Justin, Asher, Tyler, Zach, Billy. Just listing the names of the teens who recently took their lives after being bullied for their sexual orientation (or perceived orientation) brings up a tide of rage that I didn't think I was capable of. To think of these lives, cut short because of how cruelly they were treated by those around them, makes me want to lash out -- to be equally cruel to those who bullied these young men to their deaths.
I'm sure I'm not alone in my anger at these bullies, and in my grief for their victims. We cannot truly fathom the depths of the psychological and spiritual torment each of these young men suffered in the days and months before they died by their own hand. We also may have a hard time fathoming the depth of depravity one must experience to become the kind of person who can cruelly abuse others without caring what the result of that bullying may be. But, as people of faith, we must look not only on the victims with compassion but extend that compassion to the bully as well.
As someone who has dealt with bullies my entire life (and even attempted suicide as a teen in response), I have come to not only have compassion on the bullies, but to appreciate them. Bullies -- those who would set themselves apart as our enemies -- have valuable lessons to teach those of us in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, if only we'll take the time to open our hearts and minds to them.
I cherish my enemies because it is through them that I am continually motivated to seek justice and equality in this world. I cherish my enemies because they challenge my faith and make me continually think not just about what I believe, but why I believe it. I cherish my enemies because they force me to get out of the comfortable pew and do the uncomfortable work of mercy and love. I cherish my enemies because they are a constant reminder that I am just as flawed as they are, just as willing to react with hatred toward others I see as different or as a threat to my own physical or spiritual security.
Walter Wink writes in The Powers That Be that our enemies can be a way to God:
We cannot come to terms with our shadow except through our enemy, for we have no better access to those unacceptable parts of ourselves that need redeeming than through the mirror that our enemies hold up to us. This, then, is another, more intimate reason for loving our enemies: we are dependent on our enemies for our very individuation. We cannot be whole people without them.
This concept would certainly be lost on Justin, Asher, Tyler, Zach, Billy and the countless other young people who have taken their own lives -- unaware that enemies often come bearing gifts. This is not a failure on the part of these young people, bully or victim. Instead, it is a failure of society, and of the church, for neglecting to teach true compassion. Instead, society and the church send relentless mixed messages of rugged individualism -- a be-all-you-can-be society and faith -- but at the same time expect us to fit in, to toe the line and above all be "normal." If we fail to fit the mold, society and the church feel justified in pushing us back in line, bullying us with social norms and mores, or religious orthodoxy and tradition.
Religion, especially, has failed to teach us how to deal with one another justly. Jesus laid it out quite clearly that we are to love our neighbor, which includes our enemy. If that wasn't clear enough, he specifically told us to "bless those who persecute you." For the LGBT community, this must become a way of life if we are ever to stop being the victims of bullies -- individual bullies and the institutionalized ones, who bully us with legal and ecclesiastical blessing.
We can only bless those who persecute us when we truly understand the depth of our commonality as human beings. That point of commonality is simply this: we all suffer. No one goes through this life without suffering some manner of injustice, some manner of pain, some manner of despair, some manner of hopelessness. We all suffer, bully and victim alike. When our suffering is not compassionately recognized and given a full hearing, anger and violence are a likely result.
Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hahn reminds us: "When someone insults you or behaves violently towards you, you have to be intelligent enough to see that the person suffers from his own violence and anger ... When we see that our suffering and anger are no different from their suffering and anger, we will behave more compassionately."
This is the gift the enemy brings to us: a chance to see with new eyes the ties that truly bind us together as humans, the suffering that we share. The bully suffers just as surely as the victim. The only difference is, society and the church have assured the bully that he is right to vindicate his suffering by silencing or eliminating his enemy. In like manner, the victims have been told that they deserve to suffer for their differences.
The recent spate of suicides is a call to all people of faith to bless those who persecute -- to truly take the time to consider their suffering and how both society and the church can begin to ease it. When we put aside our own rage or need for revenge and instead bless the persecutor, compassion increases and violence and anger decrease. If we can find it in our hearts to bless instead of curse in these sorts of terrible, senseless situations, then the deaths of these young people will not have been in vain.
Follow Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge on Twitter: www.twitter.com/revtheodyke