The Shame of the Cross

I recently clicked on a link from a blog my friend Andrew contributes to and it took me to post from a Talbot Seminary prof, Joe Hellerman, entitled “Jesus, the Shame-Bearer” about “the public humiliation of Jesus’ death.”  His personal/vocational anecdote about honor-culture is skippable, but the focus on the shame Christ experienced on the cross (particularly in quotes from early church leaders) was powerful.  It lead me to post the following question in his comments section:

“Years ago, I came across a poem by the British writer Stevie Smith about Christianity/ Christ that questioned our faith, including the following lines:

And Sin, how could he take our sins upon Him?  What does it mean?
To take sin upon one is not the same
As to have sin inside one and feel guilty.

It is horrible to feel guilty,
We feel guilty because we are.
Was He horrible? Did he feel guilty?

The lines stuck with me, as an authentic question, but as I meditated on the issue, reading Isaiah 53, I began to wonder if, in some sense, while Jesus did not bear my experiential guilt (though he did take on my legal guilt), he somehow did bear the shame associated with my sin. In response to the poet, we might say, “No, he WAS not horrible–but yes, he FELT horrible as he bore the shame of our sin, experiencing the feeling of being a wrong-doer, though he did no wrong.”

Do you think there is a legitimacy to this? Not that we need to answer this question–I just wonder if, in some sense, this would be an answer…

I know that many Christians struggle with a lingering sense of guilt & shame over past sin. I wonder if contemplating “Jesus, the Shame-bearer” is a way of even adding those feelings of shame as something we recognize Christ bore for us.

I’m not totally sure if this is theologically accurate, though, which is why I ask!”

Hellerman responded that this (our feeling of guilt) wasn’t really what he had been talking about, which I do recognize–I was more using his meditation to launch into a related but distinct point. He was talking about Jesus’ personal sense of shame upon the cross & I was raising a question about our shame/guiltiness and Christ’s work on the cross.

On the note of Christ’s shame, it did make me think of how Christians have many times sanitized the image of Christ on the cross.  With our dread of nudity, we usually drape a little cloth over his genitals or even put him in a robe, yet his shameful FULL nakedness was most likely part of the punishment he endured for us (there are some who hold the view that he was covered with a cloth, but many hold to his complete nudity)!  The only film that I could remember that actually “exposed” the viewer to this aspect of the crucifixion was Martin Scorsese’s heretical and blasphemous film The Last Temptation of Christ

Like one from whom men hide their faces; he was despised & we esteemed him not

I have been thinking more about this question–did Jesus bear on the cross the shame that should be upon me for my sin, the shame that I deserve before God for violating his good design & purposes?  Or is it more that because of he took on our “legal guilt” that we are able to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebrews 10.22)?  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Whatever the specific theological reality, I believe it’s completely appropriate to devotionally consider both what Christ endured on the cross & to know that we are free from the burden of guilt and shame of sin.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

(“Before the Throne of God Above”)