Because of a Common Lectionary used by numerous denominations, millions of Christians on Sunday heard the same story read to them from the Bible about Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath. I’ve preached on the passage many times in my years as a pastor, but this time what stood out to me was the role that shame plays in the story.
The synagogue leaders – true political and religious elites – attempted to shame Jesus’ followers for seeking healing on the Sabbath and Jesus himself for healing them. His response was a classic challenge to the old ways of doing things. In true fashion Jesus turned things upside down and inside out. Instead of responding to shame by hiding, avoiding and withdrawing, he gave an opposite action – he went public. He stood firm in his moral values, he continued his interaction with the crowd and he kept a steady voice for the moral and spiritual laws of mercy and justice-love. He set aside tradition for the sake of a new Sabbath.
The passage and the role played by shame rang painfully true to me. Over the past few years in North Carolina, we’ve seen a similar dynamic: political and religious elites attempting to use law to shame the state’s most vulnerable. The attempted shaming comes under different guises:
▪ House Bill 2 shames LGBTQ folks, the working class and the poor.
▪ Voter ID shames those whose life circumstances have made it harder for them to have an ID: people of color, poor people and even truer for the elderly in those groups.
▪ Blatant attempts to restrict early voting and reduce voting sites: those who’d need to take time from work but can’t; those who don’t have reliable transportation; those new to the states; tens of thousands of college students.
While these efforts are about politics at their meanest, they are also about something much worse. Like the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day, these efforts are about shame. All of these acts of oppression are politically positioned not just to limit access to basic rights, but to invoke shame – to shift the focus from actions of those in power, actions rooted in insecurity, greed and self-interest to the perceived inadequacies and sins of those of us who dare to stand outside the dominate narrative, either by birth or by choice or both. They are an attempt to communicate to the poor, the working class, people of color and the LGBTQ community that they ought to be ashamed of who they are.
These laws effectively make it harder for these people to exercise what we in our Constitution claim is a God-given right. And in doing that, like reading tests and poll taxes of the old Jim Crow, these laws communicate that these people have to work just a little bit harder to show that they should be granted what we say God already gave them. In short, we shame them.
The opposite action approach that Jesus modeled for us not only defends against false claims, it denies them – by going public against undeserved shame, we take away its power. If we cannot be shamed for being poor, then we can go about the business of being human. If we cannot be shamed for being queer, we can lobby for equal employment rights. If we cannot be shamed for being black, then we can call out the injustices we experience and demand that America fulfill her original dreams and her higher nature.
As the popular anti-HB2 slogan puts it, we are not this. North Carolinians shouldn’t be about shame. It should be about freedom and opportunity. Like Jesus called for a new Sabbath, it is high time that we call for a new politics: one that rejects the politics of shame and instead embraces all people, regardless of color, creed or class. It is time to go public with the politics of shame. Like Jesus and the old lady, only then can we begin to heal.
The Rev. Nancy E. Petty is pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh.