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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Shame! Shame! Shame!

Queen Cersie's "Walk of Atonement"
The season finale of Season Five, Episode 10 of the HBO Special, "Game of Thrones" was entitled, "Cersei's Walk of Atonement". It was, in a word, riveting.

You don't really need to have seen the earlier seasons or previous episodes or even have read the book to appreciate the fine acting and directing of this episode, which made crystal clear the religious interpretation of shame as the atonement for sin. 

To be clear, Queen Cersei (brilliantly portrayed by Lena Henley) has much for which to atone. Cersei is the widow of King Robert Baratheon and Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms. She is the twin sister of Lord Jaime Lannister and the elder sister of of Lord Tywin Lannister, (who is a 'little person" whom she detests). She has an incestuous sexual relationship with her twin, Jaime, who is secretly the father of her three children.

She is scheming, cold and cruel and very, very ambitious - for herself and her children, whom she adores, to a fault. Long (and very bloody) story short, she tries to secure her role as Queen by restoring the ancient religious order known as Faith Militant (Think: Nazis mixed with the Taliban) which swiftly begins imposing their puritanical views upon King's Landing.

This initially achieves Queen Cersei's goals - until, of course, they begin to turn on her.  And then, it's all over but the atonement and the Walk of Shame.

It is breathtaking. Here. (I tried to embed it but it wasn't allowed. You'll have to click on the link.)

Watch. I'll wait.

I think we're talking Emmy here, right?

But, I digress. 

Although this HBO series is all part of an amazing fantasy, an adaptation of of "Song of Fire and Ice" by George RR Martin, this scene is not unknown in reality.

Apparently Martin drew this scene from ones in Medieval history where the institutional church imposed the Walk of Shame as atonement for sins such as adultery or incest or homosexuality, and especially for women guilty of "whoring".

The institutional church has often used guilt and shame to control behavior. Well, some parts of the "church catholic" have been better at it than others - even those that would never consider themselves part of the "church catholic". (Think: Puritan public stockades and the Scarlet Letter)

The shaming continues, even today. It has made a disturbing appearance on the Internet, on Social Media Sites like group FaceBook pages and Twitter accounts - and even more disturbing on Episcopal pages.

To be clear: Public shaming is not just a religious vehicle of atonement, but, like many other things in life, the institutional church provides a pretty effective cover for the shameful act of imposing shame on others who have been judged - fairly or unfairly.

NY Times: Nishant Choksi
"So You've Been Publicly Shamed" by Jon Ronson chronicles this phenomenon. He must be striking a familiar cord because his book has actually spent some significant time on the NY Times bestseller list.

Ronson's writing style is not the most pleasant to read - more of a blog style 'flow-of-thought' which is fine for short blog posts but I found somewhat tiresome in book form - but what he has to say is a disturbing look into human behavior when there are no rules and no one to hold anyone accountable.

Ronson uses terms of physical violence to describe public shaming. Tweeters are “a pitchfork mob,” They are both “the hanging judge” and “the people in the lithographs being ribald at whippings.”

People are "stabbed" and then, in an act not of mercy but sarcasm, entreated to, "Stop stabbing because the (victim) is dead” Twitter users have “taken a lot of scalps,” Ronson writes. “We were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws.”

This includes the sad story of Justine Sacco, a marketing executive, who tweeted her friends a Very Bad joke about something that is not a laughing matter - AIDS in Africa.  But, the tweet was to her friends. Who supposedly understood her weird sense of humor. Well, as "friends" go on the Internet.

She tweeted this Very Bad joke as her plane was leaving for South Africa. As she flew, she was completely unaware of the crapstorm that was happening in cyberspace. A friend had re-tweeted her tweet (Am I really talking like this? Yes, I am.) who re-tweeted it to others. Her tweet had been re-tweeted so many times it almost "broke the Internet," creating international outrage.

One of the first messages she retrieved when she landed in South Africa was the notification from her boss that she was fired.  For making an admittedly Very Bad joke. To her friends. On Twitter.

But then, she was hounded. On the internet. For months. It was impossible for her to find work in her chosen field. Her career was ruined. She was shamed into oblivion.

This is just one story. There are, shockingly enough, many, many more.

It's difficult enough to see these undeniable acts of violence taking place on the Internet - most of which are anonymous, making them cowards, as well. It is painful - really, really, painful - to see Christians engaging in this behavior.

I find myself becoming physically ill when I find pages and pages of Episcopalians acting like people in a scene from the 1931 Frankenstein movie, complete with pitchforks, torches and baying hounds.

Indeed, there are FaceBook groups established specifically as places where people are actually encouraged to vent their spleen and spew their venom while crying for "JUSTICE!" for the ones they feel have been treated unjustly.

And, granted, some of them have been treated unjustly. At least, if one listens to one side of the narrative. The problem is, that's the only side allowed to be heard in some of these places on the Internet. Raise a question or express some doubt and expect the mob to turn on you.

Trust me. I know of what I speak.

It's like watching a dramatic illustration of the Reptilian Brain - complete with acts of aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays.

The snarling and snapping over the tiniest infraction of the unspoken but very clear 'Mob Rule' is quite amazing. It's not just that the gloves come off. All rules - all bets, all expectations for decency or good old Anglican tolerance - are off.

Statements made or questions raised that are considered an affront to the prevailing narrative are dragged over from one FB page to another like so much raw meat where the snapping and snarling over it can continue for days.

An appeal to decency - especially one that is somewhat effective - is booed as "condescending" (GASP!) and, if from a clergy person, "clericalism" designed to "shut down conversation" in the worst of the old "father/mother knows best" attitude that once dominated the church.

A (completely false) narrative is then created about that person. And, a small, side mob is formed to try and push that person off the cliff and onto the rocky shoals of the ocean depths of cyberspace.

Some people, who obviously consider themselves quite clever, post photo-shopped image after photo-shopped image mocking the statement or question. Everyone applauds or otherwise encourages the poor soul who then sends forth another flurry of really bad images which, when mild objection is raised, is defended as "gallows humor".

It's like watching a very bad interpretation of Medieval street theater, except these are educated people who would never, ever behave this way in public (much less tolerate this behavior from others in church) but somehow feel that they can say and do these things with absolute impunity from behind the safety of their computer or laptop screen.

Did I mention? These are Christians. Who are Episcopalians.

Near as I can tell, these Internet Vigilantes are low, broad and high-church, conservative, moderate and liberal, and (help me, Jesus) Republican and Democrat.  A truly 'diverse, inclusive' lot.

Those who have been hung out in the public stockades of cyberspace include a certain Episcopal bishop suffragan who was accused of vehicular homicide, two deans of two different Episcopal seminaries, the Board of Trustees - and especially the President of the Board - of one Episcopal seminary, a certain seminary professor who was hired at a prestigious seminary some like to think as 'liberal' with (gasp!) ties to the ACNA (Anglican Church of North America), a certain bishop on the Left Coast who is in dispute with a certain troubled congregation, as well as a certain prestigious Episcopal boarding school in New England.

Whenever the story breaks - even before it can be whispered about in the church parking lot or queried of the rector during coffee hour - you can be certain that the same names will appear both in the posting - as well as the discussion - of the event.

You can almost feel their glee in the posting of yet another "stain" on The Episcopal Church (That's a favorite word. "Stain". They also like "Tarnished".)

It would appear we even have our own Episcopal "ambulance chasers" who, I imagine, must sit with the modern equivalent of the old police radio, ready to pounce on the next breaking scandal.

Who are these people, anyway?  (To use a question asked by a certain bishop about a certain mob in a NY Times article and was endlessly pilloried by that mob for asking it.)

As I said, these are people who self-identify as Christians who are Episcopalians.

Why do they do what they do?

Boredom? Perhaps. Because they can? Probably.

Here's what I've noticed: Almost to a person, they are people who have been hurt by the institutional church - or an "institution" like a university or a hospital. One person talks freely about the Title IV charges s/he has filed against a certain clergy person which were dismissed (Surprise! Surprise!). Several people have been turned down in the ordination process.

Some are laity who are classic "antagonists" and "clergy killers". Some are ordained whose stories of mistreatment by congregations with antagonists and clergy killers and bishops who have severe allergies to conflict are heartbreaking. Some are Queer. Several more have not achieved the more elevated status in the institutional church which they feel they deserve.

Some are an explosive, toxic mixture of all of the above.

Something gets sparked in the psyches and souls of these otherwise good Christians who are Episcopalians and the firestorm is almost uncontrollable.

It's like watching the first few minutes of Queen Cersie's Walk of Shame. Once you get used to the fact that she is standing naked in the public square, her beautiful golden locks roughly chopped and matted with blood, there is a silence that falls over you and the crowd.

And then, you hear it. The "nun" walking behind her, ringing her bell, crying, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" keeping an eerie, clean, crisp cadence.

"Shame! Shame! Shame!" she calls, her voice rich and full as if she were chanting the refrain of a sacred psalm. The voice of Faith Militant. The voice of the church. The voice of God.

Shame! Permission granted.

The people in the crowd begin to call at Cersie. "Slut!" "Whore!" This verbal garbage is underscored when people throw the contents of their waste bins and chamber pots at her or spit on her.

And, from out of the blue, you find yourself musing, "Well, she did have an unrepentant sexual relationship with her twin brother, from which she had three children, for God's sake! ( . . .for God's sake!). And, she did, herself, bring back the Faith Militant and now that the tables have turned . . . ."

And, you gasp and think to yourself, "Oh, my God! This is so easy! It's dangerously easy!"

I should add that it has occurred to me that, perhaps - just perhaps - I am being condescending. Perhaps my expectations and standards are too high. Perhaps I expect different behavior from people who, week after week, recite the words of the General Confession and reaffirm their identity with millions of Christians throughout the world and across all time in the words of the Nicene Creed.

Perhaps my expectations of people who believe that, through Jesus, we "are made worthy to stand before God" are too high.

I don't think so.  I could be wrong. I hope I'm not.

I'm not trying to shut down conversation. I'm trying to raise the level of it. I think we're entirely capable of having intelligent conversations about difficult subjects. I don't think we need to be reduced to drive-by insults and tsk-tsk or tut-tuts.

I happen to believe we can do better.

Shame on me, right?

I'm not saying that shame isn't sometimes an effective way to change behavior. Some behavior is shameful. I suppose it's logical to think that a dose of the same medicine provides the cure.

The movement "Occupy Wall Street" was designed to shame the rich who take from the poor - and, not only get away with it, they get government support for it.

Some people, apparently, need to be shamed before there can be any change in behavior.

Even St. Paul was knocked down from his high horse.

Then again, it was God who did that. Not 'mob justice'.

Then again, I did write this blog.

Didn't I?


JCF said...

As the saying goes, "Humility is a funny thing: as soon as you think you've got it, you've lost it."

So also, I suppose, the Shaming of Shaming. ;-/

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

So, how do we raise awareness that Christians shaming others on the internet is not acceptable - indeed, shameful - behavior?

Marthe said...

You know the holier-than-thou crowd doesn't actually listen because they're too busy condemning others, so the only strategy may be to simply ignore them while modeling gracious behavior. The temptation to judge is strong in homo sapiens as it allows its perpetrators to avoid looking closely at their own flaws (never as much fun as expressing outrage, real or imagined) or, horrors, actually doing the work to repair those flaws (or at least not inflict the negative effects of those flaws on others).
What strikes me about this post is this: when have we ever seen a male version of the walk of shame? I can't think of one. It seems shame is mostly imposed on women who operate outside the rules of patriarchal boundaries of "decency" while men doing the same things are feared and loathed, perhaps, but not shamed, their behaviors considered "strong" or "bold" even though generally unacceptable for average people. Why? Because those in power get a pass more often than not. Which gets us back to the trolls - do not give them power by paying attention to them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe - I so appreciate your insights here, especially about the 'holier-than-thou' crowd who don't ever listen. They have absolutely no insight into their own behavior. They don't listen b/c they are too busy waiting to turn the shame they feel on others. I suspect it's one part power, one part creating in the other person what they feel in themselves. One person I know who is into shaming is an obvious "beard" for her obviously (well to just about everyone else but her) gay husband. Thanks be to God, I have no experience of what it must feel like to love someone but not to be loved in the same way. I suspect that, if I put up with it for some time and felt trapped in it, I might become a very angry, bitter person and it would come out in the most unsuspecting ways. I'm not at all sure, but I suspect this is what is happening to her. I feel sorry for her - except when she bares her teeth and starts snapping and snarling.

And, you're also right about the "Walk of Shame" being saved mostly for women, but I think the Puritan Public Stockades held their share of men, as well. And, dunking. No scarlet letters, however. That was for Hester Primm. said...

Elizabeth, You write: "Those who have been hung out in the public stockades of cyberspace include a certain Episcopal bishop suffragan who was accused of vehicular homicide, two deans of two different Episcopal seminaries, the Board of Trustees - and especially the President of the Board - of one Episcopal seminary, a certain seminary professor who was hired at a prestigious seminary some like to think as 'liberal' with (gasp!) ties to the ACNA (Anglican Church of North America), a certain bishop on the Left Coast who is in dispute with a certain troubled congregation, as well as a certain prestigious Episcopal boarding school in New England."

I know that some in the online discussions you address have lumped all of these together, sometimes suggesting that the totality of all of these are symptomatic of something wrong in the Church. I don't buy that. I also think it may be better, as transient online discussions are formed, to keep the various topics in different discussions because the topics really are different. On the other hand, there are those who want to chat with folk they know.

Just as the topics are different, those participating, especially those who are not commenting daily, are not all coming from the same places and the same types of issues. I disagree with a blanket characterization of all of the contributors as shamers.

And I always object to ad hominem comments.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, William. Thanks for stopping by. Let me see if I can help sort through your concerns.

The "dirty laundry list" is just that: my observations of the public shamings that have been discussed - to the point of nausea - on various Episcopal pages. It has not been MY suggestion - though others have certainly made that suggestion - that the totality of all of these are symptomatic of something wrong in the Church. I don't buy that either. The "dirty laundry list" was compiled and printed here to make the point about all of the public shamings that have gone on in TEC on various pages.

I didn't say all the commenters are "shamers". I'm sorry if you inferred that or I didn't make that clear enough for you. I - and many others - have certainly commented and not in a shameful way. Indeed, I have dedicated an entire blog to the shaming of Heather Cook. It has gathered the highest number of any posts I have ever written about TEC and it is the fourth highest read blog I've ever written. (If you look on the right hand side of the blog page, you'll see a link to it, if you like). It has been reposted by no less than four bishops who wrote and thanked me for it. I have also received letters of gratitude from two of Ms. Cook's relatives.

So, yes, I do keep the issues separate and yes, not all the commenters on the various tragedies in TEC are "shamers".

I wish you had objected to the horrible, cruel, shaming ad hominem attacks made directly at me whenever I raised a question about the GTS8 narrative on a certain FB page. To be clear, I have stated, over and over and over again, that, based on the information that has been made public which has decidedly, overwhelmingly and for whatever reason, come from one side only, I can think of at least four different ways to have handled that crisis which doesn't included how it was actually handled. Again, I don't know what administration and the board knew and we'll probably never know because of the legal implications involved. Which leads me to raise questions about the whole narrative. For that I have been excoriated and shamed. It would have been lovely to have had someone say, "Wait. Stop. Let's not involve ourselves in ad hominem attacks."

Maybe that will happen more, now. Maybe we'll hold each other accountable to Christian standards. We can only hope.

Lee said...

Just strangely came across this and really enjoyed it. Perhaps the behaviour is a reflection of the "wheat and weeds", or just Christian's who still haven't grown as God intends. But it would be good if all contributors to stuff on the web read this and practised some love and restraint (casting stones, do unto others etc)!