January 19, 2016 Austin Bailey

Jesus and a Theology of Shame

I write about shame from experience, and to counteract its intrinsic nature to be hidden and prevent healing. I see the life of Christ welcoming people from shame, and orienting them toward accepting grace. In this framework, shame is not the end of the discussion but rather has potential to bring others into the public square. Shame and publicity are antithetical, and the intersection epitomizes the meaning of “public”. There is an important discussion to be had when shame and openness meet. The goal in this post is to outline inner life effects of shame and how the call of Christ invites people to heal and unabashedly express themselves.

You have head the voice of shame if you have ever felt worthless, underachieving compared to peers, a confusion toward personal identity, a desire to hide actions/emotions/thoughts, or difficulty being vulnerable/compassionate.[1] Brene’ Brown –someone who has popularized the shame discussion from a clinical study POV – has said in her viral TED videos, “If you are breathing you have felt shame.” This is good in at least one respect:

no one is alone in the experience of shame.

There are several ways in which these emotions seem to disagree with the message of what Christ wants us to feel as children of God (as others on ECCLĒSIAM have mentioned, narrative theologies hopefully can account for these intrinsic human experiences that sometimes get overlooked in solely, theoretical works in theology). Because Jesus was incarnate God, what was the emotional milieu Jesus created for his followers and in turn told them to create in the world? Sometimes the emotional messages of Jesus get overlooked for our higher pursuit of something better in the cognitive part of the human experience. But as plenty have noted,

we do not become more spiritual when we are less human, making our emotional life just as important as other parts.

The Scriptures depict Yahweh, Jesus and the Spirit advocating for the widow, the poor, the exploited, the outcast, and in some sense these each point to the emotional affirmation God provides through his own miraculous action and his followers. God has not left these in shame, but looks to affirm them in their moments of need so they can do the same for others. However, our public sphere is not so forgiving or nurturing, and demands an emotional maturity from Christ followers to withstand not only the lack of affirmation, but also direct, verbal assaults on identity. Christ possessed this confidence in identity, giving him clear direction on how to act in the assailing, public environment.

Jesus’ relationship to political figures was shrewd, assertive and subversive, and he acted from an identity that did not have to compete for God’s attention nor prove himself to feel valued. Shrewd, in the way he didn’t accept praise from people (Jn. 5:41), assertive in his judgment of Herod the fox (Lk. 13:32), and subversive in his demonstration of greater power by healing one of Rome’s own (Lk. 7:1-10). Jesus’ political orientation can be described by many other factors, attesting to the multivalent nature of his interactions with politics and our interpretations of those interactions. Whatever our interpretations, we can observe that Jesus was not ashamed of any of his perspectives to the point where he wouldn’t share them (e.g. “You brood of vipers…”). Neither was he ambivalent about what to say for fear of people’s opinions, unlike the Pharisees when they were questioned about where John the Baptist received his authority and they refused to give their opinion (Mt. 21:24).

Jesus embodies the antithesis of one walking in shame, welcoming his followers to do the same in the most public of situations and regardless of the retaliation.

Shame cowers from the public sphere, and politics thrive there. Yet those who follow the teachings of Christ walk into a shameless, public position as those affirmed by God so our lights can “shine before men” (Mt. 5:16). To express ourselves within the public sphere, we must know, think about, act out, and embody the message of Christ. It must be that we are so connected to Christ and His message through the Spirit in order to walk out a life that is beyond shame. This is life we are called to as Christians.


[1] For one the most descriptive accounts of internal process of shame see Gershen Kaufman, Shame: The Power of Caring, (Rochester: Shenkman Books), 1992.

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About the Author

Austin Bailey Austin and his wife Rene' work for Winston Salem Christian School in North Carolina, where they are enjoying their little girl, Hope. Austin finished his B.S. in Practical Theology/Church Ministries from Southeastern University in 2008, and completed his M.Div. from Regent University in 2013