Guilt is a good thing. A gift. Something essential if we are going to step into a journey of reconstruction.
Yet it used to terrify me because I did not know what to do with it. So instead of stepping into the gift of guilt, I did everything I could to avoid it. For decades I did this to the detriment of both myself and others.
I know I am not alone in this avoidance.
Avoiding Guilt in Florida
This week Florida State Senator Diaz introduced bill SB 148. The AP characterized it as a bill aimed to prevent White people from feeling discomfort. Conservative outlets quickly pointed out that was not the text of the law. So what does it say?
The bill has about fifty lines on workplace training. It aims to create a kind of colorblind work environment that ignores societal complexities around race and gender. This is followed by almost four hundred lines on what and how schools should teach. Included are lines about our founding documents promoting small government and meritocracy.
Black History is included in the curriculum. However it mandates using the Holocaust as the framework for studying human behavior, racism, and stereotyping. Rather than using slavery, the failure of reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws to explore these things, it defines American history “as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
If you have spent time in Black spaces or held deep friendships with Black people, you know they find supposedly colorblind work environments anything but comfortable. You also know they privately teach their children a more nuanced understanding of America’s history and its present. This is not about challenging the narrative, but creating opportunities for their children to navigate the world. If SB 148 passes, it codifies Black discomfort while enabling White people to believe we live in a post-racial society.
Understanding the treatment of Black people in America cannot help but stir up both guilt and shame. While there is no reason for guilt over the sins of our ancestors, we should feel guilt for perpetuating those sins today. But we need to face that reality in order to feel that guilt. Shame already makes it difficult to do. This bill makes it illegal.
Avoiding Guilt With Theology
While Florida seeks to legally mandate the avoidance of guilt, I used to root it in theology. When describing the faith I grew up with I have often said that it amplified shame while dismissing guilt. In other words, it undermined any sense of belovedness by pointing out just how offensive I was to God, fueling shame. Shame then fueled dysfunctional behavior that harmed others, but my theology quickly dismissed it by pointing to Jesus and saying, “He died to forgive that.” The result is an overload of shame and an invitation to ignore well-deserved guilt.
Ignoring guilt makes it impossible to live a life of amends. It brushes off the harm done to others. Skipping guilt disables empathy and compassion. All of this means those harmed by our behavior are denied restitution and we never live from repentance.
Contrast this with my theology today which disempowers shame while inviting me to embrace guilt as a gifted teacher. Certain of my belovedness, shame dissipates. This means when guilt arrives, it hurts, but it is the hurt of seeing the pain I caused others rather than an assault on my humanity.
The Cleansing Wave of Guilt
I vividly recall the first time guilt encountered me this way. It was November of 2018 and I was sitting at my local church, The Sanctuary. The service had not yet begun as I quietly reflected on my life. My second marriage was functionally over, largely because of my myopic life fueled by my inability to learn from guilt. Words my then-wife said reverberated through my head, “You give all kinds of grace to the perpetrator, but have no mercy for the victim.”
They bounced around my head over and over again like an eternal echo. While they seemed simple enough, and I knew they were true, I struggled to understand them. Even though three years earlier I wrote a dissertation arguing that the Christian life is about bringing heaven to earth, I had not fully worked out the ramifications in my own life. I could see it in broader social systems, but not my relationships … until I did.
Suddenly a tsunami of guilt crashed down upon me. Not just the guilt from my second marriage, but the first and all that I did over the years that harmed others. The hurt I caused my child, not only through the divorce but through years of me struggling with my trauma and the resultant shame. Women I used seeking a sense of identity. All of it, all at once, and yet my belovedness became a buoy that kept me afloat. It was both terrifying and overwhelming, but I never sensed I would drown.
Guilt Reveals A New World
It would be more than a year before that flood of guilt subsided. Overwhelming waves of it washed over me again and again, but as they did, I began to see the world differently.
For as long as I could remember, my experience was the only barometer I used to evaluate my understanding of the world. If I felt comfortable, then I assumed everyone else must be as well. Forgiveness served as an easy tool to quickly restore comfort, often at the expense of someone else’s well-being. Guilt cleaned off those blinders and awakened empathy and compassion. It taught me to see a world bigger than my own and reflect on how my actions might impact others.
Today, I step into life fully aware that I have blind spots when it comes to understanding the broader effects of my actions. When I say or do something that harms someone else, I am quick to make it clear that any offense was unintentional and ask for clarification. It is not about learning to walk on eggshells, but an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of someone else’s story and the world we share.
Guilt is a gift of reconstruction that, if we let it, allows us to engage in the divine creative work of helping everyone discover that they too belong.
Book: The Freedom of a Christian by Martin Luther
As much as I reject so much of my Lutheran upbringing, there are still some pieces of it that I find deeply formative in a beautiful way. This book, which Luther sees as one of his most important works, is one of them. In it, he says that true Christian freedom is found in both being free and a servant. It’s a paradoxical life where shame is disempowered and guilt is a gift.
Video: Listening to Shame by Brene Brown
In this follow up to her original TED Talk Brene Brown expands on shame and it’s rolls in the realms of, among other things, race and the lives of men.
When you feel an overwhelming response to something that happens this week, ask yourself if you are feeling guilt, shame, or both. If it is shame, remind yourself that you are beloved. If it is guilt, ask what it has to teach you. For both, do both.
While embracing belovedness and learning from guilt help us today, what do we do with a past we regret?