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A New Climate of Fear?

Susan Campbell: For Shame’s Sake

Today's post is from Susan Campbell, author of Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl. Campbell's writing has been recognized by the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors; National Women's Political Caucus; the Sunday Magazine Editors Association, and the Connecticut chapter of Society of Professional Journalists. She was also a member of the Hartford Courant's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning team for breaking news. This post originally appeared at her Dating Jesus blog.

Dating Jesus: link to Beacon Press page for the bookJust about every time I speak in public about Dating Jesus, someone asks a question about shame.

Usually, that someone is a product of a fundamentalist church -- often my own, which clung to a fear-and-shame-based theology.

You feared going to hell.

You feared God, naturally, and Jesus's second coming because you probably weren't going to measure up.

You feared sinning -- which meant you feared your very existence because of all the things you could count on, you could count on the fact that you would sin.

You feared getting caught sinning. And if you weren't actively sinning, you feared somehow falling short or missing  a rule or living your life in scriptural error.

I don't think the guilt and shame and fear is restricted to my own church, though. I've talked to Catholics and Baptists and Jews who feel if not the same thing, then something similar.

So for years, for shame's sake, I didn't speak up and the words I held back burned like acid in my throat. For shame's sake, I didn't try for that scholarship, that job, that life partner because I didn't think myself worthy. For shame's sake, I sold myself short and settled into a life that was absolutely not of my choosing. For shame's sake, I all but lived as a religious aesthete, and when I turned to my religion for my reward, my religion told me I still wasn't worthy.

For shame's sake, I stopped going to church because I couldn't stand that I wasn't worthy. I couldn't try harder than I already did. I couldn't attend more services, teach more classes, be a nicer person than I already was. And I couldn't understand why God couldn't just love me for me, and not for what I could be.

So I reopened my Bible and tried to find scriptural backing for how I was feeling, but for shame's sake, I kept going back to those verses that (according to the interpretation handed to me by my church) reiterated that I, as a woman, could not walk directly to the throne, that I, as a woman, was to keep myself silent in the assembly and not usurp authority over men.

For shame's sake, I pulled a cloak around me and curled up into a ball.

And then, I decided to read other verses, listen to other voices rather than the ones in my head that were put there years ago by (I assume) well-meaning people who wanted to guarantee (I assume) that I when I died, I would go to heaven.

And the more I read, the more I realized that I don't want to go to their heaven. They can have that heaven. I wanted a heaven that would accept me and love me and let me be as exalted as I needed to be, as I deserved to be, as a daughter of God. I wanted a heaven that would embrace men and women equally fiercely.

For my own sake -- and the sake of God who loves people like me, too -- I let go of a lot of the shame because it no longer suited or served me. And you can't make me pick it up again. It's too heavy and I have more important things to hold.

For my sake, I came to know and embrace this: Fear has nothing to do with love, nor love with fear. And shame is completely beside the point.