Sermon: The Good We Want to Do and the Shadow that Keeps Us From It

This is the second sermon in a Lenten series called “Shadow Dancing: Pulling Back the Veil.” This sermon is based on Romans 7:15-24.

It’s now the fourth week of February. Can you even remember the new years’s resolutions you may have made eight weeks ago — much less succeeded in doing them? Maybe you gave up on resolutions a long time ago because you realized it was pretty pointless. I read in January that 80% — or maybe it was 95% — of new years’ resolutions fail.

Why do we not do the good we want to do?

Have you ever decided that you were going to be more loving toward your (fill in the blank): spouse, mother, co-worker? How did that work out for you? Were you able — through a simple act of will — to be more loving, to not be reactive when your spouse says something that really gets your goat?

Why do we not do the good we want to do? How many stories have we heard over the years of pastors and politicians and public figures teaching or preaching one thing and then doing the exact opposite? Our governor Gavin Newsom is still in hot water for attending a social gathering, maskless, last year after he had just scolded all of us to do the opposite. The therapist James Hollis tells of listening to a talk in which a well-known and well-regarded expert was quoted extensively on the psychological dynamics involved when a therapist violates boundaries with their clients. Two hours later, he found out this same therapist had just been severely sanctioned by a professional society for precisely the kind of boundary violation in which he was “expert.”  (From his book Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves.)

Why do we not do the good we want to do?  That question has resounded throughout history. Paul’s poignant writing about this in the passage we just heard feels as current today as it did 2000 years ago. We have the desire to do good, we even know what the good is, but we can’t do it. And we don’t understand why we can’t! “For we don’t do the things we want to do but rather the things we hate.” Some other force, some other energy in us keeps us from doing the good we desire. For this series, we’re identifying that force, that energy as the shadow. 

What’s more, we may think we know what the good is and only later realize that we were far off the mark. I think many of you know that the word translated as “sin” in Scripture comes from an archery terms that means to “miss the mark.”  Who among of us, especially those of us who are a bit older, does not look back on our past with some regret and maybe even dismay about marks missed, about sins we committed, often unconsciously? If I only knew then what I know now, I could have been a better parent. Or I could have made a different decision about my career. Or I might not have made that mistake, which continues to haunt me. “And yet,” Hollis writes, “at the time we thought we knew ourselves, (and we thought we) were choosing wisely, prudently and with the best of intentions.” Or, maybe, we knew we weren’t choosing wisely but just couldn’t stop ourselves.  

Tragically, this gap between choosing the good and doing it — and the gap between thinking we know the good and not doing it — this gap that we experience in our personal psyche gets writ large and happens within the collective psyche of communities and nations. How many churches have you heard of or been a part of that think they are doing God’s holy will and are actually participating in injustice, even evil? How about the gap between what this country says its ideals are — equality, liberty and justice for all — and our actual history rooted in centuries of white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, and economic exploitation? This is not to say that this country has never done anything good but that there is a huge shadow with which we never adequately reckoned.

As individuals, our ego likes to pretend that no such gap exists. The ego is the part of our personality that’s conscious to us. It’s the part of ourself that wants to be, as Richard Rohr says, “significant, central, important and right.” It is the part of us that is “highly defended and self-protective by its very nature,” for the ego wants to “eliminate all bothersome, humiliating or negative information in order to ‘look good’ at all costs.” Rohr says that Jesus calls this ego self the “actor” — a word usually translated as “hypocrite” in Scripture but which can also mean “actor.” “Hypocrite” is a word Jesus uses 15 times in the Gospel of Matthew, so he was well tuned into this shadow self, I think.

Our ego self, our hypocrite, our actor, does not want to know what’s in our shadow. The ego self does not want to see all those things it’s stuffed into the bag those ugly things, those shameful things, those painful things.What’s more, this ego “seldom really knows enough to know that it does not know enough” (Hollis). It is often not conscious of the unconscious, shadowy forces at work within and thus can be owned, directed even possessed by those inner forces — by that inner law, as Paul says — that cause us to not do the good we want to do and even to unconsciously do bad things. The thing I love about this passage from Romans is that Paul is acknowledging the existence of these unconscious, shadowy forces within us. That’s so important!

Just as we individuals have egos that are self-protective and don’t want to see what’s in the shadow and don’t even know enough to know that it’s unconscious  — so, too, can our collective ego be self-protective and not want to see what is in the shadow and be unconscious of the ways in which it can perpetuate evil. I think of all the commentators who said, after January 6th’s storming of the Capitol, “This is not us. This is not who America is.” That is the self-protective, unconscious collective ego speaking. Unless we see that those white supremacist, anti-Semitic, Christian people who stormed the capital are us, are our collective shadow, we will tragically never take responsibility for that shadow. And we will never heal; we will never be whole as a country. Oddly, that huge shadow eruption that happened on Jan. 6 is, to my mind, somewhat hopeful. It’s putting that shadow right in front of our face, and making it very difficult for many of us not to see it. 

The consequences of not acknowledging collective shadow are huge. Because what we often do — as individuals and as a collective — with unacknowledged shadow is project it out onto other people, as we talked about last week. And on a collective level, those who receive shadow projections often suffer terribly.  As Hollis says, “So often the one who receives the shadow projection of others — be it Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, the witches of Salem… the Jews of Poland, (lgbtq people) or a host of other martyrs to unconsciousness (I would add immigrants, Muslims, Indigenous and people of color to this list) —- will be vilified, crucified, marginalized, gassed, burned, or ignored. They are the carriers of our secret life, and for this we shall hate them, revile them, and destroy them, for they have committed the most heinous of offenses. They remind us of some aspect of ourselves we cannot bear to see.”  

Whew. Let’s take a deep breath. What can we not bear to see? What has become buried in our history and become unconscious to us? I want to especially lift up those things that might inform the shadow eruption of January 6. As the African-American therapist Resmaa Menakem says in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, I think we who are white often can’t bear to see — and are unconscious about — the history of trauma we carry within us. As Menakem says, African Americans and Native Americans and Jewish people have experienced generations of collective trauma.  But a different but equally real form of trauma lives in the bodies of most white Americans. In his book, Menakem traces a history of white-on-white violence in Europe and the U.S. that, he believes, left lasting traumas on white-bodied people, trauma that hides in the shadows and is unconsciously revisited upon the reviled other. In other words, traumatized white people unconsciously did to Black and Native bodies what was done to them.

What can we not bear to see? I think we cannot bear to see the truth that church doctrines from the 15th century legitimated the genocide, enslavement and dispossession of Indigenous people around the world and that these doctrines — now encoded in international laws and policies — are still doing this. This shadow has never been acknowledged and repented of, perhaps because this shadow threatens the wealth, power and privilege that have been derived from the theft of lands and the dispossession of Peoples.

What can we not bear to see? I think it would be painful to acknowledge the way racism was invented to obstruct class solidarity. It’s a history that almost none of us knows, and I’m convinced we have to become conscious of this history if we are to make any advancement in racial and economic equality in this country. Much of this history is almost a direct quote from Menakem’s book: 

In the 1600s in this country, there were Black and white indentured servants. When they completed their contracts as servants, they became free peasants in the New World. This created a growing class of free peasants whose skin colors ranged form very pale to very dark. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, these white and Black immigrants worked and lived together on plantations owned by powerful white men. In fact, in several early worker revolts, Black and white people rose up together against these plantation owners. These revolts posed serious threats to the power and supremacy of wealthy white landowners; it scared them! 

In response, these landowners (and other powerful white people) came up with a divide-and-conquer strategy. They gave white workers small parcels of land to work and told these white people, “You’re just like us: you’re white and you have land to work.” They also gave some poor white people quasi-leadership positions as plantation overseers, providing them with some authority over Black bodies and lives. At the same time, they forbade Blacks from owning land and told them, “You’re Black, and you’re completely unlike us.  And you are less than us white people. “This was a deliberate strategy. Political leaders in Virginia legislated whiteness and its privileges into existence and quickly institutionalized it in the late 1600s. 

Over time, this strategy proved very effective in shifting the power divide from landowners versus workers to white people versus Black people. Today we would describe it as a work of evil genius. It undermined poor white folks’ sense of identity; it undermined their solidarity with other poor people with different skin colors than them;  and it caused them to fight against their own economic interests and their well-being. And this is still happening today!  I recently heard a fascinating interview with Heather McGee, who wrote a new book called The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGee, who is African American, became intrigued by why so many white voters were voting against their own economic self-interest and for policies that promised to “wreak economic, social and environmental havoc on them along with everyone else.”  Why would poor white people in the South, for instance, largely be against the expansion of Medicare if it meant that they and their families would now have access to good, low-cost medical care?  The answer in short is racism, the ongoing legacy of this divide-and-conquer strategy that has been so effective and so unconscious.  If all those white folks who stormed the Capitol, who are so pissed off at the elites, could become conscious of how they are continuing to be used as tools by those elites to serve the economic interests of those elites — now that would be a true revolution. 

Richard Rohr says that sins always proceeds from a lack of consciousness. “Most people,” he says, “are on cruise control and most of their reactions are habituated brain responses — not fully conscious choices.” When we are acting from that lack of consciousness, the we are incapable of love. I would go so far as to say we are incapable of truly choosing the good.  I think Jesus knew this, which is why he could say from his cross:  “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) 

As Paul says: “Who can free us from this body under the power of death?”  The psychologist Carl Jung believed that Christ was the archetype — the powerful symbol — of the self that has acknowledged, faced and integrated its shadow and thus become whole. I would go further and say that Christ is the power that calls us to this healing of our shadow selves.  May this healing power of Christ continue to guide each of us in our Lenten journey toward wholeness. May this healing power of Christ guide our country as we face our collective shadow. Amen.