(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reservedphilomena


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Ayesha is an 18 year Pakistani woman. At the age of 8, while visiting her uncle’s home, she was raped by another man. Her screams, cries and bleeding revealed to her family what had happened. Nevertheless, to them she had become damaged, unclean and unworthy of later marriage. In Ayesha’s patriarchal culture, women and girls who are not virgins, no matter the cause, are not wanted as wives, which, unfortunately, is the only path to respectability for most women. Her rapist, while caught, was forced to apologize but then released. He’s now free, married and with children.

As a result of her rape, Ayesha soon became the victim of regular sexual abuse by her father – a convenient source for his pleasure since she was already ruined. The shame she now still feels is debilitating – a condition not of her doing but one she acutely feels – “I’m dirty. I’m a whore.”

And, while biblical scholars cannot be sure, it is surmised that the woman who tearfully anointed Jesus with costly oils and fragrances in a sign of love and appreciation was the same adulterous woman Jesus saved from stoning by a mob of self-righteous men. This woman’s tears and gratitude to Jesus are signs of a woman deeply affected by him – a woman who was restored, honored and made whole by him. She’s a woman who likely still remembered the shame of her sexual misdeed but one who was profoundly grateful for the acceptance and tenderness Jesus showed her.

A more recent story is the one of Tyler Clementi who, in 2010, jumped to his death from the George Washington bridge after a secretly recorded video of his sexual encounter with another man was played online by a homophobic roommate. It does not take much imagination to consider the shame and humiliation young Tyler felt at his public exposure and outing. His was a modern form of stoning – one that pushed him to his lonely, tragic suicide – one where just before he jumped he posted a Facebook note apologizing to friends and family for his disgrace.

Shame is a debilitating emotion. It is a feeling of being totally unworthy, inadequate, fundamentally bad and worthless. For many, shame is caused by religion which often focuses on purity as a virtue while supposed sexual sin, in particular, is worthy of eternal punishment. While one might intellectually discount Biblical verses declaring homosexuality, fornication or lust as abominations, when such declarations are repeatedly taught, over and over, by shame based religions – especially to impressionable youth, it is quite easy to understand the inner torment many feel all their lives about supposed sexual sin. Indeed, shame tears at the very fabric of one’s sense of self, one’s ability to love the self, one’s intuitive belief that he or she has value.

In my review this month of three Oscar nominated Best Picture films of 2014, we look today at the beautifully told movie “Philomena.” Based on a book entitled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the movie details the search by a woman for the son she bore over fifty years ago – a result of being impregnated as a very young, unmarried teen. Shunned by her Irish father, the young Philomena was abandoned to a Catholic home for unwed mothers – run by a group of moralizing nuns. Forced to face, upon her arrival, an inquisition panel of judgmental nuns, Philomena was luridly interrogated about the details of her alleged sin – “Did he pull down your knickers? Did you enjoy it? How long did it last?” Such questions were supposed to be Philomena’s confession of sin but, in reality, seemed more as a way to satisfy the interests of sexually frustrated nuns. In return for their care, the teenage girls were forced to work long hours doing laundry by hand. Their labor and birth were not salved by anesthesia, Philomena’s breech condition was not treated, and many, many girls died in childbirth. Their pain and deaths were seen as well deserved. The girls who did survive were allowed to see their child one hour a day. Life in the home, as ruled by the nuns, was harsh, disciplined and designed to regularly remind the girls of their so-called sin.

When Philomena’s son was three, he was offered for adoption to a wealthy American-Catholic couple. While adoptive parents did not pay for the children, they were tacitly encouraged to make a substantial donation to the convent. Over 450 children were adopted out of the convent – some to American celebrities like Joan Crawford and Jane Russell. Philomena, like the other girls, was never able to say goodbye or thereafter know anything about her son. At what would be her son’s fiftieth birthday, Philomena finally confessed to her daughter what she had done and her desire to know what happened to him.

Philomena and her daughter enlisted the help of a disgraced journalist who, in seeking to resurrect his career, was intrigued by this human interest story. The tabloid he worked for, attracted to tales of sex, religion and the selling of babies, financed efforts to locate Philomena’s son – an effort that eventually led the journalist and Philomena to the US. There they discovered what became of her son. In the interest of not ruining the story for those who have not seen the movie, I won’t give away any more details. Needless to say, the film describes a tale of almost unbelievable plot twists – except the entire story is true.

What I can detail is the film’s very evident condemnation of religions, the human created and deeply flawed institutions and their so called moral laws. It does not, in any way, condemn personal faith and, indeed, highlights Philomena’s abiding spirituality that she expresses through her prayers, basic humility, kindness to strangers and ability to forgive.

But shame based religions, usually fundamentalist in nature, are clearly put on trial by the movie. It is an indictment of the terrible toll such religions inflict on many people. The tortured pain Philomena still feels, decades after her alleged sin, is written across the subtly expressive face of actress Judi Dench – herself nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Philomena’s journey to find her son is both to learn about him but also a cathartic effort she undertakes to purge herself of the persistent, nagging, scornful shame she has been taught to feel. When she does finally find him, it is clear that Philomena has not been totally cured of her shame but has found, in her Jesus-like love and forgiveness of others, a certain peace and understanding of the pain that inner guilt can cause.

But for the nuns of the convent, who essentially abused the young girls, sold their children and deceived both Philomena and her son, there is no repentance or any recognition of their sins against humanity. Theirs is the arrogant assertion by all shame based religions that they alone hold the keys to purity and the path to heaven. Theirs is the smug belief they are always right and that it is a sinful and evil society – one ruled by Satan himself – that ruins humankind. Theirs is a toxic system founded on denial of honest emotions and genuine humanity – a belief that to be morally pure, one cannot express doubt, fear, desire, or physical enjoyment of the bodies we have been given. As one nun in the film pridefully declares, she had honored her vows of chastity, her denial of the flesh was a means to be near God, and the girls, who had failed in saving their purity, they got what they deserved in their pain and humiliation.

But such assertions are not godly. They do not represent the Jesus as described in the Bible. They do not speak for the billions of faithful followers of genuine spirituality – no matter the religion – who love and treat others as they want to be loved and treated. The nuns who lied to Philomena do not practice the one eternal and universal principle of spirituality – the Golden Rule.

Indeed, the very foundations of Christianity teach against shame based religion. Jesus’ death is seen as the sacrifice necessary for humans to be totally forgiven. His atonement for human misdeeds enabled God to no longer see failure in people. At its root, Christianity is a religion of redemption and restoration. Despite some interpretations to the contrary, I assert that Jesus was a radically unique prophet – one who preached the good news of the power of love.

Such is not a syrupy, so-called Sunday school version of Jesus or his love. What Jesus taught and stood for is one of radical inclusiveness, humility, empathy and forgiveness. Love your enemy in a way that is transformative. Forgive those who hurt you in a way that promotes peace and healing. Humble yourself in a way that promotes and serves others more than the self. Understand the differences and experiences of others in a way that does not judge but instead offers respect and full acceptance.

That is the kind of love that Jesus pointed to as representative of the divine. That is the kind of love that he practiced – choosing to understand and befriend thieves, prostitutes and so-called sinners of his day. It’s a love that refused to judge alleged sexual sinners – the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman who had married and divorced six times, the prodigal son who spent his inheritance on wine, women and other pleasures of the flesh. It’s a love that never once, as documented in the four gospels, commented on or condemned same sex relationships. It’s a love that was not afraid to draw close to other men – allowing his beloved disciple John to rest his head on his shoulder.

That kind of love is one Philomena sought to practice in her own life. As a simple woman in the company of a more urbane and Cambridge educated journalist, she was the one who showed him how to be kind to strangers, how to empathize with and understand other alleged sexual sinners, how to forgive and love the nuns who had abused and lied to her.

For Philomena, faith was her way to try and heal her shame. Hers was not an intellectual, theological or Biblically literate faith. It was and is a faith she believes is truly Catholic but which is, in reality, one that any Hindu, Jew, Muslim or Atheist might identify with. That faith was simple and direct: there is a universal power of love that calls us to care for, serve and forgive everyone.

I have attended many evangelical Christian services where the congregation is implored, at moments of high emotion, to come forward to the altar and literally nail a piece of paper onto a wooden Cross. On the paper one is to write a particular past misdeed or so-called sin which still haunts the individual. Such teaching moments are designed to convey the idea that one need not carry a burden of sin and shame. Nail it to the Cross in the same way that Jesus himself became sin personified and was crucified in our behalf. I did that exercise many times – tearfully writing down my “sin” of gay feelings – and nailing them to a Cross in the fervent hope that God would help me eliminate such thoughts. Of course, that did not and could not work, as much as I prayed it might.

The truth of such sin focused teaching is that people are asked to believe their own particular misdeed was and is the cause of Jesus’ death. Indeed, that is actually what is taught in most Christian fundamentalist churches. These sin focused teachings do not take away shame. They enhance it, promote it and encourage it – all the better for believers to feel, as I did, a perpetual sense of diminished value and goodness. But God does not take away shame. We must do that ourselves.

The mission of Jesus the man was not, however, to promote shame by preaching and teaching a long list of “Thou Shall Not’s”. His goal was to promote the very simple “Thou Shall Do’s”, that I listed earlier and that I continually talk about in my messages. Serve others. Forgive others. Understand others. Love others. Refuse to judge others. Humble yourself before others. Focus on correcting your own issues instead of on those of others.

That’s the historical Jesus I find in the Bible. That’s the historical prophet who remains a figure of interest, admiration and awe two-thousand years later. Who, but the greatest of persons, is able to forgive someone who has deeply hurt you, someone who has sworn to be your enemy? Who but the most saintly of persons is able to regularly serve, wash and love the dirty, smelly, ignorant, criminal or diseased? Who but the most empathetic are able to understand, without judging or condemning, the addict, prostitute, gay man, lesbian woman, drag queen, pregnant teen, pornographer, transgender person, stripper, sexual adventurer or anyone else in their so-called sins?

The path to healing shame and guilt is not to preach against all of the alleged carnal sins we can practice or imagine. It’s not to declare that a Savior or Messiah has or will die for us. It’s not to require a list of rules and regulations that reward only those who strictly follow them. It’s not to teach about a vengeful God willing to accept only those who are perfect. We all know that nobody is perfect. There is nobody without sin who can cast stones at others.
The path to healing shame in ourselves and in our world is the path that Philomena took – to admit the truth about oneself, to refuse to hide in the shadows, to love others as you wish to be loved. In doing so, one will find a love for the self that cleans away guilt and shame. If I am able to believe and practice the Golden Rule, I can then apply it to how I treat myself. I can forgive myself of any real or alleged misdeed. As long as I have loved and served others in the same way that I wish to be loved and served, then I have done nothing wrong. I have walked in the footsteps of Jesus and other prophets. I have turned away from those religions and people who judge, condemn and encourage shame. I have reached for the face of god and found pure and total love.
I wish you all much peace and joy.