Money and Religion: Building Blocks of Shame

“Shame” is a word that makes people feel uncomfortable. Shame is such a part of our culture, however, and impacts our lives on a daily basis, that NOT to talk about shame is to miss an opportunity to “de-fang” it, neutralize its toxicity, put it behind us. We live in a shame-based culture. But there is help for us. Understand something of the role money and religion have played (and continue to play) in the development of this shaming culture, and we can go a long way toward reclaiming the good and rejecting the bad. We can become the people we are called to be. 

Our economic system creates a “scarcity” mentality in us. There is a common (mis)understanding that the “pie” is only so big – resources, money, goods and services, etc. – and therefore it’s “dog-eat-dog” survival of the fittest for “my” piece of the pie. An unnatural dichotomy is set in motion: for me to have more, you have to have less; for me to be strong, you need to be weak; for me to be right, you need to be wrong and so on. It is a “one up/one down,” artificial polarity, that is designed to put one person (or class) in a power position over another person (or class); thus enabling control over that “other” physically, emotionally, psychologically – or all of the above. And because our current economy overwhelmingly benefits the “haves,” it leaves the “have nots” in a very precarious situation. The majority of people, in my observation, are so stressed about keeping their job, paying their bills, praying that they don’t encounter a medical expense, that they feel beat up, beat back, beat down. They don’t see themselves as worthy of a bigger piece of the pie. Not measuring up, not being good enough, is the essence of shame. For many people, their daily lives reinforce that false image of themselves. 

Playing right alongside that drumbeat of shame in the world of money and things, is the supporting tune of religion. There are some religious traditions that begin their theological teachings with the “total depravity” of humankind. Others talk about “original sin” rather than original blessing. Still others see humanity as a pile of dog dung covered over by the deity. For those adherents, now their shame is not just a human condition with which they must struggle. It turns out to ontological, theological, going to the very root of their existence; for now, not only do they not measure up (in the eyes of other humans) but they can NEVER measure up, according to God. It’s no wonder so many religious traditions seem to be in decline. Who needs that on top of everything else? 

The temptation is to throw out everything and start over. Reject everything from the past. Careful. “Either/or” thinking is dangerous. Most things in life are “both/and.” Be careful you don’t build another “one up/one down” artificial dichotomy. Much of our economic system has allowed people to live a life of unprecedented comfort and longevity (consider the world of Charles Dickens). Likewise, many people can recount dozens of stories of healing, help, new life, hope and more within various religious communities and traditions. Indeed, people’s faith is what keeps them going in the midst of pain and suffering. I’m just saying, keep your eyes open to the shaming messages you receive from the world around you. How are you responding to the financial success of your co-worker or neighbor? What is your gut reaction to that sermon? Are your internal voices telling you “atta boy/atta girl,” or “who do you think you are?” Hold fast to the good, the voice that says, “You got this!” Become the person you were called to be….

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