Guilt, shame and passive distance

Here’s a fascinating point in a book I’m reading about Saul, David and power politics in 1 and 2 Samuel. The authors are writing about the consequences of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah.

“In his attempt to provide some sort of closure to the behind-the-scenes drama of Bathsheba’s pregnancy and Uriah’s murder, as well as to encourage Joab to move forward in the battle with a sense of back-to-business-as-usual, David deployed a striking metaphor that illuminates how rulers routinely strive to manipulate the public mind in an effort to dissociate themselves from the political violence they instigate and direct. ‘The sword devours sometimes one way and sometimes the other’ (2 Sam 11:25). The distribution of violence along a chain of agents culminates in the perception that the instruments of violence have an autonomous agency of their own; ‘the sword devours.’ As the reader knows, of course, Uriah was personally singled out and intentionally done to death at David’s command.”[1]

This illuminates some light on why we struggle with the question of guilt and shame. One of the problems is that we personify abstract things and make our own involvement passive. This happens across the political spectrum so that we attribute both good and evil to either market forces or to The State/society as an abstract construct.  We distance ourselves from responsibility. The State provides welfare to the poor or it oppresses them. The market is responsible for determining whether someone has food on the table.  Yet the reality is that it is people who make choices to love others and seek their welfare or to act out of greed and self-interest.

We see this at work when people talk about the anonymous “they/them” that make bad decisions. We see it when Christians talk in terms of what the church should be doing as though the local church exists as an institution separate from its members.

It’s for this reason that I don’t like talk of institutional evil and institutional solutions. If by such terms we mean that a whole society can be idolatrous and that we become like our idols.  I agree. However, when such language stops me from owning my responsibility and guilt then I am in trouble.

David tries to distance himself from his sin, guilt and shame but eventually a prophet turns up to bring conviction:

“You are the man.” (2 Samuel 12:7).

This provokes true heart felt repentance from David

“Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;                   I have done what is evil in your sight.” (Psalm 51:4)

Anything less than this type of confession and repentance falls far too short.

[1] Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes, The Beginning of Politics, 94.