A Portrait of Shame (Genesis 3: 8-15)

by Margaret B. Hess

Margaret B. Hess is pastor of First Baptist Church in Nashua, New Hampshire.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 21-28, 1997, p. 509, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Looking at Adam and Eve, I see a family resemblance: a picture of my own fear and shame.

They stare out at me, these long-gone great-grandparents whose photos grace my living room wall. On the right is my paternal great-grandfather -- mustached, serious, hair parted in the center and slicked back, ears fanning out on each side of his head. His luminous brown eyes gaze directly into the camera. He was a musician. His violin case leaves brown smudges on my hands each time I move it from one house to the next, carrying it with me through life. He died in the Spanish-American War, leaving his wife six months pregnant with my grandmother. Or was my grandmother six months old? Sometimes I can’t even remember his name.

Just below his portrait is a picture of his wife, a profile shot. I peer at her face and am startled to see my mouth, my chin, the curve of my own cheek. Left to raise her daughter alone, she trained to be a chiropractor when such things were unheard of, especially for a woman. I wear her engagement ring, and wonder what else of her I carry inside me.

On the left, my maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Ballard Ezekiel Gibson, an ordained clergyman. My middle name is Ballard, after him. (Was I set up from birth?) I carry not only the same clergy status but also his broad, smooth forehead.

A lengthy inscription on his tombstone reports that he was greatly loved and respected, and that his death was a release from suffering. What was the shape and feel of his suffering? Does it still reverberate through my family? Why on earth don’t I know these things?

I am increasingly aware of the power of family history to shape and influence a life. Hopes, dreams, successes, loves, losses, unfinished business, hidden violence, secrets, mysteries, lies: all these and more filter down through the history of a family, playing themselves out in the present and beyond. I search the past for clues to my present, hoping that I will not be destined simply to repeat the past, but can choose my future freely.

There is another family photo. This photograph of my ancestors was taken in the Garden of Eden. Its sepia tones have faded, and I must look closely to sort it all out. Adam and Eve stand in a tangle of flowering trees, bushes and plants. Adam stands on the right, tall and handsome in his nakedness. His body is slightly turned in an effort to hide himself, and he appears to be speaking to someone just out of sight. Arm raised in an emphatic gesture, he points rigidly to the woman who stands on his right. Eve stares slackjawed at him, as if stunned by his words. Her long brown curls cascade over her shoulders, covering her body in Lady Godiva fashion, and she gestures lamely toward the ground with her left hand. This is a family portrait of shame.

This "photo" documents the most primitive defense against shame: blaming another. Deeply ashamed of their disobedience, neither Adam nor Eve can take full responsibility for what they have done in eating the forbidden fruit. Unable to bear the weight of their shame, they divert attention away from themselves by pointing to another. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Such is the nature of shame in our relationships. Our inability to own and acknowledge our shame leads us to attack or accuse others, fending off our own self-hatred, deflecting that which threatens to diminish us, poisoning our relationships. Their response becomes the family prototype. We all do it at times, don’t we?

Shame can be healthy if it directs us into wise and ethical behavior. But shame can destroy a person’s self-worth if left unattended. It can grow lethal if not healed. Unacknowledged shame in a family can be passed on from generation to generation. A child can carry the shame for a parent, completely unaware of what is happening.

Adam and Eve are my ancestors, and I participate in their shame. I look closely at the photograph and see the bracing of my own body, the cold look in my own eye, the fierce pointing of the finger. I look into their faces to see a mirroring of my fear and sense the widening abyss between God and myself, myself and others. I carry this shame within me throughout my life, ever tempted to fall into the chasm and away from God.

As I look once more into this sad picture, I see an opening in the garden wall and beyond, a door into the dark. I know what happens next: the pulsing journey of human shame begins, running like a river through our story. Yet I take comfort in knowing that only moments after this picture is taken God will be busy at work stitching clothes for Adam and Eve. In this heart-stopping act of tenderness I see God reaching out to this couple. God the seamstress aches to give them a way beyond their humiliation, a sign to remember that their disobedience is not the final word in defining who they are. First and foremost, they are God’s creatures. Before they brought the sweet fruit to their lips they were God’s beloved. This will always be true. Maybe, as they tug at their new clothes, their memory will be jogged.

We resonate with the shame of the human family. Shame creates an amnesia that clouds the original truth: we are created in the image of God. The shame of our ancestors, or even our own shame, does not have to be the final word in defining us. The hastily sewn clothes point to the greater truth of God’s sweet-faced mercy toward us all.