Embracing “Otherness”: Owning Our National Story


President Obama made some interesting comments at the National Prayer Breakfast not too long ago, comments that unleashed a flood of criticism and defense.  As I read some of the responses, I couldn’t help feeling like we were all missing the point.



Before I go on, let me go on record as saying:

  • ISIS is bad.  Very bad.  Extremely bad.
  • The Crusades and the Inquisition were bad.  Very bad.  Extremely bad.
  • Jim Crow laws, and any justification for slavery (past or present) is bad.  Very bad.  Extremely bad.

From the perspective of the victims, all forms of injustice are equally bad.

As I read one response that talked about the Jim Crow South, and even further back to the founding philosophy of the Confederacy as a “Christian slave nation,” my first response was to dismiss any Biblical defense as a distortion of Biblical truth (which I do believe to be the case).  However, I have come to believe that to dismiss the experiences of so many within our own nation just because I didn’t take part in the experience or condone it is to give in to a sense of shame.

While it might not be obviously connected, I found a recent story on the AP US History test to be related.  Since I graduated from high school (many years ago), there has been a move to teach a broader view of US history.  I think this is a good thing.  However, it seems that there are some who want to emphasize the terrible things the US has done while others want to emphasize only the positive things.  I believe both views are skewed, and I am beginning to see how both reactions could be rooted in shame – a national shame.

In her TED Talk, Dr. Brene Brown emphasizes the negative impact of shame on interpersonal relationships, not only at the one-on-one level but also at the group and community level.  She says that “you cannot talk about race without talking about privilege. And when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.”  I know this is true for me; when I read the accounts of what happened under slavery in the US or under Jim Crow laws in the South, I automatically want to distance myself from it.

When we dismiss the narratives we don’t like, we embrace shame and reject vulnerability.  This is the opposite of what is necessary to truly find a solution to the divisions, racial or political, we still see in the US.

1003173_13701993To understand national shame, we need to first look at responses to personal shame. One such method is called the Viking or Victim shield by Dr. Brown.  At a personal level, people are seen as either a Viking (exerting control and power to avoid being victimized) or a victim (always at risk of being taken advantage of).

From this perspective, those who want to dismiss President Obama’s remarks as exaggeration are buying into the Viking mentality, while those who want to run with all the negative implications are running with a Victim mentality.  Likewise,those who want to emphasize only the positive aspects of US history are embracing a Viking mentality, while those who want to emphasize only the negative aspects are embracing a Victim mentality.

Neither approach is an accurate reflection of reality!  In order to move forward, we have to stop reacting to shame and start embracing vulnerability to the point that we can start having healing conversations.

In her book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown writes, “Fear and scarcity fuel the Viking-or-Victim approach and part of reintegrating vulnerability means examining shame triggers; what’s fueling the win-or-lose fear?”  When our first reaction is to either dismiss the event as irrelevant  or to throw an event into someone else’s face, we have identified a shame trigger.

The next step is to cultivate trust.  It seems to me that our nation is facing a crisis of trust (but more on that in a later post).

Owning our story begins at a personal level, but it can not stay there; we have to own our national story – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  In her book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown writes, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. … If we speak shame, it begins to wither.”  By sharing and embracing our individual stories, perhaps we will be able to find a path forward – together.


Links and Resources:

Brene Brown’s TED Talk on Listening to Shame

Article on AP US History

Obama National Prayer Breakfast 2015 Text Transcript and Full Video

44 Bible verses on shame

34 Bible verses on vulnerability

70 Bible verses on reconciliation


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