Healthy Shame Changes the World for Good

Yesterday I heard UNC Charlotte Associate Professor of Religious Studies Dr. Julia Robinson Moore describe the difference between healthy shame and unhealthy shame this way:

Healthy shame results in positive change. Unhealthy shame results in secret-keeping.

Dr. Moore is interested in researching slave cemeteries here in Charlotte which often means that some of our oldest, predominantly White congregations have an opportunity. They can grapple with the fact that human beings who were slaveholders and human beings who were enslaved are buried on their property. Or they can ignore it.

More often than not the graves of the enslaved are hidden from view without markers or landscaping or tidy fences around them. Note: It’s great to learn our history, but if we don’t act on what we now know, we are wasting an opportunity to repair what is still broken.

Church cemetery (established in 1767 in Charlotte, NC) with wall opening leading to the graves of enslaved members in the woods.

A couple things:

  • The national White Privilege Conference is criticized by people who assume that it’s an event about shaming and blaming White People. It is not. In fact, there was none of that at the recent conference held in Charlotte March 9-12, and some (White) people told me that they were surprised. They had braced themselves. This conference lifts up the fact that every person has privilege no matter who we are and it’s the hope that we all use our privilege to lift up others. (We who are White have many advantages merely because of the color of our skin.)
  • Remember when Ben Affleck was on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” and he’d asked the producers not to mention his slaveholding relative from Georgia? And they complied? When the truth came out Affleck said this:

“We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.”

Yes, let’s talk about it – not in anger because our noble bubbles have been burst and not in embarrassment to the point that our ancestor becomes like Voldemort (“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”) although it’s possible that our fourth Great Uncle was in fact like Voldemort.

Let’s talk about it because addressing even the terrible parts of our history brings the kind of shame – healthy shame – that results in positive change. The congregation that knows it’s history can then make a commitment to repair that history. The family whose slaveholding ancestors donated the stained glass windows might find themselves called to make financial donations to life-giving causes.

Maybe you don’t live in a part of the world that enslaved people over 150 years ago. But there is something in all of our histories – both personal and corporate – that we need to know in order to move forward to repair the world in the name of Jesus.

Who were the Native Americans on the land where we live? What were the laws in our town that discriminated against the non-dominant population? What do we need to know about our history so that we can do better? What’s the history of hate-groups in our community?

One of the best examples of looking at difficult history and using healthy shame to change the world for good is in York, South Carolina at Allison Creek Presbyterian Church. Check it out here. (Thank you Sam McGregor.)

I have shame about the fact that my ancestors were slaveholders in North Carolina and maybe in Virginia too. But – I hope – it’s mostly healthy shame at this point, and I’ll use it to help repair the breach. I prayerfully ask that you join me in this calling.

2 responses to “Healthy Shame Changes the World for Good

  1. Such knowledge about my family’s history – which I didn’t know until I was in my mid-40s, though I might have suspected – changed and reoriented me. I feel the need in some way to atone, humanly speaking, to be involved, yes, in tikkun plan.


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