What can five gay TV personalities teach 21st century Christians about grace? Before considering this question, perhaps we should ask another. What can one Samaritan teach 1st century Jews about mercy? Quite a lot, it turns out. When questioned by an expert in Jewish law, Jesus answered with a parable about robbery, religion, and unlikely rescue on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:25-37).
Many early interpreters of this story had one thing in common: they equated Jesus with the Samaritan. This reading resonated with early Christians because many of them, prior to conversion, had fallen on hard times and were recipients of Christian charity. It made sense that the kind-hearted Samaritan would represent the Christ who inspired similar acts of mercy among His followers.1 And so from earliest times, the carrier of Jesus’ identity was a person from the margins, someone who was despised, excluded, and considered impure by those at the religious center.
In this presentation, I will liken the queer gaze of five gay TV stars (i.e. their unique way of looking at the world and others) to the divine gaze of Jesus. I realize this may seem like a bridge too far for some. But in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, I invite you to consider whether God might be offering us a contemporary parable about grace and its importance to victims of shame — those who have been stripped of their dignity, robbed of their worth, and cast aside on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Worship and Popular Culture
Each year at the Music and Worship Conference, I read the texts and rituals of popular culture alongside the theology and practice of Christian worship.
Despite significant differences, popular culture and worship share much in common. Both are performative, in that they enact certain beliefs, values, and aspirations. And both are formative, in that they shape participants’ ways of seeing and living in the world.
A close reading of popular culture offers insights into the liturgical instincts of our time in ways that can inform Christian worship. Paul’s preaching in Athens was guided by careful observations of that city’s culture. He saw not only idolatry but a desire to worship, leading him to both commend and correct the Athenians (Acts 17:22-23).
We must similarly engage popular culture with “eyes wide open,”2 setting aside what is false and distorted while affirming and learning from what is good and true. Our approach should rest on the missiological insight that God is already present and working within all cultures to redeem and restore.
Over the years, exploring the intense devotion of a fan community like Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” or the ritual arc of a science fiction movie like Gravity, or the post-traumatic lament expressed in an Icelandic film like Metalhead, has given me an opportunity to revisit Christian worship in new and unconventional ways, across a variety of everyday settings.
I will continue this journey by delving into the world of Queer Eye, a reality TV series that first aired on Bravo as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-2007) and was recently rebooted on Netflix (2018) with a new cast and shortened name.
But first, let me pose a few questions:
• Many worship services provide opportunities for the confession of sin and reception of forgiveness, but do they address the pain of those who come to worship with a deep and persistent sense of inadequacy, inferiority, or defectiveness?
• Are there ways in which worship services may even create or reinforce a sense of worthlessness or unworthiness about our selves — our bodies, our identities, our abilities, or our past experiences?
• What might worship look like if we started with a sensitivity toward those who suffer from a diminished view of themselves and an impaired ability to connect with others?
• Has our worship been so guilt-centered that we have forgotten to be shame-sensitive?
Shame and Guilt
It may be helpful to briefly describe the concepts of shame and guilt. These complex emotional experiences have been approached from basically two standpoints.
First, anthropologists speak about the distinction between private and public. People tend to feel guilt over private wrongdoings and shame about wrongs exposed to the public eye.
In contexts where personal identity largely depends on belonging to a closely bonded group, that group can use shame to exert external pressure on individuals as a way of controlling their behavior. To the extent that a person conforms to group expectations, honor is bestowed. To the degree that a person steps outside of group norms, shame and even rejection may be applied. This is what anthropologists and missionaries refer to as an honor-shame society.3
Honor-shame societies differ from those — such as many in the West — in which identity comes primarily from the individual, and behavior is regulated more by an internalized set of standards that, when violated, translate into guilt.
Andy Crouch summarizes it this way: “In a shame culture, you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you. By contrast, in a guilt culture, you know you are good or bad by how you feel about your behavior and choices.”4
Crouch and others have noted a recent resurgence of shame in our mostly guilt-driven culture, thanks to the rise of social media with its doxing, revenge porn, and Twitter takedowns.
The new, media-amplified shame culture is different from traditional cultures built on honor and shame… If anything, Western culture has become more individualistic… Bestowing and maintaining honor requires the kind of binding community that Western mobility and personal freedom are practically designed to dissolve.
So instead of evolving into a traditional honor-shame culture, large parts of our culture are starting to look something like a postmodern fame-shame culture. Like honor, fame is a public estimation of worth, a powerful currency of status. But fame is bestowed by a broad audience, with only the loosest of bonds to those they acclaim.5
In fame-shame culture acceptance and belonging are a high-wire act, in which one’s sense of worth is tenuous and constantly hanging in the balance.
That fragile existence is the subject of Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.6 Rachel Cook calls it a “catalogue of online humiliations,” filled with story after story of persons who — with one careless Tweet or a single lapse of online judgment — fell off the high-wire of internet acclaim and ended up losing their jobs, their friends, and their reputations. In every instance, Cook says, “people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes.”7
And then there is environmentalist and professor Jennifer Jacquet, author of Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool,8 who argues for the judicious use of shame as a political tool to solve large-scale problems like climate change or Wall Street reform. She says, “The real power of shame is it can scale. It can work against entire countries and can be used by the weak against the strong. Guilt, on the other hand, because it operates entirely within individual psychology, doesn’t scale.”9 But even Jacquet warns against the destructive potential of shame on the personal level.
Psychologists offer a second account of guilt and shame, one that relies on a distinction between behavior and the self. They explain that guilt focuses on specific behaviors, whereas shame focuses on the self as a whole and is pervasive. Guilt says, “I made a mistake.” Shame says, “I am a mistake.”
Well-known shame researcher Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — [that] something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”10
Practical theologian Stephen Pattison describes chronic shame as “toxic unwantedness.” Shamed persons and groups become objects of stigma and rejection. They are subject to the fear and loathing of others. They are often confined to the realm of invisibility. Like social and psychological lepers, they are considered “unclean,” a dangerous contagion, an active threat to order and safety that must be expelled.11
Such shame is highly destructive and deeply connected to a wide range of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, narcissism, substance abuse, self-injury, and eating disorders. However, guilt that is free of shame and results from a personal or spiritual conviction allows for adaptive responses — or healthy changes in attitude or behavior — that can lead to greater flourishing.12 It’s the shame resulting from the coercive, judgmental, abusive, or abandoning practices of families, schools, and religions that becomes harmful.
So, what can be done about shame?
Christine Park explains that “Shame primarily results from profound relational disconnection. Although shame may appear to be an individual problem, it is fundamentally a relational problem, caused by relationships and requires relationships for healing.”13 Our most human of desires — the longing to be connected to other human beings — is what shame cripples.
According to Brown, the antidote to shame is empathy. It requires someone vulnerable enough to reach out and say, “me too” rather than “how could you?”14 Empathy says, “Your circumstances may not be mine, but I too have had nagging doubts, embarrassing problems, and humiliating defeats. You are not alone and you are loved.”
Some might say, “Yes, but aren’t there people who should be ashamed of their behavior?” While it might be tempting to shame some someone in order to induce a sense of guilt or moral responsibility, Brown warns that, “Shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure.”15
Now that we have briefly surveyed the landscape of guilt and shame, let’s turn our attention to the reality TV makeover series, Queer Eye.
First, I should note that “queer” is an umbrella term adopted by a wide range of individuals whose sexual orientation and/or gender identity does not conform to heterosexual and/or cisgender norms. It was reclaimed from derogatory usage in the late 1980s as an empowering identifier and has become increasingly used within the LGBTQ community, with various connotations.
Second, I want to state that one does not need to affirm same-sex sexual behavior in order to engage Queer Eye or remain open to the insights it may offer for Christian worship. The “Fab Five” — the show’s makeover experts — are all gay and either dating or married. This does not prevent God from working in and through them. Certainly, many Adventists will find things in Queer Eye with which they disagree. But as I have maintained in previous presentations, popular culture is always a mixture of good, bad, and redeemable aspects. It is with that spirit that I now approach Queer Eye.
The five men who serve as the show’s lifestyle advisers are Bobby Berk (interior design), Karamo Brown (culture/life coach), Antoni Porowski (food), Jonathan Van Ness (grooming), and Tan France (style).
Like so many makeover TV series, Queer Eye’s mission is clear — transformation. Such shows, including the original Queer Eye, have been accused of creating change through consumption, simply turning people into wealthier — and presumably happier — versions of themselves. Yet, in this new iteration of the show, transformation extends beyond updating a wardrobe, changing a hairstyle, or redesigning a home. Alison Herman writes:
This Fab Five wants to take on its projects’ inner lives as well as their outer presentation; in fact, Queer Eye now sees improvements to the latter as a means to improve the former... By teaching the benefits of a good sauté technique or face scrub, the Five can also impart their wisdom on messier, more intangible issues like emotional labor and vulnerability… Queer Eye wants to improve lives, not just reorder them.16
In an interview with Variety, Karamo says:
When you talk about toxic masculinity, when you talk about the way that men treat their wives or act as fathers or the way they see themselves and their self-esteem — we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to get the world to see it’s not always about the outside, it’s about the inside. How can we really make lasting change in a person?17
What we see time and again throughout the first three seasons is the Fab Five surrounding the subjects of their transformative efforts — also known as “heroes” — with overwhelming positivity. Bobby tells Variety:
When we walk in, we shower these guys with love. It’s really hard for a person to not accept that. It’s hard for them to not want to soak that in, especially because a lot of them don’t really get a lot of that. It broke walls down really quick.18
In fact, many of Queer Eye’s heroes are people who have a diminished view of themselves and are not living into their full potential — either because of the rejection of others, the shame of past mistakes, or the other difficult life circumstances.
What makes the connection between the Fab Five and their heroes so powerful is how the Five use their own life experiences to relate to them. At first glance, everything about the show’s experts seems so put together, so on point, yet inwardly all of them bear their own stories of shame.
Rich Juzwiak suggests that the dark side of such outward achievements for gay men may lie in what is called “the best little boy in the world” syndrome. He explains: “The impetus for ‘best little boy’ tendencies are widely attributed to the deflection of shame that comes from being different and employing external factors to prove your worth.”19 Which only makes the Five’s willingness to break that shell and reveal their struggles all the more significant.
In a Season 3 episode titled “Lost Boy,” we meet Joey Greene, newly appointed program director at Camp Wildwood in Lawson, Kansas. Joey is a recovered alcoholic who lost his marriage and has bounced around for several years, living out of a filthy, run-down RV. This new job, which comes with a modest house on the camp property, is his first chance at a new life and more time to visit with his son.
Bobby, the show’s designer, meets with Joey in the house, which has already taken on the disheveled appearance of the RV.
BOBBY: How long has it been since you had a permanent home?
JOEY: You know, the last place I had a place was in Michigan.
BOBBY: I left home at fifteen and there was a lot of times where I lived in my car. I’ve lived in friends’ basements. So that first time I got an apartment, to where it was like, I don't have to worry about tonight — where I'm gonna sleep — or I don't have to sleep in a car, it was such a big moment for me. So, I get it.
JOEY: That’s kind of been the quest. I might be able to introduce home into my vocabulary again, so that when [my son] comes to visit, it’s not he’s visiting Dad, he’s coming to his house at Dad’s, so he has two homes.
Later on, while teaching Joey how to roll and tie a porchetta, Antoni reveals his own addictive past:
ANTONI: So, you used to cook?
JOEY: I love to cook.
ANTONI: So, what happened? When did you stop cooking for [your son]?
JOEY: I was drinking a lot and that resulted in some serious problems.
ANTONI: I have a very intimate relationship with addiction, and I know what it’s like. It seems like it’s something that you’ve been able to overcome.
JOEY: I have no regrets about putting drinking behind me.
By sharing their own stories of addiction and homelessness, the Fab Five are applying the precise antidote for shame that Brown speaks about — empathy. By saying “me too” they begin to break the bonds of secrecy and silence that shackle their heroes.
On the night of Joey’s big reveal to the camp staff, Karamo meets with him on the porch, gently urging him to come out of the shadows.
JOEY: There was a time when I used to get really, really excited about things and I didn’t feel like I had to hide it.
KARAMO: When was the last time you had a moment that you were the star of the show?
JOEY: That, I think, has always been a thing that’s been missing.
KARAMO: Tonight is your night and you deserve it. Can you just say with me that you deserve tonight?
JOEY: Um… I feel like I deserve to be appreciated…
KARAMO: Just say, “I deserve tonight.” Come on.
JOEY: [hesitating slightly] I deserve tonight.
KARAMO: I’m proud of you. Keep your head high.
When it comes to Queer Eye’s work of inner transformation, this combination of connection, empathy, and affirmation packs a pretty powerful punch. Of course, we ought not forget that this is still reality TV. Herman says, “While a real-life personality overhaul takes years of therapy and halting progress, these transformations fit squarely in the one-and-done hour allotted to them.”20 Nevertheless, she says, the results are “occasionally transcendent.” And that transcendence actually looks a lot like grace.
“God Bless Gay”
Grace is even more explicit in a Season 2 episode, “God Bless Gay.” The Fab Five travel to the town of Gay, Georgia. Population: 89. Strains of “Amazing Grace” play in the background as their black SUV rolls toward a country house with an expansive front porch.
Their hero this time is Mama Tammye, a woman who loves her church, hugs everyone who walks in the door, and longs to finish the congregation’s community center. She is a school teacher, cancer survivor, and mother of three children.
As they arrive, Bobby finishes briefing the Fab Five on the project:
BOBBY: Tammye’s son, Myles, he’s 22, and he just moved back home from Atlanta. He does not feel comfortable going back to their church, because he doesn’t feel welcome anymore after coming out as gay.
JONATHAN: The Church is what I feel alienated by, not God. I feel loved and accepted by God and Jesus. It’s the politics of the Church that’s made me feel not welcome. That was the choir of people saying, “I love you. I just don't accept your lifestyle.”
TAN: I can relate to that.
KARAMO: Not everyone in the Church is that way. And not all churches are that way. I love the Church… I have always used my strength to encourage them to see in a different light.
It’s clear this may be just as much of a journey for the Fab Five into their own hurt as it will be for Myles. As they settle in, Karamo joins Myles for a conversation on the porch:
KARAMO: I can only imagine growing up in this town, being black and gay.
MYLES: Yeah. It’s so hard.
KARAMO: I can understand the feelings of being judged, by experience.
MYLES: I’m so blessed to have a mother like I have ’cause mostly, these mothers here, if you’re gay, you’re gone.
KARAMO: There’s other gay people down here?
MYLES: Like, two. [laughter] It’s just walking down the street, being called the f-word, being called the n-word several times. And being bullied from the start, just because I was different… I just started feeling lonely, you know?
KARAMO: [aside] I see a lot of myself in Myles. I understand what it was like to grow up in the South with a loving family and then to feel some rejection from your family, community, your church. Feeling like, “What do I do now?”
Meanwhile, inside the house, Bobby discloses to Tammye his own misgivings about the church.
BOBBY: You know, I grew up really religious. There wasn’t a day I wasn’t at church. It was my life. Those people were my family.
BOBBY: And I knew from a young age that I was gay. I’d be down there at that altar every Sunday, just crying and begging God to not make me gay. Once everyone there found out, [they] completely turned their back on me. I told myself I’d never go back to a church. I was so hurt. And I know that’s what Myles is going through.
Back on the porch, Karamo asks Myles about his mother:
KARAMO: Has your relationship always been close?
MYLES: No. When I first came out, it was really hard. She came up on the small-town Christian belief that you were condemned, and it was just disgusting, and it’s an abomination. She projected those feelings onto me. Which is hard, to the point where I didn’t like being around her… But she got cancer my senior year of high school. That gave her the time to really sit back and reflect upon her life.
KARAMO: How do you feel about this [church] homecoming your mother is putting together?
MYLES: I’m a little iffy about it. It’s the fear. I don’t know how they will receive me.
As Bobby’s conversation with Tammye continues, she shares her learning since Myles came out:
TAMMYE: I tell people all the time…. “What would Jesus do?” I take that very, very seriously. You can’t antagonize and evangelize at the same time. And that’s why the greatest commandment of these is love. That’s one of the things this homecoming in the community center represents: “Myles, come home.” That’s what we’re gonna tell you. “You’re God’s son. It’s okay.”
Tammye’s insight hasn’t come without a lot of soul-searching. Later, as she shows Antoni and Tan how to make her famous banana pudding, the rest of the story emerges:
TAN: How was it when he first told you he was gay? He told you when he was 14, right?
TAMMYE: Around 14. It took me aback for a while, and it was a process. When God enlightened my heart, we sat around this table… I said, “Mama needs to apologize to you.” And he looked at me and was like, “For what, Mama?” I said, “Because Mama has not loved you unconditionally.” He looked at me, “Mama, I forgave you a long time ago…” And I told him at that point, “Your Mama has your back.”
As the week progresses, the church’s Community Center goes from bare drywall to Pinterest-ready space, complete with a children’s corner. Tammy surveys the handiwork of the Fab Five and sees God’s providence written all over it.
TAMMYE: This place is incredible. And I think everyone involved has grown and been touched this week. I know I have.
BOBBY: Us, too.
TAMMYE: This has been a life-changing week for me. And, you know, it’s just God’s amazing grace that we stand here in this beautiful facility today. Before He gave the vision, He already made provisions, because He knew you guys would wind up together. Even before you were formed in your mothers’ wombs, He knew you. I just — I’m thankful.
As Amazing Grace plays once again, the black SUV heads out of town, and the homecoming service gets underway. Myles is there wearing a new suit and a wide smile, while Tammye addresses the church:
TAMMYE: This week, we worked with the Fab Five. They put their whole heart into the community center. These are five gifted men who are gay. And through the course of the week, you know, we were able to build some relationships. That’s what it’s about, building relationships.
They shared with me how they have been just torn down and rejected. And the church has turned their backs on them. How can I say that I love God, but I cannot love the ones who are right there next to me? I would call myself a hypocrite.
I say I was around five gay men — I was around six. My son walked away from the church, you know, and it’s been my prayer that he comes here and feel the love… The love that surrounds me every Sunday.
Do I love Jesus? Yes. Am I a believer? Yes. Do I love my son? Yes. Yes, yes, yes!
Tammye underscores a point made earlier: shame is a relational problem that requires relationships for healing. Even within the space of a week, a lot of healing has begun. The benefits have flowed not only in the direction of the heroes but into the lives of the Fab Five, as well. Tan says, “Mama [Tammye] has taught me so much about unconditional love.”
Pastoral theologians have noted that while guilty people need to experience the grace of forgiveness, shamed people need to experience the grace of unconditional love and acceptance. According to Neil Pembroke, “Forgiveness alone will not help the person bound by shame. An experience of God’s affirmation and acceptance is also required to support a movement into a feeling of being whole, right, and worthy.”21
To look another in the eye and say, “you are a good,” is not to deny the sinful condition we all share but affirms that person as an image-bearer rather than shame-bearer, as loveable rather than unlovable, as redeemable rather than irredeemable.
Pembroke suggests that we surround others with care. “In this state people as a whole are the object of mercy and love at a moment when they do not have the strength to regard themselves worthy of receiving love and mercy, when they only want to cover their faces, hide, and flee.”22
This brings us to the gaze.
Worship as Surveillance
Writing about the original Queer Eye, scholar James Keller speaks about the show’s trope of surveillance.23 Five gay guys and their camera crew set out to scrutinize every detail of a straight guy’s life, from his beard to his bedroom.
Amidst all the affirmation, ample judgment is meted out by the Fab Five as they rifle through tired wardrobes, stinky refrigerators, and untidy living spaces. Entertainment Weekly cleverly announced: “They’re Here! They’re Queer! And They Don’t Like Your End Tables.”24 Even as the show has expanded to include women and the LGBTQ community, the Five continue, through their gaze, to impose order and discipline on lives deemed slovenly or otherwise in need of improvement.
One might think that such displays of inadequacy brought into the public eye would induce a shame all of their own. Yet, under the expectation of a transformed life, offered by Five of the best friends you’ve never met, it always manages to end well.
At the close of each episode, the Fab Five retreat to their own well-appointed suite. Here, through the eye of the camera, they carefully observe — and mostly affirm — their heroes from a distance, as they haltingly perform self-care rituals taught by the Five and then navigate a culminating social situation with newfound confidence. This final segment only intensifies the sense of surveillance. It suggests that the gaze of the Five is no longer dependent upon their physical presence but has been appropriated by the heroes as they begin their new lives.
Unlike the internalized look of disapproval and disgust that often accompanies shame, Queer Eye encourages those who fall under its discerning yet adoring gaze to see themselves as worthy, beautiful, and lovable human beings.
By contrast, I think of how the Divine Gaze has been often misrepresented and felt by others. Some believers, in an attempt to induce a sense of guilt in those who may seem unrepentant, turn to shame as a spiritual tool.
Job’s friends certainly did. Armed with the pious certainty that Job’s suffering was a sign of God’s displeasure, they attacked his integrity. Lyn Bechtel says, “When their attempts to impose guilt upon him failed, they turned from honoring him to shaming him.”25
Job persisted with God. Yet, as Fraser Watts observes:
To be shamed by another…is more likely to separate the person from God than to draw them close… Those who are locked in shame all too easily feel that the gaze of God deepens their shame, and they long to escape it… [Nevertheless], God does not seek to disgrace or humiliate us in the way that human beings may do… He may discipline and correct in his loving way…but he does not ‘name and shame’… Though he sees all, he loves rather than ridicules what he sees.”26
I suggest that we think of worship also as a form of surveillance. When we bring people, by way of the liturgy, into the presence of God and each other, it is a space saturated with the gaze — not only the Divine Gaze but the gaze of others and even our own internalized gazes. Each of these is loaded with possibilities for judgment and mercy, contempt and love, shame and grace.
Naked and Unashamed
A rather dramatic example of exposure in worship comes from the early Christian baptismal liturgy. Evidence from the first centuries A.D. indicates that baptismal candidates took off their clothes, were anointed from head to toe with oil, and then entered the waters naked — or by some accounts, nearly naked. (Privacy for men and women does appear to have been maintained.) This symbolized leaving behind the trappings of the old, sinful life, with nothing to come between the candidate and the cleansing waters. More significantly, it represented standing before God and others in a renewed, pre-Fall state — naked and unashamed.
John Chrysostom, one of the early church fathers, describes the ritual this way:
After stripping you of your robe, the priest himself leads you down into the flowing waters. But why naked? He reminds you of your former nakedness, when you were in Paradise and you were not ashamed. For Holy Writ says: ‘Adam and Eve were naked and were not ashamed,’ until they took up the garment of sin, a garment heavy with abundant shame. Do not then feel shame here, for the bath is much better than the garden of Paradise.27
Coming out of the water, the candidate was re-robed in a white garment, symbolizing innocence and purity — or the absence of guilt. The white garment may have also alluded to the worthiness — or the absence of shame — of those arrayed in white, described in the book of Revelation (3:4; 19:8, 14).28
Robin Jensen recounts:
Ambrose [a theologian of the fourth century] describes angels looking down upon the neophytes approaching the altar and, seeing them in their natural human state, only a little while before soiled by sin, they are now suddenly resplendent. The angels exclaim: “Who is this, coming up from the desert clothed in white?”29
Like Queer Eye, the baptismal liturgy embodies a dramatic transformation, one that takes place under divine surveillance. Candidates shed old clothes for new garments, follow meticulous anointing and cleansing rituals, and trade in their shame for resplendent glory — all to the astonishment of onlookers, both in heaven and on earth.
While I am not advocating a return to naked baptism, the early Christian practice seems to have grasped the importance of healing shame by symbolically exposing candidates to what Neil Pembroke calls “God’s affirming gaze.”30 Such ritual exposure would seem to run the risk of humiliation. Instead, candidates were met — naked and unashamed — by the welcoming gaze of their fellow congregants.31
So how can we reinstate the affirming gaze of God in worship? Let me close with two stories from the gospel of Luke that Pattison finds “theologically suggestive in approaching shame.”32
Healing the Posture of Shame in Worship
In Luke 13, Jesus encounters a woman on the Sabbath who has been bent over for 18 years, unable to look others in the eye. She is the picture of shame, her downward gaze cutting her off from meaningful interaction with others. Jesus calls her forward, frees her from her weakened condition, and leaves her standing straight and strong. Imagine the difference this must have made! Jesus healed her shameful posture and literally gave her “face” in the eyes of the community.
But there is more to the story. The president of the synagogue scolds Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, and Jesus calls out his hypocrisy. “How is it that you can untie your donkey for a Sabbath drink, yet this woman cannot be loosed from her life of bondage?” The president and his friends are humiliated. They “lose face,” having excluded themselves from the crowd rejoicing in the miracle of Jesus.
Sabbath worship should be a place where people are loosed from the bondage of shame. However, this story alerts us to a politics of shame. There may be some who actually benefit by keeping others in a diminished state. That payoff may be found in maintaining the perceived purity of the church by not allowing those deemed as morally weak or sinful to have visibility. That payoff may also take the form of elevating oneself over others by treating them as defective or inferior, what Bechtel calls “status manipulation.”33 In other words, one person’s shame can be used for another person’s gain.
Furthermore, some in the church have come to believe that shame has a redemptive quality — that certain people, just by virtue of an assumed moral defect, should remain in a constant state of shame in order to prove their faithfulness to God and their desire to belong in the church. Consequently, any real affirmation is held back from these individuals, consigning them to a purgatory-like state.
This is not right. Those who walk through our doors on a Sabbath morning should not only have the opportunity to confess their sins and receive forgiveness but also to experience God’s affirmation through the liturgy. Every person should receive the unequivocal assurance that, despite their brokenness, they are whole and loved and beautiful in God’s eyes.
Redrawing the Margins in Worship
The second story, found in Luke 19, is a familiar one. Zacchaeus is a man with a diminished stature, both physically and socially — another classic portrait of shame. He struggles to see and be seen. He is a figure of contempt: labeled as a shameless and unrepentant sinner, marginalized by his own community. Jesus stops under the sycamore, calls Zacchaeus by name, and says “Come down, I must stay at your house today.”
Practical theologian John Swinton says this:
Often we think of Jesus’ ministry as being with and for the marginalized. Such a perception, I would suggest, is mistaken. Think of it in this way. Jesus who is God enters into relationships of friendship with those whom society has marginalized. But in so doing Jesus shifts the margins. The religious community continues to carry out the rituals and practices that they think bring them closer to God. But God is somewhere else: with those whom they have marginalized: with Jesus. So it turns out that it is the religious folks that are marginalized because they could not understand the significance of those whom they chose to reject.34
As the eyes of Jesus fall upon Zacchaeus, His gaze immediately re-orders the community — notions about who is in and who is out, who is at the margins and who is at the center. Zacchaeus becomes the unlikely and unsuspecting “hero” that day — the center of Jesus’ undivided attention. The Fabulous One is coming to his house!
Think of it as an episode of “Divine Eye for the Diminished Guy.” Under the affirming and rehabilitating gaze of the Savior, Zacchaeus’ life will never be the same — beginning with his social standing and ending with his bank account. If “queer,” in its broadest sense, is about living outside of conventional norms and challenging established paradigms, then no one fits that definition better than Jesus. Zacchaeus — the shamed one, the diminished one, the “sinner” everyone has rejected — is the one on whom Jesus displays his unmerited and empowering favor.
I say: let’s design a worship community around this. This kind of love. This kind of grace.
Notes & References:
1. Riemer Roukema, “The Good Samaritan in Ancient Christianity,” Vigiliae Christianae 58, no. 1 (February, 2004), 56-74.
2. William Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007).
3. Lyn M. Bechtel, “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel: Judicial, Political, and Social Shaming,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 49 (1991), 51.
4. Andy Crouch, “The Return of Shame,” Christianity Today 59, no. 2 (March 2015), http://andy-crouch.com/articles/the_return_of_shame
5. Crouch, “The Return of Shame.”
6. Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (New York, Riverhead Books, 2015).
7. Rachel Cook, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Is Shame Necessary? Review – Think Before You Tweet,” The Guardian, March 15, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/15/publicly-shamed-jon-ronson-is-shame-necessary-jennifer-jacquet-review-think-before-you-tweet
8. Jennifer Jacquet, Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (New York: Pantheon Books, 2015).
9. Corbyn, Zoë, “Jennifer Jacquet: ‘The power of shame is that it can be used by the weak against the strong,’” The Guardian, March 6, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/06/is-shame-necessary-review
10. “Shame v. Guilt,” Brene Brown, January 14, 2013, accessed April 4, 2019, https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/
11. Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 183.
12. Christine J. Park, “Chronic Shame: A Perspective Integrating Religion and Spirituality,” Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 35, no. 4 (September, 2016), 356, https://doi.org/10.1080/15426432.2016.1227291
13. Park, “Chronic Shame,” 355.
14. Brene Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED2012, video, 20:32 (18:55), https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame/transcript?language=en#t-80669
15. Brown, “Shame v. Guilt.”
16. Alison Herman, “Netflix’s ‘Queer Eye’ Is a Makeover Show Built for 2018,” The Ringer, (March 1, 2018), accessed April 4, 2019, https://www.theringer.com/tv/2018/3/1/17067190/queer-eye-review-netflix
17. Cynthia Littleton, “‘Queer Eye’s’ Fab Five Reveal Complications in Connecting With Some Makeover Subjects,” Variety, accessed April 4, 2019, https://variety.com/2018/tv/features/queer-eye-emmys-reality-conversation-contenders-1202843269/
18. Littleton, “‘Queer Eye’s’ Fab Five Reveal Complications in Connecting With Some Makeover Subjects.”
19. Rich Juzwiak, “Queer Eye’s Needlessly Woke Makeover,” The Muse (February 7, 2018), accessed April 4, 2019, https://variety.com/2018/tv/features/queer-eye-emmys-reality-conversation-contenders-1202843269/ See also John E. Pachankis and Mark L. Hatenbuehler, “The Social Development of Contingent Self-Worth in Sexual Minority Young Men: An Empirical Investigation of the ‘Best Little Boy in the World’ Hypothesis,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 23 (2013), 176-190, DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2013.764304.
20. Herman, “Netflix’s ‘Queer Eye’ Is a Makeover Show Built for 2018.”
21. Neil Pembroke, Pastoral Care in Worship: Liturgy and Psychology in Dialogue (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 40.
22. Pembroke, Pastoral Care in Worship, 39.
23. James Keller, “Does he think we are not watching?: Straight Guys and the Queer Eye Panopticon,” Studies in Popular Culture 26, No. 3 (April 2004), 49-60.
24. Entertainment Weekly, August 8, 2003.
25. Bechtel, “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel,” 72-73.
26. Fraser Watts, “Shame, Sin and Guilt,” in Forgiveness and Truth, ed. A. MacFadyen and M. Sarot (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 64 accessed on April 4, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265102387_4_Shame_Sin_and_Guilt
27. Quoted in Robin Jensen, Living Water: Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism (Leiden, Brill Academic, 2010), 167, https://doi.org/10.1163/ej.9789004188983.i-306
28. Jensen, Living Water, 168.
29. Jensen, Living Water, 169.
30. Pembroke, Pastoral Care in Worship, 40. Recall also God’s affirming gaze at Jesus’ own baptism: “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”(Mt. 3:17)
31. Cyril of Jerusalem, a fourth century theologian, also describes the baptismal ritual: “Upon entering you took off your clothing…. This was a remarkable occasion, for you stood in the sight of all and you were not ashamed. You truly mirrored our first-created parent, Adam, who stood naked in Paradise and was not ashamed.” Quoted in Jensen, Living Water, 158.
32. Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology, 307-308.
33. Bechtel, “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel,” 64.
34. John Swinton, “Using Our Bodies Faithfully: Christian Friendship and the Life of Worship,” Journal of Disability & Religion, 19, no. 3, 240, DOI: 10.1080/23312521.2015.1062350.
Steve Yeagley is the Assistant Vice President for Campus and Student Life at Andrews University and an adjunct professor of Youth Evangelism at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. This article was originally presented at the Andrews University Music & Worship Conference on April 5, 2019, and originally appeared in print on the NAD Ministerial website. It is reprinted here with permission.
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