A Critical Review of A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life
by: Kevin Murriel
Beneath the anecdotes and models of successful leadership should abide a deep concern for the Christian leader. Such a concern deals with the religious experience and the nurturing of one’s soul for the task of Christian leadership. The writings of Howard Thurman get to the heart of this matter. In the book, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber bring together many of Thurman’s writings and speeches on religious experience and public life that show this scholar at his most vulnerable and his best. For the Christian leader today, Howard Thurman’s dealings with meditation, the idea of fruitfulness, suffering, crisis, and leadership serve as a significant framework through which leaders can better nurture their souls for that task of leadership.
For Thurman, the private life was of utter importance to one’s religious experience. And in his words, “the fight for the private life is fierce and unyielding.” It is often difficult for the Christian leader to assume a strong private life simply because their public life occupies an inordinate amount of space. In his understanding of the spiritual discipline of meditation, Thurman suggests, “in the great huddle we are desolate, lonely, and afraid. Our shoulders touch but our hearts cry out for understanding without which there can be no life no meaning.” I agree with Thurman that meditation is of extreme importance to the nurturing of the soul. In order for the Christian leader not to be desolate, lonely or afraid in the public life, there must be something deeper on which the leader can depend. There must be a deeper connection with God. For Thurman, this dependence comes by locating one’s own spirit the trysting place where he and his God may meet; for it is here that life becomes private without being self-centered, that political purposes that cloy may be absorbed in the big purpose that structures and redefines, that the individual comes to himself, the wanderer is home, and the private life is saved for deliberate involvement. The Christian leader’s private life prepares him/her for their public life. But where the private life (the special life of meditation) is absent, one’s soul and eventually one’s patience and physical availability in public life will become confined and occupied by desolation, loneliness, and fear.
One’s private life (meditation), then, is essential for bearing fruit in one’s public life. This is fundamentally what the Christian leader is called to do–bear fruit for the kingdom of God. In his 1932 sermon entitled, “Barren or Fruitful” Thurman deals with the issue of security in one’s life using the life of the prophet Jeremiah as an example. He asks a question that I believe all Christian leaders should ask themselves: “To what do I appeal when I want to convince myself that I am somebody?” He argues that there are three areas of life in which most people seek to affirm security in themselves. They are: family connections and social position, training and education, and ones particular qualities of righteousness. He suggests that those who dwell on such things for the personal security end up becoming “desert scrubs.” More directly, “he who turns to his self-righteousness for security is doomed to fundamental defeat. In utter amazement he will discover one day that his life is barren–a desert scrub that never thrives.”
Christian leaders cannot look merely to accomplishments, education, family and social connections for their security and self–worth. Again, there must be something deeper. Something that enriches the soul of the Christian leader each day. Thurman suggests one’s fundamental security is not in family, training, piety or the like but rather it is the supreme quality of one’s dedication to the highest there is in life–God. For Thurman, there is an inherent God presence within each of us and such an affirmation is apparent for three reasons: God is, God is near, and God is love. For the Christian leader this is a critical understanding for one’s soul development and personal security–to know that God’s presence is ever-abiding in times of difficulty and uncertainty. This understanding of God leads Thurman to write: “He who dedicates his life to God is like a tree planted beside a stream sending its roots down to the water. Its leaves are always green. It has no fear of scorching heat. It goes on bearing fruit when all around it is barren and it lives serene.
The extreme focus of Thurman’s “theology of the soul” prepares the Christian leader for times of suffering. Suffering is universal for [human] kind. There is no one who escapes it. It makes demands alike upon the wise and the foolish, the literate and illiterate, the saint and the sinner.” Christian leaders will experience suffering if not directly, indirectly. Thurman helps the Christian leader to understand the implications of suffering and how it can strengthen one’s soul. Whether physical suffering or the suffering of ones spirit and emotions, Thurman believes,
For many Christians the sense of the presence of the suffering Christ, who in their thoughts is also the suffering God, makes it possible through his fellowship to abide their own suffering of whatever kind or character. To know Him in the fellowship of his suffering is to be transformed by the glory of His life, and for these individuals this is enough–in His name they can stand anything that life can do to them. This is the resource and the discipline that comes to their rescue under the siege of pain.
For the Christian leader, Christ should remain the focus in the midst of all suffering. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that Christians affirm the grace of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in times of crisis and suffering. Thurman does not assert that pain and suffering will cease in one’s physical body but affirms that one’s spirit and soul can remain nurtured and strong even in times of suffering. If suffering, then, is a part of life that does not choose sides and is impartial, the task of the Christian leader must be to nurture one’s own soul consistently in order that one’s presence in times of suffering might be reflected through the character of Jesus Christ. For the Christian leaders sake and for the sake of others.
Freedom, in essence, is the ethos of this book. This freedom is one that comes through the consistent nurturing of one’s soul, which is essential for the Christian leader who operates within an institution or system. In 1928, as Thurman speaks with the force of the New Negro intellectuals whose mission was to reconstruct the intellectual coherence of African-American spiritual, cultural, and political practices; he contrasts the rise of materialism in post-war black culture with the traditional African-American integration of religion and life. In his speech, he notes several things to the black ministers that were in attendance, which I would argue have important implications for all Christian leaders today. He says,
The Negro [Christian] minister must find how to interpret life in terms of a creative expansive idealism. Therefore, he must be a student. For instance, he must know what the problem of evolution is and must be prepared to think clear through it with the anxious ones who share their doubts with him. He must be aware of the findings in all the major fields of human knowledge and interpret their meaning in terms of the kingdom of God.
I do not intend to take away from the message that Howard Thurman is presenting to this particular group of individuals. However, all Christian leaders in the 21st century should be students and interpret life in terms of a creative expansive idealism. They must be aware of what is occurring in the secular so that they might interpret the eternal to all people within society and from within their particular institution. Further, Thurman notes the minister must be a thinker. He must sense the dilemmas in which his people face in American life and must offer intelligent spiritual and practical guidance to them. This points to the awareness of the Christian leader. An awareness that moves beyond the complexities of ones private life and engages with the public life of the people whom one has the privilege of leading. Thurman refers to this as “keeping open the door of thy heart.” There is a profound ground of unity that is more pertinent and authentic than all the unilateral dimension of our lives. This a [human] discovers when he is able to keep open the door of his heart. This is one’s ultimate responsibility, and it is not dependent upon whether the heart of another is kept open for him.
In understanding the words of Howard Thurman, the Christian leader begins to experience “A Strange Freedom” that is a direct reflection of the intentional and consistent nurturing of one’s soul. Fruitfulness, security, growth in suffering, creative expansive leadership, and an open heart are its byproducts. The private life is of utter importance to thriving in the public life. And for the Christian leader, this book is a reminder that the progression of the kingdom of God becomes more effective as a result of the disciplines of one’s own spirit.
About the writer:
Kevin Murriel was born on May 28, 1986 in Brandon, Mississippi. He received his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Jackson State University (Jackson, Ms.), his master’s degree in Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, GA.) and is currently pursuing his doctor of ministry degree from Duke University (Durham, NC.). Kevin is a United Methodist pastor in the North Georgia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and is the author of the book, “Who’s Afraid of the Journey? 8 Steps to Help You Walk in the Confidence of Christ!” Read more about Kevin at www.kevinmurriel.com.
“Morality and Limitless Forgiveness: A Critical Analysis of Racial Justice through Christian Virtue”
by: Kevin Murriel
As a critical analysis of racial justice through Christian virtue, I intend for the sake of this paper, to suggest why forgiveness from a Christian perspective has no limits in spite of the difficulty of such a practice. More formally, the questions that I will address are: “Why might it be said that forgiveness is one of the most difficult, but also one of the most important, Christian virtues?” and “What are the elements of forgiveness, Christianly understood, and are there limits on when forgiveness is appropriate?” In answering these questions, I will discuss the implications of forgiveness in the sphere of racial justice in America while engaging selected writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Timothy Jackson.
My approach to this analysis will be three-fold. First, I will define forgiveness using the framework of Jesus Christ’s teachings in the Gospels and also other Biblical examples. Next, I will note the seriousness of racial injustice in America by using various events prior to and post Civil Rights movement in an attempt to unearth certain difficulties with the idea of forgiveness. Finally, I will engage selected writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Timothy Jackson in an attempt to argue why forgiveness, by way of morality and Christian virtue, has no limits; and also why forgiveness is critical in the lives of those who have been treated unjust as well as those who have treated others unjustly. By the conclusion of this paper, I hope to have provided a sufficient explanation as to why I believe forgiveness, as a Christian virtue, has no limits with regard to racial justice or human relations in general. Further, it is my desire to suggest what it will take from everyone to maintain racial justice in America–especially individuals who have been treated unjustly.
As an exposition on the issue of the forgiveness, I will engage selected writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Timothy Jackson as to the relevance of the morality in the process of forgiveness and why forgiveness has no limits. I begin such an engagement with a centering definition of forgiveness. That is, to grant pardon for or remission of an offense, debt, etc. or, to grant pardon to a person(s). In defining such a term, I am aware that there are different variations of definitions regarding the idea of forgiveness; however, for the sake of my argument I will deal specifically with this common understanding of forgiveness. It may be said that forgiveness is one of the most difficult, but also one of the most important Christian virtues. This, regarding difficulty, I believe is true on two accounts. First, because our human nature is such that we often look at pardoning an offense as losing or reducing the amount of suffering the individual may have to endure in comparison with the suffering that may have already taken place in our lives. Secondly, because forgiveness suggests that one must no longer base one’s idea of or their interactions towards the individual(s) on the fault committed, but rather through a lens of love and acceptance–a fundamental principle of agape. To this, I contend that even though this virtue is difficult to conceptualize in one’s mind given the nature of certain offenses, it is a critical virtue that in my judgment, Christians are required to possess.
In application of this Christian virtue of forgiveness, I feel it necessary to assess how this virtue works in the process of racial justice in America. For many years, minority groups–specifically African Americans–have fought vigorously for racial justice in America. Amid the power structures that perpetuate racial injustice in America while celebrating privilege of the majority, people of color have seemingly always had to endure treatment as second-class citizens in our democratic society. This view of injustice was one of the thriving forces behind the Civil Rights Movement and became the fuel that gave black leaders and those that followed them the will to fight for justice not just for blacks in America, but for equality among all people. Such injustice, however, has to a certain degree been overcome today in the 21st century but has not fully been removed from the structures of society, individual ethics, or from the memories of those who have been oppressed.
The question, then, becomes, “how do we promote racial justice if such injustice still exists in American society?” A direct and concrete answer to this question, I believe, would solve this issue that many have dealt with for years. However, I do not see it feasible nor possible to provide a concrete answer to this question, but rather to note only what I feel would gradually outweigh such injustices over a period of time; that is, for all people to uphold the notion of agape in their interactions and operations within society. Agape, briefly defined, is the love shown towards others that is without condition; most notably shown in God’s unconditional love for humanity in God’s giving of God’s Son Jesus Christ as an unearned sacrifice for the sins of the world. Promoting racial justice through the lens of agape must be upheld by two groups of individuals: those who have been victims of racial injustice, and those who perpetuate racial injustice (not limited, however, to a particular ethnic group). With this understanding, it is therefore necessary to cite the elements regarding the virtue of forgiveness from a Christian perspective. In doing this, I will reference the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.
Beginning in the Gospel of Matthew, as Jesus is teaching about prayer, He says in 6:14-15 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (NRSV). It seems here that Jesus sets a prerequisite for the forgiveness of our sins–that we must first forgive others of their sins. Thus, implying that there will be individuals who commit wrongdoings against other individuals and in consequence, such wrongdoings by Christian standards should be forgiven. Additionally, when Peter (Jesus’ disciple) asks Jesus how many times should he forgive his brother if he sins against him, Jesus responds, “not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18-22, NRSV). Literally speaking, one could assume that the number Jesus gives Peter is the limit to which one can forgive someone. On the other hand, this exegesis of Mathew 18 is consistent with many–probably most–modern interpreters that Jesus is telling Peter that forgiveness has no limits attached to it–numerically or personally–and when one feels they should forgive only to a certain extent, they should, by Christ’s standards, go above and beyond that and continue to forgive the individual(s).
As a final element to Jesus Christ’s standard of forgiveness, I want to cite a parable that Jesus gives to Simon Peter as they are reclining at the table in the home of a Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50. During their time at the table, a nameless woman who is only described as a sinner comes into the room and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and pours perfume on them. The Pharisee expects Jesus “if he is a prophet” to recognize the woman as a sinner and not allow her to wash his feet. However, Jesus tells Simon Peter a parable regarding the debts of two people that were canceled–to which Simon correctly inquires that the one to which the debt cancellation meant the most was the one with the larger debt. Paralleling this woman with the person whose large debt was cancelled in His parable, Jesus says in verse 47, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47, NRSV).
Noting each of these three references to forgiveness given by Jesus, I see the criteria for a Christian understanding of forgiveness to be: (1) that forgiveness towards others is made possible and mandatory if one expects God to forgive one’s own sins; (2) that forgiveness is to be limitless and should not include any discriminatory conditions, but always leaves room for wisdom and prudence; (3) that agape is central to God’s forgiveness towards us and our forgiveness towards others and anything less, limits the extent to which one is forgiven of their own faults. These criteria are to suggest that forgiveness is always appropriate and to this end, should never be compromised. Therefore, using these criteria, I turn to a critical analysis of forgiveness regarding the issue of racial justice, which will include ideas from Martin Luther King Jr. and Timothy Jackson.
Regarding “The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness”, Dr. King in discussing this as “a national problem” says:
The racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Therefore, no American can afford to be apathetic about the problem of racial justice. It is a problem that meets every man at his front door.
…the problem of racial injustice must be so weighty in detail and broad in extent that it requires the concerted efforts of numerous individuals and institutions to bring about a solution.
As King made this claim in the 1960’s during a heightened time of racism and segregation in America, it was necessary, I believe, for him to make such comments to address the negative effects that racial injustice would have on the entirety of America– not just blacks in America. Additionally, it was King who understood that there was not just one type of racial injustice but rather this inert ethic took on various forms and therefore, required as King mentions, “concerted efforts of numerous individuals and institutions to bring about a solution.”
In effect, one of the strategies that King and other participants in the Civil Rights movement implemented as the core of their position was the practice of “non-violent resistance.” To the explanation of non-violent resistance King says,
In this period of social change the Negro must work on two fronts. On the one hand we must continue to break down the barrier of segregation. We must resist all forms of racial injustice. This resistance must always be on the highest level of dignity and discipline. It must never degenerate to the crippling level of violence. There is another way–a way as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the methods of Mahatma Gandhi. It is a way not for the weak and cowardly but for the strong and courageous. It has been variously called passive resistance, nonviolent resistance, or simply Christian love.
King, giving this understanding of nonviolent resistance, underscores its principle with the virtue of Christian love or agape. The battle to win racial justice for King was not a battle in which blacks humiliated or conquered whites, but rather through an overwhelming display of agape in not responding violently to such injustice, hopefully winning their friendship and understanding. Love, for King, was at the core of the fight to end racial injustice and necessary to usher in an age of acceptance of difference with equality for all. This, however, in King’s view, could not be built on perpetual violence and hate, but rather required the agape love displayed and taught by Jesus Christ to reign–which I argue had to be accompanied with forgiveness–which I will explain more in later paragraphs.
In his book on “The Priority of Love”, Timothy Jackson on the subject of Christ-like love and reciprocal justice says, “Agape sometimes gives more than is due according to reciprocal calculation, but never less. If eros is prejudiced in favor of a select few, while justice is neutral and inclusive, then agape may be said to synthesize both by being “prejudiced in favor of everybody.” In regards to racial justice, I appreciate this definition of agape in that it gives this kind of love a standard of operation among humankind. That is, agape love always equals or gives more than expected but never succeeds at giving less. One of the main issues surrounding the virtue of forgiveness generally is “to what extent does one forgive?” This inquiry puts in question not simply the notion of forgiveness, but rather to the degree in which such forgiveness should take place. As Jackson suggests, if one is operating in eros love then by such a standard their love for another will be selective; however, if agape love is at the core of their understanding of love, then there will be no selectivity or precondition as to the extent of one’s forgiveness and/or love for another.
In making this assertion, I am suggesting that love and forgiveness are virtues that are inseparable from one another–and are undeniably necessary for racial justice. To this end, I believe that King and Jackson alike would agree that apart from agape love, genuine forgiveness could not be possible and justice–racially speaking–would have no lasting impact in society. Furthermore, this brings to light an important issue regarding forgiveness in the work of racial justice; that is, “does punishment of injustice really appropriate forgiveness?” To this, I will agree with Timothy Jackson whose claim regarding this issue is “punishment is often love’s taking justice seriously.” On this he writes:
The issue for the agapist is not “Should I forgive this person for wronging me?” but rather “Can I forgive him or her?” My offer of forgiveness as “cessation of againstness” need not be conditional to recognize that the appropriation of that forgiveness depends on the other party. Here, to repeat, is where contrition, confession, and satisfaction have their proper place: as means of accepting forgiveness.
In consequence, I believe that all injustice deserves punishment whether or not it actually takes place. Spiritually speaking it is God’s grace that many times cancels our punishment for injustice but still holds one accountable for one’s actions subsequently. This, however, is the not the case at hand. Regarding racial injustice, there have been several cases throughout centuries in America of blacks being slaughtered at the hand of white supremacists, reprimanded for offenses to which they were innocent, and denied many human and civil rights, and these things being claimed as just by many. Should there be punishment for individuals who committed such violent acts of murder or those who have denied blacks the right to human dignity and life in society? Many would argue that there should be punishment for such acts.
But is forgiveness still possible though such heinous acts have been committed and punishment is rendered? I contend for the agapist, not only is it possible, but also necessary. Thus, not making the issue should one forgive, but rather can one forgive. For racial justice to be served, this virtue of agape amid “limitless forgiveness”, especially, has to be acknowledged by those who have been done unjustly. If this does not take place, the punishment for the oppressor will, in my judgment, be vengeance on behalf of the oppressed rather than justice because the focus is not on Christ-like love for the other in spite of the fault, but rather retribution towards the individual because of the fault. This is not to say that from a societal standpoint, justice has not been served; but rather individually, if agape and forgiveness are absent from the process of justice, a spirit of vengeance is empowered and perhaps even given license. To this understanding of “vengeance as justice”, I believe both Martin Luther King Jr. and Timothy Jackson would disagree.
In anticipation to what might be said against my claim that agape with forgiveness is necessary for racial justice, I note the following. First, that forgiveness is only possible if the oppressor accepts the extension of forgiveness from the oppressed and vice versa. Thus, making real forgiveness contingent on the acceptance of each party involved. Secondly, one might argue, if the fault against another is not forgotten, then genuine forgiveness has not taken place and thus, does not prove agape is at the foundation of one’s life. To the first claim contrary to my position, I answer: forgiveness cannot solely rest on the acceptance of such an invitation on behalf of the oppressed or the oppressor for two reasons. First, because circumstances may not present an opportunity for the individual(s) to accept the extension of forgiveness; and secondly, the oppressor in any circumstance, may feel that the action, sin, or wrongdoing thereof was justified, thus, not seeing the need for forgiveness regarding the event to any degree. In these circumstances, I assert that forgiveness is still possible in that the person who is extending the forgiveness reconciles the wrongdoing against them within themselves regardless if such an extension is accepted by the other party or not. The claim against this suggests that forgiveness is only real if there is an acceptance of the forgiveness. However, the problem with such an argument is that this is relying on the probability that both parties are in agreement that forgiveness is necessary or on the contrary, both parties are in agreement that forgiveness is not in order. This, in essence, speaks directly to my second reason as to why this assertion would not hold. That is, because the party that the forgiveness is being extended to may view their action towards the individual as a justified action; thus, not seeking to be forgiven. Therefore, forgiveness no longer becomes focused on the other person’s acceptance, but rather the inner reconciliation of the oppressed with regards to the action that has been done against them. This, I hold, is still forgiveness but does not merely limit the virtue of forgiveness to the acceptance on the part of another.
To the second claim contrary to my position, I answer: forgetting does not warrant “genuine agape” in the virtue of forgiveness, but rather only suggests that the oppressed has “moved past” the issue, forgiven the individual, and no longer holds the wrongdoing in contention with their relationship or the potential thereof towards the other party. I first believe that it is unrealistic to separate our human nature from the virtue of forgiveness in that although there may be a forgiveness of a wrongdoing, consciously, there is not a high expectation of forgetfulness to the situation–especially if it has historical implications such as the institution of slavery, Jim Crow, or memories of family members who were victims of racial injustice. These things, in many ways, are forever stained in the fabric of America and in the lives of an entire race of people who claim the struggle for racial justice as their heritage and story of how they overcame. This, however, does not negate the fact that agape is genuine but rather makes such love towards one’s oppressor even more genuine in that forgiveness can still take place in spite of history–and yet, one does not hold the relationship with one’s oppressor or the potential thereof hostage due to the offense because such forgiveness has taken place.
In summary to my findings of this analysis regarding racial justice, I only want to suggest two things. First, that our American society in the 21st century has come a long way in terms of justice for all minorities, but yet has a long way to go. However, I believe what still holds true presently in this nation is parallel to what Dr. King said in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech that “negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.” This battle, I believe, will only be won if the weapons with which we fight are sharpened with agape and forgiveness that seek to befriend and gain a mutual understanding of “justice for all” toward those who choose to continue to harbor racial injustice. Secondly, my method in drawing on the concepts from the writings of King and Jackson will continue to help me personally strive to promote racial justice but also provide a unique framework for society to operate within if racial justice is to become a present reality as well as a future hope. From such concepts, as well as those I noted Biblically, I have found that forgiveness is a critical virtue that is difficult if not impossible to separate from the virtue of agape. Further, it is forgiveness that helps individuals who have been oppressed, seek justice more fervently after they have forgiven the oppressor–whether an individual, institution, or any other entity that has oppressed others.
As a glance at what remains unaddressed and somewhat problematic in my analysis on racial justice, I draw upon the words of Dr. King in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he writes:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
For me, what remains truly problematic in the process of achieving racial justice is that many within the majority race in America will see the need for racial justice and understand the goal that it aims to accomplish, but will not be willing to stand and take the appropriate measures for attaining such racial justice–whatever those measures may be. It is not my concern that there will be people in America who do not want to see justice served for minorities–this I am convinced will surely exist; I am, however, more concerned about those who advocate for racial justice from the sidelines but are not willing to join the fight. I, therefore, return to my previous quote from Dr. King which implies that “it requires the concerted efforts of numerous individuals and institutions to bring about a solution to racial injustice.” In my judgment, America will never attain the degree of racial justice that it has the potential to attain if only minority groups work to bring about the solution. Even if agape is at the heart of one’s pedagogy of forgiveness, I believe there must also be an effort from the majority group joined with that of minority groups in this country for racial justice to truly be served.
Jackson, Timothy P. The Priority of Love: Christian Charity and Social Justice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Washington, James M. I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
Shame and Guilt: A Brief Comparison of Psychoanalytic Models
by: Kevin Murriel
Shame, by definition, is the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another. Additionally, shame can be considered a condition of disgrace or dishonor. This second notion of shame being a condition implies an element of normalcy in the lifestyle of the individual bearing the shame by which they not only have been shamed, but also are considered shameful– implying an embodiment of shame. Furthermore, in understanding the way in which shame is unique, I will attempt to define guilt. Guilt, by definition, is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
The implications of shame and guilt–though perceived as similar– are actually quite different. Shame, as I understand it, is the initial feeling that one experiences when they feel as if they have done something improper; while guilt is the result of the shameful feeling in which the individual begins to take internal “ownership” for that which was done improperly. According to Helen Block Lewis, “the experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, however, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus.”
Using these working definitions of shame and guilt, I will compare these two concepts using two psychoanalytic theories–Structural Theory (Sigmund Freud) and Object-Relations Theory (Melanie Klein). Structural Theory, introduced by Sigmund Freud, focuses on the 3-part aspect of personality: better known as the Id, Ego, and Superego. Freud noted that there are stages in ones life where each of these is present. The “Id” is considered to be the irrational and emotional part of the mind. This is primarily shown in the mind of an infant because all a baby desires is “want”. Dr. Gerald S. Blum, in his book Psychoanalytic Theories of Personality writes:
The exact relationship between the unconscious and the id has never been clearly formulated. Some writers use the two interchangeably, while others, including Freud, feel that the separation is a fruitful one. Perhaps the analysis can best be made by viewing the id as one segment of the unconscious. In other words, all of the id is unconscious, but not all of the unconscious is id.
This understanding of the unconscious is what I believe links directly to what Freud deemed as the “pleasure principle” because it implies the concept of instant gratification–“I want what I want when I want it”–by which the infant unconsciously links onto that which can nurture its wants.
Additionally, the “Ego” is the part of the mind that is rational. Burness E. Moore, when analyzing narcissism and the structural model, notes, “the ego takes into itself, or interjects, the objects presented to it that are a source of pleasure and expels what is unpleasurable.” Freud, in relating to the ego, infers the “reality principle” because it is in this stage that the individual begins to relate to the reality of the world in that we cannot always get what we want. The Ego, in essence, is the common ground between the Id and the Superego since there must be an awareness that one cannot always get what one wants but also does not need to prolong waiting to get what one desires to have. The function of the Ego, as Freud sees it, equates to being an adult.
The last developed stage of the human mind, Freud describes as the “Super-ego”. The Super-ego is the part of the mind that acts as the moral function. This part of the mind takes into consideration societal as well as moral values learned throughout life. Further, the rules of life in which one subscribes is readily enforced by the Super-ego. The Super-ego, subsequently, is divided into two subsystems– the Ego Ideal and Conscience– which sets the values of greatness in which the Ego must strive and indentifies that which implies bad or wrong behavior.
In additional effect to Freud’s Structural Model, Melanie Klein pioneered the Object-Relations Theory, which shifted from Freud’s notion of looking at the mind in stages, and placed the inference on the mind developing as one grows in relation to others in their environment. Klein noted within this theory that object relationships begin in the infancy stage of ones life where the relationship is built between the infant and caregiver–also shown in the model of the “good breast” and “bad breast”. The breast that gives proper nourishment to the infant is considered the “good” breast and the breast that fails to properly nourish the infant, the infant recognizes as the “bad” breast– although it is the same breast. This, as Klein suggests, infers the two primary drives by which an infant attains at birth: love and hate. Further, Michael St. Clair in his book, Object-relations and Self-psychology, gives this example:
The infant splits or mentally separates the mother into two part objects. Insofar as she satisfies the infant, she is good; insofar as she fails to satisfy the infant, she is a bad object. Because the infant is powerless to alter the situation in outer reality, the infant tries to change things in inner reality, the only realm where the infant has any resources.
With these brief yet working definitions of Structural and Object-relations theory, I will proceed in analyzing the distinguishing factors between shame and guilt as it relates to these two theories. Michael Lewis states that “shame is the product of a complex set of cognitive activities: the evaluation of an individual’s actions in regard to her standards, rules, and goals, and her global evaluation of the self.” Further, Lewis describes guilt as “the emotional state that is produced when individuals evaluate their behavior as failure to focus on the specific features of the self or on the self’s action that led to failure.” In assessing Freud’s structural model, the word “evaluate” used by Lewis in the above quotes imply that each are conscious reactions that take shape in the ego. The differences between shame and guilt in this regard is that shame is focused on the entirety of the self while guilt concentrates on various measures and manners that can aid in revamping the failure.
Equally important, the concepts of shame and guilt through the framework of Object-relations theory give an additional perspective to consider. First, in considering Klein’s notion of guilt in relation to the Object-relations theory, the Oedipus complex, which connotes unconscious ideas and feelings that center around the attachment of the child to the parent of the opposite sex, accompanied by envious and aggressive feelings toward the parent of the same sex, must also be considered. Leon Grinberg, in describing Klein’s concept of guilt, states, “guilt does not emerge when the Oedipus complex comes to an end, but is rather one of the factors which from the beginning mould its course and affect its outcome.” In this regard, Klein–who places the origin of Oedipus complex in the first months of life– correlates with Karl Abraham’s notion that the first guilt feelings come from the oral-sadistic phantasies of devouring the mother, and especially her breasts.
Moreover, Gerhart Piers notes, “The unconscious, irrational threat implied in shame anxiety is abandonment, and not mutilation as in guilt.” This notion by Piers, I believe, gives an excellent distinction between shame and guilt in Object-relations theory in that it implies shame as being unconsciously felt by the infant when it senses abandonment by the mother or the breast that the infant considers good. This view of shame, though unique, illustrates how early in life one can experience shame, which, in essence, shows activity in the id before the development of the infant’s ego.
In addition to Structural theory and Object-relations theory, I will briefly discuss other theories and models that are equally important for consideration in the psychoanalytic process. These theories/models include the Topographic model, Ego-psychology, and Affect theory. The first model, the Topographic model, was the described initially by Freud in 1900 in the Interpretations of Dreams. This model describes Freud’s general theory of the mind in which he describes as having three unique systems of conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious –the Id, Ego, and Superego– which eventually developed into Freud’s Structural theory. Additionally, Ego-psychology focuses on the autonomous nature of the ego and its independent functions. Some of these functions include judgment regarding danger, self-preservation, speech, motor control, and concentration. The final theory of discussion is the Affect theory. Affect theory, introduced by Silvan Tomkins, seeks to arrange affects into separate categories and unites each individually with its distinctive response. This is shown, for example, when the affect of anger or joy is shown through the frowning of the face when one is angry or a smile when one is joyous. Dr. Phyllis Tyson, in describing Affect theory, states: “Tomkins insisted that affect is primarily facial and skin behavior, and that biologically based inherited programs anchored in the central nervous system control facial muscle responses as well as autonomic visceral and motoric responses.”
In conclusion, psychoanalysis, from its inception, has grown into a phenomenon that has been readily pursued by individuals in an attempt to explain the functions and processes of the human mind. The theories/models that I have discussed in this précis, although few, have granted me a good foundational understanding of the significant role psychology plays in analyzing the concepts of shame and guilt. This, in essence, not only underscores the broadness of ideas that psychologists have assumed through the years, but also emphasizes the complexity that is God’s creation of the human being.
Blum, Gerald. 1953. Psychoanalytic Theories of Personality. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Grinberg, Leon. 1992. Guilt and Depression. London: Karnac Books.
Helen, Lewis. 1971. Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.
Lewis, Michael. 1992, 1995. Shame: The Exposed Self. New York: The Free Press.
Moore, Burness and Bernard Fine. 1995. Psychoanalysis: The Major Concepts. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Piers, Gerhart and Milton Singer. 1953. Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study. Springfield: Thomas Books.
St. Clair, Michael. 2000. Object Relations Theories and Self-psychology: An Introduction third edition. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Tyson, Phyllis and Robert Tyson. 1990. Psychoanalytic Theories of Development: An Integration. New Haven: Yale University Press.