It hit me like a Mack truck. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.

I can still remember it in vivid detail. I’m sitting in a lawn chair next to the outdoor pool at the Hotel Mirador in San Salvador. We had brought 10 Latino college students from the U.S. on a one month mission trip to El Salvador to serve in orphanages and on college campuses. I’m reading Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective by Justo Gonzalez and my world is getting rocked.

I am beginning to see, as this eminent theologian shares the History of the United States from the perspectives of minorities, that I am part of a dominant majority. A majority that has a dark history in its treatment of the other. I am realizing that I have benefited systemically from that mistreatment, from a society built to serve people like me. For the first time I am realizing that I am a white male. Well, I guess I had known that for my entire life. But it was hitting home in a way like never before.

I am realizing I am privileged.

For probably the first time in my entire life, I am in a state of mis-being. I knew that I had never enslaved my (few) black friends. I had never invaded Mexico or interred my (two) Japanese friends. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that something is not right. Though I didn’t have words for it at the time, I am experiencing shame.

Guilt and Shame

Having grown up in Anglo-dominant American culture, I felt shame periodically as everyone does, but my world primarily revolved around guilt. Guilt is an emotion that arises when we’ve done something wrong. What distinguishes guilt is that the focus is on the act, not on my identity.

Shame is different. Instead of being centered around action, shame is about being. And more accurately, mis-being. While guilt says, “I did something wrong, therefore I made a mistake”, shame says “I did something wrong, therefore I am a mistake”.

For one of the first times in my life I began to feel shame about who I was. As a white male, the world was often mine on a platter. There were rarely moments before for me to be encountered with the emotion, and if so, I could easily brush the feeling aside. But now it was unavoidable.

Here I am, leading a group of 10 Latino students on mission and I am face-to-face with the way my ancestors have treated people like them. And for once, instead of being defensive, my heart is breaking. The only words that came to mind were of the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 6: “Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

And while graciously God brought to mind words for me to confess my feeling of shame, I had no idea how to resolve it. Though this feeling experienced by Anglo Americans is often labeled as “White Guilt”, I believe “White Shame” is closer to the truth. At the time I wasn’t convicted over what I had done, but rather who I was. I was the white kid from the town that used to hang a sign on main street that read: “The Blackest Land – The Whitest People”. Though it was taken down before I was born, I began to experience shame related to it in a new way.

As God often does, He brought the solution through similar means that the problem had arisen. Just as a Latino had opened my eyes to my state of shame, so it would be Latinos who would help me become whole again.

Shame and the Gospel

I would learn from my wife and articles like “When Shame is the Question, How does the Atonement Answer?” by Brad Binau that my fundamental understanding of the gospel had always been viewed through a guilt-based lens. With guilt, the fear after wrongdoing is always of punishment. I needed Christ to pay the penalty of my sins.

“Shame is the experience of being flawed, sullied, or diminished such that the more intense the experience the greater the fear that others, including God, will abandon us.”1 Suddenly, an elemental part of me that I can’t change (being a White male), has me in a state of mis-being. And at a core level I don’t know how to make things right, how to avoid being declared worthy of abandonment.

I would learn from Kristy the gospel speaks to my shame. Jesus’ death on the cross (it is a curse to be hung on a tree) would absorb my shame. Jesus was abandoned by God so I would never have to fear being separated from the love of God. Jesus’ death would fix my being. He would be shame for me (He who knew no sin would become sin). Christ became mis-being so I could be made right. He would take away my shame and fear of abandonment forever.

Privilege, Shame, and a New Birth

Understanding the gospel in a way that Christ’s death not only covered my guilt, but my shame as well, opened new ways for me to relate in a multicultural world. Equipped with only a guilt-based gospel before, I had no idea to respond when I expereienced shame about my identity. After all, I personally hadn’t hung the sign in my hometown (or enslaved millions of African Americans). Adding a shame-based understanding to Jesus’ life and death freed me up to begin to enter into conversation about the ways my ancestors had treated the other.

Because my shame had a place to go (far from me), I could stay engaged when issues of privilege and mistreatment came up. And staying in the room emotionally allowed me to understand my ethnic minority brothers and sisters (and wife) in ways I had never before.

Slowly and surely I began to realize that my problem was not that I was a person of privilege. Jesus was the most privileged being to ever walk this earth. My problem was what I did with my privilege. Would I use it (consciously or unconsiously) for my own gain, or could I let go of my grasp and use it to serve others. Jesus showed me how, “Who did not consider equality with God something to be grapsed, but made himself nothing”.

How Jesus lived and died would serve as an example for me, and would ultimately allow me to live and die like him. He has taken my shame so that I no longer have to respond defensively about my privilege. I can embrace it, now no longer for myself, but for those for whom Christ died and rose again. Not in a white savior way, He’s the Messiah, I am not. But in an incarnational, self-emptying, for-the-sake-of-others way.

The gospel for the privileged is that Christ took our state of mis-being so that we can live for others. Hallelujah.

I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.

image credit: buckerrlb

  1. Binau, “When Shame is the Question, How Does the Atonement Answer?”, The Journal of Pastoral Theology, January 2002. []