taking the words of Jesus seriously

Shame is a common experience of marginalized people. Not surprisingly. It does a number on you when others look askance at what makes you different and pull away as a result. As a gay woman, I have struggled to overcome shame. No doubt, some say I should feel shame for my sexuality, and the fact that I do so must be a sure sign of guilt. Isn’t that why we say, “Shame on you!” Those words are designed to lower our heads, to convince us we have done something terribly wrong. But shame afflicts even the innocent. 

Many sexual abuse survivors feel shame. In seminary, one of my professors relayed the story of a young woman who struggled to escape the shame she felt after surviving sexual assault. One of the Scriptural verses that helped her was, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9-10; NKJV; emphasis added). Only instead of confessing her own sin (she was the innocent victim), she confessed the sin of her perpetrator. For this young woman, Scripture promised something that repeated showers could not—a spiritual cleansing to wash away the shame. If we confess the sins of others, who have harmed us, surely God is faithful to cleanse us from their residual sin left clinging to our bodies and minds after an attack.

Nakedness leaves us unprotected. It reveals a part of ourselves that only a privileged few should have access to—our mother when we are young, a doctor ensuring our health, a lover with whom we share ourselves. The vulnerability of nakedness makes possible incredible intimacy and care. But it can also leave us exposed to threats—and the danger is not only physical. Throughout history and across cultures, one of the most common ways to degrade a person or people group has been to attack their sexuality and sexual heritage. “Your mother is a whore!” “F*ck you!” “Slut!” We can sexually assault people with words.

LGBTQ people are frequently the target of verbal sexual assaults, similar to the way Black people in America have been targeted. This shows up, not only in slurs, but also sophisticated propaganda. The 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, capitalized on the prejudices and irrational fears of white people by using a common degrading caricature of Black men as rapists. Similarly, Black women, including young girls, have often been slandered as inherently lustful and promiscuous. That such prejudice is articulated in sexual ways is not accidental. Sexual assault, whether physical or verbal, cuts to the core of our vulnerability as human beings. It’s a particularly damaging way to insult, humiliate, and dehumanize a person.

It’s no surprise, then, that LGBTQ people struggle to overcome shame. We, too, have been falsely caricatured as inherently predatory and promiscuous. To this day, I flinch at the sight of a rainbow flag or pink triangle. I grew up with these images juxtaposed with Religious Right vitriol. Such is the power of propaganda that I still struggle to separate these positive LGBTQ symbols from the slander that many Christians have long attached to them. I’m not the only one. Many straight people similarly experience the effects of anti-LGBTQ propaganda. 

Sometimes when we are told, in so many words, that we are less human, we begin to live into that false identity. When our abusers tell us we are dirty, that there’s something inherently wrong with us, that it’s all our fault—sometimes we believe them. In his book, The Velvet Rage, psychologist Alan Downs, who is gay and frequently counsels gay men, writes about the impact of shame. He points out that LGBTQ people often compensate for their shame, rather than confront it. This leads to desperate and dysfunctional attempts to find validation, whether through becoming an over-achiever, repeated sexual encounters, or putting on a mask we believe others like better than our true self.

Shame almost killed me. In my 20s, I was filled with self-loathing and confusion about my predicament as a gay person. How could this happen to me? My Christian tradition had always said gay people are outside the church, God-haters who willfully choose a rebellious pursuit of excessive lusts. There was no understanding that someone could experience a different sexual development in the womb or be born with an atypical sexual orientation. I was sure God was as disgusted with me as the Church. In college, I walked along the road that lined my Baptist school and contemplated jumping in front of the next car. Over the years, I begged God to kill me to alleviate everyone of my intolerable presence.

A turning point came while reading Romans and a book by Jeff Van Vonderen called, Tired of Trying to Measure Up. Even though as a good Baptist kid I had read Romans more times than I can count, I didn’t really grasp that God’s love is unconditional. Comprehending the gospel created the first crack in a stronghold of shame. A tentative thrill rose up in my chest as the words of Scripture sank in: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom 3:21-22; NIV). I could hardly believe it. God’s love is not based on measuring up? I was simply being invited to trust love? Waking up to the gospel pulled me out of the pit of self-loathing.

But even as God affirmed me, I still struggled with what other people thought of me. The verbal sexual assaults are everywhere in conservative Christian culture. In so many words, I hear people say, “You are a disappointment to God and to us.” “Your so-called love is disgusting.” “You make me uncomfortable.” The messages have come through deafening silence at the announcement of my marriage, lost friendships, refusals to allow my wife and I to stay the night at a home where I was once welcome, and limitations on ministry in former faith circles. I’ve even been asked to lie about my marriage “for the kids’ sake.” There’s something piercingly painful about knowing others view my dear wife, my home, as illegitimate. While we navigate the usual challenges of marriage (caring for an elderly parent, work-life balance, housekeeping preferences), we have the added stressor of facing active opposition to our covenantal bond.

Shame keeps us trapped in futile efforts to win acceptance from others. We are social creatures whose survival depends on community. When our community holds us at arms-length, it can be excruciating. Shame makes us want to pretend to be someone else. Sometimes I have downplayed my marital status on social media or with acquaintances, not wanting to alienate the evangelical world that raised me. I long for the people I come from to be proud of me. I want them to read my books and listen to the things I’ve learned along the way. I want them to take me seriously. But shame uses that quest for approval to contort us into someone we are not. So I strive to live in the Spirit’s freedom and affirmation, all the while holding my hand out to those who are unsure they want to take it. 

I’ll close with this: dear LGBTQ loved ones, God did not create you only for you to hide in shame. Let us confess the sins of those who are ashamed of us, their verbal sexual assaults, and their emotional distancing. For God is faithful and just to cleanse our hearts and minds of the unrighteousness inflicted upon us. When we dare to declare with the psalmist, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” we prophesy to the world a divine truth about our bodies: “Not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are” (1 Cor 1:26-28). To worldly eyes, LGBTQ people are foolish, weak, and despised, but to God we are made for a purpose. 

Paul says that God intentionally chooses the lowly so that boasters who rely only on their own wisdom or strength will know they need God too (vv. 29-31). LGBTQ Christ-followers are evangelists to the arrogant, reassuring them that they are also loved unconditionally. Self-righteous Christians no longer have to pretend, puffing and strutting to prove themselves to God or anyone else. All those who strive can find rest among the lowly. Among the LGBTQ. For even our Savior is “lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29). And there’s nothing shameful about that.

About The Author


Karen R. Keen (Th.M., Duke) is a biblical scholar, author, and spiritual director with The Redwood Center for Spiritual Care and Education. Her passion is making scholarship accessible, particularly as it relates to the intersection of Scripture, faith, and culture. Keen's books include The Word of a Humble God: The Origins, Inspiration, and Interpretation of Scripture, The Jesus Way: Practicing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships.

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