A Culture of Shame

This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn on April 7th. It deals with the difficult topic of gender, violence and public discourse.

“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing; I wish I was home; I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing.” These words open up the song Home from the musical The Wiz. We heard a moving rendition by Melissa Paul this morning as our anthem. It’s a powerful song from a woman who has come far in her own story. In this version of the rewrite of the classic, “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy is extremely introverted, she has, as Aunt Em teases her, “never been south of 125th street”, and refuses to move out and on with her life.

“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” It’s a myth of family, of home, of our roots that love – and all these things – are neatly intertwined. It’s a myth that’s sometime’s true, like in the case of Dorothy, and sometimes hurtful. But the heart of the message is that there’s a point in our lives where we do need to move on – as introverted or as closed-off as we might be – and leave our homes – or leave our families – for something new. Sometimes we choose to do this, and sometime this chooses us.

There are those moments in life where we look around and see all the crazy, madness that seems to surround us. The Wiz, or the Wizard of Oz, hold mean witches and flying monkeys to portray this. In the real world we leave home and have to face real humans with real hate in their speech, or their actions, or their lack of actions. We craft the fantastical to help us understand, or to accept, or to distance ourselves from the very normal, the very real.

I have in mind this morning, the flying monkeys of this age, the fields of poppies that put us to sleep, this week, this month, this year seem to me tied to our internalized and public sense of shame. The young Dorothy’s of this generation travel down roads, seemingly alone at first, where through no fault of their own they become targets of violence and denigration. We all know so many cases of this. Each is a more recent version of another, with other lives affected.

A case of rape, in Steubenville, Ohio. Where two teen boys targeted another drunk girl at a party. She could represent every Dorothy, although every story is different. There are horrors that will challenge the victim for years that we can’t just wave away. But there are also horrors that we as a society will continue to perpetuate that make me suspect the idea of the safe home, where love’s overflowing. Following the conviction of the boys last month, some news coverage took a disturbing route. CNN largely focused on the effect the conviction will have on the boys who were found guilty. The media showed – on loop – the heartfelt apologies one of the victimizers gave. The coverage lent a tone of heroism to the boy’s apology.

Candy Crowley of CNN asked, “What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” Or reporter Poppy Harlow said, “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.” Or CNN legal contributor Paul Callan noting, “There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

I watched these reports over and over. Trying to see the space where it became about the health and wholeness of the girl who was hurt. Or about how society doesn’t know how to handle the aftermath of harm. Or how the courts are doing their best to make clear that rape is rape. But all I see is sympathy for the lives of the victimizers that are destroyed by their actions. As if being labeled for life a sex offender – for the simple reason of being a sex offender – was a serious grievance done to these boys.

“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back there; now that I have some direction. It would sure be nice to be back home; where there’s love and affection.” We all have to deal with hard times in our lives. Some of us, too many of us, need to face times of incredible pain. In those moments we wish to be able to turn back to a place of safety, of affection, of simplicity where we can regain our footing; and immerse ourselves in a sense of nurture. To return to our center in light of all that we have to face and all that we have learned. Journalism like this with CNN, or with those common lessons that teach women how to prevent harm to themselves rather that instilling in people the drive not to harm. The public sense of culpability errs on the side of how she could have prevented this rather than on why he should have known better. And to be true to the world, the victims are not always women – but it so often happens this way.

Our theology of Universalism asks of us to strive for a place of openness, of compassion for those that cause harm. Holding hatred, or malice helps no one, and harms most of all ourselves. It can grip our hearts, and make us forget to love freely, to live deeply, to hope when we need to so desperately. I appreciate the compassion in the journalists’ from CNN’s coverage. I criticize the focus. Many lives were ruined as they say – but some lives bear the brunt of their own mistakes – and that guilt, that shame, should not fall upon the victims in our world.

In my Good Friday homily last week, I reflected on how that day was the most difficult day in the Christian liturgical calendar. I want to return briefly to part of it because the message of Good Friday is important here – and as I was reflecting on the Passover week, stories like Steubenville were center in my mind. “On Good Friday, we are asked to stop and bear witness to the suffering figure on the Cross. Bloody and pierced, Jesus hangs with onlookers staring in grief and fascination. Our gut wants us to look away, even if we can’t stop staring. Our hearts want us to move as fast as possible to the hope reborn on Easter. But the discipline of that day, is not to move past it – not to let it go as quickly as we can. It’s to allow it to seep into our hearts – to face the reality of the death before us. One of my seminary professors – Rev. Christopher Morse – would remind his students every year that the Hope of Easter rests in the shadow of this day.  Redemption in the story comes later – but this day marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose. The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. What is this death? It returns to us with our culture of shame – our culture of rape. Women being blamed for the very crime that was done to them. Voices that seek to silence her worth to save the faces of other men who’s lives might change because of their own crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world…. They can’t go away by just wishing them so. We must first face them. We must first accept that they are here – in our lives – in our neighborhoods.”

“Suddenly my world has changed it’s face, but I still know where I’m going

I have had my mind spun around in space, and yet I’ve watched it growing,” Dorothy continues on singing. Our childhood sense of normal, of safety, of home will go away – and return – throughout our lives. But we can find a compass to steer by; we can know where we’re going despite all that feels like it’s been thrown at us. In fact, it takes each of us returning to our compasses to see the way.

Common sense tells us that victims might be wise to learn how to avoid, as best we can, future harm – but the onus is not on them. The crime is not ours. The partners in so many homes throughout our country who are survivors of violence – may sometimes be stuck in a trap – but they are not the source of that trap. For some of us in this room – this is a given. For some of us in this room – they have learned this truth the hard way. For some of us in this room – we desperately need to hear it – right now. Our culture of shame is a collective trip we buy into, and it requires collective action to let go. We have to lovingly remind ourselves, time and again, that we ought not feel shame for the actions of others – that is for them to bear. It is for us to find our direction again in our own lives.

“If you’re list’ning God, please don’t make it hard to know if we should believe in the things that we see. Tell us, should we run away. Should we try and stay, or would it be better just to let things be?” Dorothy asks pleadingly. This question – right here – might be the heart of the message. The culture of shame we have built as a nation – around women, their bodies, and who gets to decide what – is not to be believed. It is as false as can be. We have fabricated an insane politic that lifts up personal freedom while simultaneously legislating corporate control of one gender’s identity – sometimes with as much emotional impact as other forms of actual assault. Our media blithely discusses “about women” in a way that men would be shocked should we ever do the same to us fellows. For the men in the room – try to imagine any form of legislation that would ever affect us where a panel of women sit and decide what we do with our bodies? Would that feel merely intellectual, or political, or would it feel invasive? Try to imagine a situation where we were the victim of sexual assault and where the news would take the side of the perpetrator or focus on how unfortunate it is that the perpetrator’s life is now ruined. I could not imagine this – at all. It would be seen as horrific, shocking. It would not be read as as simple statistic; a norm to be expected.

Victims of physical violence often internalize the blame – in part because we as a society say that we’re always able to have done something to prevent it – so when we didn’t prevent it we search for why we didn’t prevent it. We do this as kids when we’re hurt as kids. When we’re bullied as teens we draw the lines to why it’s really our fault, even though we hate the bully. And we carry that with us for the rest of our lives. As adults we’ve often convinced ourselves that we are able to accomplish so much so if this happens to us, we should have been able to stop it. And we’re trapped. We’re centered in our sense of shame. We seek to find blame – and while pointing anger toward those who are guilty, secretly – inside – deep down – we believe the lie that it’s about us. We echo the lie our culture tells us to believe.

Central to our faith is the conviction of worth. Our first principle is not a simple belief statement that solely means we’re all inherently worthy. It does mean that too. We have worth – we have human value. It also means that we are tasked with committing ourselves to the discipline of fostering and uncovering the worth in each of us. Shame buries our sense of worth. Shame teaches us to limit who matters and by how much they are allowed to matter. The discipline of worth calls us to challenge anything that diminishes the human spirit.

“And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find a world full of love. Like yours; like me; like home…”. Dorothy blesses us with those closing words. We can turn this around. We are the people we have been waiting for. In all its complexity, all its difficulty – this world full of hurt is also a world full of love. Our hearts that are broken, also carry within them a love that is full whether we have forgotten it or not. In recognizing the careful messages we as a people have crafted around blame, shame, and power we can unlock the fullness of our hearts once more. We have to start by recognizing the messages for what they are. We either see them, or we live by them – and we can’t live by the culture of shame – not truly.

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