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“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
It is fall. Harvest season. Each year I feel the inward draw – strange in the urban haste of this life – toward a sense of campfire, of story-telling, of timeless and planet-wide pilgrimage. Of peoples ancient (and not yet) each desperate in their Now for survival in the face of cold, despair, death. Each hungry for the stores of community which make for life, resilience, and continued journey.
Peoples who have wrought violence in so many ways that they did not know. We have put many forms of violence behind us. And we, in the present, are living yet in the struggles to unmask and transform our own violence. We are a people “not yet.” Embedded in our daily lives, sometimes visible and sometimes not, we bear its causes and costs: disconnection, wounds unhealed, humiliation and despair, and the false promises of scapegoating and aggression.
“Forgive us, for we know not what we do.”
It is October. Coming Out Season. LGBTQ history season. Each year we who have made safe passage in the coming out journey mark such pilgrimage with gatherings, teachings, and public ritual to name our story – ancient and not yet – for the sake of a better present. Each year we dare to act in the conviction that being out, being public, being known, and being remembered is a good. A personal and a public good. Those who make safe passage know that “it gets better.”
Tragically for us all, such visibility – in and of itself – was too painful to bear for them. For Asher. Seth. Billy. Justin. Tyler. And countless others. Through the taunts, beatings, or video humiliation they endured, they bore in their bodies the judgments of this world and judged themselves not worthy of survival. Overcome with our Sin and Death, they judged this life – our collective life – a wilderness not worthy of their passage. The stores of community so necessary for safe passage – belonging, resilience, and hope – were held beyond their reach. I pray that these precious and beautiful youth know now the unspeakable riches of grace and mercy in everlasting arms.
Asher, Seth, Billy, Justin, Tyler: “Forgive us, for we know not what we do.”
What is this thing (forgiveness) that I dare name when so few days have passed since their deaths? Why lift such a word at all when the homophobic face of aggression – power of Sin and Death – yet holds sway on bullies, too many of their mentors and the very leaders who court our vote? How can we contemplate forgiveness when so much justice is yet undone and peace so incomplete?
Forgiveness. It is the world-changing force unleashed when truth, deep understanding and compassion embrace. It is the gritty hard work of naming the impact and source of harm, of mapping accountabilities, of yearning for redemptive release for all victims and violators. It is the gift that emerges – never a transaction – when the passing of time and the nurture of soil produces a harvest mysteriously beyond the capacity of sheer will. It is in honor of – not a betrayal of – these young lives to contemplate its promise.
For a decade, I have found Marjorie Suchocki’s definition of forgiveness to provide landscape, landmarks and sustenance for the forgiveness journey. It has deeply shaped my own life and been found worthy by the parishioners, coaching clients and students I serve. “Forgiveness is willing the well-being of victim(s) and violator(s) in the fullest possible knowledge of the nature of the violation. As such, forgiveness holds the possibility of breaking the chain of violence.” (She writes this in The Fall to Violence: original sin in relational theology).
What might breaking the chain of violence look like in the wake of these tragic suicides? Immediate hope and inspiration is traveling the internet as mentors and elders reach out with the basics of hope: “It gets better.” We must join our voices to this message and use our churches, projectors and keypads to forward Word like this widely. We must sacrificially and generously offer our time and our stories as the Word-made-flesh. It will make safe passage more likely for many.
As we advance the fullest possible knowledge of the ongoing terror of such bullying, we must boldly continue to describe its scope and its causes. Those equipped with information about domestic, school and workplace violence must not falter in the cause of describing it nor in their endeavors to creatively use television, social media, and all kinds of coalition partnerships to put faces on these overwhelming numbers. We must find ways to focus and sustain this sudden national attention for long-lasting change.
The Welcoming and Affirming Churches Movement must work with secular partners to confess and dismantle religiously-sanctioned homophobia. People of faith who condemn homosexuality as such by using ancient motifs of danger, defilement or delusion are complicit in each of these deaths. We must persuasively unveil this connection between rhetoric and sanction of violence over and over again.
This truth-telling is a constituent component of forgiveness. These and other commitments to understanding what’s going on are part of advancing forgiveness.
But there’s more, Suchocki says. The willing of well-being for all the victims… We release the dead to their peace. We walk with the mourning with compassion and a companionship that empowers them to their own work of redemption and transformation. Grieving mothers Judy Shepard and Mary Lou Wallner are shining examples of the resurrection testimony against Sin and Death. All of us who are entrusted to the work of shaping conscience must work unceasingly to empower people with language AND skills to face and challenge discrimination, to deescalate violence, to examine our own complicity, and to walk in solidarity for change.
Without fully taking into account these needs, we will fail to break the chain of violence. Any and all dimensions of grief support, discernment and equipping for systemic change are part of advancing forgiveness.
But there’s more, Suchocki says. The willing of well-being for all the violators. Most of those who bullied these young people will remain nameless to those outside their immediate contexts. The same is true of all those who now must work through the truths of their distraction or complicity. Countless are the anti-gay religious voices which create the climate conducive to rationalizing homophobic violence. Yet, surely we can (if we dare) commit ourselves to grappling with this essential dimension of forgiveness? It is, after all, this third thread which is so necessary to breaking the chain of violence.
What might willing --and working for -- such well-being look like? When we apply appropriate consequences for violent behavior, with skills for supporting contemplation and rehabilitation, we will such well-being. When we recognize the violence endemic in our culture, and work to make plain the impact of music and movies which glorify aggression, we will such well-being. When we unveil the emotional and spiritual consequences of domestic neglect and violence, and seek to support families with intervention and new resources, we will such well-being. When we challenge the wars waged on our basic capacities for empathy through the misuse of technologies ranging from the Internet to drone warfare, we come closer to willing well-being.
When we work for boundaries, safety, emotional intelligence, empathy and alternatives to violence, we are advancing forgiveness.
What time is it? Time to honor those who have gone before us. Time to deeply listen and respond to the truths societal violence and alienation we are ready to know and face. Re-membering time. Kairos time. May Ancient Grace make us resilient, may ancient lies be defeated with Love’s redemption. May the Wisdom that has allowed us to turn collectively from paths of Sin and Death revisit and renew us.
The time is Now. Overwhelming forces of hopelessness and enmity are in the air. May we wait and work for the Not Yet by engaging this Now with the ways that make for true peace. May we break the chain of violence. May we be made new.
Walking the bridge of forgiveness, we know what to do.
Rev. Jacki Belile, CEC is a certified empowerment coach and American Baptist minister. She is the founder and spiritual director of Living Well Ministries, an independent ministry offering coaching, retreats, and classes to people of faith committed to living well. Her clients and students focus on such wellness themes as forgiveness, LGBT faith and sexuality, sustainable leadership/activism and faith transitions. The first out member of the LGBT community approved for ordination in her denomination, Jacki endeavors to serve as a bridge-builder not only for inclusion, but for transformation of all embedded in injustice. She completed an M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 1996.