We didn’t have chapel services in the unit where I was housed in jail. The chaplain never came on the block either, so we started our own service.
The best sermon I heard in jail was from another inmate. He talked about how Jesus, while incarcerated “despised the shame” of it. He explained that although others were ashamed of him for being arrested, Jesus would not let his arrest, imprisonment, or even execution define him. And in the end, he was vindicated.
I thought about that sermon, while remembering my own shame, and how I had to get over it, and make my time productive. As long as I wallowed in shame, I allowed my brain to be preoccupied with anger and pity. But when I learned to despise the shame, I could focus on making the mental changes necessary to be successful when the bid was over.
We have to “despise the shame.” Shame is paralyzing, and unproductive. Besides, there are enough people trying to shame us that we don’t need to give them any help. Even church people who believe in Jesus play the shame game. One of my students at Howard University, studying to be a minister, tried to play the shame game with me, talking about how she didn’t like prisoners; they were such horrible people.
“Well, if you don’t like inmates, let me borrow your Bible,” I said. When she asked why, I told her “We have to take some things out. If you don’t like inmates, we have to get rid of the Book of Genesis, because Joseph was an inmate. If you don’t like inmates, you have to eliminate the Book of Jeremiah, because he was in solitary confinement. If you don’t like inmates, you have to tear out the Book of Daniel, because he was a two-time loser, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were on death row. If you don’t like inmates, there goes the book of Revelation, since John wrote that while he was locked up. Get rid of First and Second Peter because he got popped, and while the church prayed for him all night long, when he got early release, Peter came back to the church and they wouldn’t let him in, so things haven’t changed. If you don’t like inmates, stop saying ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ because it was written by an inmate.”
Someone tried to point out that those were all “good people,” incarcerated for their faith. I countered by pointing out that Moses killed an Egyptian, David conspired to have his baby mama’s husband murdered, and Paul was an accessory to murder in the killing of Stephen. And Peter would have been killed by police after he attacked one of them when Jesus was arrested. Yet, God used them all for positive purposes.
If you are wrestling with shame today, tell that committee in your head that they’re fired. You were built for positive purposes with divine destiny! So you took a detour on your way. Despise the shame, and stake your claim on the road to a positive destiny!
Rev. Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D. is an associate professor of applied theology at Howard University’s School of Divinity. He also works on behalf of prisoners and returning citizens as the national director of Healing Communities USA, a reentry initiative. Dr. Trulear is also a former inmate.