Category Archives: Shame, Grace, and the Cross

Shame at the wedding banquet …. Luke 14:1,7-14

feastWhenever I hear today’s Gospel reading, I can feel myself cringing in embarrassment at the situation that the wedding guest creates for themselves.

I can just imagine all the other guests muttering to one another: Did you see that?  The cheek of it ‑ thinking that they should sit in the best place!  Surely, no‑one in their right mind would do such a thing?  After all, we all know our place and we’d never put ourselves in such a situation, would we?

I can also imagine the shame that the guest must have felt having been moved from their chosen seat to the worst place ‑ in full view of all the other guests.   I guess they wished that the ground would swallow them up, as they went red in the face and started to stammer.

This parable ‑ seemingly about the etiquette of dinner invitations ‑ turns into a story about shame and honour.  Luke draws us into the story by choosing a scenario that we can identify with ‑ we’ve all been to wedding feasts and we all know the social rules that go with them.  Bridal party on the top table ‑ everyone else in the rest of the room, carefully placed so all possible conflicts are avoided and no‑one is left on their own.   We know the rules and we are expected to stick by them ‑ so how could anyone be so foolish, do such a shameful thing as sit in the wrong place?

Shame is a very powerful emotion ‑ accompanied by often visible signs ‑ and it is one that we seek to avoid.  It can bring very real distress and pain.  Shame can also be a healthy reminder to us that we’ve transgressed, that we’ve done something wrong. To avoid being shamed, we have to think about doing the right thing, about being honourable.

CN22TN CAnd this is where Luke takes his parable ‑ by describing the honourable way to behave when you have a wedding invitation.  Start off by assuming that you have been allocated the worst place and you might just find that you are rewarded with a better seat. And Luke wraps up the tale with these words of wisdom: “If you put yourselves above others, you will be put down.  But if you humble yourself, you will be honoured.”

This story is worldly-wise ‑ perhaps it echoes advice in Proverbs: “Do not take a place among the great; better to be invited ‘come up here,’ than be humiliated in the presence of the prince.” The parable is a neat and slightly crafty lesson on how to get on in the world.  And yet…….  As with all of Jesus’ parables it has a meaning on many other levels.

There are several lessons here for Christians about knowing one’s place as a Christian disciple.  But first a few words which come from a different direction. A true story. A friend of mine had not been to church in a very long time. The first time she came to church with her family she chose to sit near the front of the church – it was a little odd, for no one came to sit with them until just as the service was starting … She enjoyed her first service in church – the singing was wonderful and the family decided to come again. The next Sunday they took the same seats, the same people came to sit with them and again they enjoyed the worship. They started going to church regularly. It was only after they had been there a couple of months that one of the congregation came to them and asked why they were sitting in the choir stalls …

So many who come to church no longer know the right things to do, don’t understand why in Anglican churches we don’t use the front pews. Often I have seen new people sitting right at the front (in the best seats) then not able to work out what to do with their service sheets and hymn books and clearly feeling ill-at-ease, feeling shamed. How do we help these people to feel at home? It is so important. …

Having seen that the parable can be turned on its head. What are the other lessons here for Christians about knowing one’s place as a Christian disciple?

There’s a message for those in leadership.  Jesus was speaking to the lawyers and Pharisees when he told this tale and he wanted them to heed the warning about pushing themselves forward in the sight of God.  In Jesus’ day it was all too easy for the well‑off and the legally trained to imagine that they were superior in God’s sight to the poor and to those without the opportunity to study, let alone practice the law.  So he spoke to the powerful people in the Jewish faith ‑ wanting them to think about the way they related to other Jews.  This, of course, is also important for powerful Christians, such as church leaders (ordained or lay), to remember when they relate to other Christians.  Power and learning make no difference to the way that God relates to his children.

But Jesus spoke not just to the powerful and learned ‑ he also spoke to his disciples.  Perhaps you remember the story of James and John who were eager to take the top two places at Jesus’ right and left hand ‑ above everyone else.  They didn’t know what they we asking, because Jesus’ came in his glory not on a throne but on a cross and the places on either side of him were reserved for thieves.

James and John were rebuffed and reminded that this was not the aim of discipleship ‑ it was not for them to seek the highest places.   So to for us ‑ there is no hierarchy in our church, our parish, our Deanery, our Diocese  ‑ we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  Yes, we have different roles and some of these roles mean that some people are more visible than others.  But as disciples, we all occupy the same place ‑ as God’s children, all equal in his eyes.  So this parable reminds us that we need to act with humility in the church.

There is however a wider message delivered by this parable and this would have been obvious for those in the world for which Luke was writing.   Within Luke’s lifetime, thousands of non‑Jews had become Christians.  They had entered, as it were, into the dinner party prepared by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Many Jewish Christians found this difficult, if not impossible to understand or approve.  They were so eager to maintain their own places at the top table that they could not grasp God’s great design to stand the world on its head.  They couldn’t see that their pride, their belief that they were favoured, blotted out God’s generosity to others and ultimately denied their own place as Jews in God’s plan for the world.

Because, in the end, if anyone reckons that they deserve to be favoured by God, not only do they declare that they don’t need God’s grace, mercy and love, but they also imply that those who don’t deserve it shouldn’t have it.  And perhaps this is the most challenging aspect of this parable ‑ a message for all Christians.  Whenever we act without humility and see ourselves as better than others, not only do we shame ourselves but we act dishonourably towards other people by seeking to limit their access to God’s love and God’s grace.  And where does that leave us in relation to God? For each of us needs the grace of God as much as anyone else.

So lets keep our eyes open for those who are new and who struggle with knowing the social rules of our church, let’s give them every help and support that we can. May this parable also prompt us to be aware of those times when we bring shame on ourselves because of our lack of humility.  May it also cause us to rejoice that God’s love is so forgiving that at the end we will all be invited to feast at God’s banquet.

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Nudity and nakedness

Interesting thoughts from Bishop Nick Baines. It seems as though our culture is become ‘shame-less’.

Shame, when it is working positively provides an appropriate demarcation between the public and the private. Shame provides appropriate protection against exposure within the cultures in which we live.

There are times when it is right to challenge it, but most of the time ‘positive shame’ is an automatic response that keeps us safe and whole.

Nick Baines's Blog

This is the text of the article I was asked to write for this week’s Radio Times. It was reported as a “lament”. It wasn’t. I just thought it was quite funny.

Well, would you Adam and Eve it? Recently 3000 people took their clothes off, painted themselves blue and lay around the not-so-tropical city of Hull in varieties of heaps. All, of course, in the name of art.

Actually, I thought it was quite funny. I saw it on my phone while enjoying two days at the General Synod talking about sex. So, it seemed both timely and amusing.

What is it with nakedness at the moment. You can hardly turn the telly on without finding someone wanting to take their clothes off. I thought Big Brother was embarrassing, but clearly that was just the appetiser for Love Island, Naked Attraction, and Life Stripped Bare. At least the new…

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Where is my sense of outrage?

The darkest and most difficult things faced in our world are not faced by us in the West. Yes, the events which happen in the West may be the most shocking to us because we believe that we are in someway protected from the realities of the world in which others live day by day. But the deepest and darkest things are experienced by others.
It is disturbing that these things are reported with much less frequency and, it seems to me, with considerably less sense of outrage, and I wonder why that is?
Is it because these things happen far way? Is it because these people matter less to God than we do? Is it because these events do not fit with what is the accepted narrative in our press, that somehow we are under attack by a world which is either jealous of our values or fundamentally opposed to them.
I don’t know. …. I suspect that it is all three of these, … perhaps other reasons too.
What I do know for sure is that every single one of those killed in Istanbul, in Syria, in Bangladesh and in Iraq is a child of God, each one as valued in God’s sight as I am, … as my family are.
And it is to my shame that I am able so easily to miss the depth of pain and grief which their relatives face. It is to my shame that respond with a greater sense of grief and loss when these events happen closer to home. It is to my shame when I accept the analysis of our press in general that we are under siege by outside forces over which we have no control and which we need to fear.
The truth is that, even when we face deeply outrageous acts of terror, we are still, as nations in the West, so very well protected from what the rest of the world has to live with, that they have the power to shock us to our core. But we are happy to only notice  in passing the horrors faced by others.
Yes, there are those who seek to help us engage with the gravity of what is faced day to day in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in other places of conflict.
But many of us manage, somehow, to allow these events to pass us by.
It is to my shame when I participate, even if unknowingly, in perpetuating such a distorted perspective on our world.

Hard Facts Matter More Than Anything?!

The English language is full of great figures of speech and metaphorical language. Metaphors and similes are used to express concepts that might be too complex for the English language. In other words, a specific word may not exist to represent a feeling/emotion. Describing ideas using similes and metaphors provides an opportunity to conjure a range of emotions when explaining a particular idea. People have a simile or metaphor almost everything.  Colourful colloquial language is common in many parts of the UK. There are a few examples on my previous post …

https://rogerfarnworth.wordpress.com/2015/12/27/metaphor-symbol-and-simile/

Yet when we want to be more formal, we drop the similes and metaphors, we favour clear, propositional language over more colourful metaphorical language. The English legal system is dependent on the letter of the law, our legal documentation is very carefully worded to avoid as much ambiguity as possible.

Truth-1So, when it comes to communicating the truth, Westerners prefer propositions rather than ‘fluffy words’. “Because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguity of metaphors, we tend to distil propositions out of them. We want to know what they mean, in categorical terms. A philosophical description of God (“omni-present”) is better than an anthropomorphic one (“his eyes roam to and fro throughout the land”). Or so we think. This is why books on Jesus often talk more about the facts of his life than his parables. To us, things like metaphors and parables sometimes seem like unnecessarily frilly packages for a hard truth. We want to get past the packaging to the content; we want to know what it means.”[1]

This propensity to prefer propositional language over metaphors and similes leaves us at something of a loss when we read the Bible. Bible authors record important truths in similes, metaphors, parables and other, possibly ambiguous, language.

Different types of literature have different ‘rules’, so we expect different things when we read poetry rather than prose. Historical narrative is likely to use a different style to the telling of a parable or story. These distinctions are easiest to recognise in our own language. We can easily tell the difference between poetry and prose. It is a lot harder to make these distinctions when we are reading texts from another culture and form many centuries ago.

Some forms of literature are completely alien to us. Some books of the Bible are ‘apocalyptic’ in style, books such as Revelation and parts of Daniel. We have nothing in our own culture with which to compare these. “Such books reveal or unveil the mysteries of God about the future and make heavy use of symbolism, often involving numbers and animals. The present time is described as dire, and just when it appears things cannot get worse, God intervenes and rescues his people for a glorious future. While we may understand the big picture, the details are very confusing for those unfamiliar with this genre. We struggle to make sense of horsemen and bowls of wrath and strange hybrid animal creatures. Right in the middle of a natural disaster, a guy rides by on a horse. What’s up with that? This genre is foreign to us.”[2]

In this case, we know we don’t know, so we are prepared, or should be prepared to be careful in the way in which we approach the text. It is less easy to make these distinctions elsewhere in the Bible. The danger with making distinctions, is that we follow our instincts and relegate metaphorical language to a secondary place, we search out the more concrete statements and rely on them as primary. It makes the most sense to us to do so. Or we transpose metaphorical language into propositional language.

Biblical writers “often preferred to speak about spiritual things metaphorically. And this made earlier interpreters nervous because ancient readers of the Bible knew that there was a lot at stake in a metaphor. The original Hebrew text of Exodus 15:3 reads, “The Lord is a warrior.” The context is the Song of Moses. The Israelites have just filed through the Red Sea to safety and Pharaoh’s army has drowned in the tide. The Lord, Moses implies, is a more powerful soldier than all the battalions of Egypt. But the Greek translators of Exodus were uncomfortable with this image. So they did just what we tend to do: they translated the verse as a proposition. In the Septuagint, the verse reads, “The Lord . . . shatters wars” or “bring[s] wars to naught.’ Instead of portraying Yahweh as an armed and bloodied soldier, they highlighted a particular implication of his prowess. While they might be right—perhaps the best soldier is the one who brings war to an end—the Septuagint interpretation narrows the meaning of the text. Resolving the tension of the metaphor actually diminishes the breadth and application of the text. “[3]

Metaphors and other artistic expressions can also say more with less.  Just a couple of examples:

He had a broken heart.

She had cold feet.

When we hear these phrases we know not to take them literally and they carry with them a wealth of meaning, if we were try to be more ‘factual’ in our description of how these people are feeling we would either miss something of the breadth of meaning intended or focus down onto just part of what the metaphor invokes.

In addition, the use metaphors often connects central truths in Scripture. Our parish in Ashton-under-Lyne is called the Parish of the Good Shepherd. The concept of God as shepherd runs throughout the Bible. No one believes that God is actually a shepherd, we use the concept as a useful metaphor. For many of us it is a very significant one. We love Psalm 23. In Ezekiel 34, God describes himself as the Good Shepherd and the people’s leaders as bad shepherds. So, when Jesus claims, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:14), what is he saying?shepherd-clipart-eiMAj4nLT

Perhaps first he is identifying other as ‘not good’! But the reference back to Ezekiel is unmistakeable. His audience realised this straightaway. Jesus uses the metaphor to identify himself with God and his listeners pick up rocks to stone him “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33).

In Scripture, these connections between metaphors are significant. “It was Abel, the shepherd, whose offering pleased God. Saul was a bad king—and called a bad shepherd—but King David was a good king who shepherded the people of Israel (1 Chronicles 11:2). If we simply distil the propositions out of each of these accounts (“The Lord provides everything I need”; “Jesus lays down his life for us”; “Saul was a bad king”; “David was a good king”), we miss the connection. The metaphor is not just a frilly package. In this case, the package is actually the bridge connecting all these ideas. Real misunderstanding is at stake.”[4]

Biblical scholars in the 19th century argued that Jesus never made any claim to be divine. Their problem was that they ignored Jesus’ use of metaphorical language. “What went without being said in Jesus’ time is that metaphors bring with them the whole weight of the biblical witness—Torah, Wisdom and the Prophets.” [5] … Jesus’ listeners recognise immediately that he is drawing together a series of different strands of Scripture and they react accordingly.

————————————————————————

[1] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien; “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes”; IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2012: p84. 

[2] Ibid: p85.

[3] Ibid: p86.

[4] Ibid: p87.

[5] Ibid: p88.

Metaphor, Symbol and Simile

The realm of faith is a world of symbolism, metaphor and simile. It is almost impossible to speak of God without recourse to pictures and story. Our western world likes to be systematic and propositional  but when we try to speak of God in these terms we so often struggle.

In a future post I want to make use of ideas about metaphor, symbol and simile, so I thought it would be good to set out some ideas about what they are first ….

As Westerners one of our most used questions when we read the bible and particularly the stories and parables it contains is: “What does it mean?” We think parables are like fables: “there has to be a moral or a meaning that can be defined so that we all know what it is about.”

Other cultures can sit a little looser to meaning and read the text for what it is worth. This general difference between the Western cultures, to which we belong, and many other cultures in the world is important to grasp! Why? Because the text of scripture was written down in cultures that focussed more on story than on specific meaning. Perhaps this is why the Bible is a little resistant our attempts at Systematic Theology!

When Jesus tells us a parable he is not trying to convey a single meaning – if he were, why tell us a parable. What Jesus wants, I think, is that those listening to him hear the story and go away to ponder what it might mean. In their pondering the Holy Spirit is able to guide their thinking and develop a meaning for them. The story permits a range of applications or meanings and by doing so becomes the Word of God to each individual or group that listens to it.

This, very simplistically, is the theory behind Liberation Theology, which encourages groups of people, often the marginalised and the poor, to read the text of Scripture in their own context and expect it to speak directly into that context.

So, faith and religion cannot be distilled into a series of propositions which can be ‘proved’, they are about an alternate form of knowing. What is then really surprising is that, while we are often quite comfortable with the use of metaphors, similes and symbols in our daily lives, we can be uncomfortable with them in the context of faith.

We use metaphors in our speech without pause for thought: her home was like a prison; life is like a journey; the snow was a white blanket over everything; her voice was music to his ears; all the world is a stage;  the cast on his broken leg felt like a plaster shackle; her ambitions are as fragile as a house of cards; he is a night owl; the lake was like a mirror; he was like a pig at dinner-time; thank you, you are an angel; the clouds are balls of cotton …..

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a term/phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable so as to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.”  However, when we read metaphors in scripture we risk seeking to turn them into factual statements. Perhaps the most significant metaphor is that “God is our Father”. This is, of course, a metaphor. God is not human, God has no gender, God is not male, God is not physically a father; however the best attributes of fatherhood and the best of fathers help us to understand something of the relationship God has with us, and also God becomes an exemplar for fathers. Fathers who seek to love their families with the depth of love God shows to us are seeking to be the best of fathers. The metaphor is powerful, dynamic and effective in our language. So powerful, that we perceive it as fact.

Many parables function like metaphors, they provide a story which helps us to engage with deep realities. The story of ‘The Prodigal’ in Luke’s Gospel, perhaps better titled ‘The Loving Father’, or even ‘The Grumpy Brother’, is a metaphor for our relationship with God.

Symbols can 425384 1752265 help us engage with deeper meanings as well. They can be as simple as pictures which represent things beyond themselves and which carry a weight of meaning that can be difficult to express in a few words.  So …  a set of scales is a symbol for justice, a dove and olive branch is a symbol of peace.  Other examples of effective and accepted symbols include the logos of particular organisations, coats of arms.

pictureofaGoldChromecross2communion-clip-art-9aiq64AcMEvery religion has symbols of some nature, in Christianity the cross or a crucifix carry significant meaning and point to the importance of Jesus death.

The bread and wine which Christians share are also symbols which carry significant meaning. In a way that we find difficult to articulate and with different shades of meaning for each Christian community, they feed our faith, emphasise our unity, and identify us with the death of Christ. Baptism expresses a connection with death and resurrection. Symbols can express the invisible or intangible in ways that words fail to do.

A simile is usually a figure of speech which pairs two things which are different to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g. as brave as a lion). Similes add depth to our language and are very similar to metaphors. Other examples include:  ‘cute as a kitten’, ‘as busy as a bee’, ‘snug as a bug in a rug’ ‘blind as a bat’. Similies are used to enrich the text of scripture as well, to help us imagine what is meant. Examples include:

Proverbs 25:11                  ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’;

Matthew 10:16                 ‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves’;

Matthew 13:44                 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field’;

Matthew 23:27                 ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean’;

1 Thessalonians 5:2         ‘The day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night’.

By using simile, the bible authors add depth to their statements and anchor abstract ideas with comparisons that provide a reference point for our senses. Similes draw us into the text in a way that a bald statement would not.

 

Restorative Justice

The post below was posted on the HonorShame blog. I’ve read it through a couple of times and wanted to make the link to it. I cannot now find it on that blog. I presume it has been taken down. It seems to me to be a very helpful contribution to an understanding of the value of restorative justice and its impact on those involved and provides an excellent example of the way in which shame and guilt have different effects/consequences in our lives …

Restorative Justice

by HonorShame

In my experience, the practice of restorative justice is one of the best ways to tangibly embody God’s honor and overcome shame. Unfortunately, people in
Western culture rarely practice (or value) restorative justice.

One afternoon we got a phone call from the local Department of Family Services (DFS). They wanted to notify us that they interviewed our 3rd-grader as a witness, but declined to answer any questions about what happened.

It turned out, one teacher grabbed a school kid by the wrist. The parent threatened to sue the school if the teacher was not fired by Monday morning. So, the principle notified DFS to limit future liability. DFS intervened according to the established legal protocol: children were interviewed separately, the teacher was dismissed, and everybody moved on.

Though the situation “followed the book,” something here seemed totally amiss—there was absolutely zero restoration of relationships. The various parties were never brought together, but were in fact separated out so as to avoid interaction. The focus was on ensuring rights and following the law, not proactively repairing the broken social bonds. This incident exposes significant shortcomings in Western notions of justice and responses to wrongdoing.

Retributive Justice vs. Restorative Justice

The common approach to problems in the Western legal system is defined as “criminal justice,” or “retributive justice.” In such a system, crime and wrongdoing is viewed as a breaking of the law and an offense against the state. These violations create guilt that must be punished. The focus is making sure offenders get what they deserve. Then, “justice is served.”

“Restorative” justice, on the other hand, views transgressions as harming people and relationships. Damaged relationships are both a cause and effect of wrongdoing. Doing wrong creates a sense of obligation to the victim, so justice is served when the situation is put back to right. This approach studies the wrong in the context of the broader community, and examines the obligations all parties have to make amends. Instead of focusing on what people deserve, restorative justice addresses what people need to repair the damage or wound in the community. Justice is viewed as a restored relationship.

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Click here to learn more: “Traditional Approach vs. Restorative Approach

How does “restorative justice” relate to honor and shame?

Though retributive views of justice may address the problem of guilt (because it defines the problem primarily in terms of legal culpability/guilt), it ignores the problem of shame. In fact, some point out that retributive justice actually compounds and increases shame. Shame is often a cause in violent crime, but then punitive approaches exacerbate such shame. By placing secondary representatives (i.e., judges, lawyers, and state officials) in charge of justice process, the system separates the involved parties. In the name of “serving justice,” the consequences of wrongdoing disintegrate people from relationships and community, and such alienation is a core source of shame. Furthermore, legal punishment often makes an example out of violators to deter others, without regarding the shaming consequences of such legally sanctioned “justice.” Various occasions certainly do necessitate retribution, but lets remain aware of how a one-sided view of justice may compound brokenness and shame.

Recall, shame is the painful emotion of unworthiness resulting from isolation and rejection. Isolation causes shame; making amends banishes shame. Punishment does not erase shame, but welcoming and acceptance can. An offender or sinner must be reintegrated into relationships to overcome shame. Only when community is restored can shame be effaced.

The practice of “restorative justice” is a tangible way to untangle people from shame. This applies not just to the criminal system, but to every day conflicts and slights. Westerners respond to issues with a retributive sense of justice, then wonder why others feel shamed and abandon the relationship.

Limited Good

One of the concepts postulated about societies that focus more on shame than guilt is that they are ‘limited good’ societies. This idea suggests that people in those societies regard social capital as finite. This concept suggests that if my own lot improves it automatically means that someone else’s lot gets worse. That’s probably simplistic but the blog below challenges that assumption about those cultures and provokes a great deal of discussion in the follow-up comments on the post page

http://honorshame.com/limited-good/

One of the responses references another blog:

http://blog.zebrapost.net/2015/11/the-issue-of-limited-good.html

It seems to me that these discussions are vitally important in understanding other cultures but also have an impact on how we understand and approach the bible as Christians. We have to get hold of the truth that, unless we are very careful, we misinterpret scripture by reading it through our own cultural spectacles. That isn’t just true for Western Christians but also for others from Africa, South American and Asia. The shame-honour and guilt- forgiveness paradigms are significant factors in understanding cultures and in understanding scripture. To the extent that we uncritically fall into one or the other paradigm then we set ourselves up to misunderstand and misinterpret scripture.