Once when I was teaching school I sat with a group of students to discuss what rules should govern our school community. Eventually this led to a discussion about the consequences there should be for breaking the rules. As this seemed a more difficult discussion, I suggested that maybe we should start with what consequence we should never have. To my surprise the answer was immediate and unanimous. No one, the children agreed, should ever, for any reason, be embarrassed. It was, they were clear, too terrible a punishment to be endured and no action they could conceive of merited such cruelty. I was stunned.
To embarrass someone is to cause them to think less of themselves before others. It is to shame them. It is, if we think about it, a conscious act to make another person less in front of others. I tears at the self and diminishes the soul. As an adult I think I had just become used to this behavior. We pretend that its fun and funny to embarrass another person--harmless, right? The children that day told me a truth that I have never forgotten. Seeking to embarrass or shame another person is profoundly cruel. It is not to be tolerated among people who say they care for one anther and their community.
In Sunday's lectionary* we read the story of God's messengers coming to Abraham and Sarah. They have come to tell them that Sarah will conceive and give birth to a son. Abraham is overjoyed! Sarah is scornful. She laughs. Who does God think he is? She is an old woman, well past child bearing. She doesn't believe it. She knows better! She laughs. Unfortunately the messengers heard her, that is, God hears her. God confronts Abraham about her laughter, and Sarah, afraid, denies it. "I didn't laugh," she says. "Oh, yes you did," God replies. And then it would seem, God walks away. God does not embarrass Sarah. God does not shame Sarah or ask for her repentance. God simply does what God promised to do and nine months later Sarah gives birth to a son, a boy named, Isaac, a boy whose name means, "he laughs"! Sarah mocked God and into Sarah's life came one that filled her life with laughter and light. He grew up to be known as the "digger of wells in the desert". He brought life and peace and prosperity to the people of his region. He was the father of Esau and Jacob, both fathers of nations in their own right. But as long as she lived, whenever Sarah looked at her son and said his name, she must have remembered her sin. But she would also have remembered how she was forgiven and loved in spite of her doubt, her derision. God, by knowing what children everywhere know, that to be shamed, to be embarrassed is not right, not loving, put aside Sarah's sin and by doing so left room in her heart for transformation, for repentance and growth.
These days we seem to have forgotten what we all knew as children, that shaming is cruel and not to be tolerated by people of faith and good will. Not only is the Twitter world full of people shaming (and judging) others about some inadvertent offense or other, but we also saw people during the protests actually being asked to kneel and apologize, shamed simply because of their race or their uniform. Shaming is a powerful weapon. it does violence to the soul. This practice, if we let it continue, will destroy our country and our community. As hard as it is, we are called to stand against it. We must not seek to embarrass or shame others. We must stand against other’s attempts to embarrass or shame us. If we truly want a world where everyone is respected and valued, where justice and peace are the order of the day, where the Kingdom of God is easily at hand, then we must follow the example of God and his very wise children!
*There are two Old Testament lessons for Sunday. This one is from Genesis: 18:1-15.