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Guilty or Shamed

One of the powerful things about this Gospel story is the abundant mercy of God in Jesus Christ.  One of the more interesting details is Jesus bending down and writing in the dust while the woman is made to stand in the circle of shame.  People have speculated what Jesus is writing in the dust?  Is he writing the sins of the men standing around the woman?  Who can Say?

But we can say this for sure, the woman is made to stand in the middle because not only do they want to stone her but to shame her as well.  And so when you want to shame someone you stare at them, you gape at them, you leer at them, as if to say "you no good piece of trash".  I submit to you that Jesus doesn't want to further shame the woman, he wants to spare her further shame and so, among all of the men there he alone bends down and doodles something on the ground.   I wonder sometimes if they put a private eye on this woman who had a reputation in town, just to use her as a tool to confront Jesus.

Without going to into a psychological discourse, there is something called toxic shame.  It is to lose all self respect.  It is to feel that I am flawed and defective as a human being; I am a mistake.  This leads to distorted thinking:  No one could love me as I am.  I need something outside of me to be whole and okay.  This kind of thinking leads to life damaging consequences:  acting out- adultery, escape into drugs or alcohol.  Shame fuels the addiction and the addiction fuels the shame.  Worth is measured on the outside, never on the inside.   Could this woman in the Gospel be caught up in what some people call the squirrel's cage – going round and round but going nowhere?  They made her stand in the middle - "You worthless piece of trash".

Guilt is different than shame.  A guilty person says I did something wrong, I violated my values and I feel awful about it.  Or the guilty person might say I feel sorry about the consequences of my behavior, and I take responsibility for my actions.  In confessing my guilt, as in the Sacrament of penance, I reaffirm my values and the possibility of growth, learning and reconciliation are promoted.  While the possibility for repair seems foreclosed to the shameful person because shame is a matter of identity, but guilt is a matter behavioral misconduct, and I can learn from my mistake.

There is a book that I would recommend, if it is still in print, Healing the Shame That Binds You, by John Bradshaw.  Everyone one of us has some shame issues; none of us gets into adulthood totally unscathed.  But what does Jesus do for this woman in the Gospel?  He prevented her from being stoned to death, she gets to live another day.  Jesus obviously did not engage in counseling with her, although if anyone knew human beings it was Jesus Christ. To be free of deep shame often means long counseling. He respected her, he did not shame her.  But neither does he excuse her actions. Jesus asks:  "Does no one condemn thee?"  "No one sir," she replied.  "Go and sin no more," he says.  I do not shame you, but your actions are destructive.

The moment the sinful woman stands before the sinless Lord, who is now standing up, is a dramatic one.  In the Latin of St. Augustine relicti sunt duo, miseria et misericordia.  Then there were two:  misery and mercy.  There is the delicate balance between not condoning the sin and not condemning the sinner. God does not shame us, but our prisons are full of people who were shamed and acted out their feelings of worthlessness.  I keep making mistakes because I am nothing but a mistake.  God's mercy is stronger than death, stronger than shame.  We are the vessels of God's mercy for one another.  Woman, you are a human being made in God's image, not a piece of trash, neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.

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