June 30, 2020

The news is worse than you think. And better than you can imagine.

This essay is not about a virus or the disease it causes. It’s about shame and how it gives birth to racism, one of its most malignant manifestations. And it’s an invitation, perhaps even a warning for us not to lose sight of either one of them on account of the other. And although this essay is not about a pandemic whose etiology begins with a protein-wrapped strand of RNA, over the course of it we will see how eerily shame and racism resemble SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) and COVID-19 (the disease), respectively—and how knowing this can possibly be of help to us when it seems we can use all the help we can get.

I confess that I was hesitant as I considered writing this essay. It’s about racism and what I believe shame has to do with it. The shame part I’m comfortable talking about. It’s the racism that gives me pause, mostly that in some way I will not get this right, or exclude important features of the subject, and in the process, hurt someone in a way I don’t intend. I assume I have blind spots and, by definition, don’t know what they are. Moreover, I have been imperfect at best in responding to racism, living as I do with my white privilege. And being a middle-aged white male doesn’t exactly give me a great deal of credibility to speak about it. But all of that, as it turns out, is my own shame attendant trying to keep me from doing my part.

I was reared and shaped in an evangelical Quaker community, a community where I learned that love is fierce and kind and more durable than the earth. I was shown what it means to suffer with those who suffer. And I was taught that mercy and justice are two words that when practiced in the Spirit of Jesus represent actions that are often mistaken for one another—as they should be. And although I have remembered these things imperfectly as well, I trust that neither have I forgotten them completely. Many important things have been said about racism in recent weeks, including steps that we need to take to address it, especially those of us who are white. Here, I want to draw our attention to something that I believe is significant, and, hopefully, add to the conversation in a helpful way. I am not implying that shame is the most salient feature of racism; but I do believe that our ignorance of the role shame plays in where we find ourselves is exactly what evil is counting on in its pursuit to devour us.

I am suggesting that racism’s soul realizes its origin in shame, and is then expressed intra- and interpersonally, neurobiologically, economically, societally, politically and institutionally. And shame, in turn, is one of racism’s multiple products of disintegration. Shame is racism’s seed and flower, each feeding off of and reinforcing each other. It is this dynamic relationship between them that is causing as much trouble as anything we are encountering, albeit often outside of our awareness. How we respond to this relationship is crucial in our call to be image bearers of God.

Racism is not, however, reducible to shame. As I have just mentioned, racism is made manifest in many dimensions of human interactions that are far more complex—sometimes insidious, sometimes overt, always hideous—than some abstract thing we call shame. It is, however, in many respects, shame writ large. There may in fact be no more malignant presentation of shame in our culture than racism. In all of the shape-shifting domains of racism’s expressions, shame lurks as the dominant interpersonal and neurobiological spectre that aids and abets it at every turn.

It is here where shame and racism mirror SARS-CoV-2 (the virus), and COVID-19 (the disease), respectively. The virus (SARS-CoV-2) is the agent of infection, the root cause of the problem. COVID-19 is the resultant physical response and effects—cough, fever, weakness, pulmonary inflammation and edema, and death. Shame reflects the nearly undetectable virus. Racism, on the other hand, in all of its forms, both interpersonally and institutionally, is like COVID-19, the disease. Yes, we spatially distance, wash our hands and wear masks; but we don’t sense the presence of the virus itself as obviously as we do the disease. We encounter the disease; we don’t have any doubt about it when it hits us. The virus? Who knows exactly where it is.

But just because we can’t see it, it doesn’t mean we can become lax in paying attention to the infecting agent itself. If the virus is not contained by a vaccine or its virulence not reduced by its typical course of natural mutation in the environment, no matter how much spatial distancing we employ, it will always be at the ready to overwhelm the number of ventilators we have at our disposal. In the same way, if we do not ensure that we are doing the hard, internal work of examining shame as the source of racism, sometime in the future we will eventually be singing a different verse of the same song that has been playing for the last month, for the last four hundred years. For this is how shame operates. We hunt it down and expose its effects, only for it to go into hiding, waiting to show up again in even more dangerous forms.

This is where our familiarity with shame—not as an abstraction, but as a fully embodied, interpersonal and institutional agent of disintegration—can assist us to consciously, effectively and expansively join God in his mission to redeem all of us from it and the cancer of racism that it foments. In The Soul of Shame, I address important features of shame. Two that I want to highlight here are: (1) contempt, shame’s most concentrated, most distilled form; and (2) shame as fundamentally an act of violence.

First, whether blatant and overt, or subtle and silent, shame is present in racism in its most powerfully destructive form, that of contempt. Contempt is a word we use to represent a state of mind in which the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that it represents—many of which remain camouflaged behind seemingly innocuous actions and institutions—converge to convey to whomever we are directing it that they are inferior, inadequate or any other such term of equal or more heinous quality. This state of mind is primarily embodied in our neural networks and our non-verbal cues as a function of our intentions. It is mediated mainly via the left hemisphere of our brain, the critical, judging brain, that which keeps others at a distance rather than being “with” them in the present moment. It is delivered through our spoken words and physical activity—or inactivity. Perhaps most importantly, we direct contempt toward others out of the vat of self-condemnation we carry around in our own lives. Moreover, when our contempt joins that of others, the whole of it becomes larger than the sum of its parts, and it eventually, inevitably expresses itself socially and institutionally. It is received by those to whom it is directed primarily in their bodies as well as their minds, and will be held there until it is healed. When shame in this form becomes embodied in a systematized way, it requires a response of equal heft for it to be exposed and healed. Hence, when it comes to racism, redemptive individual relationships are necessary; but eventually they must act en masse for the new creation of resurrection and reconciliation to be made manifest institutionally. This requires individuals to do the hard work of looking for where and how the virus of shame is operating organizationally as well as within their own souls.

Second, it must also be emphasized that in every human interaction in which shame is brandished, be that an internally felt sense of condemnation toward another, or a public lynching, it is being wielded interpersonally and neurobiologically as an act of violence. (This is not to equate violence with anger or rage; that is a different topic.) Compared to a punch in the nose, a mild bruise may seem inconsequential. But they’re both, literally, a bloody mess. We just don’t see the microscopic carnage under the skin of a bruise. Just as, when considering a bruise, the notion of violence would not necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind, so too we often disregard the violence of shame until George Floyd is murdered. But violent it is, and even more potently so when allowed to slink around in its subtlety and silence, with us so easily disregarding it in the inner recesses of our hearts.

In the opening chapters of Genesis, the writer hints early on at the prominent role shame will play before soon thereafter showing us the evidence. In the conversation between the serpent and the woman, long before any fruit gets eaten, evil wields shame to literally violate her—her relationship with God, with herself and eventually with her husband—and does so in the spirit of contempt, not only for humans but the entire creation. And from there the contempt and violence only grow. Adam wounds Eve by condemning her before God. Turn the page and we witness the first murder, Cain being unable to master the sin crouching at his door, cloaked in shame as it certainly appears to have been, waiting to devour him. And so it did. And so it does to all of us. Shame is at the heart—literally at the emotional core—of everything we would call sin. And that shame is contemptuous and violent. Contempt and violence that emerge in many ways, but none more so than in the particular many-faceted form that we call racism, and not least when it is embodied in systematized ways.

As I have mentioned, we shame others in direct proportion to the degree that shame occupies our own inner life, whether we know it or not—which we often don’t. But those whom we  have bludgeoned with shame, especially in its systematized forms, suffer to a far greater extent, individually and as a community, and often in ways that are invisible to many, especially those of us who are white. Regardless if you are white or a person of color, shame is in play. But its effects are vastly more malignant for the African-American and other communities of color, given its extensive latticework in our culture that contributes to racism’s survival.

So where is there any good news in all of this really hard news? It turns out that knowing that shame is a—perhaps the—fundamental emotional element at all times, in all levels and in all forms of racism can provide guidance about some things we can do about both. Moreover, it is good to know that Jesus is intimately familiar with our shame, and we are called to follow his lead in the pursuit of justice. Naked, beaten and tortured on a Roman cross, he knows what humiliation is all about. But God had no intention of leaving Jesus in the grave, and has no intention of leaving anyone in their shame or bound by the chains of racism. 

For us as white people, when shame mixes with power, because of our white privilege, it can easily exhibit itself in racism, and especially as contempt and violence inflicted both personally and institutionally. Racist feelings and thoughts lead to racist actions, which when systematized, embody themselves in racist institutions. Knowing how shame works enables us to be aware of it and to take steps to do the double work of dismantling it internally and systemically. But it is paramount that I as a white person do not delude myself into thinking that all I have to do is work on my inner life; rather, I must in particular attune to the institutional issues at hand.                   

With this in mind, Here are some things to consider:

  1. Commit to dismantling shame in your own life by first discovering where it lies. Remember, the way we process shame in general is the bedrock of how it will emerge eventually in any way we may contribute to racism. Resist the self-condemnation that leads to the contempt we offer to others. You can begin by conducting a shame inventory, and can read more about this here.

  2. Others have provided helpful suggestions for learning about and taking action against racism, such as those provided by my friends at Arrabon, here or Coracle, here. For my white readers, commit to learning, independently, as much as you can about racism. Be in conversation with people of color about their stories, not just about abstract ideas—but not without doing your homework. Listen. Read. Pray. Repeat.

  3. Don’t let your own personal shame or sense of powerlessness in not being able to solve all the problems of racism keep you from working on one of them.

  4. Commit to speaking with others about the topic of racism when it arises. Focus on what you feel—your emotional responses—as you talk about what you think. Commit to initiating conversations “with,” seeking to hear what others’ experiences are; as much as you can, refrain from talking “about.” This will help prevent shame from drawing you into your left brain’s mode of action, one that can be more condemning and contemptuous. Rather, it enables you to remain more in your right brain’s mode of activity, which not only guards against contempt, but frees you to fully engage with others in the contexts of your stories and energizes you to think and act creatively and courageously to dismantle racism institutionally.

    I have seen this in action in the group work we do in our practice. As members speak about “the protests”, “Black Lives Matter,” or “racism” the very felt tone of interaction in the room becomes more palpably tense. When they shift to speaking of their own personal experience and emotional responses with each other, their very physical as well as emotional postures toward one another softens, empathy grows, and transformation toward a different way to live institutionally is enhanced.

  5. Where shame emerges for you regarding this topic, be sure you have someone with whom you can speak about it. But remember, God is not interested in groveling. He is interested in confident repentance for the purpose of new creation.

The disease is real; but so is the virus. Although these reflections don’t solve the problem of shame or racism, hopefully they will help us more effectively join Jesus in what he is already doing, inviting us to a table for a long and deep conversation that leads to action. A conversation of vulnerability, with others with whom we have great and beautiful difference, and in the absence of shame. And before we know it, we will find that in that long conversation, and in the actions of individual and institutional reconciliation that it energizes, not only will we hear about and tell, but we will become the very good news we could never have imagined.