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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Shame: Reflecting on Psalm 25:1-10

In that trust in the divine, one can unashamedly open up their positions and postures because God receives people as they are and as they wish to come. God doesn’t blame and shame any names; rather God calms those who come unto him with the heavy labor of shame.

1To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
2O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
3Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
5Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
6Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
7Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
8Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
10All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

Psalm 25:1-10

I remember as a child, if you were naked, the first thing the adults commented about our child-bodies was “shame, shame, puppy shame.” On hearing such comments, the child immediately ran to either hide their nakedness from the public or picked some clothes to cover their nakedness. Such comments ingrained a sense of ‘shame’ on the body of a child. Shame continued to govern the lives of human beings in more than many ways. Again, back home in India in our local village, when our Dalit community members cooked beef for dinner, and when our friends asked what we ate for dinner, we always said, “That.” There was a sense of shame in eating beef, for those eating beef are considered polluting by the dominant castes, and so in order to cover the shame associated with beef, it was always talked about in that code word of “That.” Our Dalit women, whose bodies have been battered and bruised by the systemic practices of patriarchy and caste, carry the heaviest burdens of shame enforced on them, and the growing caste honour killings are a case in point.

On this first Sunday in Advent, when faith communities are waiting for the arrival of the divine in Jesus Christ, we are called to recognise that there are many people in our contexts who are living in shame, and whose longing has been to overcome the inadequacy in life and build back trust with themselves, with the people in the community and with the divine. Advent is a season for such longing, where justice, peace and equality are the visions for faith communities in longing and belonging. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to turn those visions into actions by offering compassion and love to the entire creation, and make Advent a real possibility and a reality for all. 

In the context of the heinous caste system, for Dalits, the people who are born outside of the caste hierarchy, and who are also known as the ex-untouchables, shame is forced on them because of the untouchability ascribed to them. Priyanka Singh on writing on Dalit trauma explains, “starting with the idea of pollution attached to their identity, Dalit minds were trained to feel a profound sense of shame about who they were and the work they were assigned. This is ‘learned cultural shame’ and it is an intrinsic quality of the contemporary Dalit identity.”

She also comments that, even when Dalits enter institutions of higher learning through the state’s Constitutional affirmative actions called “Reservations,” they are shamed and discriminated against for their Dalit identity. Today, shame occupies a prime area in the public sphere, where the women, the Dalits, the indigenous communities, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ communities, the migrants, the refugees, are all judged and shamed based on the norms constructed by the dominant and powerful people’s narratives and tools.  

It has become so prevalent in society today, where “shame” and “celebrate” are things that are associated with what we think is wrong and right. As a person of Indian origin now living in the UK, I have noticed how the word “shame” has some specific cultural overtones and differences. In the UK, as I have heard, if a colleague of yours is unwell and is unable to attend a scheduled meeting, it is said, “It’s a shame that she can’t make it to the meeting.” Here shame is understood as sad, rather than wrong. This is not to say “shame” doesn’t refer to a social reality.

However, speaking from the perspective of my Dalit experience, shame is something that is indoctrinated socially, politically, culturally, and religiously upon people based on the tools of the powerful, bringing a sense of inadequacy to the very “self” of one’s life. Shame alienates oneself from their own self, and it alienates oneself with the rest of the community. In other words, shame creates a sense of distrust and mistrust of the self.

Psalm 25 expresses the reflections of the psalmist who is threatened by the situation of his guilt and shame and who seeks to find trust, hope and confidence in the divine. The psalmist begins his reflection by asking God not to put him to shame (verse 2) and concludes the psalm by again reiterating his plea of not putting him to shame (verse 20). These pleas explain the gravity of shame that he has been carrying on his life, drawing us to the seriousness of his situation. 

The context of the psalmist thrived on the binary and dualism of honour and shame, where “honour” was for the righteous and “shame” was for those burdened by guilt and disgrace. On recognising the politics of shame as that which is enforced/indoctrinated by the powers and principalities, which the psalmist calls “enemies,” the psalmist as a victim of shame acknowledges at least two of its dimensions. The psalmist first prays to God asking God not to put him to shame (verse 2) and then pleads with God not to put to shame those people who wait for God (verse 3). The psalmist cries out loud and exposes the tangents of both the individual shame and also the corporate shame of his community, seeking refuge in the trust of God.

By expressing such corporate shame, the psalmist was building solidarity for people with shame, in his community, seeking collective ways for systemic changes in overcoming shame. In the context of the discrimination for Dalits, both individual and corporate psyche of Dalits are traumatized with shame, and Dalits continue to live with a wounded psyche.

It is also interesting to note that the psalmist prays in verse 3, “Let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous,” where he wants those that are unfaithful and betraying the vulnerable to experience shame that he has been experiencing; only then might they understand what it means to be inadequate in one’s self and what it means to lose trust in oneself. It is in a way a strategy of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which has been enforcing shame on the vulnerable and powerless. 

The psalmist earnestly prays, petitioning God not to put him to shame, for it affects the inner self of his very being. The root word bos, “shame” in Hebrew, has meanings that range from humiliation to public disgrace. Therefore, when the psalmist begins his prayer in verse 1, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” he brings the “shamed self,” “humiliated self,” and “broken self” into the presence of God unashamedly. The divine becomes the space where “shamed selves” find trust, home and solace because the “shamed selves” are “un-homed” in the public sphere. After all,the normalization of the oppressive status quo rules and prevails there. 

In verse 7, the psalmist pleads with the divine not to remember the sins of his youth or his transgressions, for those sins have added a sense of “shame” on him.  Those in his public sphere always remember them and haunt him in his doings. The psalmist has no place to hide except to come to the presence of the divine, where he finds trust (verse 2) and comfort. When our Dalit ancestors chose to become Christians, they found that trust, hope, and home for their “shamed selves” in the space of Christian faith. Faith in Christ offered courage, which brought them to “come open” as Dalit Christians in the public sphere to lead a life with self-dignity and self-respect. 

In the context of shame, when the self is experiencing inadequacy, the psalmist rather than explaining the reasons of his shame, or narrating the story of his shame, which might be traumatising to retell or giving a detail about the “enemies” who are enforcing shame on him, the psalmist waits on God, on God’s paths and on the characteristics of God for help and refuge. Look at the characteristics of God that the psalmist mentions here, which includes God’s trust (verse 2), mercy (verse 6), salvation (verse 5),  steadfast love (verses 6 and 7), goodness (verse 7), and faithfulness (verse 10).

These characteristics of God are the characteristics that the psalmist who is living in shame is longing for and waiting for, which the psalmist speaks out loud in his prayer. With the overpowering of shame in his life, the adequacy of life is vacuumed with distrust, mercilessness, oppression, hatred, unfairness and unfaithfulness, and therefore he expresses a longing in God, who has abundance of life in Godself. The words in prayers are words that the person praying is longing for in their lives. They are not mere words, but visions for their longing and belonging.  

So, we learn from this Psalm that in situations of shame, when people are burdened with sins and transgressions that push them to shame, when the public sphere reminds and remembers all those shame-full acts, which are acts done against the norms of the powerful, the presence of the divine offers hope, trust, and hospitality. In that trust in the divine, one can unashamedly open up their positions and postures because God receives people as they are and as they wish to come. God doesn’t blame and shame any names; rather God calms those who come unto him with the heavy labour of shame. As followers of such a divine, the task is on us to offer home and hope, to (re)build trust for people whose psyches are broken due to shame, to be nonjudgmental of people’s shame and to love them unconditionally. 

One thought on “The Politics of Shame: Reflecting on Psalm 25:1-10

  1. In Jesus Christ, not only are transformed, we are translated unto higher plane higher and out of the lowly places and conditions of shame. Those who put others to shame may do so because they felt better under false impression.

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