are understood to be inclusive, not exclusive. Many conservative Christians do not appreciate this viewpoint; they perceive these changes as divisive and destructive to the very fabric of society.

However, to the communities involved in this change, the very goal of this “regrouping” is to mend the fabric and preserve society. It is founded in a recognition that these groups have always existed, but have long been shamed into silence or invisibility. At the same time, in essence, the message the church is increasingly sending is “You don’t matter, because you’re different.” But within every human heart is a hunt for belonging and mattering. And within this brave new culture, a diversity of people have been shown that they do in fact matter – but not to the church. To the world, it is the church that is considered the very essence of divisive and destructive.

So What Now?

Like it or not, the genie is out of the bottle, regarding morality and sexuality. Thus, the question becomes “What will the church do about it?”

The purist answer that “we have to fight against this change” is unhelpful, in my opinion. We either do or do not believe that God can save anyone, and that with salvation and a true encounter with Him will come the motivation for any necessary change in belief and behavior. If we really do believe that, then we have a responsibility to encounter and graciously share the Gospel with those who are acting in ways that we do not believe are correct.

This is really no different than trying to win the heart of an unsaved but heteronormative, cisgender, binary person in a monogamous faithful lifelong relationship, who simply doesn’t know God yet. But that task feels much easier, because witnessing to someone who basically already acts “right” is not as frightening to a devoted Christian with conservative behavioral norms. In short, it’s a more comfortable situation for witnessing, and seems more likely to succeed, because they’re already so close to what we expect of them once they are “saved.”

But that doesn’t relieve us of a mandate to win ALL for the Kingdom. As 2 Peter 3:9 says, “He is patient with you, not wanting *anyone* to perish, but *everyone* to come to repentance.” Everyone, of course, includes everyone.

So the question becomes, are we willing to interact with – for the goal of loving them and welcoming them into the Kingdom – people who are non-heteronormative, non-cisgender, non-binary, non-monogamous, and fornicating?

More to the point, can we do that without the use of shame? The moment we try to use that method of controlling behavior and forcing compliance with our ideas of normative – in someone who isn’t even a member of the Kingdom yet – we lose our voice with them.

Remember that Jesus bore our sin AND shame on the cross (Isaiah 53:3-7). And He did that while we were yet sinners. (Romans 5:8) He did that even – especially – for those who violated His culture’s sense of right and proper behavior. Jesus, the friend of sinners (Matthew 11:19), who ate dinner with a cheating tax collector (Mark 2:13-17), who sat alone at the well talking with an immoral adulterous woman (John 4), who touched lepers (Matthew 8:1-3)… was willing to become unclean to minister to the untouchables. 

And yet God considered Him sinless.

Do We Welcome All?

The issue of shame, at the core, touches on who a person is – their very being. Beyond simply dealing with one’s actions, it has to do with whether a person’s deepest identity is associated with those actions. It says “you’re a bad person” instead of “you did bad things.” But the message of the Gospel is that God deeply loves us, period, “while we were yet sinners.”

Unfortunately, the face presented to those outside the church is increasingly “we don’t welcome you, because you’re not like us.” In the past, that manifested most visibly in racial discrimination. Today, it’s everyone and anyone who isn’t “normative” to the church’s concept of proper identity. To use old terminology, the list of those that the church considers “untouchable” is growing rapidly.

What seems to be missed by many Christians today is the practical consequences of treating people as untouchable.

Writing about the Texas abortion law, the ProGrace website notes that “Four out of ten women who have abortions are regular churchgoers, but only 7% of them talk to anyone at their church before making this decision. They cite fear of judgment and lack of visible support for single moms as their two primary reasons. By not being a safe place to approach for help, we as the Church have some complicity in “aiding and abetting” an abortion. While it happens much earlier than paying for or performing the abortion, it’s the very real source behind why so many churchgoing women decide to have an abortion.” (2)

The same thing happens with youth wrestling with gender or sexuality. There is zero doubt in their mind that their church and their Christian parents will never understand their search for identity. Everything they see and hear and read proves to them that the discussion will not be fruitful, and the only place they can turn for advice and acceptance of their core self is others in the accepting, gender-flexible, sexually-fluid world of their peers. In fact, the first time that most churches and parents learn about their nonconforming children is the coming-out speech, after these issues are completely settled in their minds. By that time, they are willing to risk breaking relationship to acknowledge their self-settled (and peer-welcomed) identity. And in many cases, parents never hear the coming-out speech, because the children are (rightly) frightened of the religious consequences.

Note that between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth are LBGTQ for exactly this reason: they were disowned and shunned by their family and religious community, and the only place they have to is the street. (3)

The church thus effectively eliminates itself as a source of counsel and wisdom, not to mention a place of sanctuary and healing.

Safe Places

With this in mind, I am increasingly focused on the need for Christians to be “safe places” for people to share their hurts, pains, and concerns. When we focus on anything other than their status as children of God who He loves deeply and dearly no matter their behavior and their seeking, we destroy any chance to build relationship and introduce them to a deeply loving, deeply forgiving Father.

And this “safe place” absolutely MUST include our willingness to welcome people who choose behaviors we were raised to shame, and to welcome people dealing with the consequences of past bad choices.

The key words here are “to welcome people.”

This may require appearing to overlook bad behavior. Choosing not to focus on something is NOT the same as sanctioning it, however. But it’s been proven over and over that if we lead with “you must change before you join us” then they will not join us.

To summarize, if we want to change the world, we’re going to have to be willing to get messy – very messy. The world is messy, increasingly so, and if we’re going to change it, mess comes with the process.

I’ll end with a quote from a Bob Dylan song. Rather presciently, in 1963 he wrote these lyrics:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

Extra Reading

In “Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World,” Randolph Richards and Richard James discuss the vast differences in culture between Biblical era readers and modern Western readers, and the gulf that exists in understanding as a result.

The World of Honor and Shame in the New Testament: Alien or Familiar?


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