The Cones of Shame

14th Sunday after Pentecost: August 21, 2016
Luke 13:10-17             Psalm 71:1-6

shame pointing-fingerIn you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.

“Ryan Lochte locks down spot in Olympic hall of shame.” So headlines an article in the Houston Chronicle in a report from Rio. The first lines stated, “Congratulations to Ryan Lochte for winning the final race of his Olympic career: the race for most embarrassing athlete.” The U.S. has had plenty of embarrassing athletes before: Tonya Harding and her goon squad in 1994; the American hockey players who trashed their village room in 1998. But Lochte and his three swimming buddies managed to not only embarrass our country, they humiliated the host country in the process, not to mention themselves.

As a noun, shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. As a verb, we think of its use as when we humiliate, mortify, embarrass, chasten, or “cut down to size” another person.

An early memory of feeling shame for me comes from my grandmother when I was a child – about 8 years, I guess. I don’t quite recall the full incident, but I must have been talking back to my mother in a very hurtful, hateful way in the presence of my grandmother. Later when she was alone with me she told me how disappointed she was with me and how horrible it was for me to speak to my mother in that way. She was visibly upset with what I had said. I don’t recall what I did next, but that feeling of shame and sorrow remain with me as a visual and visceral memory. I had been called out for something I had done, by someone I had loved. It was shame given with love, meant to make me notice that my actions had broken – or at least splintered – an important relationship.

cone-of-shame-dog-funny-pictures-lolBut shame does not always have positive results. One of my favorite Pixar movies is Up. And one of my favorite characters is Dug, the outcast dog who adopts Mr. Fredricksen and Russell on their quest to find Paradise Falls. Some of the funnier scenes involve Dug being made to wear the “Cone of Shame,” a plastic Elizabethan collar used on animals to stop them licking any wound they may have so it can heal. If you’ve ever had an injured dog or cat, you know exactly what I mean. In the film, when wearing the “Cone of Shame” Dug is ridiculed, speaks in a squeaky voice, and loses the respect of the crowd. He is banished from his pack.

Although Up does deal with this emotion in a powerful, poignant way, shame is a powerful emotion – not one to laugh at as depicted in a cartoon. I think we can all remember a time when we have worn the “cone of shame” for one reason or another.

Rodin's "Eve After The Fall"
Rodin’s “Eve After The Fall”

The roots of the word shame are thought to derive from an older word meaning “to cover”; as such, covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame.

We see the emotion of shame exhibited in a number of renaissance paintings and sculptures depicting biblical stories – notably Rodin’s Eve after the Fall in which she covers her naked body with her arms and lowers her head. Massaccio’s The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise is a scene of remarkable emotion, as Eve cries out and Adam cannot bear to show his face. The fresco is the image of shame – the painter chose to render the emotional and spiritual effect of shame as it strikes Adam and Eve in their bodies. Their ability to see is so affected by the awareness of their separation from God so as make them long for blindness.[1]

Masaccio's "The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise"
Masaccio’s “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Paradise”

So that brings me to today’s gospel. Among many themes running through these eight verses, I hear shame. The shaming of one who is vulnerable and the shaming of those who are powerful. And even, perhaps, the shaming of Jesus.

It is the Sabbath, and Jesus is in the synagogue teaching. A woman appears out of the shadows – nameless, unseen, a beloved child of God. However, she has been bent over for 18 years, crippled and unable stand up straight to look another person in the eye or see the clouds and sunshine in the sky. She is an outcast of society – one who lives in shame as she is seen as one who has been cursed by an evil spirit. She has been wearing a cone of shame .

Jesus sees her, calls her over, and lays his hands upon her. Immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God. Immediately a synagogue leader challenges Jesus for what he has done. He shames the woman for coming to the synagogue seeking healing. He shames Jesus for breaking the Sabbath. But then Jesus’ words and actions put his opponents to shame. Snap. We cheer, adding to the shame in the air. There is lots of blaming, shaming, and indignation in this little scene.

We want to be on Jesus’ side and often view the Jewish leaders as the enemy who needs to be vanquished. So we enjoy when we hear Jesus put them in their place. It is like a seesaw – when we put down others, even our enemies – we may be seen as having risen to the top of the heap. And then it is us who act as the oppressors of our enemies. When one has power over another, evil creeps in. This type of shame roots relationships in judgment rather than grace. And I believe this is what Jesus is calling us to notice.

All of these acts of shaming have to do with how we live (or not) in community.

Woman in Venice (c) 2014 Sharon Ely Pearson
Woman in Venice (c) 2014 Sharon Ely Pearson

Think about this once stooped over woman. She can now look at the world and its beauty that surround her. But she can now also see the breadth of the suffering around her, the others who are vulnerable, with disease and in poverty. She has literally been raised up in a fallen world, where shame is rampant and empathy and engagement are needed for wholeness. Jesus engaged her. Perhaps his empathy healed her.

Brené Brown, a therapist, author, and well-known TED talk presenter, is known for her talk on shame and vulnerability. She states that shame is an epidemic in our culture and offers a means to counter it.

If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in a struggle: me too.[2]

Those who are met with Jesus’ wrath are “blushing with shame” – less fatal than death, and perhaps enough to make a difference about how they treat others on the Sabbath and any other day.

Richard Swanson writes,

Yes, this [gospel] is about the Sabbath – precisely the right day to bring freedom to someone. But it is also about community. If you feel shame, you are part of the community. If you do not, you are shameless, which means there is no living connection between you and the community. That means that the storyteller is making this point: Jesus and the leader of the synagogue (and the daughter of Abraham, for that matter) recognize each other as members of the same Jewish community. Indignation happens inside every community. Feeling shame and responding to it are how communities heal themselves.[3]

Shame plays a healthy role in leading one to the needed awareness of our relationship with and accountability toward others. The scene in today’s Gospel is about an important disagreement that results in a healed relationship within the Jewish community. That is, at least in part, why the entire crowd rejoices at the end of the scene.

We can be motivated by shame. Instead of rejoicing over the woman’s healing and the shaming of the synagogue leaders, we can look around and see the other children of God who need healing and raising up. God calls us to transformation and new life, not to maintain the status quo that fills our news feeds. Whether our gaze is lowered in shame or raised in triumph, whether we are bent down or standing tall, let us notice the person next to us who may be stooped down – one wearing the “cone of shame.” Perhaps we might take on a little of their burden, even if it is to acknowledge them. That is forgiveness. That is grace. That is the building of relationships and the Kingdom of God.

In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.

 [1] I gained a new understanding of shame from editing Bishop Rob Hirschfeld’s forthing-coming book (Church Publishing, February 2017) entitled Without Shame or Fear: From Adam to Christ. I owe him these insights on Masaccio’s fresco.

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