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  • Writer's pictureLuigi Gioia

Risking Shame

Updated: Feb 28

Shame makes us feel exposed, powerless, worthless and affects directly the self.

Over the past week I have often wondered how Alexei Navalny must have felt on the 17th of January 2021 when, immediately after recovering from being poisoned by Russian agents with the infamous Novichok nerve agent, he boarded on a plane from Germany to Russia fully aware that he would be detained immediately on his arrival. We know how the story went from there. He never left prison, politically motivated sentences where fabricated against him, his prison conditions grew harsher and harsher, until they led to his death on February 16th of this year at the age of 47.

He knew that he was going to undergo great suffering, be persecuted, and eventually be killed. I imagine that his wife or his mother must have tried to dissuade him, warned him that this decision was suicidal. Nothing dented his resolution – he was willing to lose his life for the sake of what he believed in: the right and the duty to advocate for a just and democratic order in his country, the sense that there are moments in life and in history where nobody can say: “It is not my problem. Someone else will fight this battle. One person alone will not make a difference” and the like.

His case and situation might seem far from our lives. Mercifully, in most of Western democratic countries, acting on the basis of our conscience might cause use a great deal of unpleasant consequences but rarely to lose our life. And yet, precisely this reduced risk for our lives can make us more complacent, less inclined to take a stance, retreat into the comfortable anonymity afforded by the excuse that “alone I cannot make a difference”.

History though proves the contrary to be true.

Even just looking at recent history, we find that the most momentous changes in the history of our countries have hinged upon the courage of one single person willing to lose her or his life: think about Rosa Parks, MLK, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela. Nothing would have changed but for the clarity of vision, the courage, and the sacrifice of one single person willing to risk it all and proclaiming clear and loud “Enough is enough”!

 Now think for a moment: what would each and everyone of us have told to Alexei Navalny, Rosa Parks, MLK, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela if they had confided in us, and revealed that they were embarking on a path that would inevitably lead to harsh imprisonment, false accusation, humiliation, torture, and possibly death?

I know what I would have told Alexei Navalny the day he was about to board on the flight from Germany to Moscow: I would have taken him aside, and begged him to change his course, to chose another way of fighting his battle – that his death would have not benefited anybody, that he would have been more effective by remaining in exile.

You see, in this light, Peter’s attitude in today’s Gospel does not seem so unreasonable after all. Jesus was heading to Jerusalem fully aware that what was waiting him was certain betrayal, imprisonment, torture, and the supreme ignominy of the cross. Peter pleaded with him that there had to be other ways to achieve the same result. And we know Jesus’ answer: “What will it profit us to gain the whole world and forfeit our life?”.

Disapproval however was only the surface of the ordeal. Jesus adds:

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The hardest for Jesus was going to be the fact that everyone he loved would be ashamed of him.

In the crucial instances of their lives, when they risked everything, when -using Jesus’ words” they took up their cross, for Rosa Parks, MLK, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Alexei Navalny – as for Jesus- there was absolutely no validation from any established wisdom, any social convention, any friends.

Everyone distanced themselves from them, they were utterly alone.

Jesus was arrested, instantly became a pariah, the mob turned against him, was stripped naked, became an object of scorn and mockery.

Everyone and everything associated with him instantly became tainted.

Overnight the people he loved most, those who had believed in him, trusted him, left everything to become his disciples, would be disappointed in him, be compromised by their association with him, crushed by his failure – in a word they would be ashamed of him. 

And we know how powerful shame can be. It is the most formidable way of enforcing social order – more that any other form of coercion. Girl are still being killed in some parts of the world because their behaviour has brought ‘shame’ on their relatives. Gay teenagers, in this country, are still forced to undergo so-called “conversion therapies” to prevent their potential for deviancy to bring shame on their families. People routinely commit suicide rather than facing being shamed, whether the accusation against them is a real or a fabricated one.

Shame makes us feel exposed, powerless, worthless and affects directly the self.

It is different from guilt. With guilt the negative evaluation concerns something I have done. With shame the negative evaluation concerns the whole of who I am. Significantly we talk about being ‘tainted’ to express how much shame isolates us – and if people feel contaminated by associating with me it is very hard not to believe that there must be something wrong with me. My inner sense of value is under immense pressure.

As if being ‘tainted’ was not enough, there is yet another aspect of shame which makes it even more unbearable - one that is pervasive in Scripture, and is poignantly expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans when he declares: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel!”. My take is that when someone needs to say this so emphatically it must be because the temptation is there – as indeed it is confirmed by the whole letter.

What caused such anguish to Paul was that he did not understand what God was doing in history and what he was doing in his life.

In history, what tortured him was the fact that the Gospel was spreading among the Gentiles but not with his own people. There would not have been a Jesus, nor Christianity without Israel – so was God’s plan not working somehow? Was there something wrong with Paul’s own preaching? Had Jesus’ message failed?

But just as well, the Gospel he was preaching seemed not to work in Paul’s own life: in Romans he famously laments that he does not understand his own actions: he had the desire to do good, but not the strength to carry it out: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”. Was Jesus’ message flawed?

Faith in God has been one of the most potent factors in the lives of many of the great figures who have changed history – again think only of Rosa Parks and MLK. And shame hit  them too, as it did for Paul, not only when they had to face social disapproval, imprisonment – and for King the constant threat on his life. Shame became most agonizing of all when the very source of their inner strength seemed to falter, God seemed absent, their prayer seemed to have no answer.

So how did they do it? What gave Jesus, Rosa Parks, MLK, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Alexei Navalny the courage and the strength to ‘lose their lives’ despite the social ostracism, the sense of being contaminated and contaminating, the pressure to doubt themselves, and finally -for some of them- doubt God?

The answer I think might disappoint you. It is what virtually all the people we call ‘heroes’ give when they are asked how they did it? Why this person jumps in the river to rescue a total stranger who is drowning? Why this other person takes the defense of someone being assaulted in the subway? Almost invariably they explain that they felt they had no choice – that what was in their mind at that moment was not the risk for their lives but the imperative to act on behalf of a fellow human in danger.

Sooner of later everyone in life will find herself or himself in this situation – it can happen at any time. Hopefully it will not require us to risk our lives – but it might expose us to disapproval, betrayal, inner doubts and anguish – and for us too the temptation might be to withdraw – to think: “It is not my problem. Someone else will fight this battle. One person alone will not make a difference”.

That might be the time to remember Jesus’s words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.

Jesus took his cross alone – we can take ours after him, on the path he opened for us, with the strength he gives to us. It will look as if we are losing our lives when in fact it might be the first time we are fully alive because fully inhabited by the certainty that life is not worth living unless we do it with integrity, unless we follow our conscience, unless we do the good we can, when it is required from us. That will be the good only I can bring to the world – that will be how I will truly ‘save’ my life. week I have often wondered how Alexei Navalny must have felt on the 17th of January 2021 when, immediately after recovering from being poisoned by Russian agents with the infamous Novichok nerve agent, he boarded on a plane from Germany to Russia fully aware that he would be detained immediately on his arrival. We know how the story went from there. He never left prison, politically motivated sentences where fabricated against him, his prison conditions grew harsher and harsher, until they led to his death on February 16th of this year at the age of 47.

He knew that he was going to undergo great suffering, be persecuted, and eventually be killed. I imagine that his wife or his mother must have tried to dissuade him, warned him that this decision was suicidal. Nothing dented his resolution – he was willing to lose his life for the sake of what he believed in: the right and the duty to advocate for a just and democratic order in his country, the sense that there are moments in life and in history where nobody can say: “It is not my problem. Someone else will fight this battle. One person alone will not make a difference” and the like.

His case and situation might seem far from our lives. Mercifully, in most of Western democratic countries, acting on the basis of our conscience might cause use a great deal of umpleasant consequences but rarely to lose our life. And yet, precisely this reduced risk for our lives can make us more complaceant, less inclined to take a stance, retreat into the comfortable anonymity afforded by the excuse that “alone I cannot make a difference”.

History though proves the contrary to be true.

Even just looking at recent history, we find that the most momentous changes in the history of our countries have hinged upon the courage of one single person willing to lose her or his life: think about Rosa Parks, MLK, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela. Nothing would have changed but for the clarity of vision, the courage, and the sacrifice of one single person willing to risk it all and proclaiming clear and loud “Enough is enough”!

 Now think for a moment: what would each and everyone of us have told to Alexei Navalny, Rosa Parks, MLK, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela if they had confided in us, and revealed that they were embarking on a path that would inevitably lead to harsh imprisonment, false accusation, humiliation, torture, and possibly death?

I know what I would have told Alexei Navalny the day he was about to board on the flight from Germany to Moscow: I would have taken him aside, and begged him to change his course, to chose another way of fighting his battle – that his death would have not benefited anybody, that he would have been more effective by remaining in exile.

You see, in this light, Peter’s attitude in today’s Gospel does not seem so unreasonable after all. Jesus was heading to Jerusalem fully aware that what was waiting him was certain betrayal, imprisonment, torture, and the supreme ignominy of the cross. Peter pleaded with him that there had to be other ways to achieve the same result. And we know Jesus’ answer: “What will it profit us to gain the whole world and forfeit our life?”.

Disapproval however was only the surface of the ordeal. Jesus adds:

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The hardest for Jesus was going to be the fact that everyone he loved would be ashamed of him.

In the crucial instances of their lives, when they risked everything, when -using Jesus’ words” they took up their cross, for Rosa Parks, MLK, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Alexei Navalny – as for Jesus- there was absolutely no validation from any established wisdom, any social convention, any friends.

Everyone distanced themselves from them, they were utterly alone.

Jesus was arrested, instantly became a pariah, the mob turned against him, was stripped naked, became an object of scorn and mockery.

Everyone and everything associated with him instantly became tainted.

Overnight the people he loved most, those who had believed in him, trusted him, left everything to become his disciples, would be disappointed in him, be compromised by their association with him, crushed by his failure – in a word they would be ashamed of him. 

And we know how powerful shame can be. It is the most formidable way of enforcing social order – more that any other form of coercion. Girl are still being killed in some parts of the world because their behaviour has brought ‘shame’ on their relatives. Gay teenagers, in this country, are still forced to undergo so-called “conversion therapies” to prevent their potential for deviancy to bring shame on their families. People routinely commit suicide rather than facing being shamed, whether the accusation against them is a real or a fabricated one.

Shame makes us feel exposed, powerless, worthless and affect directly the self.

It is different from guilt. With guilt the negative evaluation concerns something I have done. With shame the negative evaluation concerns the whole of who I am. Significantly we talk about being ‘tainted’ to express how much shame isolates us – and if people feel contaminated by associating with me it is very hard not to believe that there must be something wrong with me. My inner sense of value is under immense pressure.

As if being ‘tainted’ was not enough, there is yet another aspect of shame which makes it even more unbearable - one that is pervasive in Scripture, and is poignantly expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans when he declares: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel!”. My take is that when someone needs to say this so emphatically it must be because the temptation is there – as indeed it is confirmed by the whole letter.

What caused such anguish to Paul was that he did not understand what God was doing in history and what he was doing in his life.

In history, what tortured him was the fact that the Gospel was spreading among the Gentiles but not with his own people. There would not have been a Jesus, nor Christianity without Israel – so was God’s plan not working somehow? Was there something wrong with Paul’s own preaching? Had Jesus’ message failed?

But just as well, the Gospel he was preaching seemed not to work in Paul’s own life: in Romans he famously laments that he does not understand his own actions: he had the desire to do good, but not the strength to carry it out: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”. Was Jesus’ message flawed?

Faith in God has been one of the most potent factors in the lives of many of the great figures who have changed history – again think only of Rosa Parks and MLK. And shame hit  them too, as it did for Paul, not only when they had to face social disapproval, imprisonment – and for King the constant threat on his life. Shame became most agonizing of all when the very source of their inner strength seemed to falter, God seemed absent, their prayer seemed to have no answer.

So how did they do it? What gave Jesus, Rosa Parks, MLK, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Alexei Navalny the courage and the strength to ‘lose their lives’ despite the social ostracism, the sense of being contaminated and contaminating, the pressure to doubt themselves, and finally -for some of them- doubt God?

The answer I think might disappoint you. It is what virtually all the people we call ‘heroes’ give when they are asked how they did it? Why this person jumps in the river to rescue a total stranger who is drowning? Why this other person takes the defense of someone being assaulted in the subway? Almost invariably they explain that they felt they had no choice – that what was in their mind at that moment was not the risk for their lives but the imperative to act on behalf of a fellow human in danger.

Sooner of later everyone in life will find herself or himself in this situation – it can happen at any time. Hopefully it will not require us to risk our lives – but it might expose us to disapproval, betrayal, inner doubts and anguish – and for us too the temptation might be to withdraw – to think: “It is not my problem. Someone else will fight this battle. One person alone will not make a difference”.

That might be the time to remember Jesus’s words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.

Jesus took his cross alone – we can take ours after him, on the path he opened for us, with the strength he gives to us. It will look as if we are losing our lives when in fact it might be the first time we are fully alive because fully inhabited by the certainty that life is not worth living unless we do it with integrity, unless we follow our conscience, unless we do the good we can, when it is required from us. That will be the good only I can bring to the world – that will be how I will truly ‘save’ my life.



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