Public Shame and Solidarity

‘I was seen by many but actually known by few. And I get it. It was easy to forget that That Woman was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.’ –  Monica Lewinski

1997. I was sitting in the hospital cafeteria eating a chuckwagon steak when the ER beeper lit up. A young mother driving the neighborhood carpool was in a bad accident and several of the kids had been thrown outside the van. She came away unscathed because she was wearing a seatbelt, but none of the kids were buckled and now she was on one side of the ER double doors, the kids on the other. She was waiting to hear if she had killed her son and her friends’ sons.

What do you do for a person who is so wrecked with guilt that they exhibit pure self hatred?  I was far enough along in my CPE journey to be self aware that I was very angry at her. My default setting at the time was self righteousness and it often came to the surface when I was under pressure or needed to feel better about myself. I was, in so many ways, the pharisee who said, “thank you God that I am not like that person….a sinner.”

She didn’t make the kids wear a seat belt.

We all have standards, some spoken, many unspoken. In my family, not wearing a seat belt is a step or two lower than torturing an animal. It is a non negotiable and she had broken my standard. As I sat with this woman, I quietly named this emotion in a prayer, repented of it and asked God to bring some Peace of Christ while she was waiting for peace of mind that may or may not ever come again.

A huge chunk of a chaplain’s time is spent sitting and waiting in silence for a doctor or nurse to come with an update. Silently waiting is one of the toughest aspects of chaplaincy because of the internal pressure every human feels to relieve anxiety. Since our natural weapon against anxiety is speaking, people will often say any number of things in an effort to feel better. Chaplains learn to manage that tension and not speak; silent presence is more helpful than saying something. In this case, the tension was doubly thick – a recipe of shame and self hatred for injuring these boys and the need to wait for an update on their condition. And then the tension increased exponentially.

The local news was playing on the televisions in the waiting room and everyone was watching it. Those televisions provide solidarity for dozens of strangers sitting together, anxiously silently waiting.

This mom was the top story of the hour. The news anchor gave a quick overview of the accident before handing off to the reporter at the scene. Live footage of the minivan, the reporter pointing to where the windshield used to be and the probable landing spots of each kid. She closed with a report that the kids were in critical condition at the hospital.

I was sitting next to the Mom, dealing with my own judgement of her when I noticed that the whole ER waiting room was looking at her. They’d watched the story and pieced together that this woman was the sinner in question. Whatever internal shame she felt was magnified by the public shame of being on display as the one who may have killed these kids. In this particular room it was also magnified by a room of people who are “not ok.” They are waiting to learn of their own medical condition or the condition of a loved one and sitting in their own silent anxiety. When we are “not ok” we go to great lengths to be “ok” and one of the worst lengths is to focus on the shame on another.

Back to the television and now they’re doing a spin off story on seat belt safety. I understand why they did this and I suppose if that story prevented another adult from making the same mistake then it was worth it. But it felt exploitive. Probably because I was sitting in solidarity with the one being exploited.

How many times have we joined a cultural crusade, forgetting that we’re crusading against one made in the image of God?

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

  But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone a at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said. 

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

John 8:2-11

Could it be that solidarity is the antidote to self righteousness? When I first walked toward that woman to introduce myself as the chaplain, I was standing on self, stone in hand, ready to throw. Sitting with her watching the news, heart breaking, nothing to say, I was ready to stand in front of her, take the stones being thrown from the crowd of people gathered around.

The doctor came out with the only words that anyone wants to really hear in that moment, “the kids have some injuries, but they’re all going to make it.” She didn’t have to call her friends and give them the worst of all news, she didn’t have to attend a funeral of her own son. Now all she had to do was live with what she’d done.

When our visit was over, complete with visiting these precious kids with her and a prayer of gratitude for their health I walked away, quietly leaving my stone behind. Let him who is without sin indeed….

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