Judith Rossall invites us to consider the link between shame and violence. She will be writing a further post for us later in the year relating the ideas shared in this post to a specific biblical text.

As preachers we need to grapple with the biblical texts which apparently commend violence – this is important work. We also need to do much more in our different churches to enable those who are victims of violence to be confident that they will be heard and protected. But what, if anything, can we say to those who know that they have perpetrated violence in the past, or who struggle today with the temptation to lash out when they are under pressure? This is a huge question and not one which can be answered in a single blog, rather I want to begin simply by arguing that all preachers need to reflect on the fact that it is now clear that domestic abuse and other forms of violence can happen within families who are part of our congregations. This means that we may well have not simply the victim but also the perpetrator before us as we preach and they may be sat next to each other, hoping that no-one realises that their perfect family is, in reality, anything but. Simply to reflect on this may change the way we preach but for the rest of this blog, I want to introduce some work on the link between shame and violence which might begin to give us ideas for how to preach to the violent among us. 

Photo: Inzmam Khan (Pexels)

Let’s start by asking – what do we mean by ‘shame’. This is not a simple question even though ‘shame’ is a common enough word; the reality is that we can use it differently in different contexts.  At the most basic understanding, we can contrast shame with guilt. If we feel guilt when we believe that we have done something wrong, we feel shame when we believe that there is something wrong with us. In theory, at least, shame is a more global emotion than guilt and can therefore be both more difficult to experience and more difficult to discuss.  Psychologists regularly point out that even talking about shame can be shaming. This means that there may be people in our congregations who are struggling with shame but either do not want to admit it or find it difficult to find the words to describe it. Shame is an inarticulate emotion which can literally rob us of words. 

Shame is about our self-perception but also our beliefs about how others see us and how well we have, or have not, lived up to the standards of the society around us. Even if no-one knows about the cause of our shame, we can easily imagine their reaction if they did and assume that if our shame was known we would be treated with contempt. 

What is more, shame can have positive effects, provided it does not become disabling. There is, after all, a right way to be concerned about how others view us – it helps us to set boundaries and treat others with respect. But while shame can help us to be more aware of the needs of others, for some people shame focusses their interest and concern solely on themselves, thus psychologists often note that a higher tendency to experience shame can (in some people) be linked to a lack of empathy for others. 

In the 1990’s Donald Nathanson suggested that we could understand our reactions to shame using what he called a compass – four very different strategies for coping with what can be overwhelming feelings. This compass is helpful because it reminds us of the varieties of ways that people respond to shame. At the different poles are withdrawal, avoidance, attacking self and attacking others. 

So, violence is only one possible response to shame – but there are many who argue that shame lurks behind all or nearly all acts of violence. In particular, James Gilligan, after 35 years working with violent offenders, has argued that the most basic cause of violent behaviour is the desire to ward off or eliminate feelings of shame and humiliation and also to replace shame with a sense of self-worth. Gilligan even noted that realising this helped him to understand the story of Cain and Abel; one way to interpret what happens when they bring their offerings is that Abel was shown respect and Cain was disrespected – Cain’s response was not simply violence but murder. [1]

Since Gilligan’s work was first published others have explored the link between shame and violence in a number of ways. For example, Jonathan Asser has explored his own difficulties with rage and worked on ways to intervene with violent criminals; he writes of the role of shame in both.[2] Thomas Scheff (and others) has proposed that the roots of conflicts and war lie in unacknowledged feelings of shame and rage.[3]

But how might recognising this link affect how we preach, particularly on texts which appear to encourage violence? This is such a difficult question that it seems important to be begin by acknowledging that my aim here is to spark a debate, not to suggest that I have any kind of easy answers. In particular, it matters that we acknowledge our limits when talking about some of the deep psychological struggles that others face, most preachers will not be trained psychotherapists and must avoid appearing to have simplistic solutions. I do want to suggest, however, that there are some steps that we can take. 

Photo: Cottonbro (Pexels)

All preachers can be aware of the growing number of books and articles which tackle the issue of shame and the impact that it can have. A good place to start is with the edition of Anvil which came out in 2021 and is focussed entirely on the subject but I have added further suggestions at the bottom of this blog. I would suggest that preachers speaking about shame from pulpit/lectern will help to create a culture in which it is easier for people in the congregation to acknowledge their own struggles with the issue.

When dealing specifically with issues around violence, we must, of course, avoid the implication that violence can be excused because the offender was struggling with shame. Violence is traumatic for the victim and we are becoming increasingly aware that too often, for example, survivors of sexual or domestic abuse have been taught that Christianity means forgiving their abuser too easily or even staying in harmful relationships. We can, however, point to places in the biblical text where shame leads to violence, while acknowledging that this is a difficult issue. Above all, we can avoid a simple and blanket condemnation of those who are violent, recognising that if we shame someone who struggles with a temptation to resort to physical force, the work that I have highlighted above suggests that they are likely to become more rather than less violent. 

Suggested further resources on shame 

Brené Brown is perhaps the most famous writer on shame and her TED talks are freely available. ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ is a first introduction to how shame distorts relationship and is caused by people believing they are unworthy of love and belonging. The follow-up talk ‘Listening to Shame’, explores the importance of talking about the issue of shame specifically, and exposing its roots in undermining creativity and risk taking.​ It can be found at:  https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en

CMS dedicated an entire issue of Anvil to shame, it is available to read online: https://churchmissionsociety.org/anvil-journal-theology-and-mission/mission-and-shame-anvil-journal-of-theology-and-mission-vol-37-issue-2/

Davis, Janet, My Own Worst Enemy : How to Stop Holding Yourself Back (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 2012), A conversation between biblical women in the bible and contemporary Christian women seeking to overcome the debilitating effects of shame with the help of Christ.

Rossall, JudithForbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves : Reading the Bible with the Shamed (London: SCM, 2020). This is my exploration of shame as a central theme in Scripture and helpful lens through which to read the Bible. In one review a preacher commented that they had immediately changed their sermon for the next week after reading this. 

Thompson, Curt, The Soul of Shame : Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves (IVP, 2018). Thompson is a psychiatrist writing for Christians and this is an accessible and practical book with lots of suggestions for those in ministry.

Winfrey, Rebecca, The Cross and Shame : Speaking of Atonement to a Shame-Filled Society (Cambridge UK: Grove Books, 2019). A Grove Booklet, focussed specifically on how to talk about salvation through the lens of shame. 

Judith Rossall is a Methodist Presbyter and tutor in Church History, Preaching and Spirituality at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham.  She is the author of Living the Story: What It Was Like to Be There – Dramas That Bring the Bible Alive, (Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 2003) and Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves : Reading the Bible with the Shamed (London: SCM Press, 2020).  She is a member of the Steering Group for the Transforming Shame Network and is involved with Inclusive Gathering which meets in Birmingham and Worcester. 

[1] James Gilligan, ‘Shame, Guilt, and Violence’, Social Research, 70.4 (2003), 1149–80 (p. 1154).
[2] Jonathan Asser, ‘“If I Move He’ll Attack”: Mastering Rage in Prisoners’, Guardian Newspaper <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/09/attack-body-language-critical-mastering-rage-in-prisoners> [accessed 16 January 2024].
[3] Thomas Scheff, Bloody Revenge : Emotions, Nationalism, and War (London: Routledge, 2020).

As always, guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

The Violent Among Us
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