Hagar and the Cure for Shame

Most of you probably know that I prefer to take my religion with a generous helping of humor. It’s not that I’m an unserious person. No, humor is a crucial part of faithful living. Very often it is true that, after the hurts of a misfortune have left us, we are faced with a choice between laughter or despair. Initially, of course, we must grieve. And it is good to grieve, but one of the formulas for healthy living is tragedy plus time equals humor. Eventually joy must overtake sorrow.  Otherwise, we become the targets of a never-ending series of very cruel jokes, because those things that we cannot find a way to laugh about will always find a way to humiliate us.

The reason there is too little laughter in our churches is that most churches are not nearly serious enough. Sometimes, it’s true, we are sanctimonious, but very rarely are we serious. Underneath our solemn observances, the truly important aspects of our lives go unaddressed. Fully one third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament, but when was the last time we lamented like we meant it?  Generally speaking, our recitation of the Psalms functions as little more than a public show of our literacy. Can we really feel the anguish behind these words of the 44th Psalm: “All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face?”

It’s not that we are afraid to dabble in unpleasant human experiences. Everyone knows, after all, that churches and religion traffic in guilt. Some religious bodies inflict it while others try to heal it, but both the controlling and the well-intentioned feel that they have pinpointed something crucial in the experience of guilt. The thinking is that we have either too much or too little of it. So the trick is to find the right balance. We, as church people, know all about the unpleasant emotion of guilt.

We are not serious enough to laugh together because our efforts are misguided. Guilt is not our biggest problem; shame is. One of our finest pastoral theologians writes that “Christian theology has well-developed theologies of guilt, while the majority of its constituency is struggling with debilitating, demoralizing and even dehumanizing effects of shame.” Well, what’s the difference? Actually, most of us have no idea. Shame and guilt are distinct experiences, but we oftentimes speak as if they are the same. We tell someone “shame on you” when we want them to be feel guilty but we usually avoid talking about our shame altogether.

The difference is pretty simple. Guilt is the feeling that I’ve done something wrong; shame means that there is something wrong with me. In other words, guilt is related to actions, while shame is related to identity. Think of it this way: guilt is like a tree that grew a few branches where it shouldn’t have—overlaying power lines or pressing against the windows of a house.  It’s easy to fix that. You just trim back a few branches so the tree can continue growing. Shame means that a tree’s roots are all dead and its trunk is rotted through. There is something fundamentally and un-fixably wrong with the tree. We can fix guilt relatively easily by making amends for a wrongful action. The feeling of shame, though, is much deeper and more debilitating. Our churches are currently trimming branches off of rotting trees, all the while praying that they will be healthy and grow.

Maybe that’s a grim diagnosis, but we need to have a true idea of where we are before we can take ourselves somewhere better. Fortunately, our tradition has the resources to start healing our shame. Scripture speaks of shaming groups and shamed individuals, usually in ways that affirm and address our modern notions of shame.  The Bible gives expression to the fullness of human experience, even the dark parts like shame. All that remains is for us to reclaim the stories and themes that we have for so long ignored.

It is a central claim of our faith that the God we know through the story of Jesus Christ brings freedom to the oppressed and hope to the hopeless. God shows us the perfect love that casts out all fear. But there are characters in our scriptures, just as there are people in our world, who do not experience God in a life-giving way. God is, for all too many, a source of fear, oppression, and estrangement from self. We may not believe in a God who brings affliction to the innocent, but a lot of people have good reason to. And we have to tell their stories.

Phyllis Trible retells for us the story of Hagar, found in the book of Genesis. If you are not terribly familiar with the story of Hagar, don’t worry. Most people aren’t. The tradition has not deemed the person of Hagar worthy of very much extended reflection. She is usually only important in so far as she is a minor character in the story of Abraham and Sarah—the great Patriarch and Matriarch of God’s people. If you’re unaware of Hagar, you’ve at least heard of Abraham. God builds through Abraham and Sarah a great nation. They experience the favor of God and the fulfillment of God’s promises. Hagar—their Egyptian slave—does not.  Hagar is, as Trible says, “used, abused, and neglected.” She is treated as a thing and not a person. Her experience is one of expulsion, bondage, and homelessness. And God does not rescue her. No, the God that Hagar experiences steers her further into oppression. Hagar is under Sarah’s thumb, and God is seeing to it that she stays there.

The story goes that God has promised to Abraham and Sarah a son, but they are unable to conceive and sufficient time has passed that Sarah is barren in her old age. Sarah goes to Abraham and says, “Because Yahweh has prevented me from bearing children, go to my maid. Perhaps I shall be built up from her.” And so it is. Hagar and Abraham conceive together, not that Hagar has much choice in the matter. The text presents Hagar as an object, as essentially a tool by which the more powerful Sarah acts. Sarah takes Hagar and gives Hagar to Abraham. Hagar is, in the words of Trible, “an instrument, not a person.”

The New Revised Standard translation tells us that, after Hagar conceived, she “looked with contempt on her mistress.” (16:4) Trible argues that a less harsh translation might be in order. We can just as well say that Sarah is “lowered in Hagar’s esteem.” Trible reads the passage like this: “Hagar acquires a new vision of Sara[h]. Hierarchical blinders disappear. The exalted mistress decreases while the lowly maid increased. Not hatred but a reordering of the relationship is the point.” Hagar’s pregnancy is an occasion for a new relationship between her and Sarah—a relationship characterized by “mutuality and equality” between the two of them. But Sarah is not interested. She wants to remain in power over Hagar, so she goes to Abraham and says, basically, this is all your fault; do something. Abraham says “your slave girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then, the text tells us, Sarah deals harshly with Hagar, and Hagar flees into the wilderness.

Just like the people of Israel in a later narrative, Trible tells us, Hagar has fled from a “house of bondage to the wilderness.” But God is not acting to move Hagar from oppression to liberation. There are no pillars of fire, nor is there a parting of the Red Sea. God tells Hagar “return to your mistress and submit to her.” Then God tells Hagar that when she gives birth she should name her son Ishmael, and that Ishmael will be “a wild ass of a man” who lives at odds with all of his kin.

We do not hear much else of Hagar, save one more biblical episode. She returns to the house of Abraham and Sarah, and her suffering only increases. God fulfills his promise to Abraham and Sarah, with Sarah miraculously giving birth in old age to her son Isaac. Even with God’s miraculous fulfillment of God’s promise to her, Sarah still feels threatened by the presence of Hagar and Ishmael, so she asks Abraham to banish them to the wilderness and he does. Trible draws our attention to the fact that, in this passage, God identifies “not with the suffering slave [Hagar] but with her oppressors.” The God that Hagar experiences causes her expulsion and homelessness. “Hagar,” Trible says, “knows banishment rather than liberation.”

We do not know what exactly becomes of Hagar after she is banished for a second time. The text does not tell us, because this was likely not meant to be a story about Hagar. God works for the good of Abraham and Sarah. Hagar, not so much. Hagar belongs to “a narrative that rejects her.” She is used, abused, and finally rejected. And we must imagine that at some point Hagar felt hopeless. Where does one find hope when even God is against them?

One more thing about Hagar: Her’s is a sad story, to be sure, but she is also immensely important to the biblical tradition. Trible writes, “Hagar is a pivotal figure in biblical theology. She is the first person in scripture whom a divine messenger visits and the only person who dares to name the deity. Within the historical memories of Israel, she is the first woman to bear a child. This conception and birth make her an extraordinary figure in the story of faith: the first woman to hear an annunciation, the only one to receive a divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child. Truly, Hagar the Egyptian is the prototype of not only special but all mothers in Israel.”

This story of Hagar’s is an old story, and we may as well admit that it’s not a historical story. But the Bible is more than a collection of ancient, untrue stories; it’s filled with true stories that happen everyday. Some truths are too big for history.

We have all around us people who, like Hagar, belong to stories that reject them. One of my professors likes to say that we’re all born into a play that is already underway. But many of us find that we are unable to read the script handed to us by our families or communities. Or we find that that there is no role for us at all. Some of us find that not even the God of our experience will make a place for us in the story.

We see these stories of Hagar-like rejection are played out daily in the lives of teens who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transexual, or Queer identifying. Look no further if you ever needed proof that all too many of us would rather encourage death through our ideological certainty than give life through compassionate uncertainty. We have on our hands an epidemic of homelessness, suicide attempts, and substance abuse by GLBT teens. Some want to look at the suffering of these teens and pin it on their identity rather than the constant rejection, messages of worthlessness, and harassment that they receive because of their identity. And just like Sarah who casts out Hagar, they know for certain that God is on their side.

These misunderstood youths are some of the most afflicted members of our shame-soaked society. Too many of them have come to believe that not even God will help them, that they are defective at a basic level of their being. “The ultimate shame,” writes Edward Wimberly, “The ultimate shame and one from which it is almost impossible to recover, is the feeling that one is unloved by God…If such a humiliating conclusion is true from God’s perspective, the there is no ground for hope at all.” Shame, or in religious terms, the feeling of being unloved by God, pervades our culture. It affects some of us more severely than others, but it some point it affects us all. Trying to completely avoid shame is, to borrow a phrase, like “trying to protect ourselves from air pollution by not breathing.”

Shame is like any other evil that tends to go undetected in that shame likes to wear a lot of different disguises. It’s important that we name some of the ways in which shame might be experienced, because an illness that goes unidentified cannot be treated or healed.

Shame is a feeling that we have betrayed ourselves; it is feeling deeply disappointed in the person that we have become.

Shame is a state of confusion; it is feeling that we can no longer trust the world to be the way we imagined it to be. It undermines our notion of who we are in relation to all of our surroundings.

Shame is the perception that other people are judging you harshly, and knowing in your heart of hearts that their judgments are true.

Shame is to feel physically small; it is wishing that we could sink into the floorboards or disappear.

Shame is to be isolated from others. It means to be profoundly and finally alone.

Shame is hopelessness.

Shame is all of those things, but it is most important to know what shame is not. Shame is not the purpose or destiny of anyone’s life, and it is not the will of God. In Genesis, God rejects the isolation that shame brings. One of God’s first observations about humanity is that “it is not good for adam to be alone.” And the God who wills our belonging is able to make it so.

If we want to be serious enough people to laugh again, we can start to partner with God and each other to heal our shame. The things about which we cannot laugh do not need to humiliate us. We can start by telling our stories without feeling the need to give them a happy twist. As Phyllis Trible reminds us, “sad stories do not have happy endings” but they “may yield new beginnings.” To hear these stories is difficult. It is painful to hear someone’s shame and know that you are unable to quickly fix it. We will have to make room in ourselves to enter into someone else’s pain. And we will have to recognize that we  cannot become equal with our shamed neighbors by raising them in the esteem of those who have shamed them in the first place. The story of God in Christ teaches us that love and equality are achieved by lowering ourselves in the sight of others so that we are considered equal with the least and most shamed of these. This is part of what it means for the hills to be lowered and the valleys filled. We all raise each other up by lowering ourselves into the common depths of our experiences.

Once we can tell our stories, our shame loses its grip on us. When we feel something outside of ourselves judging us, or when we start to feel ashamed that we did not become the person who we thought we’d become, shame will not be our natural response. And at some point, we will look at the things that used to cause us shame and we will be able to laugh. Not at ourselves as an object of ridicule, but at the absurdity of the contradictions that fill our lives and thoughts. Who are all these flawed, shame-filled people to think that they could make us feel less than adequate? Don’t they know that we are sons and daughters of the living God?

And if God is for us, then who can be against us?


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