by John B
How many times have you been to a church function — formal dinner, potluck, or just a picnic — and heard a minister intone a prayer that included the following words: “Thank you, Father, for this food, and help us appreciate the fact that many in the world don’t get enough to eat”?
How did you feel when you heard that? How well did you enjoy your meal? How big a shadow was cast over your pleasure in the event? Did you feel ashamed of having enough to eat?
When you were a child, did your parents ever admonish you for doing something and tell you “you should be ashamed of yourself!”, or “don’t you have any shame!“? Did either of your parents ever tell you “I’m ashamed of you!”?
If it didn’t happen to you, have you ever seen it happen to someone else?
The Unholy “Trinity”
A great deal has been said, on this site and elsewhere, about the role of guilt and fear in religion. Shame also fits into that category. Guilt triggers fear, but shame triggers guilt. If there truly is a “trinity”, it is those three: shame, guilt, and fear. They are the cornerstone of a “successful” religious experience — without them, many people would never be religious at all.
Not all guilt comes from shame; Herbert Armstrong and his ministers were very good at creating guilt out of the failure to obey biblical laws such as the sabbath, tithing, clean and unclean meats. Once they were able to convince you those things were actually required, you felt guilty if you disobeyed them.
But more often than not, shame came from the local ministry. Those who merely read The Plain Truth or listened to the broadcast were never subjected to the level of degradation reserved for church members. At the local level, ministers delved into your personal life. They talked about sex (a LOT!), and by the time they were done you were ashamed of even having sexual organs, never mind what you did with them. You were shamed for casting a lustful eye at a skimpily clad model, for occasionally relieving yourself when the wife wasn’t in the mood (or if you were single), and (for couples) of not achieving orgasm at the same instant (a virtual impossibility with most people).
You were paying three tithes and giving “generous offerings” of your remaining dwindling funds, yet you were made to feel ashamed for not giving more. You were made to feel ashamed for having enough to eat when people in third-world countries were starving (even if you were living on macaroni and cheese). You were shamed for eating white bread and white sugar. You were shamed for not wanting to sacrifice your only day off (Sunday) to raise funds for the local congregation, or paint some elderly person’s house.
And, assuming you were not guilty of any of the above transgressions, you were made ashamed of not spending more time with your family.
In God’s True Church, you simply could never win. More than that, you couldn’t break even.
It Starts With Children
If it was bad for adults, imagine what it was like for the kids. Little children, completely innocent, were portrayed as being filled with “angry, hateful human nature” (thank you, Garner Ted!). They were evil from birth, and the evil had to be beaten out of them with the “rod of correction” — usually a flat board with holes drilled into it that, if used in Abu Graib, would be grounds for court-martial. The ministry spoke of “paddling”, which, translated, meant “to within an inch of your life”. (How many times have you seen parents, during services, take their small children out and hammer them until the child could no longer cry? Perhaps you’ve done it yourself.)
Children are innocent by nature. They are born with natural instincts that were placed there by whatever force of nature — be it god or evolution, created them — just like small animals of all species. Those instincts are placed there to ensure their survival, or at least give them a fighting chance. In the human species (or whatever you choose to call it), we have rules that need to be obeyed for the greater good of all, and those must be taught to a growing child. Violence toward others needs to be corrected, but simply beating a child because of inherent “human nature” should, on the face of it, be obviously wrong. Yet that is what the Worldwide Church of God taught when I was growing up.
I fear many of the splinter groups are teaching the same thing today.
The Effects of Shame
I’m not a psychologist. I’m not trained in any of the social sciences. But I do have eyes, and I do have experience. I spent several years in Alcoholics Anonymous, fighting my own addiction. I learned more of value there in three years than I learned in the WCG in 40 years. One of the things I learned, which I could relate to my own behavior, is that shame is the source of many of society’s ills. Shame has a curious effect on people.
By nature, we want to feel good about ourselves. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we instinctively (and usually unconsciously) do things to try to make ourselves feel better. Some people drink, some people smoke, some people overeat; some are obsessed with sex. Some people take drugs, others steal, and many resort to violence. In general, much of this behavior is subconsciously aimed at making us feel better. A person who feels really bad about himself may bully others to make himself feel better (this may account for the attitude of much of the ministry). In a church setting, some will be arrogant and self-righteous — because it makes them feel better.
The root cause of much of this behavior is simply shame, and it usually stems from childhood. Parents who scream at their children, in an ugly voice, “Shame on you!” have no idea how violently those words scour a tender psyche. The parent is looking for a certain behavior, and once the child conforms, he assumes he has control of the situation. But the damage! That child is now wounded, and that wound will never heal (unless the parent realizes his error and makes amends, or perhaps decades later in a counseling session); that wound will fester and abscess, and eventually result in some kind of destructive action.
It may be self-destructive, or it may turn outward. Sometimes it results in robbery, assault, rape, or even murder.
There are many sources of shame, but sex seems to lead the charge. It begins in the bible — a woman who has her period is “unclean”. A man who “touches” a menstruating woman has committed an abomination. A woman who commits adultery gets stoned (any idea what a “cruel and unusual punishment” that is?), but a man who rapes a virgin gets a pass if he’s willing to marry her afterward, or pay a “bride price” (but if the virgin didn’t scream loud enough, she gets stoned!). To put it in street terms: in the bible, women take it in the shorts!
It was even worse for homosexuals.
It isn’t only women. Using the bible (presumably) as their authority, modern-day ministers add their own twist to the tale. Masturbation is worse than murder. Reading Playboy, telling off-color jokes, watching MTV — even dancing — is an “abomination” toward god. This is especially prevalent in fundamentalist churches, and few are more fundamental than the Armstrong cults.
George Carlin, in one of his HBO specials, made a statement to the effect that (paraphrased) “if we ever abolish religion, in a generation or two 90% of all sex crimes will disappear”; George wasn’t kidding, and I think he’s right. How many rapists, when caught, have confided to court-appointed psychiatrists that they suffered traumatic childhoods? How many had religious backgrounds? How many were themselves abused, often by “someone at church”? In many cases, the worse they were abused, the more violent were their crimes.
Jim Bakker, of PTL fame, told Barbara Walters that he was sexually abused as a child by “a member of our church”. Jimmy Swaggert, who roundly condemned Bakker for simply having sex with a woman other than his wife, was later caught (twice) consorting with prostitutes. Garner Ted Armstrong, already infamous as a philanderer, faced sexual assault charges for trying to force himself on a masseuse. And leaders of several COG splinters have been cited or arrested on a number of morals charges, from the homosexual rape of a minor to passing out drunk in a car at 2 am on a college campus while indecently exposed.
And, of course, closest to home, Herbert Armstrong himself raped his own daughter for ten long years!
I have no idea what kind of shame most of these men felt that caused them to perform as they did. But I’d bet your next paycheck it had religious roots. These men, as outrageous as their acts may seem, were simply trying to feel better about themselves. To accomplish it, they did unacceptable things, but that was almost certainly the reason they did it.
What’s the Solution?
So what’s the point of all this? What’s done is done — if we live with shame, what can we do about it?
Again, I’m not an expert. But in my view, we need to understand a few things. Many of us need to travel, in our minds, back to our earliest memories, and recognize a few basic facts. Not only recognize them, but accept them, believe them. For example:
· When you were born, you were an innocent creature. You were not evil. You were not bad. You were innocent. You had nothing to be ashamed of.
· As you grew older, you did things that your parents, your teachers, or your church found unacceptable (we all did). You were corrected, sometimes severely, for doing things you had no idea were wrong (or that weren’t wrong at all). Such correction may have been in the form of making you feel ashamed. But you were not a bad person! You simply didn’t know any better.
· As you neared puberty, you had sexual feelings for the first time. You found the opposite sex interesting (or the same sex, if you were so inclined), and you may have “experimented” with certain activities. If you were caught, you were most likely shamed beyond belief. You came out of that experience with a deep-seated guilt, a shame so horrible you couldn’t deal with it. You felt dirty. You did nothing wrong! You were simply dealing with intense physiological pressures that are common to young people. There is no shame in that.
· As a teenager or young adult, you may have had sex before marriage. If you had a religious background, you felt guilt and shame over that, but you may have continued to have sex, and each time you did, your guilt and shame compounded. The bible notwithstanding, as long as both parties were consenting (and of legal age), there was no shame in it. Nature ensures the survival of a species by endowing the young with sexual desire. That’s why it is so powerful, to make sure the species reproduces! The church has decreed that marriage should come first, but nature does not!
Here are a few facts that should be self-evident…to anyone but a WCG veteran:
· People need to feel good about themselves.
· It is not a “sin” to be proud of yourself
· People with proper self-esteem are more likely to treat others with respect.
· Sexual desire is NORMAL.
· You have a right to defend yourself, whether against physical violence or false accusation. This includes “talking back” to a “minister”.
· Respect goes both ways, top-to-bottom as well as bottom-to-top. This means your teachers, your parents, your “minister”.
· Competition is a good thing. It causes people to improve themselves.
· Vanity is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it leads you to harm others.
· If something causes you to feel shame, analyze the reason and eliminate it. This may mean quitting your church or recognizing that your parents were abusive.
The bottom line is that children are like other small creatures; they have been born with certain survival instincts, and must learn how to use them, like kittens learning to hunt. They do this by trying things out to see how they work (and making mistakes). Guidance is needed, but it should be gentle, not degrading. Guidance by religious people is usually negative, and has damaging, lifelong effects.
If you see a child who is a bully, I’ll wager he already feels bad about himself. And the more he bullies others, the worse he feels.
Who Should Be Ashamed?
Small children do not possess, nor do they deserve, feelings of shame. Shame will only ruin their lives, and in many cases, cause them to harm others. We are all humans, and humans, like other animals, have natural instincts. To suppress or deny them is self-defeating. As long as we don’t harm others, our natural instincts are generally right for us. No human being should feel shame for being human, or for the natural urges that drive us. We are what we were designed to be, and once we recognize that, we will all be a lot happier.
But shame does have its place. Those (especially religious leaders) who instill shame in the innocent are guilty, in my opinion, of a form of genocide — the murder of our innocence. For that they should be ashamed!