Justice, Forgiveness and Bearing a Little Shame

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This morning I read a headline in the newspaper: “We will get justice.” In the relentless cycle of the daily news, the report was of the discovery of a young woman who had been murdered. It seemed a completely appropriate response by the law officer in charge of the investigation. His words doubtless echoed the sentiments of everyone who knew the young woman. The desire for justice is primal, and among the earliest thoughts of our childhood. But what is justice?

Essentially, justice is a desire for things to be fair or even. A young child, noticing that something has become uneven will quickly announce that “it is not fair!” One person’s gain often comes at the price of another’s loss. This instinct for justice never disappears. A crime such as murder provokes this response at the deepest level. One person has gained something (however perverse) at the expense of another’s life. We demand “retribution” (meaning literally – the “restoration of value”). It is the instinct behind the lex talionis (“An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth”).

But such justice never seems to satisfy – it is never enough. A human life has been destroyed. However, the destruction of the killer does not restore value – it does not bring anyone back from the dead. It is, sadly, only a fulfillment of the maxim: “An eye for an eye and the whole world’s blind.” Imagine the tragic case of one brother killing another. The family has lost an irreplaceable son. Justice demands (within the law) the loss of yet another son. There can be no “justice” in such a plight, only the abyss of grief. And, of course, when this occurs between two families, after “justice” is acquired, the result will be two grieving mothers. Things are now in balance, but it is a balance of emptiness and the abyss.

Justice, the desire for fairness, is both primal, rooted deep within our psyche but also fraught with complex ironies that cause layer upon layer of sin and darkness. One of those layers is envy, the desire for someone else to “get what’s coming to them.” Because fairness is almost always illusory, the envy that it provokes can be radically incommensurate. An angry politician recently denounced protestors and called for their arrests saying, “Ruin the rest of their lives!” That is simply envy, an angry demand for some infinite justice. It is also evil.

However, beneath the desire for justice is an even more primal emotion: shame. What is lost in our lives is not just the object of our desire (a child, a job, a political campaign). The loss itself is shaming – we feel that we ourselves have somehow been diminished, that our life has now been devalued and made smaller. What is at stake in shame is “who I am.” We find loss that is associated with this very deepest of instincts to be largely unbearable. In the oriental phrase, “We have lost face.”

This takes us to some of the core emotions surrounding forgiveness, and points to why we find it so difficult. It also points to the only way forward: “The way of shame is the way of the Lord,” in the words of the Elder Sophrony.

The heart of the Christian gospel is the story of a God who, in an act of supreme self-emptying, humbled Himself to the point of bearing our shame. It is the ultimate “loss of face.” His crucifixion was utterly unfair and unjust. He is the one truly innocent, who willingly endures the death of the most shameful criminal. And it is this very path of self-emptying that He offers to us as the way of salvation. The reality of this invitation reveals the mockery that extrinsic descriptions of salvation have become in contemporary Christianity. That someone professes that they have “accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” meaning that His death on the Cross has done something for them, external to their own actions and path of life, is simply not salvation. The shame and self-emptying of the Cross are the content of the commandment, “take up your Cross and follow me.”

The daily expression of that way of self-emptying bearing of shame is displayed in other commandments: forgive your enemies, do good to those who hate you, give without expecting in return, rejoice in your sufferings, etc. All of these involve the “loss of face.” All of these feel, on one level, like the diminishment of our lives. How could we expect self-emptying to feel like anything else?

The path of forgiveness, of love towards those who hate us, of unrequited generosity and thanksgiving for all things, represents a decision to step away from the protected life of the guarded self. It accepts injustice towards the self, the loss of what is rightfully due, and giving what is not deserved or merited. None of this would be possible to us apart from the example of Christ and our mystical union with Him.

It seems to me that we have acquired the spiritual habit of making our salvation an abstraction. We speak of being “crucified with Christ,” and of being “Baptized into His death,” language that holds a prominent place in the lexicon of the New Testament. But we tend to treat these as though they were happening in a manner somehow distinct from our experience. Neither crucifixion nor death should have an association with things that seem pleasant. Christ Himself constantly makes reference to very unpleasant things: forgiving injustice towards the self, the loss of what is rightfully due, giving what is not deserved or merited, etc. These are all things that we seem to instinctively loathe. The shame we encounter through such acts of self-emptying is invariably painful. But this is the gospel.

It is in this vein that the Elder Sophrony speaks from within the Tradition saying that we must learn to “bear a little shame.” There is much that must be said in this regard. First, bearing shame can only be voluntary. Involuntary shaming is always toxic and leaves very deep wounds. The experience of such wounds (which underlies and provides the vast source of pain associated with forgiveness) surrounds the entire experience of forgiveness. To be told, “You must forgive…” in such circumstances is tantamount to saying, “You must endure the shame.” This can easily be nothing more than an invitation to more toxicity. Thus, the “moral” use of the commandment, “You must forgive,” can inadvertently be another tool in the hands of others to drive the pain and burden of shame ever deeper.

We must understand first and foremost, that the bearing of shame can only be voluntary, and then, only a little at a time. Only Christ dies for the sins of the whole world. It is indeed possible that great saints unite themselves utterly and completely in that shame-bearing self-emptying entrance into Hades. But they did not start at that point. It is the gift of God and a work of grace.

For us, we must, in the words of the Elder, learn to “bear a little shame.” By the same token, we learn to practice “a little forgiveness.” This is not abandoning the commandment of Christ, but is rather a sober reflection of precisely the truth of what forgiveness entails.

“Forgive you enemies.” This means “voluntarily bear the shame of the loss involved with forgiveness.” Enemies will not love you for loving them. They will hate you and despitefully use you and do all manner of evil against you for the sake of Christ, whom they unwittingly hate. Our voluntary bearing of that little shame unites us with Christ who took the whole of all shame upon Himself and said, “Father, forgive them.”

Bearing shame requires safety. Shame involves deep vulnerability. We feel exposed and naked – even abused and raped. Like victims of trauma, we can only visit the memories of such things when we are assured that we are not walking again into fresh abuse. Christ dwelt “in the bosom of the Father.” The Father never abandoned Him (pace those who misunderstand His words on the Cross). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ reckons the full cost of His self-emptying, but He does so in utter communion and knowledge of the Father. He goes to the Cross “for the joy set before Him…despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).

In our communion with Christ, and in the bosom of the Church, it is possible to know the safety sufficient for forgiveness and bearing its shame. But, again, it must be voluntary, the acceptance of Christ’s Cross, in union with His own joyful acceptance and not through some moral compulsion. One enemy at a time, we make our way into the love of God, learning step-by-step the joful way of Christ’s self-emptying.

St. John of the Ladder wrote: “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” It is one of the great paradoxes of the faith. A paradox resolved only in the Cross of Christ.

31 comments:

  1. Interesting perspective on forgiveness. Modern psychology has demonized virtually all forms of “shame” and I think most Christians — particularly clergy — have followed suit.
    Thanks for challenging that kind of thinking.

  2. Michael,
    You’re welcome, though I must note that it is simply the tradition – which has spoken carefully and wisely about shame for many centuries.

    Michael,
    I think that modern psychology doesn’t know what to do with shame. It’s toxic variety is an absolute crippler and terribly destructive. Religion has frequently abused shame and used it incorrectly as a cudgel. The moralists are like bad parents who think that if shame motivates you to try harder, then it’s a good thing. I’ve seen very considerable damage done to souls by moralists and those who misuse shame.

    Not understanding it, it’s not surprising that contemporary therapy treats it as bad and something to be gotten rid of. Toxic shame is indeed bad, and needs to be relieved.

    The mystery of the Cross and the role of shame, I will readily admit, was closed to me until about 4-5 years ago when I began to do research into shame as I was dealing with some very important things in my own life. That search led me to begin noticing the legitimate place shame has in the Tradition and I began studying it.

    The most important thing for me was a private conversation with Fr. Zacharias of Essex who pointed me in the right direction regarding the teachings of the Elder Sophrony. His words have allowed me to go back into the Fathers and re-appropriate the Tradition. I will also say that most priests do not understand this dynamic of shame. I’ve begun writing about it, and emphasizing its understanding when I’m all giving talks. Many priests are interested and I’ve had some very good private correspondence in the matter. But it is a vital piece of the Tradition that has been neglected and needs to be recovered.

    So, I’m just a voice in this, drawing our attention to what the Tradition says and hopefully shedding some light. The wisdom of the Fathers is amazing.

  3. It is, perhaps, a play on words that only works in English, but the word despising from Hebrews 12:2 means to think little of. But it can also mean to look down on. Oddly enough, the place that the Lord was looking down from was a vantage point from which all of our shame could be seen, our brokenness, our desperation, our blindness and it was all this that He was taking upon Himself to restore us.

  4. It’s deeply cyclical as well. In order to protect ourselves from our own shame, we judge others, enhancing their own toxic sense of shame.

  5. This reminds me of the anecdote I read in a book on the nature of God’s grace many years ago. It was the story of a Christian who was arrested by the Communists and had all his secret sins (his “crimes”) thrown in his face by his Communist accusers, who had thoroughly researched his background. They expected to be able to use this information to manipulate and blackmail him into submission and compliance, but he had already come to terms with his sinfulness and accepted grace and forgiveness from God. Because of his confidence in God’s grace, he could bear his shame. He readily admitted to all the failings that were thrown at him and replied that there was even more that they didn’t know about. They couldn’t blackmail him because he had already confessed his sins and had no need to hide anything. He wasn’t invested in trying to be seen as something he wasn’t, and this totally disarmed his persecutors. In the same way in Confession, we disarm the enemy of souls!

  6. Thank you for this blog post, Fr. Stephen, and thank you also for your response to Michael here in the comments concerning your research on the subject of “shame”.

  7. However, beneath the desire for justice is an even more primal emotion: shame. What is lost in our lives is not just the object of our desire (a child, a job, a political campaign). The loss itself is shaming – we feel that we ourselves have somehow been diminished, that our life has now been devalued and made smaller. What is at stake in shame is “who I am.”
    Father, thank you for this explanation. For me, this shows both why forgiveness is so difficult, and the way forward to forgive.
    I believe you have expressed the crux of the issue. (Pun intended.)

  8. Excellent article, as always. Fr Stephen, your blog is one of the few reasons I use the Internet. If the Internet ever stopped working, right after thinking to myself, “Our civilization has come to an end, how will we survive?” I would probably think, “I hope somebody recorded all of Fr Stephen’s blogs on paper!”

    But even if your blog was lost forever and you never posted again, the synthesis of your thought that I have been acquiring will be a treasure I will carry with me throughout my life, helping me grow in salvation. In my own experience, you have served a really unique role in presenting the timeless faith of the Church to the post-modern, post-Protestant soul in a really robust, expansive, and eye-opening way, from the heart to the heart.

    But for real, I hope for the day that this blog gets made into a book *cough* 🙂

  9. Sunny,
    I’m really wanting to go traditional with the blog/book and have it copied by hand…something for monks to do. 🙂

    Thank you for the kind and very encouraging words. God is truly merciful.

  10. Father Stephen,

    I’m really struggling with some of what you’ve said here and previously concerning shame and forgiveness. As a recovering addict, I really grasp fully how damning “toxic shame” is and how it was a constant contributor to the cycle of addiction. Shame – in general terms – is something we in recovery try to either ignore or move away from as a wholly negative thing that will drag us back into resentment.

    So I’m having a tough time with re-aligning my thinking with what the Fathers are saying here about shame. Your statement “voluntarily bear the shame of the loss involved with forgiveness” is confusing to me, but I think that’s partially because I don’t really understand forgiveness, either.

    A short story: My wife and I have struggled with broken relationships and dysfunction within our respective families to varying degrees over the years. One of her relatives suffers from a variety of mental disorders and has been very abusive toward my wife over the years. The difficulties escalated to a point where my wife had to put up boundaries and separate herself from the family to remain safe. Other family members have been pushing her to “forgive” him and let it go, while we contend that because he has no willingness to make amends, their form of “forgiveness” would amount to co-signing misbehavior.

    So, how could we in this situation, truly forgive if the other party isn’t asking for forgiveness (nor desires a relationship)? Is it just a matter of praying for him? I desire to “forgive everyone, for everything”, but how do we really do this? How I can bear my brother’s shame? What ought we actually do?

  11. Rob,
    These are very good questions. I’ll do my best to answer them. I will stay with the image of addiction recovery. When someone “hits bottom” and is willing and able to say, “My life had become unmanageable,” that is “bearing a little shame.” There comes to be an acceptance of that fact. And, in the life of recovery, you never say, “I used to be an addict/alcoholic, etc. There is a willingness to recognize that what is taking place in recovery is because of a Higher Power. One day at a time. There is, at the very core of all of this, a willingness to bear a little shame. It is helpful, though, that in 12-step groups, everyone else in the room has been where you’ve been. And that collective acceptance makes it safe and possible to bear a little shame. You can say, “I am an addict,” without fear. But to get there – it required some initial willingness to bear the shame. Frankly the same is true over the years as you face various character defects.

    Now the interpersonal stuff is very difficult. Often, there is very little safety, or even continuing danger. In such cases, we have to “forgive” at a distance sometimes. One of the ways I pray for such “enemies,” is to say, “Lord, do not hold this against them on my account on the Day of Judgment.” I feel safe enough to say that.

    There have been some individuals and wounds in my life that I found too painful to even pray about. I took a few names off my list for prayers for a while because even thinking about them was like an invitation to a panic attack. Some relationships can be that abusive. I slowly found a safe place to be able to talk about it – it could have been a priest, but in my case it wasn’t. I was able, in time, to “bear a little shame,” to acknowledge the shame that these situations/individuals had inflicted. But instead of reacting, defending, arguing (in my head), etc., I just “sat with it” in God’s presence. I allowed myself to feel it and acknowledge it. And then, as Fr. Zacharias taught me, I prayed, “O God, comfort me!” God delights in comforting us – and He did and continues to do so.

    But I have not gotten to a place that I would re-enter those relationships – at least not without some caveats. One of those caveats would be, “Do I know how to take care of myself in this? Or am I simply inviting more abuse?” Sometimes you have to put a distance in place. I continue to pray and ask God not to hold it against them (or me).

    Please note that I’ve written that the simple moral injunction “you must forgive,” is very problematic and can even be used for spiritual abuse. But it can only be voluntary. In such situations, we can “volunteer” by saying, “God, make it possible for me to forgive them.” Only grace can get us to these places. If you’re in recovery, then you know that lots of things take time. This is one of them.

    In the meantime, be safe. Protect your wife. It’s ok to say “not yet,” or “it still feels unsafe,” etc. Families are often quite pushy. They just don’t like conflict.

    Is that useful information?

  12. Father, thank you very much. That makes a lot of sense. I appreciate your time responding to my questions – I think it will be very helpful as we try to heal and trust in God to heal these wounds.

  13. Father,
    Thank you for sharing your lessons from Fr. Zacharias…. His teaching is always so heart-warming and therapeutic for the soul…

  14. As an addiction counselor for 12 years, working with so many struggling with slavery to alcohol or drugs, I have continually confronted folks with deep,often generational, toxic shame and dysfunction. They struggle with forgiveness of deep-seated resentments, and I have tried to convince them that forgiving them does not require the return to the same destructive dynamics of the relationship. Not in any way.
    Of the various articles where you have discussed shame and it’s many faces, I believe this latest is the most helpful.

  15. Father,

    Forgive me if I am not comprehending your full meaning. My reaction to this (and its a very challenging issue for me) is that you address forgiveness with regard to the wrongdoer and from the perspective of the individual, but what I think you miss is the perspective of the victim.

    I have happened to be intimately connected with several people who have been victims of horrible crimes. I think what we often miss is the value of anger and the desire for justice to these individuals. In a materialist sense, nothing is restored through “justice”, but from the victims perspective “justice” and even more so the desire for justice from their family and community is restorative and healing. It takes the chaos and turmoil of earth shattering events and re-orders them in the light of Goodness. We can leave these victims swimming in a vacuum of amoral confusion when we as a community do not clearly respond with love for the victim and the corresponding anger. Its not an unnatural anger. Its a normal, natural and good anger when it stems from love for the victim. If it is based on hate for the wrongdoer I think its a different situation.

    Anyway, its always been a challenge to fully embrace this aspect of Christianity because it leaves behind the victim. I don’t think its possible for these victims to simply forgive because we tell them they should, I think they can only forgive when we bear witness to their outrage for them, and allow them to heal. That’s been my experience.

  16. Dan,
    I have myself worked with victims, in particular, families who have lost members to violent crimes. And you are very correct. I used to say to them “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord, I will repay,” is often used as a saying to tell victims they should not desire vengeance, when, in fact, it is a promise.

    It is a starting place. If you’ll read carefully what I have written, you’ll see the emphasis on the voluntary aspect of bearing shame (which is at the heart of forgiveness). I have had two members of my family murdered over the years. It’s how I got involved at one point in dealing with victims’ ministry. Vengeance, justice, etc., have a place in the process of healing. But, it will finally come to another place. I appreciate your pointing this out. It’s important to remember.

  17. Dan, I frequent a discussion site for the survivors of an abusive “Christian” cult (headed by one man) where the Bible was twisted and its meaning turned on its head to bring people into intensely legalistic spiritual bondage and subjection to this group’s leader (and in completely unhealthy ways to husbands, fathers, and parents) in the name of the “protecting umbrella” of “biblical” spiritual authority. Of all the forms abuse can take (and let us admit they are all horrible), spiritual abuse that not only takes advantage of and injures the vulnerable, but does so in the very name of service to the Christian God, has to be among the most perverse and difficult to heal. Laying responsibility for abuse and of its effects not upon the perpetrator, but on the victims is a veritable hallmark of the perverse teaching of this false teacher. In that context, I agree that a proper anger on behalf of the victims and stemming from love for them plays an important, perhaps even critical role in their healing.

    I believe Fr. Stephen to be addressing a quite different context, however. He has already made it clear that blame (demanding that others shoulder the shame of their own true failings and weaknesses, never mind those of a perpetrator for which the victim is in fact blameless) is very toxic. What he is addressing is how in response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit the believer’s freely chosen bearing of shame (a willingness to confess our failings to God and those we may have injured and relinquish our right to vengeance against those who have wronged us) for the sake of sharing in Christ’s kenotic Self-giving suffering in identification with sinners brings us into healing communion with Him.

  18. Thanks Father,

    I agree with what you are saying about the relationship of shame and forgiveness. It is a good insight. I just wanted to amplify the place for justice and righteous anger, and its value for victims. Its hard for me to not want to keep the flame burning for those people, especially as we seem increasingly calloused and relativistic as a society.

    Discussions about justice, the death penalty, etc so often focus on the person who has done the awful thing, as though sympathy for them, or recognizing the catastrophic tragedy that it is to end their life, mean we should forgive them, spare them, etc. I’m not trying to take a position on policy, just commenting on the logic and patterns of discussion about the policy.

    Other times discussion focus on our spiritual being, and that bearing anger does harm to ourselves.

    What I have found to be an important idea is the distinction between anger born from love, and anger born from hate. The biggest reason to be angry with the murderer, rapist, etc is because of our love for their victim. The next biggest reason to be angry with the murderer, rapist, etc is because we love them! In truth, I think there are (or certainly should be) two mothers mourning whether the murderer is executed or not.

  19. The preceding few posts about victims and justice brings to mind a story in Everyday Saints (I think recounted by Fr. John Krestiankin) in which a priest drives out from a community two members who may have brought harm to the community – and then calmly returns to participating in Forgiveness Vespers (? – I gave my book to someone so I may not be remembering the details correctly).

    In any case – the priest thought it important enough to the safety of the flock to drive out two members (temporarily?) but was also able simultaneously to then turn to members of the same flock and humbly ask forgiveness. This is an example of what I would call a Gentle Protector – and I think – a sign of spiritual maturity that is rarely seen, much less experienced by many Christian religious, and one of the reasons our family is becoming Orthodox. I think the fruit of the church are elders such as this, and I have only found them among the Orthodox.

  20. Vengeance, justice, etc., have a place in the process of healing. But, it will finally come to another place.

    I hear much of the conversation being directed toward the actions of the community. Am I correct that the victim themselves must voluntarily make the decision to forgive? Is the anger for justice and the pursuit of it, perhaps resulting in taking the life/freedom of their attacker, justifiable in Christ? I understand that there is positive anger and desire for justice but at what point does one step outside of healing and into vengeance?

    It is difficult to draw lines in any situation as tragic as these but I think it is valid to think of what is expected by the victim in seeking justice. How is this best approached, both by the victim and by the community?

  21. Dear Father,

    This journey you have taken me on in understanding the shame that I carry and the hurt from it, has been so incredibly helpful. I heard a taped lecture from Father Zachariah on this topic years ago. His teaching of Christ’s shame through the beautiful words of Elder Sophrony, began my liberation from my shame. For the first time, I heard the story of Christ’s suffering through the emotion of shame and I felt at that moment that He knew mine.

    It was around that time, that I understood the meaning of the prayers/hymns that said that Christ hung naked on the tree. I didn’t see it any more from a physical aspect of nakedness, but from shame. It humbled me to the core. I was suddenly, emotionally, without legs to stand on. All the remembrance of wrongdoings I carried, disappeared. It was then that I saw the people who harmed me through the eyes of an outsider and I felt sorry for them. I was ironically, liberated from myself.

    It was during this time that I saw the gifts God had given me throughout my entire life in the form of truly kind, good family and friends who selflessly out of love, carried me through it all. I felt suddenly aware of my profound selfishness. Realizing that hurt more than the shame. That great selfishness was, – no – , is, my character.

    The attacks to remember the wrongs still surface, sometimes they are very strong and sudden, but I pray for watchfulness so that the time span between the painful memory and asking God to bless that person, becomes shorter. I have no delusions that this cycle will end, but I have seen that the more I try to regularly self examine and honestly confess my character, (which remains a very painful process ) the less wounded I am from those memories or new experiences of shaming.

    I understand the place my feelings of shame, serve in my connection to Christ. Less self pity , more honest shame. It is then that I am closest to Him

    Your blogs have brought me great strength, joy and many times to tears, as you so steadily and gently guide me through this. In gratitude, I promise you my simple prayers for you and your family.

    Kissing your right hand, I am.
    Irini

  22. I am a survivor of a violent crime. This was very helpful. Thank you and God bless you, Father Stephen.

  23. Besides your wonderful writing on this topic, where can we find the teaching of Elder Sophrony and Achimandrite Zacharias? I’ve pulled an unread copy of The Hidden Man of the Heart from my bookshelf and see that there is a chapter titled Awakening the Heart by Bearing Shame in Confession. Would you recommend starting with this?
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  24. Reply to Chuck,
    Not interested in a political argument. I did not, however, describe the politician himself as evil. I said that what was said was evil. Discernment is not all that heart sometimes. If you are politically engaged with this person, you may be blind to certain obvious things. It is being said in poll after poll that the electorate is angry. It makes sense. I’m probably angry about many of the same things. But anger is very blinding. It darkens the heart. If my words cause you anger, then forgive me. But they are true.

  25. Thank you very much, Fr. Stephen, for your many wonderful, insightful writings. I’ve been particularly reading your posts involving shame recently and am wondering if you’ve read the book “The Soul of Shame” by Curt Thompson? It was recommended to me (by a counselor) with the additional comment that it has an excellent explanation of ancestral sin. Of course, being Orthodox, I’m a little suspicious of reading something non-Orthodox on such a key issue (especially since so often (incorrect) ideas have a way of sticking around in my brain…).

  26. Fr. Stephen,
    I have been reading all your posts on shame and thank God for your work in this area. It has been very helpful to me and, I hope, to others that I in turn reach out to help. With regard to this post in particular I expect you have already seen this, but the following link connects with an extraordinary example of what you are sharing here. It is the sermon from a Coptic priest in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria the very night after the murders of over 40 Coptic Christians in two places on Palm Sunday including the very church the sermon is delivered…on the very night after the attack to a packed Cathedral. Here is the link:
    http://www.copticdadandmom.com/fr-boules-george/ The sermon is entitled “A Message to Those Who Kill Us.’ Thanks again for your blogs; they are blessing many of us. May the Lord continue to give you light!

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