The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
In the first year after beginning working, living on a Graduates starting salary on placement in North Wales. Coming home from work one Friday, I get a call from a friend in London, asking me why I wasn’t coming to her birthday, that evening. We’ve probably all been there at some point, end of a busy week, and knowing that while it might be fun, there would be people there I didn’t want to see, the whole endeavour just wasn’t what I wanted. Then it came, that ultimate line to tug those strings and make me feel shame - ‘Come on Robin, we’re your friends - don’t you want to see us.’ So home I went to drop my things, let my landlady know that I wouldn’t be there for the next two nights, and off to the station to travel for 5 hours, to get there after it’s started, but clearly before it was finished. And I had fun, but it put a layer of discontent between my friend and I. We all experience shame, feel guilt for not living up to others expectations, their obligations. And at those moments our defences are down, we are open to the manipulation of others.
As well as the popular Wolf Hall, the BBC has been showing a documentary on the millennia of Monks in Britain leading unto the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century. The documentary highlighted that by the time of the dissolution the monks were, on average, taking a significant percentage of the money given them for their own palatial accommodation and generous diet. This use of money given in hopes of attaining salvation, guilt money - paid to gain God’s favour, was apparently what incensed Cromwell and Henry to dissolve the monasteries, that and the opportunity to access and reclaim the wealth they had amassed. Manipulation of people’s convictions and of their shame is particular risk for those who act as gate keepers for faith communities and are responsible for dispensing forgiveness.
Young women being convinced to leave their families to go and join the fight against the infidel as part of the Islamic State in Syria. Young men and women being convinced to become suicide bombers - or even children, too young to vote, being sent into populated areas with bombs strapped to them. That these are examples of a miss use of authority goes without saying, but they are not the only examples of how shame and guilt along with conviction are used to manipulate people in contemporary society.
Students in university are often in the midst of going through serious change, perhaps living away from home for the first time, or living without the structures and rules of school with new found freedom. Christians can be very manipulative, taking advantage of the many emotions that students are going through to indoctrinate students into a very specific set of beliefs, rather than helping them to explore their own faith.
The secular world isn’t without it’s tendencies to manipulate us in the midst of those times we are most ashamed.
Advertising attempts to tug at our conscience, convince us we will feel better about ourselves if we have the thing somebody is selling. Harvey Nichols received criticism in 2011 for an advert depicting women doing the infamous ‘Walk of shame’, the morning after the night before. literally implying that you can feel no shame if you wear the right clothing.
When we were in India we went to a number of pilgrimage sites both Hindu and Sufi Islamic ones. When we went looking for the shrine of the Sufi Saint Nizam-ud-Din in Delhi, we wandered through the alleys looking for an entrance to the ancient compound. Much like Jerusalem at passover, the alleys were packed with people, bustling and shuffling. We were about to give up finding it but decided to try one last alley and suddenly, as the throngs of people in the small alleys grew in number again, market stalls were trying to sell us flowers and telling me I needed to cover up my head and take off my shoes. We looked up and realised we had found the entrance. Jews arrived at the temple to perform the sacrifices they were required to do, they needed the right animal or grain to offer and pay the Temple tax in the right currency and would have been coming from any number of places with different currencies, foreign to Jerusalem and the Temple. It was the market traders, not the priests or wardens of the shrine, who instructed us in the etiquette of the shrine. I bought my string of flowers, covered my head and walked barefoot through the complex to pay respect to the saint who had, through his good works, developed this cult following. We observed the unfamiliar customs, listened to the music and took in the traditions of a different faith and culture. The pilgrims at the Temple would be more familiar than we were, but they would have been at the mercy of the market traders who were taking advantage of their need to fulfil their obligations and be granted forgiveness.
Obligation, service and duty aren’t sexy words in the 21st century - but they are honourable things. However, they can quickly cause one to feel dishonourable, and shameful when one feels that one doesn’t live up to the expectations of others, or one’s own expectations. They can make one feel like we are trapped by circumstances, failing to do the right thing initially can lead to avoiding the problem continuously, in hopes that it will disappear, even though we know it won’t.
Caring for a loved one, being there for friends at important moments when we know it will be personally costly, showing up for church when we know that we don’t feel particularly holy or don’t want to see people.
The stories of the Bible tell us that God chooses to create the world out of love and a desire to share in life. We are given free will so that this choice can be reciprocated - not forced or manipulated. For Jesus the money lenders and traders inside the temple was adding to the humiliation of the pilgrims seeking to fulfil their part in their relationship with God. It was making it harder for the pilgrims to fulfil their obligation and realise the grace of God which, in the end enables the forgiveness they sought for the things that went wrong in their life. The money lenders in this instance were taking advantage of the obligation and the shame the pilgrims felt. They were getting in the way of the pilgrims understanding the grace which was meant to send the pilgrims away knowing that however bad they feel, God still loved them. That freedom it was meant to give to forgive themselves.
Throughout Lent we are reminded again and again that God has mercy on us. We are called to self-examination, not so we can wolloe in self-pity, but so that we can move on without shame or guilt. When we pray for forgiveness, it comes freely, without hesitation. Because God calls us not to live in shame and indignity but to a life of joy in loving one another.