The researcher Brené Brown makes a distinction between feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt focuses on one’s actions — “I did a bad thing.” Shame translates those actions into self-identity — “I am bad.” Brown tells the story of her daughter, Ellen, as a kindergartener. One day at school, Ellen was playing with glitter, sending it all across the floor. Her teacher said, “Ellen, you’re so messy.” Ellen straightened up, looked right back at her teacher, and replied: “I’m making a mess, but I am not messy.”
In Psalm 51, the psalmist cries, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” When, like the psalmist, we associate our wrongdoing with our sense of self, we are ashamed. The Israelites might have felt shame when Jeremiah reminded them of the broken covenant with God, a relationship that should have been as close as a spouse. Jesus tells his disciples to “hate your life in this world;” this too could easily be interpreted as a shameful rejection of our flawed existence. But shame makes us turn inwards, shutting ourselves off from those around us. Shame causes us to lash out.
Shame begets violence, shame begets shame.Brene Brown, Unlocking Us
We see the impacts of shame in our punitive justice systems, both official and unofficial. Those who have been convicted of a crime are locked up, then followed by their criminal record for the rest of their lives, branded as “bad people.” Cancel culture tells us to shut people out permanently when they misspeak, misstep, or commit harm. When we “cancel” people, we associate their actions with their innate selfhood, and deny them any chance at redemption.
Fortunately, there is another way. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved” (John 3:17). The gospel is not a message of blame and shame. Similarly, practitioners of restorative and transformative justice show us a different path to repairing harm.
As I write this, in mid-April 2021, we are still in Easter season. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which we remember during this season, mark the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. God calls us into this new community, with a new understanding of justice and harm repair. Remembering that we follow a man who was killed by the state “justice” system, I look to the practices of restorative and transformative justice to inform what our Beloved community might look like. We are called to join together, to tell the truth, and to live into the promise of resurrection here and now.
The old ways of legalism, individualism, and punitive justice have not served us well. These habits keep us from truly seeing each other or being honest with ourselves. Prentis Hemphill, former Healing Justice Director at the Black Lives Matter Global Network, explores our ideas of justice in their article, “Letting Go of Innocence.” Hemphill says: “I can feel how programmed we are to grasp for innocence. Innocence offers safety, while guilt leaves you at risk for expulsion and isolation. Neither are fixed states, identity traits, but we treat them that way.” This leaves us in fear of being found out, of being exposed as guilty.
The Biblical book of Second Samuel tells the story of David and Bathsheba. King David sees Bathsheba’s beauty, sleeps with her, and gets her pregnant. In an attempt to cover up his tryst, David arranges for Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to return from the front lines. But even in Jerusalem, Uriah stays with his soldiers rather than returning home to be with his wife. Finally, David arranges to have him killed. After David has taken the now-widowed Bathsheba to be his own wife, the prophet Nathan appears at his doorstep. Nathan knows exactly what David has done.
Psalm 51 is notated: “Written when the prophet Nathan came to David after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” It is from this context, we are told, that strong words of self-condemnation come. Today we recited some of the psalm in our prayer of confession, but before the plea to “create in me a clean heart,” this psalm is dripping with pain. The speaker describes their bones as being crushed, and says: “Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Repeating a litany of their own misdeeds, they throw themself at God’s mercy. Scholars are uncertain whether this psalm actually originated with David or, more likely, was written much later and became associated with this dramatic incident. Either way, such drastic and poetic language shows what emotions are stirred up when one lives in fear of their guilt being exposed.
Prentis Hemphill says that “the insistence on innocence becomes the barrier to real reflection, growth, and maturity.” If David had not been so insistent on covering up his crime, Uriah would have lived.
What if we could see ourselves not as innocent, but as harmed and harming, more or less honest . . . more or less willing to take responsibility for our own change, more or less caught in patterns. Would we be more likely to interrupt our own violence if we didn’t insist on our innocence and the accompanying justifications for our actions?Prentis Hemphill, “Letting Go of Innocence”
We need to move beyond the fear of guilt. We need to trust that we will not be condemned. The psalmist knows that God has the ability to “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.” Jesus’ resurrection is a symbol of new, redeemed life. We find this new life in God, and through our communities.
Community is an antidote to fear and shame, which get in the way of restorative practices. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus tells us that “those who love their life lose it” (John 12:25). To love one’s life here and now — to concentrate on one’s own success — is to lose what ultimately matters. When we are in community with each other, only then can we truly live.
The prophet Jeremiah lays out a vision of such a community. Everyone, “from the least of them to the greatest,” is included (Jeremiah 31:34). This is a new social order based on mutuality and inter-dependence, not on a hierarchy of those who know or follow the law and those who do not. It is initiated by a new covenant with God, which again is more egalitarian than before. The Israelites broke the original covenant, even though God was “their spouse.” The Hebrew word here, ba’al, is one of two possible words for “husband.” Ba’al indicates mastery or ownership. It can mean “husband;” it can also refer to the owner of an enslaved person. But in the new covenant, God does not claim such dominance over humans. God is “their God” just as they are “God’s people” — the relationship is mutual.
The new covenant also reverses Jeremiah’s earlier position towards the people of Israel. In chapter 17, Jeremiah rails against the people’s sinfulness: “Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron stylus, written with a fine point on the tablet of their hearts.” He goes on to threaten exile as a punishment for their sins. This passage and the reading we heard earlier both poetically hearken back to the original law given to Moses, when the Israelites are told to “let these words that [God] commands you today be written in your heart.” According to Jeremiah, the Israelites have replaced God’s words with sinfulness. Hiding their wrongdoing, they play their cards so close to the vest that it poisons their hearts. But this is not the end of the story. In today’s passage, the people’s investment in their sins is overturned. The laws of God’s justice will be written on their hearts, so intimately that they will not need to re-learn it again. Under the new covenant, punitive justice does not exist. The people will be equals with each other, and in mutual relationship with God.
For all the beauty in this promised new community, moving into it can feel like death. We have been conditioned to rely on our binaries of guilt and innocence, on the tools of shame and blame. We want to prove that we are “good,” even if that means painting others as “bad.” Accountability processes are harder when we can’t just cancel someone, but have to move through uncertainty together. Moving from hierarchical to egalitarian community requires some people to give up power. We are anxious about what might happen; we are afraid that harm will go unanswered without the legalistic structures we are familiar with.
Fortunately, Jesus has an answer for this too.
Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.Jesus (John 12:24)
If we stay in our systems of hierarchy, clinging to what power we have in this world, we cannot bear fruit. When we move out of those systems of punitive justice and racism, even though the transition is painful, we save our own lives and others’.
To build such a restorative community, truth-telling is required. Perhaps the most famous example of truth-telling in the creation of a new community is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from South Africa. This commission was created in 1995 to investigate human rights violations committed during apartheid. The commission listened to the testimony of approximately 21,000 victims over three years. Their final report covered institutional, structural, and social aspects of the violence, as well as individual cases. Though many of the commission’s recommendations were not fully implemented by the government, and racial injustice is still prevalent in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is often credited as a major contributor to the peaceful end to apartheid.
Just as truth-telling is required to build community, community is necessary for truth-telling. If guilt results in being ostracized, people are much more likely to hide the harm they have done. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered the possibility of amnesty, encouraging more people to take part in the process. The psalmist, too, understood this, pleading with God: “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.” To be clear, this does not mean that people who have done harm are simply allowed to keep on harming. The psalmist’s plea for continued relationship with God is followed immediately by a desire for a “willing” spirit, also translated as a “right” or a “faithful” spirit. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not automatically grant amnesty, but considered it only for those who confessed their crimes and showed remorse. In community, we hold each other accountable.
Jesus’ death and resurrection are an example of restorative justice on a Divine scale. The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder explained Jesus’ death as a result of his refusal to oppose the powers of darkness with physical violence or retaliatory action. Yoder says that “when Jesus, the nonviolent Zealot, accepted death willingly and innocently . . . it was the end of the sacrificial system . . . no more can a society claim that its peace demands the blood of a scapegoat.” On the cross, Jesus radically transformed the ideas of guilt and atonement.
Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino reminds us that “the risen one is the crucified one.” Jesus’ death and resurrection go hand-in-hand; we cannot fully understand one without the other. Jesus himself was a victim of punitive justice, put to death as a criminal, but was restored to life again. After his resurrection, he appeared to both victims and oppressors. He comforted Mary in the garden and encountered Saul-who-would-become-Paul, the persecutor of Christians, on the road to Damascus. Everyone is brought into the resurrection community.
My home church is embarking on a journey of anti-racist practice. A small group of members, including myself, are participating in a study of the book Uprooting Racism. We will bring back what we have learned to the whole congregation. We will help the Church Council examine the church’s practices and policies to ensure that we are embodying our commitment to equity and social justice. This process will probably be complicated and messy. It will require us to look bravely and honestly at our own actions, owning the times when we have perpetuated harm. We commit to doing this in community, moving at the speed of understanding and trust. The goal of our project is not to cast out anyone who may have acted in a racist manner, but to repair harms we have done and create a community that can do better in the future.
As Christians, we are Easter people. For Jesus’ initial followers, the world changed when he died, and it changed again when they saw him resurrected. The same must be true for us. We cannot continue to live under the same harm-causing systems of shame and blame, nor can we hide from wrong-doing and pretend that everything is fine. Like the psalmist, we must come to God and to each other, confessing the pain we have caused. We must work together to restore the joy of God’s salvation in our community, seeking transformative justice that will uproot systems of oppression. Then, as God promised Jeremiah, the days will come when we shall see the new covenant and all will know the Divine.