I’ve Got that Guilty Feeling, or Maybe Not

Western religious practice and guilt have what might be called a cozy relationship. For some forms of religious practice, guilt is an important motivator for good works and for an approach to at least some relationships. Rather than seeking good solely for the sake of goodness, people (especially religious leaders) find that guilt provides the necessary instrument to inspire good behavior. While it may seem that guilt is something we ought to endeavor to avoid, lest we develop problematic feelings about ourselves and others, how do we deal with those aspects of our own behaviors and those of others, as well as as our ancestors, that have caused real and profound harm not just to individuals, but to large groups of people?

I grew up in a Congregational church in the Boston suburbs where guilt was not actually a major topic— at least not in my childhood.  The senior pastor of that church, who served from when I was an infant until the year I graduated from high school, practiced his craft on the coattails of Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking. Everything seemed to be about empowerment and embracing all of the good that could come from a relationship with God and with the Church.

Around the time I started high school, the Christian Education Committee of that church decided to end the tradition of hiring seminarians from the mainline-aligned Andover Newton Theological School, and instead to hire seminarians from the more conservative/evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I remember quite well the first Gordon-Conwell-educated seminarian who was hired to lead the youth groups. If we had spent our childhood free from religious guilt, he set out to remedy that, in no uncertain terms. It was an astonishing change. I remember one occasion when our high school youth group was on a weekend retreat with several other youth groups, and very late on Saturday night we were corralled into a large room and forced to watch a very dramatic, and graphic, telling of the crucifixion of Jesus, laden with the guilt that we should all be feeling for our sins that Jesus had come to save. Following that very dramatic story telling, we were “invited“ to stand up and declare ourselves saved, that we accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. One by one each and every one of us stood up. Did we stand up because we felt saved? Did we stand up because we felt guilty that Jesus found it necessary to offer himself as a sacrifice because of our personal sins? Or did we stand up simply because we knew that was the only way any of us were going to get out of there? For me, it was this last option.

Guilt isn’t the best motivator for much of anything. And, as I discovered personally, it’s not the best way to entice young people, or older people, to take up a life of faith. Still, I can’t help but wonder about how we should approach the subject of guilt as people of faith— for surely, there are things in this life that should cause us to feel guilty, or at least to feel badly about how people behave, or have behaved, and how others are, or have been, treated. It seems critical that we, as individuals and as communities, engage honestly in and around those places where human beings have gone seriously astray and when the lives of others have been incalculably damaged.

Let’s consider (although I would really prefer not to) the current quest of the Governor of Florida to stop “wokeness,” to end education and training that would lead people to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.” To stifle, dismiss and even outlaw an honest and full consideration of the terrible aspects of our common history, in order to save people from “psychological distress” seems a completely misguided way of dealing with the fact that past injustices are still a part of the fabric of this country. How can we possibly create healthy relationships and communities in these days if we refrain, or are forced to refrain, from an examination of problematic practices that have directly led to issues that we still face? Whether it’s the treatment of the descendants of slaves, or native populations, etc, issues that stretch back to before this nation’s founding are still woven into the fabric of this land we call home.

While guilt may be a part of the experience of considering the past and the present, it’s important that we consider all of our history, and not just the parts that feel good. As much as Mr. DeSantis may try, no one can erase the past, especially a past that continues to shape the present. Mr. DeSantis, who claims to be a Christian, ought to know full well that it’s only in taking an honest look at the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinful, that we have any hope of being freed from the guilt that clings to the imperfect lives that we live.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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