Friday, April 14, 2017

ABC Post 14--You Talk I Listen--Gothard, Privilege, and Shame

I sensed it a lot as a child.

“It” was a dark, slimy something, sensed on a spiritual level but so real it was almost physically felt and seen and smelled, that swirled around me and through me and settled down into the deepest part of who I was.

I felt it when I was seven and saw a crying toddler out by the swings after church, and I had seen his parents go into the classroom off the kitchen, so—happy that I had what it took to help someone—I led him to the classroom, opened the door, and shooed him inside to his parents.  And then I shut the door and turned to see the church ladies in the kitchen all turn to me with angry and annoyed faces.  What was I DOING?? That couple was having a PRIVATE MEETING with the visiting minister!!

I got the message.  I had done something terrible, and I was just so bad.  I went out and sat in the buggy, overwhelmed with my own horribleness over which I had no control and about which I could do nothing.

When my brothers told me I was fat and ugly and a crybaby and full of parasitic worms, I felt the darkness too.  I knew I was disgusting beyond bearing, a burden and embarrassment to my family. That was who I was.  There was nothing I could do but go through life like Cain, head bowed with the heaviness of taking up room on earth that I didn’t deserve.

When I forgot my Bible at church one Sunday and then found it on the entry table at church a few days later, hoping no one had looked through it and seen the notes that Mary and Regina and I had written to each other in church, I was crushed to find among the notes a long anonymous letter castigating me for my wickedness. “…these carnal girlish notes,” it said, among many other things. I knew I was just so very irredeemably bad, and some nameless holy person at church had discovered how bad I was. Now they KNEW.  There was no atoning for this.

The swirling, smelly darkness always had the same messages.  “You are just so bad.” “Unbelievable. “ “What a freak.” “Everything is your fault.” “There is nothing you can do about it.” 

There was never a specific solution, a path forward, a way to forgiveness and redemption.

I got to be really good at sniffing out the presence of this slimy evil.  In the middle of a sermon I would suddenly sense it, reaching out like an octopus from the pulpit.  Maybe in a conversation with a concerned older woman or in a magazine article, there it was, around and within me, exposing my very awfulness. 

Long years later, I learned that the dark presence had a name.  It was Shame.

And I learned that Shame had lied to me all my life.

One day, as an adult and long after I should have known better, I conducted a children’s meeting at church and told them the story of the notes in my Bible and being found out, as a cautionary tale. You should be good in church!

My friend Judy Roth said afterwards, “Dorcas! You were not the bad person! Whoever wrote that anonymous letter to you had no right to snoop in your Bible.  That was wrong of them!”

The universe tilted about ten degrees. It had never crossed my mind that someone besides me could be the bad person, or could have wronged me and it wasn’t my fault.

That is how badly Shame messes with your mind.

Bill Gothard was a well-known teacher in those days who filled whole stadiums with devotees for a week of intense teaching.  If you were anyone in Christian circles, you went to his Basic Youth Seminar. If you were really serious, you went to the Advanced Seminar.

The most conservative Mennonite churches didn’t endorse Bill Gothard.  We of slightly more enlightened Mennonite persuasions looked at them with amusement.  Didn’t they know you could get solid Christian teaching from someone who wasn’t Mennonite?  I had many Mennonite friends who had filled their red books with copious notes and used all the special phrases—character qualities and rhemas and a Godly seed and spending time in the Word.

I went to a Basic Youth seminar for the first time after we were married.  With thousands of other Christians we walked expectantly into Portland’s Rose Garden, found our seats, and listened to hours and hours of earnest lectures delivered with gentle and persuasive words.

As the days progressed I became more and more aware of something “off.” Over and over, Bill would share a Bible verse, or part of one, and then he would quickly go on to the application of this verse, complete with 8 or 10 bullet points about the root cause of anger or the results of listening to certain music, and while everyone around me wrote it all down, I was still stuck on that verse.  How did he make the leap from the verse to the conclusion? It didn’t make sense.

There is no way Bill Gothard would have had the success he had if nothing he said was true. He had plenty to say that people found helpful and that encouraged Christians to take the Bible seriously. But I think it was Thursday or Friday when I recognized it—the same evil-smelling cloud of shame, swirling around, without and within, condemning me down to the core of my soul, sucking me into a spiral of trying to be good and never ever being good enough.

That time, for once, I pushed back.

It is a strange thing to be in a crowd of 10,000 people and feel like you are the only person who sees and feels this huge and obvious dark something all around you.  So I sat there and stubbornly prayed that his sin would be revealed.

I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was there.

30 years later my prayer was answered, at last, and his creepy controlling behavior toward the young women in his employment was finally brought to light.

Along the years, I slowly began to recognize the voice of Grace, which is the opposite of Shame. You could also call it conviction vs. condemnation.  Or the voice of the Holy Spirit vs. Satan’s voice.

We are loved beyond all explanation, the Bible says. If we accept God’s forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we become a new creation. Our heart of stone is replaced with a heart of flesh. We are free from condemnation and passed from death to life.

But sometimes it takes a long time to learn the reality of all that, and to recognize and renounce the lies that come at us.

Shame says You are just so bad.
Grace says, You are redeemed and forgiven and loved.

Shame is always vague. Its message is that you are just so bad to the core.
Grace is specific. If you’ve done something wrong, the Holy Spirit zeros in and shows it to you. And you know exactly what you did that you shouldn’t have.

Shame is urgent and frantic.
Grace is gentle and patient.

Shame says there’s no atoning for this, no clear path, only a heavy burden to carry through life, a red A, the mark of Cain as you wander throughout the earth.
Grace gives you a clear path forward, a definite way to make things right, and permission to put it behind you and move on.

If I’m hypersensitive on this subject, it’s because I believed too many lies for too long, and it’s a horrible way to live.  Recently I found a picture of myself as a small child, and I wanted to cry.  I was beautiful and adorable. I had been lied to, and I believed the lie, and acted as though it were true.

So, we come at last to the actual topic of the day.

I’ve always had an interest in racial issues, history, and justice.  I’ve studied history and kept up on the news and read biographies. But I’ve been very far removed from the American Black population. When we adopted a son who was black, I expected the prevailing racial tropes and narratives to fit his life, and they never did.

It made me question anything I’d learned that came from a white interpretation, especially an academic one, and it made me impatient with anything but specific information, preferably from the black community.  I wrote a blog post about some of this.

And, as mentioned a few days ago, I was inundated with articles to read and books to buy and information to process.

Some of it was helpful, full of stories and personal experiences and eye-opening comparisons and specific ways to promote justice and issues that would never have occurred to me.

But a lot of the material was full of earnest educated analysis, blanket statements about whole swaths of people, and words like “privilege,” and the more I read it, the more I sensed that something was "off" and there was a slimy black octopus reaching out from the words, and an evil smell lingering within and without.

They were all about Shame, I realized. It rose in black vapors from the pages.  The articles were full of vague accusations, encompassing all white people not with “these people did this specific bad thing” but “you are just so unbelievably defiled as a whole group.”

There was never a clear path forward to repent, rectify, make atonement, move on, and do better, as individuals or as a group, only a sense that the entire white American race was branded with the mark of Cain, wandering the earth. “Awareness” was the best we could hope for, and maybe “dialogue.”  But there was no way that any individual, even a farm wife in the middle of North Dakota, could ever remove the terrible mantle of privilege.

Just to make sure you understand: Do I believe inequality exists and white people often experience life differently, especially in certain parts of the country? Definitely yes. For instance, I asked my son Matt to verify what I’d heard about how young black men in Washington, DC, get sucked into the prison system.  He said it works like this:
1. You get arrested, wrongfully or not.
2. You get stuck in a private prison, which has every incentive to keep you in place as long as possible (more state money)
3. Being in jail that long, you lose your job
4. You get charged for your room and board in jail, innocent or not
5. Not being able to pay, you lose your driver's license and with it, whatever ability you have to get another job
Downward spiral from there.

I’m sure that happens in many places besides DC, and to low-income people of all races. But I can also see how it disproportionately affects the black population. No matter who it happens to, it's wrong.

My point is, it’s specific information that I can get my teeth into. It's not a vague adjective labeling a whole group.

The worst problem with much of the privilege agenda is that it’s only a short step to narrowing down the shame, from white privilege to white male privilege and even to white male Mennonite privilege. 

Like this article.

It soon gets really weird and creepy.

Here are two recent examples of where the prevailing privilege ideas lead when people take them seriously:
1. The young white male student who told my daughter, in all seriousness, that the world would be a better place if there were only 25% of the men, because men cause all the wars and stuff.
2. The professor at Portland State who told his class, “White males in leadership are the root of all evil.” [A student in the class told his mom who told me.]

That’s Shame talking.  It lies and it condemns.

I am all about all of us, as individuals and communities, loving our neighbors, pursuing justice, humility, listening hard, sacrificing, and speaking up for those who have no voice.  I believe in repenting of our sins and taking responsibility for choices and finding a better way.

But I have no patience with Shame.  It might take thirty years for the truth to be exposed, but when it does, I want to say I saw it for what it was.


  1. Maybe that's why it took some of us 30 years to see the Bill Gothard applications for what they were--because we had not known and lived out of a sense of shame and therefore didn't recognize it. I am so sorry for all of us. Your tragedy was the early shame. For many of us, the tragedy was 30 years of blindness.

  2. Jennifer Jantzi4/15/2017 6:08 AM

    You've articulated something I have only felt. Thanks, with all my heart.

  3. Kim Fahnestock4/15/2017 6:15 AM

    Thank You.

  4. Yes and yes and yes. God bless.

  5. Thank you for this! I was raised with Bill Gothard's Wisdom Booklets and only realized as an adult when they came over the pulpit how much I had a problem with Bill Gothard's teachings. Over several years time Bill Gothard lies that had congealed with lies from my own church culture had been replaced by truth from people who were willing to sit with me and tangle with life. I began to recognize that each time the pastor said something counter to the truth that had set me free it was in sync with Bill Gothard's teachings. Like you I may have missed it, but for the fact that I was in the process of embracing truth that was setting me free from those crippling lies mixed with truth.
    Thank you as well for writing about privilege and race. Even as I seek to understand and acknowledge the reality of inequality I push back against the victim mentality. I lived like a victim too, and it was only when I was helped to see that I gave others the power to control me, and it was a choice I could stop making that I stopped blaming and started living.

  6. Very well put. Thank you!

  7. Excellent post! Very full of truth! Thanks.

  8. I also went to the BG seminar and felt "off" but was youngish and had been fed a steady diet of the dark slime all my life and so believed all the "better" christians who told me it was good. My biggest sadness is that I took my children and then watched my son struggle with all the conflict that caused in his heart. I have learned it is very important to listen when the Holy Spirit gives us warnings.

  9. I have a problem with the whole white shame thing. I can no more help being white than my neighbour can help being black. I am not responsible for that & I will not be shamed for it. Nor will I be shamed or what my ancestors did or didn't do. It was a different time, a different understanding. However I will do my very best to treat every person I come in contact with like Christ would. Thank you for this.

  10. I am 56 years old and still getting shamed by my Mom on the phone from 500 miles away. I do not know how to put a stop to it but I am more than tired of the conversation in my head that has been fed all of my life by small snarky comments. No one has the right to do this to another.

    1. Part of my journey has been to realize that other people's bad behavior has very little to do with me. That is who they are choosing to be. They would still be that person no matter what I did or didn't do. It helps, but if it's someone you love, it still stings.

  11. Thank you so, so much for writing this. I've dealt with both kinds of shame.

  12. I recognize that octopus, shooting out clouds of lies and obfuscation. Does everyone experience shame as a child? My background (culturally and experientially) was so very different, yet weirdly the same. Be perfect, so no one will know the truth that cannot be named
    among decent people.

  13. I haven't read all of these. I'm curious about the one when your were inundated with suggestions of things to read about race. Which one was that?

    1. This one.

  14. I find your thoughts about white privilege to be interesting. I find the analogy of being right handed helpful. I have right-handed privilege. My sister who is a lefty is keenly aware that scissors and other household items are designed for righties. She always has to sit with the table corner to her left so that she doesn't bang elbows with others while eating. There is no shame with being right handed or left handed. It's just that the right handed people need to be paying attention to the way lefties experience the world and provide opportunities that allow lefties to flourish (left handed scissors for example).

    It's not a perfect analogy as systemic racism is far more harmful than being left handed in a right handed world, but I've found it helpful to take the shame out of white privilege.

  15. Trulan Martin4/16/2017 2:05 AM

    God bless you, Dorcas, for writing this. It's not only little girls who feel the slimy tentacles of shame. I still have moments where waves of shame wash over me like a hit some horrible drug. I've come to know it's name, and to call it out for what it is. Many of the memories that trigger the 'shame hits' have been redeemed, many have not. A key part of my journey with God has been the healing of this shame - not the erasing of it, but the redemption. In the past few days, a lyric from a song (not a new song, but new to me) by Michael Card has been penetrating my heart:

    "Come make a sacrifice of all your shame"

    Does God really want me to offer this brokenness, the shame itself, as a sacrifice to Him? Doesn't he require that we give our best? There are severe warnings in the Old Testament for those who would sacrifice a lamb with a deformity or a broken leg. That is what the law says - but we can never keep the law (or the bullet points). Could it be that the deepest act of worship - what God desires the most - is that we lay this shame before him, lift it up in all its sliminess, as an offering to him? I've still got lots to process, obviously. Again, God bless you for writing this.

    1. It's a long journey, isn't it? I too have felt like I was supposed to give the worst and hardest as an offering.

  16. He is risen! [Jn24:6] Praise God. His victory is our victory in Christ.

  17. Your experiences as a can I protect my children from shame? Didnt your mom affirm you or did you put more stock in what your brothers and others told you? It's just scary what children can be suffering that no one knows...

    1. We had a whole mixture of bad things happening for a number of years when I was little. Huge financial stresses, Mom had a late-in-life pregnancy and severe post-partum depression, Dad was very angry, weird abuse at church... We were all stressed and took it out on each other, and a lot of stuff went unnoticed by our parents.
      I think the best way to protect children is to deal with their behavior calmly and even firmly if needed but recognize that this is normal behavior for this age and stage of children. They are not freaks or embarrassments. And you will always love them.

  18. THANK YOU for all the thoughtful and interesting comments.

  19. Edie Kauffman-Landis4/16/2017 11:12 PM

    I was the 'shamed' one in our family AND extended family. It's taken me years and years to see, feel, and KNOW God's grace to me and that I will never earn it. I will never be 'perfect/holy' enough. I finally pushed back to one sister and asked her, 'When will I be 'perfect' enough so you can stop this constant hounding of me when I make any mistake???!!!' Never got an answer from her, but I stopped feeling like I was the 'slug' in the family, just crawling around in the pit of slime they had laid for me to stay in all the time. Never had children either, so I didn't pass on the shame to them; need to watch it every school day because I work w/ school age children and I don't want them to feel the same junk I felt.

  20. "You are accepted in the Beloved."
    "Now therefore there is no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus."

  21. Yes. This is true. I could swap names and a few details and this would be my story. I praise God for redeeming me and lifting the blinders off my eyes!! I pray constantly for the dear people in my life that still have the shame lenses, informing them every day. Please keep writing on this! The world, and especially the many Mennonites that read your blog are desparately needing this truth!!

  22. What do you do when you see this happening in a church family and leadership seems to being doing nothing about it? I have no desire to report the emotional or psychological abuse to CPS but where is the 'red' line?

    1. "Anonymous", you see abuse and you don't want to report it??!!

    2. If you see it happening, you need to do something. Certainly you should talk to the parents before you report it. And if there's any way to "be there" for the children, you should do that too. Obviously I don't know any particulars here, but if you see it and it bothers you, it's probably God tapping you on the shoulder with an assignment.

  23. Usually I'm a silent lurker on your blog, but I just had to say, YES! This post is amazing. Like you said,
    "Shame is urgent and frantic.
    Grace is gentle and patient."
    What freedom to live life with this knowledge.

  24. Wonderful post, Dorcas. I wasn't shamed as a child, and my kids tell me their dad and I did all right, so I don't think they were, either. But I'm more and more aware of the shaming element in our culture (it has always existed in humanity, one byproduct of the fall of humankind). I've been caught up at different times in the practice of trying to explain truth by enumerating all that is wrong with the other group's views, and I realize this was me shaming others. As you say so well, there is a palpable sense when shame enters in. It is a form of violence, which is why I can't listen anymore to talk radio (on either side); they're nearly always shaming those with whom they disagree. Christianity provides us a radically different option: disproving falsehood by living the truth. Even though we may be horribly misunderstood, Christians are free from shaming and being shamed by praying for the health and welfare of our enemies. This is the path toward our own healing, though it be the path of the cross. (I'm not saying I live up to this standard; just that it exists, and I hear and sense it in most of your writings, so thank you for this.)

  25. Thanks Dorcas, I still deal with sickening shame that is most often ungrounded. So this helped me again. I'm banking on the resurrection powerto overcome, and the resting in His grace. I'm also grateful for your courage to write this. Thanks again.

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  27. Shame is vague.. grace is specific...

    condemning me down to the core of my soul, sucking me into a spiral of trying to be good and never ever being good enough.

    Thank you. You hit the spot well with your words.

  28. Dorcas, I read these words Easter Sunday, and something profoundly binding snapped inside of me.

    My life has had many opportunities for giving recently, and the more involved with people that I am, the more chance there is to fail. In times like this, full of the satisfaction of giving and the regret of giving imperfectly, a dark cloud constantly hangs over me. Outward appearance shows me doing many good things, inwardly I am trying to stomp down a blackness that has no name.

    Easter Sunday morning I wondered where the power of the crucified,risen Lord is in my life. I've been feeling like a good beating would satisfy the blackness I feel. Yet, didn't Christ take the beating for me?

    The blackness is shame. As I read your words I wept and felt a release in my spirit. Thank you for taking time to write.

  29. Here are some specific things from Peggy Macintosh that I try to think about when it comes to the kind of privilege I possess as a person raised in white Mennonite community, surrounded by a white family and supportive white friends.

    1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
    2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
    3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
    4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
    5. I can open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
    6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
    7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
    8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
    9. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
    10. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
    11. I can dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
    12. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
    13. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
    14. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
    15. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
    16. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
    17. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
    18. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
    19. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
    20. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
    21. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
    22. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
    23. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
    24. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
    25. If I want to, I can pass as white.

    This list of specific things helps me understand that racism is grounded in social history, it isn't about whether or not someone is "racist." American society is set up in such a way that some of us are have more resources and opportunities than others. There is nothing shameful about being white, what is shameful is not recognizing the systemic social issues that Black and Brown people face and working along side them as an ally and friend in their struggles.

  30. Thank you for publishing this very helpful post. Wish it wasn't too religious for your newspaper column - or maybe it isn't, or could be adapted? Don't know anything about writing but this is just so useful