Healing from shame

Healing from shame

‘Daisy’ came from the Middle East to be married in a Western nation. Her husband and his family were abusive, and her husband ended up in jail. Although Daisy had a baby she finally had the courage to leave this situation. It was not easy as a single mum. She was rejected by the Muslim community, but it was the followers of Jesus who met her, loved her and cared for her. 

She would attend meetings of Christians and became a part of that community. When her Muslim neighbours realised what she was doing and who she was spending time with, they started to abuse her and shame her.

There were many difficulties for her. She was unable to get work, and the suffering of shame deeply affected her. Finally she left and returned to her country of origin, even though it is a war-torn country. The effect of the ongoing messages of shame she received have coloured the way she now views the Christians who cared for her and loved her through the difficulties she experienced. She feels Christians are not good and wishes she had not met them; that they caused her problems.

Shame is a destructive force that overwhelms the lives of many women.

Women can be used to repay a family debt. One young woman described her experience of being used to repay her father’s debt so he could overcome the shame he was suffering. She said there was not way out for her.

When the daughter of a family in South Asia ran away with an older man, the shame on the family meant she should be killed. When she was found, she was not killed, but married off immediately. As part of the cultural ways of dealing with the shame, the older brother of the girl had to marry the man’s sister. In this culture, when someone shames the family the next sibling has to marry the sibling of the husband. This is often a tool to control how shame is exposed outside of the families involved.

While women often carry the burden of shame, it seems they also play a significant role in hiding shame. If the family can contain the shame then the actions needed to deal with it are limited. There also seems to be an exponential aspect to shame. As shame goes out in concentric circles of greater public knowledge, it keeps increasing and more action must be taken to deal with it.

It is this that makes Jesus’ interaction with the bleeding woman so staggering. The thing that caused her such shame in the community was not covered up. In fact Jesus exposed this woman and her shame before everyone. It says that Jesus has a very different way of dealing with shame, different from so many of the cultures where shame controls a woman’s sense of self, identity and belonging, where families and communities work to cover shame. Shame can be contained if it is not visible in public.

When the bleeding woman touched Jesus, she did it quietly, in a way that would not expose her. Surely he would not look for who had touched him in a crowd of many pressing against him. And surely he knew this woman had already suffered the shame of years of isolation because of her condition? Why would Jesus expose this woman even further to public shame?

The bleeding woman received physical healing the moment she touched Jesus’ garment, but it is the healing from shame that Jesus also wants to give attention to. When he speaks to her Jesus calls her daughter, embracing her into his circle of identity and belonging. She was not defined by what other said about her, by what others had done to her. She was defined by the fact that she belonged, that she was the daughter of the King. His honour was far more powerful than the community’s declaration of her shame. All that isolated her and made people avoid her was nothing before the contagious purity of honour that Jesus gave to her.

For Daisy, for the woman who ran away with the older man, for the woman we share life with who suffer the debilitating, dehumanising burden of shame and its isolation, Jesus offers a new way of dealing with shame. It is not about hiding it because of what others think. It is about finding a place of belonging and a new identity in relationship with him.

Image: with thanks Photo by horacio olavarria on Unsplash

(c) When Women Speak … August 2023

CH spent almost four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).

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