The dangerousness of the good

In the Gospels of both Mark and Luke, a man comes up to Jesus and addresses him as “Good teacher”[1]. Mark records a touch of bravado as the man kneels before Jesus to speak, and only at the end of the story do we learn that he is rich. In Luke the same person is described up front as a “ruler” – I guess we would say somebody of privileged background and connections – and the theatrics of genuflection are omitted. Jesus’ reaction is the same in both Gospels: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone”. And this is something of a stunner. For all good Christians know that Jesus is in fact God. Yet you might hear Jesus’ answer as if he were deflecting divinity, as implying that the character “God” lives at a different address.

As always, the physical interactions in the Gospel text yield something of what is going on between the two speakers, and nowhere more parsimoniously than in Mark. There is something attractively reckless in the élan of the man who kneels before Jesus. It was an over-the-top thing to do: a Hebrew should not kneel before another mortal. So, a quasi-humorous act of excess, a way of flattering both the teacher to whom he has posed his question, and himself for having recognised the teacher’s quality. The act itself speaks to the man’s privileged background: you need to be pretty self-confident in your entitlement to conduct yourself like this. Naturally, you are expecting an answer that will be suitable to your self-understanding, one commensurate with your self-image.

It is all this that Jesus challenges by his questions, undermining the man’s lightness by taking him not at face, but at knee-value. A paraphrase might be “Do you really know what you are doing”? Do you have any idea of how entirely appropriate it is to kneel before the Creator of Heaven and Earth? Or that you are talking to him face to face? Moses had that privilege, but he then veiled his cheeks so others wouldn’t catch radiation sores by reflection. Or are you just being bumptious, with no real idea of the weight of glory masked from you by your frivolity?” Perhaps something of shock flashes across the kneeler’s face. By kneeling he had been expecting this teacher to go along with his harmlessly exuberant flattery, to play along with it. He had not been expecting to have a flatterer’s self-comforting relationship with his commensurate good, his idolatry in fact, exposed by the One before whom all idols turn to nothing.

And yet, Jesus is not his enemy. In fact, Jesus likes his questioner, and tries to lead him to the truth of the question he had posed: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” First he gives him something known. The same, stable, publicly available Torah which Moses had received, and which every adult male knew from their youth. The minimal guide to being on the inside of the life of God through sharing in the covenant. Nothing esoteric. No special distinctions among Hebrews. Being chosen was simply being an observant Hebrew, recipient of God’s particular love among the nations.

Our seeker seems disappointed: he had wanted to be pulled into something a little more special, and yet was given the equivalent of a “get in line like everybody else”. This was not what his entitlement, his privileged confidence had prepared him for. Yet clearly Jesus does love him and is not trying to humiliate him. Maybe the man’s entitled exuberance can be tipped over into a passion for a richer good? So the One before whom no idol can stand invites him into his heart, reveals the truth behind that shadow of the real thing which the law provided, lest anyone be fulminated by the Most High. And yet the Presence does tend to fulminate: it demands that the kneeler have his entire being, wedded as it is to his status, his belonging and his wealth, upended. His being will no longer depend on what he has; on whence, or from whom, he comes. He will be brought into being as he lets go of all that and allows his being to be given to him by One who’s bringing to life looks more like a path walked joyfully amidst dispossession, shame and death than anything more stably ordered.

The man whose face fell can scarcely have been aware, as he wandered away, that he had been lovingly called-out in person by the Most High. Let alone that his frivolity of gesture and language, his idolatry of heart and belonging, would serve forever as a benign example to so many of us who, from generation to generation, share that frivolity and that idolatry. We who, thanks to those who witnessed the incident and remembered that man of privilege, can count on the love we know to be there. It gives us a chance to return, to have another go, to see if this time we may accept the gentle fulmination into being, just a little.

* * *

Why a discussion about goodness, now? This has been a long time creeping up on me, a privileged native of the Anglosphere, son of my country’s ruling class. I can trace some initial queasiness to my dawning awareness of the long-lasting structural effects of the sin of the Atlantic slave trade while living in the late 1980’s in Brazil: the country with the world’s second largest black population. And I use the word “sin” deliberately. For that slave trade was more than half-known to be wrong even as it got under way, in the sixteenth century. Clever and ambitious men were able to justify it with a carapace of baptismal rhetoric and legal righteousness, and then gild the consciences of their compatriots with commercial success, such that it could be passed off as an inevitable part of the order of things. But I want to use the word “sin” in its more strictly theological sense: something which is capable of being forgiven. Meaning that its inevitability, its social solidity and the cultural glories it seemed to shore up are not in fact inevitable, solid, or glorious, but the sad fruits of violent human responsibility. And the being-forgiven (which alone brings into the light what a sin really is) takes the form of the making supple of that responsibility, enlivening it, as those grasped by a destiny of dehumanizing sclerosis of the soul are painfully unbound into equality with their victims. And given a heart.

A further queasy jolt to privilege came ten years later, as Bush v Gore dragged out to its corrupt conclusion. The goodness, decency, fair play, basic justice, truthfulness and so on which I imagined sharing with other privileged English-speakers in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the audiences for Churchill’s history book which I had devoured as a child – was in fact a mirage. How laughably slow to see through it had I been! And I had had the privilege of living in countries – Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile – not known for their political, economic or judicial probity. Countries whose histories had at least left them relatively unblinded by self-righteousness. Even so, it was still a shock to realise that Florida had shown the US to be the same as they, while the New York Times and the class it stands for failed then, and thereafter, to call the coup. Instead they prattled on with sanctimonious both-siderism, refusing for years to call subsequent Iraq-war torture by its name. The same qualities that would eventually blind-side them into an obsession with Hillary’s e-mails.

A few years on, my country of birth deceived itself into leaving the European Union. The rhetoric, about taking back control and sovereignty, along with harrumphs of haughty alarm about the EU’s “democratic deficit” masked two strange phenomena, one of history, and the other of geography. The United Kingdom had played a modest but important role in the Allied victory of 1945, a victory which was massively the fruit of Soviet sacrifice and of U.S. productivity and generosity. Almost all the other nations of Europe had had their systems of governance destroyed, whether by the Nazis, the Western Allies or the Soviets. The Western victors were then able to help those European nations rebuild, as the Soviets did in their own way on their side of the Iron Curtain. No small part of the legal bases for the new forms of Western European governance were contributions made by British legal experts[2]. They were able, across the Channel, to introduce much needed reforms in legal and constitutional thinking that the same experts had been, and would continue to be, quite unable to introduce in their own homeland. For the obvious reason that the United Kingdom had “won”, hadn’t had its system of governance humiliated into the ground, and so was immune to any sense that it needed constitutional change. Bizarrely, it was only after the United Kingdom joined the EU that much of the fruit of post-war British legal thinking was able to be introduced into UK law. Where it was always suspect as being an unnatural imposition from abroad, rather than the less obvious truth being made clear: it was the fruit of a slow and painful overcoming of humiliation by others, peacefully shared with a nation that had no sense of its own shame.

If I understand at all what is meant by Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic, it is this: that over time, the slave wins owing to being obliged to reinvent in order to survive, while the Master, thinking itself immune, finds itself frozen into the exoskeleton of victor while involuntarily imitating, and thus being possessed by, the spirit of the slave, until that imitation and that possession leads to a serious identity crisis provoked by a blindness of self-understanding.

It is to the enormous discredit of British politicians, from the late 1970’s onwards, that they allowed themselves to introduce EU legislation which they knew perfectly well to be sensible, needed, and which they should have introduced themselves, while trying to make local political hay by doing so grudgingly. They allowed the public to think of these laws as foreign impositions, garnering patriotic “kudos” by being seen to protest them while implementing them. The apotheosis of this irresponsible mendacity was the successful attempt to blame the EU for the austerity measures which Cameron and Osborne imposed upon the country, largely from their Thatcherite wet-dream playbook. Their mendacity was so habitual that they didn’t notice that it was setting them up to lose the Referendum.

The second phenomenon I mentioned is that of geography. One of the things that happened between about 1980 and 2016 was that Great Britain (and I here exclude Northern Ireland deliberately) ceased to be an island. I don’t mean this merely in some technical sense, owing to the Channel tunnel creating a dry-land link between Albion and Gaul. I mean it rather in the psychological sense that both the rail link and the huge increase in cheap air routes, combined with frontier-less European travel, meant that coming and going between the mainland and, above all, England, eliminated the defensive sense of being an island, especially in the generation born after 1980. However, it did so without tipping us off to one of the counter-intuitive consequences of this boon. The consequence was a failure adequately to compensate for our incapacity to take accurate stock of how many people were actually living in the island, and whence they had come. Scarcely important while the country was genuinely an island, with numbers of those leaving and entering the country on any given day relatively small, and when the assumption was that if you were “here”, you were probably justified in being here. Nevertheless hugely significant given that we had become psychologically much more similar to continental countries with contiguous land borders, countries which, mercifully, have been largely at peace since 1945. But now at a time when tens of thousands of people could come and go between the UK and the mainland on any single day.

However, all the mainland countries, over the history of their development and formation since Napoleonic times, had been obliged to invest in some or other form of policing of where people lived, where they belonged and who they were. Look at any map which shows border fluctuations in Western Europe between, say, 1789 and 2015 to see why. Some form of centrally administered system of identity and address registration has become absolutely common in those countries, surprises no one, and far from being perceived as a kind of fascist police infringement on individual freedom, is a simple, one-stop-shop to almost every form of public accreditation for day to day living. Indeed, the UK could have adopted a national Identity Document scheme, and the matter was considered by the Blair government, before being rejected on the grounds of cost, as was stated at the time. But also on less-clearly stated grounds: the political danger of being assumed to be introducing a form of illiberal policing like they have in those European countries with their brutal and fascistic histories…

The result was that the same governmental system that had, now infamously, failed to give the 1948 Windrush immigrants from the Caribbean the necessary documents to ensure their lifetime residency in the UK, also had little idea how many Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, French and others were coming and going, establishing permanent residence or not. Nor would that system be able, once the Brexit campaign started, to give any genuine, fact-based response, to the sense that “they” were all over “us” – resentment against immigrants being the most frequently expressed reason for leaving the EU.

So, when the bagpipers of resentment started to fill out their shameless bladders, they were playing to a population vulnerable to, even primed for, the siren wailing of false gods. The generation that had experienced the second world war and its immediate aftermath had been much more available to being part of a European experiment at whose heart was a desire to make it impossible for Germany and France to go to war with each other again. However their children, growing through the decades of the loss of the British Empire, became much more likely to avoid any possible shame or introspection concerning that history, helped by comforting delusions of heroic myths surrounding plucky little England,

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
—This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

What modern John of Gaunt could recite this without grimacing at such a self-flattering parody? Yet a generation were willingly flick-tripped into believing that their un-confronted shame at loss of empire, palliated for far too long into pride through overblown nostalgia for the allied victory of 1945, would enable them to inhabit a mythical island, free from the encroachments of advances in modern experiments in greater democracy and freedom of movement that were offered by humiliated neighbours. And all this genuinely without any realistic sense at all of the actual basic physical, geographical, consequences of their decision, consequences which the current UK government itself still appears intellectually incapable of grasping fully four years after the Referendum. Pride driven by unadmitted shame is incapable of a reasoned approach to emerging reality.

There was a period between June and November 2016 when I, and others like me, hoped that after the sheer craziness of the Brexit decision (including the fairly obvious fact that resentment’s prime ventriloquists hadn’t actually meant to win at all, merely to make political hay out of losing), things would somehow be put right when a sane, incrementally progressive President would be replaced with another sane and incrementally progressive President in the USA. The shock of November 2016 put an end to that, and was, I am not ashamed to admit, a time of huge inner turmoil for me as it was for many others. It wasn’t so much the shock of a double whammy of political loss. After all, as a Guardian-reading, EU-loving, social-democratic Catholic I’m perfectly accustomed to being on both the losing and the winning side of elections. But there seemed, at the time, something much bigger afoot than a mere double electoral shake-up. It was as though a whole system of expectation of what constituted a sort of “good” had been challenged and overthrown by people who, perceiving a new good, had all along been cannily intelligent in planning for a new world order.

In retrospect, I now think their intelligence was of a different sort, and that they had little idea of the power of the demons they were releasing. But at the time, I felt that maybe it was my whole sense of what is good that had been wrong, and certainly the ways in which I was psychically wedded to that good; that I had been so caught up in the obviousness of the goodness of an incremental path to progress, in both the European and the North American theatres, that I had somehow been blind to some huge moral truth. And I don’t mean merely the obvious moral truth: that in any incremental path to progress some people are left behind, their interests unattended, and that those who push such incremental paths are often slow to see the unintended, but genuinely harsh, consequences of their own righteousness. Rather I became aware, as my cherished goods on both sides of the Atlantic were torn down, of quite how much fear I had. Not, curiously, fear of what the new regimes would do, but how much fear of the hidden violence of a seething mob had underpinned what I now began to suspect was a much more fragile carapace of Anglosphere goodness than I had imagined.

Following the shock of November 2016, as following that of June 2016, both journalists and academics went into overdrive trying to understand what had motivated voters on the surprise winning sides. Having initially tried to come up with economic explanations (especially economic resentment at having been excluded from the fruits of the gradual recovery from the 2008 crisis) it gradually became clear that such enlightenment-based analyses wouldn’t work, didn’t fit the statistics. Little by little a richer picture began to emerge, which has only become clearer since: that a quite specific form of resentment had been at work where race was the strongest factor in the US, as migrants had been in the UK. But in both cases, it was not only the racial or migrant element by itself, but the way that those issues were woven into each nation’s version of apparently sacred structures upholding being – mythical forms of belonging. These issues had flared up to the degree in which those sacred structures, the power of the myths, seemed to be weakening or collapsing.

If I may explain: I had earlier, locked within my self-flattering and privileged carapace of a fragile incremental good, been unable to understand or empathize with those for whom the Obama government was, simply by being there, an abomination. Only slowly did it become clear that it wasn’t anything in particular that Obama himself, or even his administration, had done which had provoked such an allergic reaction. It was the simple fact that it was an administration which accurately depicted the reality of US life – which is to say that it was a government of a brown-ish hue, one determined wherever possible to avoid differentiation by race or gender. What I hadn’t appreciated was the extent to which this fact was itself something like a betrayal of a sacred “American Dream”. This was the sacred white myth, born when the slave-owning landowner founders and the political class that followed them convinced their poorer fellow whites that if they joined them, they might not get to be as rich as their leaders, but at least they would never be like… And now, every day, it seemed more and more as though that mythical superiority to a mythical other was being threatened. A Black President, and a banally, ordinarily competent, notably ethically un-sullied, administration was itself the end of that dream. The backlash to the loss of that dream was vastly deeper rooted than I had understood.

The Enlightenment attitudes enshrined in the founding narrative by the landed gentry and slave holders, were almost perfectly designed to produce a paean to fake goodness, a deceptive myth of innocence in a tale told by victors cast as victims of a cruel foreign tyrant. Meanwhile the underlying issues concerning the outworking of the Atlantic Slave Trade were played into the deep grass. The economic consequences of that trade, which structured the new empire-that-could-never-admit-that-that-is-what-it-was as it advanced in its conquest of the lands (and destruction of the peoples) to the west and south, would rebound in open violence in the Civil War. And thereafter the Master/Slave dialectic was at work again: the defeated South spent the next century hollowing out the innards of the life of the supposedly victorious Union, finally triumphing through Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy”: the project by which the Republican party absorbed the formerly Democratic southern segregationists into its ranks after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

So while the northern version of the myth tried to advance, often heroically, to a “more perfect union” peacefully, rationally and legally, following the best enlightenment principles of the “innocent” victors, it was constantly undermined without being able to understand why. Scarcely mentionable white grievance, along with its biblical soft-power, evangelical Christianity, governed by dog-whistle from Nixon to Obama, fatally undermining and frustrating Carter, Clinton and Obama himself. It was finally during the Obama government that the Roberts Supreme Court defanged the Voting Rights Act, thus ensuring that what had become the party of white grievance might keep the reins of suffrage in its hands in those Southern states necessary for an Electoral College victory. Then, under Trump, the same Court managed once again to disenfranchise Florida’s overwhelmingly black former felons, contrary to the will of Florida’s own voting public.

In the centuries between Independence and 2016 many millions of immigrants came to the United States who had no personal or family history of involvement with the Atlantic Slave Trade, or the factors that led to the Civil War. They arrived, faced discrimination, and eventually prospered, slowly becoming “honorary whites” – even when their previous supposed “colour” was absurd, since Irish, Italian, Polish, Scandinavian and German immigrants were already every bit as Caucasian as the English, the Scots, the French and the Spaniards who’d been in North America since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Each incoming generation had signed up to the American dream, with its comforting innocence and its blindness to the violent self-deception on which it was based[3]. How many were even aware of having become complicit in a self-innocenting tale which always seemed to be threatened by this “other”? Even recent Mexican immigrants are quick to learn that the route to becoming a “real American” passes through the rite of learning to despise “los negritos”. Lack of shared history with the commission of a crime doesn’t in fact prevent the acquisition of complicity through joining in the sharing and maintaining of its fruits. How convenient then is individualism as a creed for blinkering souls to what their bodies cannot but know, but must be kept from recognizing.

All of this history I had, in theory, understood before 2016. What I hadn’t understood is the force of the resentment among the white population at the gradual loss of their myth even at the same time as that myth was in fact played to (by, for instance the “Tea Party”) to control many of the levers of power. For the racial subtext to the myth only works well if it is kept quiet. One of the many fascinating essays I read as people tried to work out what had happened, (an essay which I am alas unable to pinpoint), described a visit by a group of urban East-Coast liberal types to a Trump-voting rural community in, I think, Minnesota. What was interesting, and rapidly became very clear indeed to those conversing, was that, contrary to stereotype, the Trump-voting mid-westerners were not, as regards their formal beliefs, racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic, or militantly hostile to those of different religion, or none. However, what irritated the mid-westerners was the perceived ease and superciliousness with which “the libs” seemed to hold their opinions. That very ease triggered a shame in these mid-westerners for not feeling obviously what were for them things formally known to be right, but not dwelt in as felt. In fact, what is known to be right can both be agreed to verbally, and yet be sensed deeply as an accusation.[4] Hence the defensive temptation to “trigger the libs” by shamelessly advancing provocative rhetorical positions.

We are, then, much more like each other than we are different. And the mimetics of shame which I am beginning to explore here are a far more potent structuring force in all of our political realities than we have allowed ourselves to think. This indeed seems to be the genius of Donald Trump, as in a slightly different way it is of Boris Johnson: shamelessness. By embodying shamelessness, being entirely unconcerned with veracity or any sort of ethical coherence, the sock-puppet of resentment both plays to, and is played by, pent up shame. A shameless person is pathologically incapable of living with and sifting through their shame to be given to be who they really are. Their flight into “figure of entertainment”, mouthing an endlessly unreal optimism, of the sort that can be glommed onto by those who can’t work through what it takes to bring about their own or anyone else’s transformation, makes them wonderful catalysts. They give permission for all of us whose shame is scarcely recognised to vent our desperately aggrieved righteousness, managing to “feel good about ourselves” as we are let off the hard work of becoming human.

Lest it seem otherwise, I want to make quite clear that the earnestness of progressive incrementalists, such as myself, is at least as much a failure to cope with shame. And in many cases a far less attractive failure than the easily mocked brashness of the “rubes”. How desperately we hang on to forms of law as paths to a gradual betterment, genteelly convincing ourselves that such patient activism makes us “the good guys”, puts us “on the right side of history” as we keep at bay the nagging fear that something much more violent lies just out of reach, some terrible revenge and revolutionary righting of historical wrongs, the threat of the mob. We are brilliant at finding verbal forms, the adoption of which makes us part of a class of the good, gives us a fake identity, empowers self-righteousness: if you learn to talk in this way, use these properly inclusive terms, then you are “in”. And the viciousness of this earnest self-righteousness is shown in its policing. But learning to have the right opinions in order to belong, and then being violent in enforcing them, is no less of a shame-based flight mechanism than the many others around us. It is not how someone stands who has gradually and penitently worked through the words, the feelings, the belongings and the failures to belong, and so is relatively free of the winds of coercive chic. The Enlightenment lie is of a goodness that can be worked at little by little without forgiveness and penitence holding it in being. Indeed, this sort of gently tampering self-righteousness protects us against something to which more vulnerable and unstable people, more in touch with their own violence, may in fact be closer: actually being forgiven, discovering our sameness with our victims, receiving from them not the long-afeared vengeance, but genuine equality of heart.

‘Tis early days in understanding the mimetics of shame, but the arrival in our midst of aggrieved shamelessness has a long history. The part of it with which I identify is the way in which gay men burst out of enforced shame into something like exhibitionistic shamelessness over a very short period of time in the 1970’s. Even I, of a slightly later generation than our pioneers, was aware quite how much the earliest manifestations of gay pride were made possible by those who had nothing to lose. Those of us with concerns of social belonging, career paths, and family approval, tut-tutted at their extremism while benefitting massively from the social and legal paths those shameless ones had opened up. And it was the advent of that great social equalizer, AIDS, which lanced the boil of our shame, taught us to work together through shame, fear, death, and love in such a way that the word “pride” is for us no longer the violent flipside of “shame”, but a warmer, gentler, more celebratory quality of those who are grateful at coming into being through shared same-sex love. The drag queens whose precursors played to scandal by their exhibitionism in the 1970’s are now widely appreciated as a gentle spice in the social life of all ages and social classes.

Yet this particular eruption of apparent shamelessness was, I think, a forerunner of a more general rejection of the forms of fake goodness of yesteryear, such that what constitutes masculinity (for instance) has turned out to be massively underpinned by shame. You don’t need to have a Queer Eye to look at the straight guys in their camos with their guns bursting, in 2020, into State Capitols to protect “freedom” from mask wearing and the like, to see a strain of male exhibitionism that is the direct descendent of the shame-compensating gay exhibitionism of the 70’s. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the current eruption of shameless resentment in both the US and the UK is how relatively little it has involved renewed violence against gay men (though there has been some, especially in the UK); while violence against trans people, and especially black trans women has been quite astounding. But now straight male militant denial of shame, an inability to assume it peacefully, poses both health and security issues for the wider population. And how sad that not a few out and proud gay men were able to earn “bro points” by their public crying of hoax at COVID and their refusal to wear masks.

* * *

I rush through all this, a personal view of recent social history in the Anglosphere with all the blind spots of one of its privileged sons, not because I want to convince you to adopt my political positions or leanings, banal as they are. If anything, the reverse. As a priest and a theologian I have a horror of speaking in ways that smack of presuming to an authority derived from God. Other, that is, than on the strictly designated sacramental occasions in which it is my solemn charge to do just that. Hence my desire to avoid the apparent objectivity of “the one who knows”. It is precisely with a view to enabling you to relativise what I say, to disagree and probably with good reason, that I share with you something of the path which has led me to what I want to talk about. Consider it a sinner’s unreliable pledge on sharing an uncertain learning process.

My real interest does not lie in the political contours of the realities I have described, and concerning whose partisan resolutions I have neither weight nor authority, being just another partisan. My interest is in the future of Christianity, and how that is being made available to us in the midst of all that is going on. What I want to explore are the workings of the mimetics of shame. Shame seems to me to be omnipresent in creating entirely false differences between us, seemingly immovable polarities. It works to petrify us into becoming less than human in our oppositional identities. In countries in which Christianity is supposedly the major religious presence, and certainly the most historically present form of religion, then surely something has gone terribly, terribly wrong if shame is unable to be dealt with: only violently batted about in a crazy hall of mirrors. Whereas my interest, assuming Christian Faith to be true, and so assuming that the Spirit is ever at work, is in finding out where we are being led in beginning to face up to and live with our shame: where in fact, the presence of penitence is the major sign that forgiveness is coming upon us.

My lifetime has coincided, in most of the countries in which I have lived, along with ups and downs in the public perception of religion as something “interesting” or “dying” or “frightening” or “politically significant”, with a massive and accelerating drop in public participation in the life of the Church, or churches. I have long suspected that the driving force in this cultural production of “nones” has been the captivity of Christianity by systems of fake goodness. Here I’m not expressing a longing that if only we had a nicer form of Christianity, not so many people would leave their churches. To be honest, as someone who has never been able fully to belong to one, I couldn’t care less. What I have noticed, rather, is that systems of fake goodness are attractive to people. And those who need and want systems of fake goodness are very good at making their systems reactive to others. They need them to be reactive in order for themselves to be good. And after a bit this game becomes too visible to the necessary bad guys, and many people just no longer want to play it. Social historians of nineteenth century England have shown that a country where atheism was scarcely present at the end of eighteenth century had become massively religiously indifferent by the outbreak of the First World War. The principal factor driving this movement to indifference: waves of religious revivalism accompanying the newly urbanized protagonists of the industrial revolution, each of which provoked a backlash. There were no people more likely to have become a-religious than the children of revivalist parents.

I observed the same phenomenon in Brazil in my lifetime. Rural dwellers had begun a mass-exodus to the cities from the 1950’s onwards. They had been used to centuries of Portuguese-style feudal village Catholicism, communal and with moments of social intensity, with very occasional visits from very few priests. Visits which were always festive since all the baptisms, marriages and memorial masses would be celebrated together. The impersonal Catholic parishes of anonymous urban life offered the new arrivals from the countryside nothing like what they were used to, and no way of adjusting to big-city belonging. The small local Evangelical and, later, Pentecostal churches of the urban peripheries, with their extreme moralism and intense neighbourliness, were much more like the rural Catholicism their members had left behind than anything the Catholicism of the metropolis could offer. What was interesting was that time after time the urban-born children and grandchildren of these rural-born converts to Evangelical or Pentecostal churches have, within the space of one or two generations, become as religiously indifferent as modern northern Europeans. Once again, religious revivalism has shown itself to be the parent of indifferentism.

* * *

So what is it in the account of goodness that we have got wrong? In Christianity, goodness is not an obvious thing, as the interaction with Jesus with which I began shows. Our understanding of goodness is entirely contingent on our understanding of Redemption. Or more exactly, on the relationship between that Redemption and the Creation which both precedes it and is born from it. And the most widely popularised understanding of Redemption in the (majority protestant) Anglosphere has long been the penal substitution theory of the atonement. I don’t propose to give an exhaustive account of that here. But I do want to bring out how a way of understanding something holy can, and has over time, ossified into a sacred caricature. A caricature which has seriously cruel consequences for the lives of those who believe it. As well as for those upon whom they try to inflict it, and for those who find themselves playing the role of the bad guys necessary for the believers’ social psychodrama to work. I want to say in advance that as a Catholic, I’m not here making, or trying to disguise, an attack on Protestantism. As I will suggest, the same sacred caricature is available both in the individual conscience of Protestant believers and in the ideology of the clerical structure, the collective would-be conscience of the Catholic Church. With the same consequences, destructive of the life of the Gospel.

Absolutely central to the understanding of redemption, of salvation, in both its protestant and its catholic caricatures is the notion of “assurance of salvation”. This is individual in the case of Protestantism, and collective in Catholicism where the caricatured version is expressed in rigorist interpretations of the belief that there is no salvation outside the Church, and that Papal infallibility is the guarantor of assured ecclesial salvation.

 However, let’s start with the former case: as I said, the majority “take” in the Anglosphere. The believer has a conversion experience by which they know that Jesus died to pay the price for their sins, and so now, washed by the blood of the lamb, they are saved. And it is by their faith that this has happened, and applies to them, that they are saved. Since this salvation has happened, and it can’t be lost (or it wouldn’t be salvation) – the believer now lives assured of their salvation. Whatever the believer’s past deeds, passions, desires and so forth, these have been covered over as by a sheet, and the believer is now considered by God to be good – God imputes Jesus’ goodness to them, just as God had laid their badness onto Jesus.

At the heart of this, is an understanding of Jesus’ sacrificial death at the hands of his Father, whose wrath needed assuaging, and for whom Roman soldiers and Jewish authorities were convenient puppets in a Paternal psychodrama. That sacrifice is a good thing, mysterium tremendum et fascinosum though it was. It creates a counterfactual goodness for those who have simply accepted that sacrifice as having been done on their behalf, and leaves in place a very clear list of things, mostly to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, that are wrong and bad. It is the price for those sins (whose list must therefore never be altered) which Jesus paid. The individual is thus supposed to swallow the scandal of the Cross, upon which they are reborn into a new world in which good and bad are absolutely clear, and they are on the side of the good. The assurance of salvation has the consequent effect of producing a psychological conviction of being good without the believer ever having to face up to, and work through, the various forms of imperfection that are now held to be covered over. A contagious vector for self-righteousness, underpinned by an unassuageable anxiety.

Let me follow through on that phrase: “swallow the scandal of the Cross”, for I hope to show that the relationship of the believer to the scandal of the Cross is exactly what will determine whether the believer is thereafter driven into becoming a never-to-be-satisfied addict pining for an illusory sacred identity (on the one hand) or whether, as they learn not to be scandalized by Christ, they will slowly become able to receive the forgiveness that is present into the whole of their life, growing into peaceful reasonableness on the way, and discovering themselves grafted into a holy identity which holds them, and which they have no need to grasp.

What I refer to as “swallowing the scandal of the Cross” means treating Jesus’ death as effectively the foundation sacrifice of a new religion. And not the culmination of a long slow Hebrew process of the undoing from within of all sacrificial accounts of religion forever. The convert suddenly becomes an insider, and in order to remain an insider, has to hold on absolutely to the very strictest account of the founding sacrifice. This account describes what went before as evil, and the whole of human nature and experience as absolutely depraved. Such that only now does the convert have access to the truth of what is really going on, and that truth is to be found literally and only in the Bible. Wherever there be a contradiction between the Bible, and matters which developments in human scientific learning have found to be true, whether in Astronomy, Palaeontology, Geology, Biology, or Gender: those developments are part of the depraved “wisdom of this world” and the Bible version is the true Wisdom.

You can tell that the believer in question has “swallowed the scandal” because it means that they have not been taken out of the sacrificial mechanism for the creation of meaning – the scapegoat mechanism. Had they been, they would be ever less inclined to think of themselves as victims, and ever more to think of themselves as potential victimizers undergoing forgiveness. Instead what we have is the constant ratcheting up of the sacrificial mechanism, a constant need to justify themselves (make themselves good) by seeing themselves as victims, and increasingly setting themselves up to be treated as victims. Their worldview only works when their admittedly counterfactual goodness is kept alive by maintaining a series of conspiracy theories. And by belonging rigorously to groups of the good, like themselves, who keep alive the struggle against the ever-changing conspirators.

Rather than entering into gradual reasonableness as they undergo being forgiven, they undergo an ever more voracious need to hold fast to a purely counterfactual ideology of goodness, one which is kept alive victimarily by the constant reference to necessary agents of evil all around, and without whom their world of goodness would fall apart. This of course makes such believers easy prey for politicians and charlatans of every stripe who know how to play to the victimary resentment which gives their believers meaning.

Lest, once again, it be assumed that I am attacking evangelical Protestantism, let me illustrate also the Catholic version of the same pathology – and tack on my sense that Catholics like myself have hugely less of an excuse when we succumb to the role of driven generators of fake goodness. There was a time when it was a kind of chic for Catholics to recognise the caricature of themselves as always being made to feel guilty by their religion. And at the centre of the parody is the crucified Jesus as divine passive-aggressive: always blackmailing us emotionally for the suffering we put upon him. (“Kermit, here am I on the Cross, suffering out of love for you, and this is how you treat me” said with my very best Miss Piggy voice). In this account of fake goodness, while nothing in you will really change, however much you go to confession, as long as you stick with Jesus making you feel guilty, then you’re a good Catholic and will be saved.

I’d like to point out that this pointless guilt, just so long as you hold to the “saved” structure, is simply the flipside of evangelical self-righteousness in creating and propping up a new sacrificial structure. The individual conscience becomes the holy place of fake goodness in one case, while the clerical structure, the “ecclesiastical conscience” is that holy place in the other. Both are forms of swallowing the scandal of the Cross, and neither of them are forms of allowing the gift of Christ’s going up to his death to produce real forgiveness and new life in and between the persons who are undergoing that gift.

The collective form of fake goodness in the Catholic version of the parody is the sacralization of the clerical system: celibate males who reproduce the sacrifice and keep alive the carapace of sacred goodness – the counterfactual holiness of the Church. If you are addicted to the Catholic version of the swallowing of the scandal of the cross you need priesthood to be external to yourself, as something “good” that you can hold onto, you need to keep alive the falsely sacrificial forms of celebrating the Eucharist. You need to keep alive a counterfactual description of goodness whose holiness means that it cannot be questioned by any amount of human learning or understanding. You need “modern culture” to be a dark anti-Christian force which is constantly threatening “the Church”. In recent times it has been noteworthy how, according to the sacrality of your clericalism you are likely to doubt the science on climate change, doubt even the incipient science on COVID prevention, and of course, refuse massively all scientific advances in matters of gender and sexual orientation. Instead you clothe yourself with a conspiracy theory concerning “gender ideology”, a catch-all calumny which allows you to maintain fake-goodness unsullied by emerging reasonable questions.

And of course, just as the protestant version of swallowing the scandal of the Cross, rather than being worked through by it, leaves believers vulnerable to charlatans and grifters, so the Catholic version allows charlatans and grifters to rise through our clerical ranks. The form of counterfactual goodness most common among us is the clerical closet. Belonging is given by a sacred agreement not to tell the truth about being gay, to become and remain a counterfactual agent of goodness, whose goodness is shown specifically in an ever more anxious adherence to the objectivity of the “teaching of the Church”, even though your personal life may be entirely adrift of anything close to that teaching. And you show your commitment to that counterfactual goodness by being an ever more assiduous persecutor of those who don’t hold to the sacred definition which guarantees your closet and gives you identity. It is no accident that the strongest persecutors of gay people in the church are the bearers within themselves of this sacralised closet.

Well, if the last twenty years have shown us anything, from the great Boston explosion of 2002, to Frédéric Martel’s book in 2019, that sacred carapace of counterfactual goodness is nothing other than the collective equivalent of Protestant self-righteousness. Joseph Ratzinger was entirely correct in his teaching that protestant individual assurance of salvation was the application to the individual of the mediaeval Church’s understanding of the ecclesiastical assurance of salvation. If my own experience is worth anything (and here, beware, it is a Catholic convert who speaks), it is this: the individual version can be even more totalitarian than the ecclesiastical version. Where the “saved” individual is the anxious arbiter of “soundness”, then each person is their own Pope, and Holy Office, and Doctrinal Enforcement mechanism. The inner and invisible totalitarianism of this form of sacred is even more existentially terrifying than the external and visible form of Catholic totalitarianism. I think this is because it is really very difficult to take distance from your own internalized sacred, and rather easier to take distance from the externalised and caricatural forms which the Catholic variety throws up with such alarming regularity.

I’d like to make an additional point here, before turning to where I hope we may glimpse some solution to all this. Something which I’ve long noticed, and which has puzzled me, is the untroubled way in which religious leaders, whether Catholic hierarchs or prominent Protestants, lie. Even ones who think of themselves as personally quite honest. Only recently have I begun to understand why that is. And it is closely related to the counterfactual goodness which is produced by the scandal of the Cross when it is swallowed whole, rather than allowed to work on the believer as a process of being brought to life.

If your form of forgiveness, the swallowing of the scandal of the Cross, has locked you into being an upholder of a new sacred, along with the anxious need for approval that goes along with such a role, then you have been deracinated from your heart, from your ability to be in touch with your body and your experiences. Especially where these might act as pulsating recallers to truthfulness. So you are not lying when you say, or repeat, the untruths that are necessary to maintain the sacred carapace of fake goodness. How can you be lying? For anything that matches and helps maintain something that is sacred can only, by definition, be good and right and true. You may even be being particularly holy when you refuse all the habitual indicators of truthfulness: bodies, experience, learning by trial and error, witnesses to flourishing. They challenge the sacred carapace, and thus you are not lying when you reject them, acting instead as the agent of a cover-up which maintains intact the sacred canopy. You reaffirm your sacred belonging amongst your accomplices in holding on to it. You can’t be lying, even when you very obviously are, because it is the sacred that has overtaken your truthfulness and now spins its mendacity through your vocal cords.

I hope you can see that such lying is not accidental to otherwise honest upholders of the sacred carapace, it is the necessary effect in any of our lives of being run by a sacred carapace. Was there not a pitiful poignancy when, in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic, and within a week of each other, both Franklin Graham and Cardinal Dolan, laid their respective churches at the feet of their “Chosen One”? These guardians of fake goodness bowed down before the most shamelessly mendacious holder of significant earthly power in the living memory of the Anglosphere. One who, inadvertently, as so often, told us the whole truth about who he is when he assured an interviewer that he had no need to ask God for forgiveness.

* * *

And so to shame. Lost in the most common sacrificial accounts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, is the relationship of all that to shame. For me this is the central challenge of this essay, which I see as a programmatic invitation to friends and colleagues to take this further: can we recover the Gospel as an account of God’s loving kindness to humans which tends not to create ever newer forms of oppositional fake goodness, but brings out how our shame is held tenderly in mercy by One who has occupied it and who continues to occupy it for us so that we are no longer run by it?

There are of course verses which stress this, like my favourite from Hebrews[5]: “for the joy that was set before him, he endured the Cross, disregarding the shame and is seated at the right hand of God”. And we know how to use the New Testament texts[6] which show that Jesus was cursed by God according to Deuteronomy[7] as proof of how Jesus both fulfils and upends the righteousness of the law. Yet we make of Christ’s “victory” something both shame-free and legally clever without ever allowing ourselves to dwell in what it actually looked like: it looked like losing shamefully and being cursed. And yet the presence to us of the Most High is that shameful failure glowing as radiant light without ceasing to be exactly what it was.

It is in fact very telling how often, especially in Mark’s Gospel, probably the earliest, Jesus talks about shame – about how he will not shame those who are not ashamed of him, while those who are ashamed of him, of them he will be ashamed. It is telling also that the word “glory” is simply the reverse of shame – the reputation of how one is held in the view of others. And how Jesus in John’s Gospel straightforwardly refers to the fake goodness manufactured and kept going by those who “receive glory from each other”. Jesus clearly taught the mimetics of shame.

It is clear that Peter, leader of the disciples and apostles, was particularly sensitive to shame. He was ashamed of Jesus at his trial, and his conversion was his being held in love as he worked through that shame. It was when he linked the purity code of Leviticus to his own shame at the betrayal of Christ that he was able to enjoy the company of shameful gentiles. Paul, having approved the stoning of Stephen, whose glimpse and announcement of the shameful one at the right hand of God had caused the lynch mob of allergic sacrality to kick in is, I suspect, far more savvy in his handling of shame, its rhetoric and its terminology, than our monotonous readings of his writings suggest[8].

Beyond this, I think we have been insufficiently attentive to that fact that Jesus not only taught the mimetics of shame. But he was happy to occupy its space. He was not ashamed to be born out of normal marital order. He was not ashamed to be associated with prostitutes and quisling tax collectors. He was not ashamed to touch corpses or to be touched by bleeding women. He was not ashamed to stand by a vulnerable adulteress, protecting her in her shame without any fake cover-up – he merely tells her not to put herself into a position of shame again. He was not concerned with purity, the most common form taken by anxious sacrality in our lives. He was not an agent of shame among the deranged and demonized, rather the reverse. And in the end, he was prepared to occupy the place of death both as cast out from the camp, the place of the Azazel goat, and to be seen to be cursed by God, since hung on a tree, and for that to be his reputation for ever. And blessed are those who are not scandalised by him!

In other words: beware easily hygienic victory talk. Our definitive picture of glory, the lamb standing as one slain, the ultimate and complete theophany of the New Testament is one in which the full mechanism for creating and avoiding shame, sacrifice, is dwelt in peacefully and with radiance, and it is as such that it is made null. Not so much by being abolished, as by being assumed by one not run by shame, and so defanged for ever.

René Girard is more than helpful here. For there is indeed something shameful about sacrificial systems. Ever since we first expelled, or lynched, or killed, one of our own and started to create order and security and goodness out of that, the order and the goodness has borne inside it something of the sense of shame of having done something wrong, and not only wrong, but futile. Our brother’s blood does after all cry out from the ground, and has done since we’ve been human, even if it takes divine revelation to bring that to our conscious mind and make it clear to us. It is no wonder that when modern European travellers came across still-functioning cults of human sacrifice, such as the Spaniards found in Tenochtitlán, or Captain Cook in the Pacific Islands, what was noticeable was the weak, repetitive boredom with which the priests went through the motions, a vague sense that it had to be done, but that it was also a pointless waiting for something to turn up. It is no wonder also that great civilisations in Greece, Rome and India, for starters, clearly had seen the sacrificial mechanism, with both its necessity and its pointlessness, its vacuity. Virgil who captured the mechanism very exactly, famously wanted his great poem destroyed[9], aware of the dangerousness of laying the shame bare.

That God should have come through to us being prepared to associate himself with the shame of a Temple system, of glorified sacrifice, with thousands of offerings all to cover up shame, with generations of prophets trying to dissociate God from that shame, and finally to have himself revealed and become what was at the heart of the shame: all our fake goodness dependent on our slain brother. And that God should have done this deliberately, slowly, not rubbing our faces in it, but occupying the place of the shamed-one so as to detoxify that place for us for ever. That is Good News.

If we compare this with the “swallowing the scandal of the Cross” version of conversion and Church life, I hope that it becomes clear, both as regards the individual and the collective versions which I have described, what a difference is made by the “undoing sacrifice from within” version as opposed to the “definitive founding sacrifice” version of salvation. In both cases you can say that Jesus’ death was the “one true sacrifice”, but the meaning of the same claim is radically different in either case. One version causes us to engage in anxious creation of fake goodness, the other allows us peacefully to discover who we really are as we discover ourselves insiders in the coming into being of Creation. One version makes us liars as we hold onto sacred truths against our own interests and those of others around us. Another version sets us free from being run by shame so that we can, by trial and error, learn what is true and speak truthfully. Call it “The Cross undoes our scandal” version of salvation. And of course many evangelical Christians, whether or not they started with the “swallowing the scandal of the Cross” version have, through grace worked through it and come to the version where they are no longer victims of their own fake goodness. Just as many Catholics have “defected in place” regarding the carapace of fake goodness promoted by clericalism, and are interested in becoming the sign of the dwelling of God with humans, one in which we are allowed to become friends through and with our shared and detoxified shame, rather than triggering each other into fight or flight. Something which shame produces even more strongly than death.

The word “Christian” has been sullied. It is no longer the adjective it should be, describing a series of attitudes and ways of being reminiscent of Christ, but a noun which carries with it a fake claim to righteousness, a pretext for freedom from social and legal responsibility, a justification for harsh positions unsubmitted to reason. I suggest that the word “sinner” be brought back into circulation instead. Rather than the self-lacerating term of yesteryear, it can now happily mean “finding myself undergoing being forgiven, so no longer hiding my shame, but rather allowing that shame, transfigured, to be the common ground through which I am able to be in the company of others.” Shame held tenderly by grace.

What is it going to be like as we sinners, especially we white sinners, allow ourselves to be forgiven for the Atlantic Slave Trade, for the Imperial projects of the Anglosphere on both sides of the Atlantic for which 1619 is, indeed, a good notional starting date? Will the hermeneutic of 1619 allow us to hear the voices of our non-vengeful victims, those who seek equality, not vengeance, and enable us to become sisters and brothers in our broken-ness of heart? Will we be able to let go of our fake glory as “white” or “male” or whatever our anxiety-secured identity casts up? And so enter into the truth of things, the New Creation?

James Alison
Madrid, August-October 2020

[1] Mark 10, 17-18; Luke 18, 18-19.

[2] Cf, for example, M.R. Madsen “From Cold War Instrument to Supreme European Court: The European Court of Human Rights at the Crossroads of International and National Law and Politics

[3] “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” James Baldwin’s “Letter to my nephew” in The Fire Next Time

[4] My friend Suzanne Ross of The Raven Foundation expresses the insight in this way: “The idea that though we don’t consciously admit it to ourselves, that we are aware in our bones that we have done something wrong, seems central to shame. For it makes us allergic to anything that might bring what is hidden into the open, which feels like nothing less than a death of self, however falsely and wickedly constructed it is.”

[5] Heb 12:2

[6] Gal 3:13 and Acts 10:39

[7] Dt 21:22-23

[8] I made a first attempt to deal with this in

[9] Cf Cesáreo Bandera’s wonderful reading of Virgil in ch3 of The Sacred Game University Park: Penn State U.P. 1994