My training as a cross-cultural mission partner taught me that there are many ways to talk of the gospel. The book of Acts shows St Paul adjusting his message depending on who he was talking to. For Jews he spoke of their history (Acts 13); for the Greek philosophers he uses their altar to the unknown God as a way to connect with them, (Acts 17) for travelling Jewish exorcists he cast out an evil spirit to demonstrate the power of Jesus. (Acts 19). I am convinced that in speaking of the gospel to those who struggle with shame, we need to emphasise aspects of the gospel which address shame.
But our churches in the UK mainly address guilt.
Jayson Georges (Georges, 2017) suggests that because cultures round the world have three main worldviews we should have different ways to speak of the gospel to each. He talks of guilt/innocence cultures, which are present in most Western countries, shame/honour cultures which are mainly present in Asia and North Africa and fear/power cultures which are present in cultures which fear the spirit world such as in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. We need to present the gospel in a way which addresses guilt in the West, shame in Asia and fear (of malign spirits) in Africa and South America.
However, this is clearly an oversimplification, particularly as societies become more multi-cultural, and even in the West there is something for us to learn from comparing all three ways of looking at the gospel. Withers (Withers, 2022) points out that both the guilt/innocence and the fear/power versions of the gospel, though they have helpful elements, draw a clear demarcation between those who are in the Kingdom and those who are out. The guilt/innocence version says, ‘If you haven’t said the prayer of commitment to Jesus you are out.’ The fear/power one might say,’ If you can’t yet speak in tongues you are out.’ The shame/honour version is different. It sees God as saying to each of us, ‘You are valuable in yourself and I honour you.’ This is how Jesus dealt with those who were at the edge of things. It recognises that each of us can be on a journey towards God, and doesn’t shut us out if we haven’t yet got very far. It seems to me that this is much more helpful to our tenants, because it heals their shame with affirmation.
Shame and trauma often go together in people’s lives: their traumas are the source of an ongoing sense of shame. If something overwhelmingly traumatic happens, the victim feels shame because they were unable to prevent it or protect themselves from it.
So how do we talk about the gospel in ways that take into account people’s histories of shame and trauma? I have written a little book about a way to talk about the Cross healing shame (Winfrey, 2019). It comes down to emphasising that Jesus stood in solidarity with us in our shame by enduring the most shameful death the Romans could devise. In the story of Jesus, vulnerability is an essential aspect of God’s posture towards us. In the wilderness he was tempted to leave vulnerability behind. But he didn’t. He, like us, continues to be open to pain, rejection and death. He can do this because of the support of the rest of the Trinity. ‘In the [trinitarian] relationship of constant self-giving, vulnerable and joyful love, shame has no oxygen to breathe’ (Thompson, 2015, p. Loc 1873) He models for us how vulnerability doesn’t have to be shameful, and how community can enable us not to sink into shame because of it.
Jesus also endured a lot of trauma in his life: he was a refugee as a small child, he was threatened with being thrown off a cliff in response to his first sermon, he was told by his family he was mad, he was humiliated by religious leaders, he was betrayed by his friends, unjustly condemned to death, was homeless, flogged, tortured and pinned up naked in front of jeering crowds. It seems to me that emphasising Jesus being ‘God-with-us’ – God who comes down to our level and suffers with us, is an important part of what our gospel has to say to those who have been traumatised. If we only speak of what happened on Good Friday, we miss so much else which is important about Jesus’s time on earth. We need to correct the imbalance which in some churches has played down the importance of the incarnation in favour of only talking about the Cross.
In reflecting on work with people who are disadvantaged and who have been abused, I have come to the following conclusions.
- Calling us to admit we are sinners to God as judge before we do almost anything else, as the Anglican and Catholic communion services do, is not a good welcome for those coming to church full of shame.
- Emphasising God as a ruler will be difficult and possibly triggering for those who have been mistreated by authority figures.
- Presenting the meaning of the cross primarily as a legal transaction will put off people who have been condemned in court.
- Saying God is both wrathful and loving, as the penal substitutionary explanation of the Cross says, will be too much like their abuser for someone who has escaped the cycle of domestic abuse.
- If it has taken great courage to rebel against your abuser, it will not be helpful to be told that your primary issue is rebellion against God.
- Leaving out feminine images of God and only using male ones may make it very difficult for abused women to feel that God can ever be trusted.
Instead, let us speak of a God who sees us as people who are his creation in whom he delights.
Let us demonstrate by our actions the character of the God who saw how we are trapped in brokenness and came down to earth to stand in solidarity with us both when we are sinned-against and when we hurt others.
Let us speak of Christ who heals all of us, dressing our wounds, affirming us as his beloved children and challenging us to leave behind habits and mistakes which have marred our lives so we can live in greater wholeness.
Let us remember that God has both male and female characteristics, and allow those who are vulnerable to focus on the ones that most help them to trust.
Let us follow God because that gives our lives meaning, and let us do this in the context of a network of loving relationships with people who love God too.
This is how we move from shame to trust.
Georges, J. (2017). The 3D gospel: ministry in guilt, shame and fear cultures. Time Press.
Thompson, C. (2015). The Soul of Shame: retelling the stories we belive about ourselves. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Winfrey, R. (2019). The cross and shame: speaking of atonement to a shame-filled society. Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd.
Withers, T. (2022). Shame and the gospel: transforming our view of the good news and our Christian communities. Welwyn Garden City: Malcolm Down Publishing.