It’s Not Complicated

To a fault (I’ve been told), I try to see most situations and controversies from as many perspectives as possible. Perhaps it’s my fate as an astrological Libra—I always seek some kind of balance between extremes.

When I invite others into this peculiar space of multiple viewpoints, I will often say, “Well, you know, it’s complicated.” I adopted complexity as my preferred mode of dealing with difficult moments after growing up in a Christian tradition that favored simple and even “easy” answers to almost everything. “Because the Bible says so” never sat well with me, not even as a child.

I still prefer seeing complexities and noting multiplicities rather than landing on simple narratives or singular theories. But right now, on this day, I cannot see anything else but a fencepost on a lonely patch of a near-desert landscape.

Matthew Shepard

Twenty-five years ago today, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and tied to a fence post in rural Wyoming. He was left there to die, and he did die, six days later. Matthew was a gay man, an Episcopalian (even serving as an acolyte at his local parish), a college student (majoring in political science), and was active in the University’s environmental council in Laramie.

Many LGBT activists focus on only one item in that list that describes (inadequately) Matthew Shepard: he was gay. The fact that he was picked up by his murderers at a gay bar and beaten so savagely suggested to many at the time that he was killed because he was gay. Matthew has certainly been an icon for me in the efforts I have supported to resist “gay bashing” and to champion the civil rights of LGBT people. And still, for some, Matthew’s life and the story of his death are a bit more “complicated.”

Some have suggested that Matthew’s death was a simple robbery gone “bad” (violent). Others recount stories of Matthew’s possible use of illegal drugs. Still others have suggested that Matthew himself sought out dangerous situations for the “thrill of it.” These are indeed complicated narratives (most of them hardly believable).

But this, at least, is not complicated: no one deserves to be beaten, tortured, and abandoned while tied to a fence on a deserted prairie.

The fence outside Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard was left to die.

Matthew suffered multiple fractures to the back of his head that resulted in brainstem damage (he could not regulate his bodily functions, including heart rate). There were at least a dozen lacerations around his head, face, and neck. Given these injuries, and that he had been left in near-freezing temperatures on that fence for eighteen hours, his medical team decided not to operate; Matthew never regained consciousness.

Here’s another thing that’s not complicated: every human being deserves the dignity of a proper burial, which Matthew was denied by the presence of anti-gay protestors at his funeral, “religious folk” who appeared to relish in the death of a “faggot.” They carried large posters that read “Matt in Hell” and “God Hates Fags” and “No Queers in Heaven.”

Here’s yet one more thing that’s not complicated: the unconditional and undying love of Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard. Their unflinching and indefatigable support for LGBT people inspired them to start the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Their work, along with many organizations and activists, led eventually (though it took far too long) to the passing of the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009 to help prevent hate crimes.

(I had the great privilege of meeting Judy Shepard, briefly, while I worked on a national campaign for marriage equality in the early 2000s. I have never met such a poised and gracious human being who has also endured so much vitriol and heartache.)

James Byrd, Jr.

The circuitous path and unfathomably convoluted political maneuverings required to expand hate crimes legislation illustrate an ongoing and absolutely vital aspect of today’s poignant anniversary. While many people have at least heard of Matthew Shepard, I wonder how many recognize the name James Byrd. In the very same year that Matthew was killed, James Byrd was killed for being Black in Texas; he was dragged behind a pickup truck by three white men (two of whom were avowed white supremacists) until James was at last decapitated.

Ongoing engagements with race, gender, sexuality, and economics (not to mention ecology) are not isolated, one from the other. They are all deeply intertwined.  

So I am thinking about Matthew today and how his life and his death have shaped so much of my professional and vocational life. I returned to fulltime parish ministry just a little more than three years ago, convinced that Christian communities really can make a difference for a better world. Regardless of how anyone tells the story of Matthew’s life and his death, it is so very clear to me that religious language matters, and that the way Christians talk matters, and the how the Church worships matters.

I try my very best to pay attention to the significance of “God-talk” as I lead a community of faith in prayer and in projects of shared ministry. How we pray will make a difference in how we live—for women in a patriarchal society; for people of color in a white supremacist society; and for queer people in a society that makes love way too complicated.

Just over twenty years after his death, Matthew’s ashes were interred at Washington National Cathedral, in 2018. Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay and partnered bishop in the Episcopal Church, presided at the liturgy. I would be surprised if there were any dry eyes in that house on that day.

There is just one last thing Matthew himself would likely urge us to embrace in all its glorious simplicity: love is stronger than hate. To which I would add this: love is also stronger than even death. And this is the witness to the Gospel that I believe Matthew would have us take up with renewed vigor.

Rest in peace, dear Matthew, knowing that you have been rising in power already, for years now, in all the lives of many activists, clergy, and politicians who have been inspired to make the world a better place because of you.

And the tears on my cheeks as I write this are not complicated.

Matthew Shepard’s Ashes Carried into Washington National Cathedral by Bishop Gene Robinson in 2018

Bad Theology Kills

It’s not so much what we say but what we do that really matters.

I hear that a lot and I’ve even been known to preach it myself. But it’s actually not entirely true. What we say about God and what we say about the Bible and what we say about each other can have profound consequences for how we live. For some, theological ideas can be a matter of life and death.

I make this point rather abstractly to help frame more concretely what just occurred at Washington National Cathedral. The Rev. Max Lucado was invited to preach at the cathedral yesterday, from the “Canterbury pulpit” as it is called, which is a high-profile, prestigious place from which to offer a sermon, and especially on a Sunday morning.

This was and is a controversial decision because of the Rev. Lucado’s opinions of LGBT people and our relationships, and especially his opinions about what God thinks of people like me. It is dismaying and confounding to see such a person invited to preach in that space; it tears open old wounds and triggers past traumas with the institutional church.

The fence in Wyoming where Matthew Shepard was tied and left to die in 1998.

Regardless of what he said from the pulpit (he said nothing about sexuality) the outcry over this, both before and after the sermon, was swift and direct, mostly (it should be noted) from LGBT people and our advocacy organizations. (See Susan Russell’s blog post on this latest instance of “throwing LGBT people under the bus” for the cause of unity.) Cathedral leadership, the bishop of the diocese, and others were also swift to suggest that Lucado’s invitation to preach was something like an “olive branch,” a way to initiate healing across an acrimonious divide. It was also suggested that the Rev. Lucado might be “struggling” with his previous positions on sexuality, and it’s important to help that process along (I’m unaware of any such public statements by Lucado).

All of these caveats from religious leaders, to put the matter mildly, are red herrings. We’re not talking about sitting down with family over a holiday meal and gently helping a dear old uncle come to grips with the reality of lesbian couples. We’re talking about a New York Times bestselling author of over 100 books with more than 130 million copies in print, who was named “America’s Pastor” by Christianity Today magazine, has appeared numerous times on television, and was a featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast.

What does such a high profile Christian minister think about people like me? Just two examples from his own writing in 2004:

He asks, rhetorically, “How will homosexuality impact our culture?” He then answers: “What about the spread of disease? If gay lifestyle and gay marriage is endorsed—what follows? Polygamy? Legalized incest?”

His “slippery slope” argument is familiar to many of us, of course, but he takes another familiar trope, the one about bestiality, to new heights, rather literally: “If they recognize gay marriage, what will keep them from the next step? Who’s to say that one man can’t marry five women? Or two men and two women? How about a commune marriage? Or a marriage between a daddy and a daughter or a woman and a giraffe?”

A woman and a giraffe”—might we not want a bit of clarification on this before asking someone to preach from the pulpit of something called “The National Cathedral”?

I wish I could make perfectly plain, somehow more viscerally clear to my “straight” friends and colleagues what it is like to be an LGBT-identified person and to read things like that penned by an ordained Christian minister. Perhaps if they felt their own stomachs lurching and their own hearts pounding and their own bodily shame galloping off the charts, their own empathy might deepen a bit. To see that same minister then invited to preach to thousands (online) from The National Cathedral is simultaneously outrageous and galling. I don’t know how else to say just how demoralizing and, for some, lethal these moments are, so I’ll just say this: bad theology kills.

Just talk to anyone who staffs a suicide hotline or any of the wonderful people who run the Trevor Project (devoted to preventing LGBT-suicides) or all those who keep LGBT community centers open for runaway LGBT youth—ask any of them what homophobic sermons and judgmental pastors do to the psyches of queer youth. It’s heartbreaking.

Yes, bad theology kills. It is also true, perhaps even more importantly true, to insist that good theology saves lives.

I can bear witness to all of this personally, in my own life, and have been doing so for more than three decades. Coming out of an Evangelical Christian community as a young adult, which had planted in me the notion that I was broken, flawed, and perhaps even unlovable because I’m gay, it took years for me to trust instead that God loves me unconditionally, without reservation, and whole-heartedly—years of work, that is, with precious little support for such work from the institutional church.

Yes, the world and the church have changed since I first wrestled with my own faith and sexuality. Things are better now—but not everywhere and not for everyone. We must never take for granted that people have heard, that they know, much less that they truly believe that God loves them. There are far too many messages to the contrary, too many messengers of hate standing uncorrected, too many vulnerable bodies hearing those lies to ever take the Gospel for granted. The struggle is not over if even one dear child of God thinks they are in any way unlovable.

So let me be even clearer: trusting in God’s love saved my life. It’s as simple and as profound as that. And I have devoted my vocational and professional life to helping ensure that others can trust in that love, too. I’m happy to do that work, even though the work is often difficult in a society where so much bad theology is so easily accessible—work that should not be made still more difficult by having a minister of bad theology preach on a Sunday morning in a cathedral of my own church.

If we’re going to do the work of reconciliation (to which I am also gladly committed), let’s not start with a sermon, especially from that pulpit. Let’s start by having a public forum after the liturgy, or with a published article from the Rev. Lucado on “how my mind has changed” (if it has), or a public apology for unintended harm. But please do not invite such a figure to preach until he makes clear that he does not think lesbians want to marry giraffes.

I mean, for the love of God—literally.