All six of them stood before us, that day, all in a row. We all knew what was coming and it wasn’t good.
I hated these moments and had witnessed them one-too-many times. I never understood why the congregants allowed this archaic practice to take place. Were all of them too fearful to stand up and do something about it? Well to be honest, I’m sure that some of them enjoyed it. It must have added to the already colorful conversations found in some of the prevalent gossip circles in this church. I, on the other hand, viewed it as a demeaning act that added to the pain of people who were already suffering. Although I was young and hadn’t yet immersed myself in the study of human behavior, I was not ignorant to how this abuse of power was simply a tactic used by the pastor to manipulate and control unruly church members. I sometimes wondered if the church leadership was unaware of the emotional and psychological damage that this practice caused. Furthermore, it rarely resulted in a positive outcome. In most instances, those placed in front of the congregation would walk away from the church and distance themselves from any form of Christianity for years to come. Some never returned.
As the six stood in front of us, I wanted to shout, “Run! You don’t have to do this!” However, I never mustered the gall to do it. Before, I could act, the pastor began to speak. He called each of them by name, one-by-one, announcing to everyone that those before us were being placed on church discipline. Without batting an eye, he disclosed their transgressions and explained why their sentence was warranted. As was custom, they were told that they could no longer participate as members of the church until they proved themselves faithful to the Lord once again.
My emotional state regressed, as he led a pious prayer for the newly sentenced. I was taken back to the time when I first read, “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. My reaction to the book was anger and frustration, much like what I felt in this moment. The denomination, at large, had an elevated view of their “holiness standards” so, I assume that this served not only as punishment for the transgressor, but also as a warning for those who might be tempted to follow suit. Truthfully, the fear of public shaming kept many from making poor choices. Nevertheless, it was done at the expense of the dignity of every parishioner.
I wanted to cry and hug my friends (some who were still teenagers) who had to endure this spiritual flogging. If only there was a way to perform spiritual CPR, I would have done it. It was evident that a piece of them died that day. I also found myself wondering if anybody had even spent time to inquire what led to their decision. After all, I could see similar patters of behavior in the lives of people that I knew that were hurting. I also knew these people personally, and I could see that they were only trying to self-medicate. Shame tends to drive, otherwise strong people, into unhealthy patterns of behavior. It tends to cause us to feel naked and exposed. At times, it influences us to reach to, whatever is closest to us, to cover ourselves. Many times, those things cause us more harm than good. This can cause the shame to increase and drive us to even more erratic behavior. In retrospect, I can see that this diabolic ritual, clothed as a necessary path towards holiness, added shame-upon-shame. It was psychological torture that ate at the human psyche. Regardless of how it was packaged, it was held the spirit of an anti-christ. Christ covers, defends, and gives his life for us when we are at our worst. Satan is like a broken-record full of never-ending accusations. The album is scratched and keep replaying the most hurtful things that you can ever imagine.
In case you haven’t noticed, I absolutely hate shame.
For years I was held prisoner by the thought of what the perception of others about me might be. As a pastor I felt as if I lived in a glass house where everyone was constantly sizing me up to see if I met their expectations. As a child raised in fundamentalism, I walked away from the denomination that I was raised in and became a token sermon illustration for a reprobate child. In addition, I knew that I failed to meet the spiritual expectations of both my parents. As a man, I felt marred by my inability to meet the cultural expectations of masculinity. Finally, as a child of the Living God, I was disappointed with my spiritual performance. I was unable to look in the mirror with out filling marred, blemished, and dirty. I felt so much shame.
Thankfully, I had an encounter with grace. Grace, in an ever-so-loving way, slapped me upside the head and filled me in on the part of the gospel that I had failed to grasp. Grace reminded me that I am fully loved and accepted in Jesus regardless of who I am, the things that I’ve done, and the things that I’ve chosen not to do. Grace reminded me that I didn’t earn this love. Rather, it is gift from God. Grace reminded me that in Christ, I don’t have to live in shame. Instead, I can live boldly and point to past failures as the place where I encountered Christ. When others reject me, I can stand knowing that I am fully complete with or without their acceptance. I have all I need in Christ. He has brought me all the hope, healing, and encouragement that I will ever need.
Today I have a different take on shame. I refuse to be bound by it and I choose to set people free from it. I’m at a point where if I saw anyone try to publicly shame someone, I’d do whatever it takes to silence that person. So, whether you are a zealot trying to prove a point, a parent who lacks parenting skills and resorts to shaming your kids on social media, or a xenophobe who dislikes those who are different than you, rest assured that my tolerance is the same as that of an exasperated whistle-blower.
With that said I place two challenges before you.
- Surrender any personal shame that you carry and choose to love yourself unconditionally.
Simply put, if God loves you, then you ought to love you too.
- Stand up for injustice and love everybody always (Yes, I stole the last part from Bob Goff. Check out his books if you haven’t already.)
Two words: Speak up! I want to shoot myself in the foot for not speaking up for my friends in the past. I can’t believe that I allowed fear from allowing me to do what was right. In the end, there was nothing for me to fear, there was only a sect for me to lose, and what was lost really didn’t add value to my life to begin with.
John Eli Garay
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