For the Romans, the cross was not simply a means of execution for criminals. It was meant to saturate in shame the one being hung on it. In the Roman mind, crucifixion was meant to defile and dehumanize and was reserved for the most profane and vile of criminals. It was a method of torture and death designed to humiliate.
We often imagine the cross really tall, way up above our heads. In reality, the crucified were at eye level. Passersby would gaze into the eyes of the agonized and bleeding. The cross stripped humanity from a person. The cross stripped the very dignity and humanity of Jesus away from him. And during this cosmic event of the death of the Messiah, we are told in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus scorned the shame of the cross.
This cross, meant to scorn him— he scorned it. The Greek word for scorn translates to English as “to shame.” So another way of saying it is Jesus shamed shame.
The Biblical text speaks of shame for the first time way back in Genesis. It was shame that caused Adam and Eve to cover themselves up with fig leaves, to hide who they were, and to hide from their Creator. And we, following in their footsteps, do the same. We also often aren’t okay with who we are. We think we aren’t enough. Shame and its insidious messages drivea us to hide from God, others, and even from ourselves.
Shame shows up in a myriad of ways. It is the voice in the head that taunts and screams “You are worthless! You aren’t enough!” And worst of all, “You are not lovable!”
It drives us to strive to achieve, to seek approval and respect as a way to mitigate shame. Performance, we’re duped into believing, will save us from the feelings of inadequacy we feel. Our feelings of self-hatred, we think, will be allayed if only we just fix ourselves, palliated if we could just pull it all together and arrive at the place we think we are supposed to be.
But whatever happened to Jesus shaming shame? According to the passage from Hebrews, it seems like shame should have been wiped away with the crucifixion of Jesus. So why does it exert such potency in the hearts and minds of people today? Why do we all, myself included, battle it endlessly?
I don’t know if those questions are answerable, but there is a psychospiritual approach that is alternative to either avoiding shame or fighting a losing batter with it, the two main strategies we tend to utilize. My former teacher Dr. Dan Allender believes that a major crux in engaging shame is to use it as a gateway into our grief, to enter the ways we have internalized the messages of “I am not okay. I am not worthy. I do not deserve love and belonging” that drive self-contempt. When we look at shame this way, it becomes like someone knocking on the door of the soul saying “Hey, pay attention. Look at me. Look here. This is important.”
To break through the contemptuous messages and dive into our shame is scary and risky and not something we’d normally choose to do. But a significant part of the spiritual journey is about learning to become more aware of these voices that judge and condemn us, and rather than battling and resisting them, go deeper in and listen, to be curious about what exists beneath those troubling thoughts and feelings.
What wounds are they covering over?
What traumatic experiences might they be masking?
What hurts are they obscuring?
It may seem easier to ignore them, to stay busy, to remain in performance mode, focusing outside of ourselves. But in the long run, this tactic is far more costly than it seems; it is neither effective nor does it get to the heart of the matter, psychologically and spiritually.
To have the courage to go into oneself, to enter the grief that lies below the shame, is a major part of the human journey. This process can be an entryway into the acceptance of ourselves as we are, allowing us to embrace our shadow side, our pain and grief, our sadness and confusion.
Going inside, exploring the inner landscape of the soul, either on our own, with a trusted friend, spiritual director or therapist, we can shame shame, not directly, but through the back door of kindness to ourselves.
This is the place we go to do what Jesus did while being crucified. Henri Nouwen writes that hanging on the cross, Jesus was tempted to hate himself for what was happening to him. He was lured toward the cusp of self-contempt. But instead, he scorned the shame of the cross.
Instead, Jesus shamed shame. He shamed self-contempt.
May he be our model. May the same response be our path forward.