As I have written elsewhere, evil does its best work in the middle of good work being done—and using shame as its primary occupational tool. And there is no better vocational effort that we have been called and commissioned to put forth than that which takes place day in and day out in families, churches, and schools in order to create a world of goodness and beauty. But evil has other intentions, and as such finds no more lucrative work than in those very communities where we first learn how to learn. Where our natures are first nurtured with the intention of growing us up to become effective, loving parents, students, educators, farmers, park rangers, teachers, police officers, and all the other vocational domains we occupy.
It is therefore helpful to know that shame begins to take root in our minds as early as fifteen to eighteen months of age. This means that we initially take it in and are largely affected by it more so via our nonverbal brain activity than we do via language. Hence, if we are parents, it behooves us to be aware of our own narratives and where shame is trying to tell our story such that we can prevent it from having as much of a say in the stories our children are beginning to tell. As we rear our children, knowing where our own shame attendants are hiding out is the first step to quieting the attendants that have our children in their crosshairs.
Then, there is our larger family of faith—one that, if taken seriously, is potentially an equal if not more significant formational one. If it is true, as I said above, that evil does its best work in the middle of good work being done, why would we be surprised that we experience so much shame in the church? It only makes sense that in a place where we intentionally gather in response to Jesus’ invitation for all of us who are weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest, shame would be waiting for us. Evil does not so much knock on our door and straightforwardly ask us to commit unspeakable horror. Rather, it waits for our movement to do good things, and simply joins our parade, weaving its way into the motion and direction in which we are already moving. In our deep desire to love God, it reminds us that we don’t love him enough or in the right way. Only in the church, where we expect no one to shame anyone in any way, does it naturally catch us especially off guard. Only in the church does the proclamation of the good news so often begin by reminding us of how bad we are in the first place—often because we so fear that without that shaming element we might not respond as we should. Only in a place where like no other we genuinely desire to do the next right thing do we worry that we won’t. But let us be clear—this should not surprise us. Furthermore, it is not our fellow parishioners who are the enemy. Evil is the enemy, but would rather use shame to convince us that the enemy is our fellow worshipper.
It is therefore incumbent upon us to be as ready to meet the devil in our church families as Jesus was when he went to the synagogue in the third chapter of Mark’s gospel. It is in church where Jesus confronts—simultaneously—the woundedness and shame of both a deformed man and the religious community that was presumably responsible for nurturing his life in God. When we come to our worshipping communities expecting to work against shame, it will be less able to catch us off guard, and so be made more impotent to do what it usually does.
And from church, we send our children off to school, to institutions that themselves at times become cauldrons of shame. We know this not least because of the increase in the number of anxiety disorders in children in elementary schools who worry that they may not be making straight A’s, which might preclude them from eventually getting into Yale. This, not to mention how much school administrators worry that they are not providing enough for the worried parents they serve, and so, in their attempt to do the next right thing, apply more pressure to teachers who apply pressure to students who apply pressure to their parents who call the administrators to find out why their child is so anxious, yet is still not making straight A’s. And to be clear: all these people do not wake up in the morning planning to do these things. We are all trying to do the best we can. This is how evil wields shame: silently and subtly, largely outside of our awareness.
But there is hope. Indeed, to the degree that we are committed to allow our stories to be fully known and loved, whether that is at home, at church, or in our educational systems, we proclaim the gospel. Even as we learn math. As we learn how to make our beds and say please and thank you. As we preach sermons that proclaim God’s delight in the presence of the naturally occurring limits he has infused into the creation. As we discipline each other and ourselves. As we tell the whole truth of our own stories in the context of God’s story we discover that shame has no place in it. And what remains is the world of goodness and beauty that God imagined when he made us in the first place.
So be of good cheer. As you have babies and then take them to church and then send them to school, know that as you are known and transfer that way of being known on to those for whom you are responsible, the Holy Trinity is working as hard as they can on your behalf, bringing you further up and further into the age that is here and is to come.
And if that’s not nurturing our natures, I don’t know what is.