2 Samuel, Bart Gingerich, Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Elizabeth Esther, Institute on Religion and Democracy, IRD, Nathaniel Torrey, Psalm 51, purity culture, Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Tony Jones
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By Nathaniel Torrey (@nathanieltorrey)
Not too long ago the Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Christian blogosphere was alight with commentary on the harmful effects of purity culture, a subculture of American evangelical Protestantism with the goal of systematically instilling the virtue of chastity in their youth with purity rings, purity balls, pledges, etc. Many notables weighed in including Rachel Held Evans, Elizabeth Esther, Sarah Bessey, Tony Jones and the IRD’s own Bart Gingerich. There was universal agreement that the rituals used to instill purity were at best unhelpful and at worst actively harmful. I’m not here to disagree with that assessment. Stories like Sarah Bessey’s, where a speaker passes around a cup of water to be spit in and then compares those who had sex before marriage, are disgusting and border on nearly Gileadean cruelty.
My intention here is not to address what should be done about purity culture per se as we proceed in the future. What I am interested in is how the tactics of purity culture were talked about. The most common accusation was that those who passed around the cup, gave their testimony about how they regretted “it” or asked them to sign cards pledging their virginity were guilty of “shaming.” Their crime was making those who had had sex before marriage feel ashamed, i.e., that since they had not waited until marriage they are irrevocably sullied and as a result essentially bad people.
As I said earlier, this tactic is parlous. It effectively denies grace and the possibility of reconciliation with God. However, I fear diagnosing purity culture’s problem as “shaming” people is troubling as well. It implies that anyone who makes us feel ashamed is in error and that as a result no ought to feel ashamed. I noticed this tendency as well when Elizabeth Esther accused Rick Warren and John Piper of shaming when they tweeted “Planned Parenthood is the McDonald’s of abortion. It’s the #1 baby killing franchise.” They could have been more delicate and sensitive, but the crime they were accused of was making women who had had abortions feel ashamed of their choice.
The idea that one should never feel ashamed is spiritually dangerous. It is essential that Christians feel ashamed at some point in their lives. Feeling shame because of his sins is the critical point when a Christian realizes that he has fallen short of the ideal that to which God and his conscience hold him. Shame is what goads us to repentance and reconciliation with God. We see how helpless and lowly we are without Him, and that no lasting peace and rest can be found except in Him.
The perfect example of this is David in the Old Testament. When the prophet Nathan confronts him in 2 Samuel 12 about his seduction of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, making his sin explicit to him, he says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” It was Nathan’s “shaming” that forced David to realize that he had not only sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but to God. In Psalm 51, he sings for mercy and wishes for God to “blot out his transgression” and to be washed “thoroughly for my lawlessness.” He wishes to be made pure, to be “whiter than snow.” This is because he is ashamed of what he has done, so much so that he begs God to “turn Your face from my sins.” Where purity culture failed, true shame and repentance like that of David offers real change of heart.
David is mentioned in the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, one of the services held through the first week of Great Lent, as a model of repentance. However, the Canon is quick to remind us that we are much lowlier than David and our need to repent is much more urgent. In Ode 7 of the Canon one can find these gems:
“David was a forefather of the Lord, O my soul, yet sinned doubly by committing both murder and adultery. Your sickness, however, is even worse than his deeds because of your impulsive will.
David, though once compounding his sins by first murdering a man and then stealing his wife was quick to repent of both. You, however, O my soul, have done worse things than he, yet never repented of them before the Lord.”
The service, with these words set to the Lenten tones, effectively “shames” us into grieving over our past misdeeds. From the dust and ashes of our shame, we begin to yearn for that absolution and love that can come only from God. Feeling remorse and grieving over our past sins is a prerequisite for this eventual reconciliation.
Once a particular sin is confessed, it is forgiven entirely. However, it is a long life that we live and full of missteps. To be Christian is to be constantly repenting and confessing one’s failings as they happen throughout one’s entire life. But how can we even begin to repent if we have so hardened our hearts that we are always zealously on the defense against those that might bring our sins before us? Should we accuse anyone who says “You are the man who did this!” as Nathan did to David of “shaming” us? Sometimes we are supposed to be ashamed. There are times in our lives when we should be as ashamed as the publican in Luke 18:11, who could not even raise his gaze to heaven (and rightly so!), and say with him “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
Shame, guilt, repentance, and confession are all painful things, but they are necessary for our salvation. We must let the pain break our heart and our spirit; David sings that this is the correct sacrifice God desires from us. It is our Cross to bear in this life. Yet, Christ tells us in Matthew 11:30, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” How strange and beautiful is this mystery.