Sean R. Glenn
Earlier in September, I wrote a piece for Walking With Integrity concerning the spike of recent anti-LGBT violence in Seattle, Washington, wherein I brought to light the need for a re-articulation of our witness despite our victories on the political stage. Although I had exhausted my concerns about events particular to Seattle, a feeling of unease remained with me; there was more to say. Seattle is not a singularity, and the violence suffered there is being felt elsewhere, too; in other regions where (at least legally) the stigmatization of LGBT folk is beginning to be torn down. As such, I offer a continuation of my previous submission, with the desire to see beyond localized events and consider some tricky theological ideas.
October 12, 2013 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the death of gay Episcopalian, Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was brutally tortured and left to die, hung on a fence near Laramie, Wyoming; an unspeakable act of homophobic violence. The story is well known; Shepard’s death sparked an almost unprecedented flood of civil rights activism, activism which eventually led to legislation that bears Shepard’s name: the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. This transformation is, to my mind, salvific; it speaks its own kind of soteriology. Much like the cross, Shepard’s fence was transformed—it did not win. The sin of murder was transformed into the grace of protection for others; by bearing witness to Shepard’s death, communities proclaimed witness for those under the threat of oppression everywhere. Fifteen years later, we remember our queer martyr, our queer saint, knowing full well that the work before us—at home and abroad—is not done. Queer communities continue to live under the specter of violence, even in those regions (such as New York,i Massachusetts, and Washington State) where we are afforded protections of the law, the right to legal recognition of our relationships, and the support of our allies, within the church and outside.
I want to suggest, from a theological perspective, that a curious thing is happening, and to do so, I turn us to the Lukan pericope above and a homily thereon by Dr. Thomas H. Troeger. My last piece highlighted local violence in Seattle, but Seattle is not the only place that LGBT communities, to the surprise of many, continue to face unexpected—and sometimes, fatal—force. I posited the notion that continued solidarity is requisite; that work for affirming communities of faith is now required beyond the walls of our churches; that our witness must extend beyond those groups we have already fought to recognize (and, most certainly to those groups which are uncomfortable for us to recognize); that the work begun at our baptisms is never over. What I failed to mention, however, is that however much we might recognize this need, the continued presence of the hegemonic imagination is liable to render within us a legitimate anxiety. It would be a refusal of pastoral care to ignore this anxiety. Violence enacted in areas where we would otherwise presume protection—places like Seattle and New York City—reveals that we cannot presume an extant realization of our shared dream. As New York City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn has said, “I mean, a man was shot in Greenwich Village because he was gay. I thought those days were long behind us.”ii
Many of us thought these days were long behind us. To be sure, with work, they can be. The Lukan pericope cited at the beginning of this essay is useful to this end; it illustrates a kind of cultural anthropology that, as illustrated by Dr. Thomas Troeger, and despite the yawning gap of time between the first century and now, remains enacted: deviance labeling.iii Concerning Luke’s account of Jesus’ healing of the Gerasene demoniac, Troeger says,
His [the demoniac] community had tightened their circle
to keep him out.
He is not like us
He is the mad one.
The sick one.
The crazy one.
The unnatural one.
He is the utterly other. [. . .]
is a way for us to escape
dealing with our own fears and angers.
We heap our projected fears upon those who are different from us.
And because there are so many of these demons
their name is “Legion,”
which is exactly the name given to them
in the biblical story. [. . .]
Calling the demon “Legion”
suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong with the man himself.
He has been invaded
by demons not of his own making.iv
This should, of course, seem entirely obvious to us. Scapegoats have habitually formed communal identity. While I do not condone the act of scapegoating, we must realize that we still live in a world that, knowingly or unknowingly, thrusts its own demons onto others. To be sure, this is a reality that Jesus recognized and sought to critique. Br. Robert L’Esperance, SSJE, brings this to light in a homily on Luke 8:19-21. L’Esperance illustrates that the ministry of Jesus
undid many of the assumptions that undergird his society and the various social constructs that held it together. It raised the whole issue of group belonging and thorny religious questions of group identity, inclusivity and exclusivity, and who could lay claim to the Abrahamic covenant, not to mention who would serve as scapegoat, the essential social glue that held these groups together.v
What intrigues me, however, is the community’s response after Jesus heals the demoniac—after Jesus renders his status as scapegoat unstable, illegitimate, and the fault of the community. We are not privy to the rest of the story. Jesus tells the man to go back to his community and “declare how much God has done for” him. What we are told, however, is that the Gerasenes present at the healing were “seized with fear,” asking Jesus to leave. As Troeger writes,
What were they afraid of?
If the man himself
had been the problem,
then they would have had nothing to fear.
He was in his right mind now.
They were afraid
because the man
could no longer be their scapegoat.
They were afraid
because their neat and simplistic world
of who is in and who is out
They were afraid
because their deviance labeling
would now have to end.
They were afraid
because they could no longer
project phobias upon the man.
They were afraid
because now they would have to acknowledge
that it is the whole community
in need of exorcism.vi
The undoing of presumed social glues can be the catalyst for fear, rather than due self-examination. I am well acquainted with this fear; theological education is surprisingly adept at dismantling long-held convictions, and my time in seminary was the cause of a great period of paralyzing dislocation. It is a fear with which I continue to battle. As our work for equality lifts LGBT communities out of the mire of stigmatization, we may find the imagination of closet unwilling to relinquish its control, terrified to examine itself as the unstable construct that it is. As the Spirit says to our paradigms “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,”vii we may find ourselves required to begin a new kind of work, a continuation of the work already done. Reconciliation is never easy, but it is our calling; it is our duty; it is the nature of our on-going soteriological transformation. In so doing, may we also remember that we cannot ourselves, as stigmatized communities, fall into the same patterns as those paradigms that would seek to do us harm.
“No more scapegoats
No more chanting:
‘You’re out, you’re out,
you can’t come in!”viii
i “Is Anti-LGBT Violence on the Rise in NYC?” <http://gothamist.com/2013/08/19/is_anti-lgbt_violence_on_the_rise_i.php> (accessed October 1, 2013).
ii “Anti-gay Hate Crimes set to double in New York City in 2013,” <http://rt.com/usa/anti-gay-crimes-double-691/> (accessed October 1, 2013).
iii Thomas H. Troeger, “No More Scapegoats,” in ed. Olive Elaine Hinnant, God Comes Out: A Queer Homiletic (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2007), 42.
v Br. Robert L’Esperance, SSJE, “Belonging to Jesus,” a sermon preached at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Cambridge, MA, September 24, 2013 <http://ssje.org/ssje/2013/09/24/belonging-to-jesus-br-robert-lesperance/#more-8507> (accessed October 1, 2013). Emphasis mine.
vi Troeger, “No More Scapegoats,” 43.
vii Acts 10:15.
viii Troeger, “No More Scapegoats,” 46.