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

Giving Up Housework for Lent: A Lesson from Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps and housework – I’ve been thinking about both in these early days of Lent and what they might have in common.  I thought about this just yesterday, after hearing the news of Mr. Phelps’ death while I neatly folded laundry and scrubbed the kitchen sink.

Keeping a tidy house makes me happy. I’ve realized lately one of the reasons why. A tidy house distracts me from all those other areas of my life that are decidedly untidy – my neurotic worrying, half-hearted disciplines, and unanswered emails, among many other bits of quotidian clutter. I prefer gazing at my neatly arranged sock drawer rather than pondering a messy psyche.

That preference sometimes turns outward. The latest political sex scandal, the disgraced celebrity, the stupid comment from a pundit – at least I’m not that messy!

Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church have done some truly despicable things, most visibly by picketing ordinations and funerals with hateful placards. That over-the-top vitriol, so easily dismissed as ludicrous, can also easily mask the far more subtle but no less corrosive rhetoric from otherwise respectable clergy and churches.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” sounds better than “God hates fags,” but the former has done just as much damage – probably more.

Likeable religious leaders and credentialed experts exercise far more influence over impressionable teenagers and social policy makers than readily identifiable fringe figures like Mr. Phelps. Focusing attention on the overt messiness of Westboro Baptist Church can distract us from noticing what lurks around in the ostensible tidiness of mainline institutions. Cloaking anti-LGBT rhetoric with pastoral concern leaves destructive shame in its wake.

Lent takes courage. This season invites all of us, individually and collectively, to ponder what most of us try to avoid – our own clutter. That avoidance has a long history and a legacy of truly distressing effects. I offered one way to think about that legacy in my recent book, Divine Communion. There I suggest that our longings for intimacy and communion are most frequently interrupted by unaddressed shame. I put it like this:

I find it helpful to define shame as alienation from our own bodily goodness. When left unaddressed and allowed to fester, this alienation can spiral into an inward collapse on the self and breed ever greater isolation. “Alienated bodies” can exacerbate troubled interpersonal relationships but also wider social disintegrations, violent hostilities toward those deemed “other,” social policies that stratify and divide communities, and even environmental degradations. Expanding circles of shame, in other words, often operate in scapegoat-like fashion to expel the “other” from community—or nailing that “other” to a cross outside the city gates.

I avoid thinking about my own lingering sense of bodily shame by cleaning the house. I wonder how often our churches, our communities, and this nation do the same thing.

Lent isn’t about finally “getting things right” or berating ourselves for mistakes. It is about turning our gaze directly toward the messiness of our lives and finding God there – the God who seeks intimacy and communion with us. Finding our whole selves in that divine embrace will give us fewer reasons to inflict our own wounds of shame on others. This, it seems to me, is the profound hope of the Lenten season and the Easter promise toward which it points: God raises the Wounded One from death.