Religion That Doesn’t Shame

Religion That Doesn’t Shame April 27, 2023

Last week I wrote about learning to say “no” to religious shame, as part of what it takes to build our “no” muscles in general. I think it’s worth digging deeper into the idea of religious shame. In particular: What might religion that doesn’t shame look like?

Switching Out the “Why”s

When I worked for a college campus ministry organization, I was taught to reconsider some of the questions I might ask students. 

One example stuck with me: We were asked to consider switching out “Why…?” language for something more like: “What are some of the reasons…?”

As in, instead of asking a student, “Why did you switch majors this year?” we might ask, “What are some of the reasons you decided to switch?” 

Or, instead of asking, “How come you’re going home again this summer?”—where the perceived implication might be, “What’s wrong with you, that you didn’t get a cool internship somewhere else?”—we might say, instead, “Tell me more about some of the things that went into your decision to spend your summer at home.”

illustrate "why?"
Sometimes there are better questions we can ask / Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

This might seem like a small change. But I appreciate the thought behind it. The idea is to remove any shame from the equation.

When religious leaders start asking questions, people might easily start feeling shame. Someone might hear “Why did you switch majors?” as “That sounds like a bad call so late in the game; are you sure you can get all the new requirements in on time?” Or, “Biology seems like a good-enough major to me; why would anyone want to switch to English?”

As staff we were taught to try not to ask “Why?” in cases where it might imply that there aren’t good reasons. Or that we can’t imagine what those reasons could possibly be.

Instead, we tried to ask questions in ways that implied there likely are some good reasons. And we’re curious what they are. We would love to better understand the student’s thought process and the values that went into the decision. We’re not questioning the decision; we’re just interested to learn more.

Amidst all the mixed feelings I have about my time in college ministry, I remember this as a good thing. In the faith communities I’m a part of, I want us to learn to ask questions of one another in ways that seek to understand rather than to shame—ways that build a genuine two-way connection rather than trying to control.

“You’re the Only One”

Of course, despite all our lofty non-shaming ambitions, campus ministry staff in the organization I worked with were not always good at this. 

I remember distinctly a time when a fellow campus ministry staff did exactly the opposite to me. I was an intern, and this person was on full-time staff. I was having some issues and wanted to hear their perspective. 

My colleague heard me out and then said something like this: “Of all the interns I’ve known, you’re the only one to have these particular problems.”

I don’t think that my colleague’s intention was to shame. But shame was surely part of the impact of this comment.

It raised some questions: Was there something wrong with me, such that I was experiencing issues other interns hadn’t experienced? Why was I experiencing these issues? What good reasons could there possibly be?

Religion Doesn’t Have to Shame

In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brené Brown writes about three specific ways shame gets reinforced:

  • “Individualizing (I am the only one); 
  • Pathologizing (something is wrong with me); 
  • and Reinforcing (I should be ashamed)” (p 100). 

I would say my conversation with my campus ministry colleague covered all three. My coworker didn’t validate my perspective but questioned it. And I was left questioning myself.

But religious conversations don’t have to be like this. Religion doesn’t have to shame. 

We can choose to avoid shaming language and use connecting language instead. We can get curious about others’ choices and intentions rather than assuming or judging. 

And when religious acquaintances, friends, or leaders come to us with shaming language, we can recognize it for what it is. We don’t have to let it in. 

There are ways of being together in faith community where every person is validated rather than shamed, encouraged rather than condemned, affirmed rather than judged. Together, we can build these kinds of communities.

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