I’m writing to those who, like me, identify as Christian and look to the bible to be authoritative and instructive in our lives.
I’ve been largely silent publicly since the shooting at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida. Since then, I’ve been grieving, I’ve been listening, I’ve been reading. I’ve texted and messaged some of my friends who identify as LGBTQ, because I can see that this monstrous act of murder has ripped out people’s insides and upended foundations. I’ve been reading a wide variety of responses.
Isaiah 6 has come to mind often. It’s a famous part of the bible, where the prophet Isaiah sees, encounters, and is overwhelmed by the visible presence of God in the temple. The first words out of his mouth are: “’Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’” Seeing the majesty of the Almighty causes Isaiah to break down and look at his own wrongs and the wrongs of his people.
Woe to me! Not, “Woe to you, King Uzziah,” who worshipped false gods and led the people astray. Not, “Woe to you, people of Judah,” who rejected Yahweh and oppressed the poor. Not, “Woe to you, Tiglath-Pilesar,” the powerful bully of the area who threatened Judah’s existence. Isaiah could have rightly laid the blame at others’ feet, but instead his encounter with God led him to see his own wrongs and the wrongs of his people, and confess them. Before judgment was spoken to others, the encounter with God caused him to look at himself first. He didn’t distance himself from the wrongdoers and cast blame; he confessed that he had unclean lips, and lived among a people of unclean lips.
I’ve read so many people saying “Why don’t people name the real culprit, blame the real issue, in this Orlando tragedy?” Some of my friends are angry because radical Islam is not being named as the cause, while others are angry the NRA and Republicans have allowed guns to get out of control and are causing these tragedies. We react by wanting to distance ourselves and find someone to blame, to condemn the wrongdoer who is a “them”, who is not at all like me.
We say, “It’s them.” Isaiah says, “I am of unclean lips.”
It’s terrifically frightening to try to identify with someone who could murder and terrorize other human beings for hours. Far easier to think, “That’s nothing like me; it’s them.” It’s those ISIS people over there, and we have to unite and eliminate them and keep them out. However the facts we know in this case don’t match this narrative. He was born in New York, and the only connection to ISIS found so far is that he was radicalized and inspired by their ideas.
You can’t block the immigration of an idea. No matter how big of a wall you build.
And if it is ideas that are the problem, ideas that change and transform people’s actions, then it becomes imperative that we examine our own ideas and see where they are going toxic, where they are getting dangerous. But…how could my ideas, my values…how could they be toxic like this heinous act?
One article I read said: “How can a couple who chooses not to decorate a gay wedding cake be more dangerous to society than Islamic radicals who openly proclaim they want to kill all of us?” And it is true that those things the author compares have differences, different outcomes. One says, “I believe who you are and the choices you make means you are not worthy of a wedding cake from me.” One says, “I believe who you are and the choices you make means you are not worthy to live.” Clearly the second is more dangerous to people and society. Yet both ideas have this in common: “Because of who you are and the choices you make, you are not worthy of…(fill in the blank)” When people aren’t treated the same, it becomes a statement of worth that reverberates throughout the culture.
I think all would agree that at some point before we get to “you are not worthy to live,” at some point before that you have crossed a line and gone too far. (Although it must be acknowledged and condemned that there are pastors who said the day after the attack that gay people are worthy of death.) Somewhere there is a line where beliefs turn into toxic speech and actions and do damage to others. The only way I can figure out how to not cross that line myself is to take the Isaiah path and be willing to ask how I’m like the perpetrator, rather than cast blame and put him “out there”. At some point, will encounter with the Almighty God lead me to examine my words and actions and say, “I am of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips”? At some point, will being in God’s presence lead me to confess how my ideas, my words, can and have led to toxic harm to LGBTQ people?
So much pushes us to distance ourselves from the perpetrator. Isaiah’s example leads us to confess our complicity, our identity with. Oh, how much of me rebels against this.
And what about when we think of the victims?
I noticed with the Paris terror attacks that there were so many people who identified with the victims. We could imagine ourselves eating at a restaurant outside or going to a concert just like the victims did. So it shook many Americans. “How could this happen?” was a frequent question, and we turned our Facebook profiles into the French flag. Even though we weren’t French, we identified with the victims. How could this happen? It could have been us.
At the time there were some who drew attention to terrorist killings in Beirut which happened the same week as the Paris attacks. But most didn’t notice, didn’t identify, didn’t question “How could this happen?” in Beirut. Because…they weren’t like us. Because…we expect that’s what happens there, among “those people”, those “thems” who might not be exactly innocent.
I haven’t seen many straight Christians ask “How could this happen” in Orlando. How could someone walk in and shoot human beings at a club? I wonder how that feels to LGBTQ people…do we not ask because we can’t identify with people who would spend Saturday night at a gay club? Do we not ask because underneath, we think there was a reason it could happen, that maybe that was why it happened? Underneath, do we think we should expect violence against gay people?
I’m hearing and reading that one thing which makes this so heinous is that a gay club is a sanctuary, a place where gay people can be who they are without fear. It is a sanctuary from the idea that because you are a gay person, you aren’t worthy of… (fill in the blank).
When we turned our profile pics the colors of the French flag, no one misinterpreted it. No one thought, “Oh, they must speak French. They must support Francois Hollande’s proposed tax increase on the wealthiest French.” No, we recognized that by changing the colors of a profile pic, a person was identifying with the humanity of the victims, not endorsing everything about them. A person was saying, “I’m with you. I grieve with you. I find enough in common with you to say, ‘I stand with you in your pain.’”
With Orlando, it’s only been my LGBTQ friends who I’ve seen with rainbow-hued profile pics. Perhaps we worry about misinterpretation– “Will someone think I support gay marriage?” What a devastating sign that we have a double standard when it comes to identifying with the humanity, grief and pain of LGBTQ people! Straight Christians cannot identify with having our lives targeted because of our sexuality, but we can choose to identify with the humanity and suffering of LGBTQ people.
It seems many straight, cisgender Christians are not finding it easy to identify with the victims at Pulse club. How might we try? Watch Anderson Cooper read the names of the victims; perhaps reading some of their stories would help as well.
One time people came to Jesus and asked, “Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Who did something to deserve this?
And Jesus changed the question.
Jesus said look instead for the way this man’s life, any life, can be an avenue for the redemptive power of God. Look at people, look at yourself, and see an avenue for the redemptive power of God! Identify with that, says Jesus.
So whether we look at the perpetrator or we look at the victims, we see this overwhelming tendency to make “them” a “they”…to make shooter and victims “other”, over there, not me, not human like me. That is exactly what people mean with the word “dehumanizing”. The more distance we can put between ourselves and the other, the less human, the less worthy the other becomes. Whether perpetrator or victim.
Isaiah and Jesus are calling to us to identify. To look at ourselves. To see where our ideas, speech and actions are turning toxic and evil. To see every person as an avenue for the redemptive power of God.
Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. This tragedy shows our blind spots, our failures, our inability to see ourselves as complicit or to see the victims like ourselves. Heal us. Redeem us. Change the words from our lips and the actions of our lives.