It could be rightly said that the theology of Christianity is the management of guilt. Yet the theology of the New Testament has less to do with guilt than with shame. Guilt is the personal experience of wrongs we have done. Shame is the pointing of the finger, the rejection of our community and the judgment of those who do not consider us worthy. The New Testament divides the judgment of God and the judgment of the community, which is unique among ancient writings.
The modern depictions of Jesus on the cross go into agonizing detail as to the pain of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. But pain was never the point of the gospel writers. Rather, they focused on the tremendous shame and rejection that Jesus’ experienced. We read not about blood and crushed bone, but rather betrayal, mocking, denial, false accusation, judgment, proclaimed worse than a murderer, hung on a tree outside the city of God, associated with bandits, misunderstood, forced to accept what he did not want, and finally surrendering long before his hung companions.
Yet this flood of shame parted within his own will. Despite all appearances, Jesus affirmed his right place with God, his ability to sway God’s forgiveness and quoting Scripture that declared God’s ultimate approval. The power of Jesus’ death is that the truly righteous before God are denied that very place before men.
Jesus best experienced poverty when he was in this sorry state, receiving the greatest measure of rejection. For truest poverty is not simply hunger, nakedness and homelessness. Poverty of spirit knows not only economic loss, but is the reception of repudiation due to that loss.
Poverty is the shame of not having what the average person seems to obtain without effort. It is the recognition that one is an economic failure in a world in which economic gain is the only measure that truly counts. When one’s worth is determined by income and one’s status by neighborhood and home, where does that leave the one who has no income or home?
Poverty is the shame of having to admit one’s poverty. To call a social service, to fill out a form requesting utility assistance, to discuss one’s situation with a social worker, to have one’s children go to school with holes in their clothes—it is freely admitting one’s failure. It is an exposition of unworthiness, and the sidelong glance, the distrust, the assumption that the poor are trying to get something for nothing, just adds to one’s disrepute.
But perhaps the greater depth than this admission is the response. If they say “yes” then the social worker is in agreement with our failure, and admits that we are truly pitiful, truly pathetic, among the least of the earth. If they say “no”, despite our desperate need, then we are lower than pitiful, we are among the unworthy poor. We are a failure, but we are undeserving of assistance. We are only worthy to die on the street, cast within the stocks of public poverty.
Should Jesus come today, his cross might be to live on the streets, treated as a criminal by the police, having his spare bedding and clothing stolen by public servants, beaten by ruffians, and dying of hypothermia after having stumbled in exhaustion through a stream and falling into a gutter. Perhaps Jesus’ cross today would to be committed in a state facility, declared incompetent, forced to take medication, forcibly bathed and stripped naked before nurses, mocked by other inmates who declare him more insane than they, dying isolated in a room with an IV pumping into an arm, declaring again and again “It is finished” until it finally is.
Yet shame need not end in shame. For shame can be exchanged for peace, when experienced in community. The community that is rejected together is not fully outcast. Shame in loneliness is sorrow, but when that sorrow is shared and empathized, then shame evaporates into true mourning. And mourning, when accompanied with welcome hugs and support, can be transformed into full joy.