Posted by: Jack Brown | April 5, 2014

The Shame is Not Ours, It’s His

It was, of all things, an episode of “Law and Order: SVU.” And to be honest, it wasn’t a very good one (as is often the case these days since the franchise is definitely past its sell-by date). But I watched it anyway because the subject matter was one in which I have a personal interest. The storyline may have been borrowed from the Ernest Lorch youth basketball scandal, but it also eerily echoed the Jerry Sandusky situation at Penn State (even though this episode predated Sandusky’s indictment by a month or two). It hit all the relevant notes: a popular sports coach who ran a private foundation to “help” young boys, an accusation of sexual abuse, a fervent denial…all the ugliness we watched unfold on our TV screens a couple of years ago, only this time it was fictional, and wrapped up in an hour (wouldn’t it be great if life were like that?).

At the end of the episode a huge NBA star steps forward to admit he, too, was abused by the coach, leading to his arrest. In a very poignant scene, a young boy we saw earlier playing for the coach’s program watches his hero tell the painful story on TV and breaks into tears himself, falling into his mother’s arms. No words needed to be spoken to see the deep well of pain about to finally be opened so he can find healing. And I loved the last words of the NBA star, as he pleaded with any victims listening to his words to remember: “The shame is not ours, it’s his.”

Those were words I needed to hear. Because I, too, encountered a sexual predator when I was very young–the janitor at my elementary school. And that encounter had effects that were long-lasting and far-reaching. For decades I have denied what happened and minimized it, calling it “nothing” because it “wasn’t as bad” as what other children have experienced. But the truth was I was running from the truth because the truth was too painful.

Interestingly enough, it was the word “shame” that God used to start me down the road to healing. A couple of years ago some organizations here in Michigan had run afoul of some local unions, and the striking workers gathered in front of the buildings holding signs that said “SHAME ON ___________,” and every time I drove by those signs I felt sick inside. Just seeing them provoked a visceral reaction in me that was overwhelming. I couldn’t explain it–something about those words provoked emotions much stronger than seemed appropriate. And the more I explored what it was that set me off, the more I centered on the word “shame.” I came to realize just how much I despise that word. As it turns out, I had good reason.

I once heard someone define “shame” as the deep feeling that there is something seriously, irreparably, disturbingly wrong with us. It’s a profound sense of inferiority, failure, and inadequacy. To feel shame is to feel “damaged” and “defective.” When you think about that definition, I have to ask: how in the world can we POSSIBLY ever wish that on someone? To say “Shame on you!” (which I fear is far more commonly said than I’m even aware) is one of the darkest, most vile things we could ever wish on someone. For years I struggled with an overwhelming sense that I was a complete and utter failure, which I am now able to see is rooted in my experiences as a child. The message I received at the hands of a sick person told me I was little more than an object, good only for certain things and ultimately only good to be tossed away when no longer useful. As a result, shame was my constant companion for years.

We are currently heading towards the end of the season of Lent, a time of year where Christians intentionally sit with the meaning of Jesus’ death, a season of deep reflection and meditation on the meaning of the cross. And in recent days a particular passage has jumped out at me from the book of Hebrews:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”–Hebrews 12:1-2

I’m struck by that phrase “scorning its shame,” referring to how Jesus himself viewed the cross. In Roman times to die on the cross was the ultimate form of shaming–it wasn’t just a death sentence, it was a death sentence carried out to publicly humiliate and degrade the victim. Death by crucifixion was the culture’s way of saying, “Here is someone who not only isn’t worthy of living, he’s not even worthy of dying with dignity.”

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “scorned” the shame of the cross. Other translations use the words “disregard” or “ignore” instead of “scorn.” I prefer the latter–it’s stronger language that implies for me a holy anger on the part of Jesus. It suggests to me that Jesus was well aware of the “defectiveness”–the failure and worthlessness associated with the cross–and that he was not only aware of it…he hated it. He hated the effect sin has had on humanity, the inadequacy and self-hatred that came with our brokenness, and out of that hatred he was willing to take it on himself for our sake.

I believe the root of shame is deception–it’s a place where we come to believe lies about ourselves, lies that tell us we are defined by our failures, our hurt, and our pain. And when I contemplate that Jesus looked those lies straight in the face, scorned them, and offered his life to break their power, I am wordless before that truth. Like Job, I place my hand over my mouth in silent awe. The message of the cross is that we are not defined by the dark voices of shame. We are defined by the steadfast, self-sacrificing love of God demonstrated on the cross. In essence, he looked at our brokenness and said: “The shame is not yours, it’s mine.” Not because he deserved it, but because he was willing to take it unjustly so that we could be free from it forever.

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