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July 7, 2020
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July 7, 2020

Domestic Church and shame

By Fr Donald Chambers

In my last article (CN June 28), I reflected on the domestic Church as the primary space for the formation of conscience. I further argued that the Church needs to intentionally prepare the domestic Church to mission or transform the ‘domestic space’ of the virtual world, parishes, and work.

In today’s article, I will use and propose Luke’s post-resurrection narrative (Lk 24: 13–35) as the model of formation of the domestic Church. In this model, the Lucan writer demonstrates how the Risen Christ engages the four elements of Christian formation of the Early Church—teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer and mission, but only in light of the realities of the two disciples. Considering the reality of shame in Caribbean families, I hope to provide a general road map for the formation of the domestic Church.

From the perspective of Caribbean historians, one of the consequences of slavery is the experience of shame. Analysing the regional debates on preparations for the bicentennial of the Abolition of the British Trans-Atlantic Trade in Africa, Verene Shepherd concludes that shame in the Caribbean society has its roots in the internalisation of negative attitudes and the trauma of the slavery experience that has fuelled feelings of inferiority, embarrassment and humiliation.

Shame can be defined as, “The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly).

One example of this in the Caribbean is the shame which emerges when there is a pregnancy before marriage. Frequently, parents ingrain the mantra, “Don’t bring the belly in this house” in their children.

We also encounter shame in dating or marrying someone outside our ethnic, social class and religious tradition by repeating the mantra, “Stick to your own kind.”

Whenever we step into these “shame categories” we are made to feel unworthy and we are ostracised. The ultimate consequences of shame are destructive and hurtful behaviour such as having an inferiority complex, addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, rage, uncontrolled anger, and bullying (Brené Brown).

The experience of shame is like being thrown into a deep and dark hole, disconnected from relationships. To rise from the shame hole, Brown highly recommends the development of shame resilience, that is, “to move through the experience . . . and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection. . .”

An important step in this movement is storytelling which gives us the opportunity to share our experience with someone who listens with empathy and understanding. This quality of listening is a means of pulling us out of the shame-hole. From Brown’s research, she argues that a “social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm”.

Using Brown’s psycho-social perspective, we could interpret the Risen Christ’s initiative towards the two disciples as the balm of empathy lifting them from the hole of shame.

For the disciples, Jerusalem represented the place of shame because of the demise of Jesus and threat to their lives. Hence, their flight. With empathy as the “ladder out of the shame hole”, the Risen Christ figuratively jumps into their shame hole and create a safe space for them to tell their story, commencing with the question, “What are you talking about as you walk along?”

Brown further argues that “if we speak shame, it begins to wither…language and story bring light to shame and destroy it”, which is what eventually happens at the end of the narrative.

The Risen Christ listened to their story, reinterpreted their story of shame in light of the Hebrew Scriptures, had fellowship and broke bread with them, then sent them on a mission to reconnect with the community. In a word, the teachings, the fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer and mission only had meaning in light of the healing balm of empathy towards their reality.

The intentional formation of the domestic Church must involve, for example, asking the question, “What are the ‘shame realities’ of our Caribbean families that have generated feelings of unworthiness and disconnection from the Church or society?” Establishing a safe space would allow families to tell the shame story that has wounded them.

In journeying with Caribbean families, the Church needs to help them to own their story. As Brown writes, “If you own the story you get to write the ending.” In owning their stories, Caribbean families will begin to re-interpret the rich scripture and tradition of the Church leading them to discover new meaning for mission. In the words of Carl Jung, “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”

If the Church values the raw reality of the domestic Church and facilitates its development using the Emmaus Model, then the Caribbean family will join the former Jesuit General Master, Fr Nicolas Adolfo, in praying, “Lord Jesus. What weaknesses did you see in us that made you decide to call us, in spite of everything, to collaborate in your mission?  . . . At the end of the day. . .  make us feel more united with you and better able to perceive and discover around us greater joy and greater hope. We ask all this from our reality. We are weak and sinful men, but we are your friends.”


Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.