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The Desecration Of Civic Discourse

The gruesome death of Matthew Shepard poses a tough question: Why are some Christians in the forefront of campaigns against hate-crime legislation?

October 18, 1998|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty is a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago and senior editor of the Christian Century Magazine. He directs the Public Religion Project, a nonprofit group analyzing the role of religion in public life

CHICAGO — The death of Matthew Shepard, last week's most visible victim of a hate crime, forced the political world to face up to the issue of hate-crime legislation as seldom before. It also stirred the religious, especially the Christian, world, to reappraise its own concepts of hate and crime, love and civility. Those who thought they could sit this round out are being forced to enter the fray. They are being beckoned to rethink all their old slogans about loving the sinner but hating the sin. Hating the sin is a good idea. Unfortunately, it is the one called the sinner who gets violated and murdered.

There are many ways to rob a person, as the Laramie, Wyo., police have to know. Like all police, they see many victims. Most of them, relieved of their wallets or purses, wear expressions of shock and walk warily. Some bear the marks of a gun pressed against the small of their backs or of the abrasions of a gloved hand on their throats. The Laramie police who were called to the scene of Shepard's murder first were quoted as saying that robbery outside a bar was the primary motive for the attack, evidently by two men charged with the crime.

Shepard, a student who made no secret of the fact that he was gay, did not get away with only a bruise. He was not found outside a bar, left to gather his senses and his remaining possessions. His discoverers found him tied to a fence, cut, bludgeoned, bleeding, better off dead. The girlfriends of the alleged killers connected the murder to the fact that Shepard was gay.

Tied to that fence, he looked like a scarecrow, his discoverers said. Strung up like an animal, said others who observed this "loved sinner" left to die. To older African Americans, whose minds still bear the images of lynched blacks suspended from trees, this was a contemporary signal of what hate can do. To gay activists, Shepard has become an icon to inspire new resolve to change the climate. To Fort Collins, Colo., fraternity revelers, whose homecoming float bore a degrading scarecrow image marked "I'm gay" and was paraded blocks from the dying Shepard's hospital room, he was the occasion of a new profanation. To lawmakers who have resisted passing hate-crime legislation, he is just one more irritant to explain away or ignore. A scarecrow to fly past.

We Christians, who use the language of "sin" and "sinner," "love" and "hate," have a special reason to examine our conscience after horrors like Laramie. Most of us have long experience at shunning the lepers to whom Jesus alone was close. Our ancestors have strung up and stoned and slashed Jews, guilty of nothing more than being the "other." Under Ku Klux Klan robes were many men called Christian, some of them ministers, no doubt some of them in lynch mobs. Considerable antigay activity, not only originating in the Topeka pulpit of Baptist Rev. Fred Phelps, draws inspiration from twisted Christian messages.

So it is a shame to many believers that groups bearing the name Christian lead the movement against the Federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act and similar proposed laws in the 10 states, including Wyoming, that do not already have hate-crime ordinances. They do so in the name of "pro-family" activity, which careful legislation will not threaten. Or in the name of their own "free speech," also in no way threatened by well-drawn hate-crime legislation. They do this in televangelist programs that see God giving gay AIDS victims "what was coming to them." They even do it in advertisements featuring smiling "ex-gays," putatively aimed at gay minorities but broadcast to a general public to stir its emotions, certainly not to promote friendlier attitudes toward the unrepentant "sinner," such as Shepard.

Such Christians do not act in the name of Jesus, who is never quoted as saying one antigay line. In the name of Jesus, who in more than one Gospel story revisited violence against sinner and judged the judgers and judgmental. In the name of Jesus, the Jew. In the name of Jesus Christ--as in Christian--whom they, and all of us who accept him in faith, see as the scarecrow who embodied love, the lynch victim who exemplified God's compassion, the strung-up forgiven, the scapegoat or scarecrow at the edge of town.

I have been speaking in more explicitly Christian terms than one usually uses in the mainstream press. Yet, I believe that much antigay and antiother activity is inspired by Christian rhetoric. But by now we must know that the attempt to love sinners while stirring hate about the sin, which, after all, has to be done by those called sinners, contributes to the atmosphere in which crime occurs. We also know that many legislators who still scorn hate-crime measures do so in the name of Christianity. Cowed legislators too timid to wrong those who control Christian votes take comfort from the hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner ethos.

It is possible for citizens, Christian or not, to be put off by many activities of gays--and heterosexuals--and to defend "family values" while still finding ways to counter hate and oppression by supporting hate-crime legislation. Such legislation would not solve everything, but it would help put the stamp of disapproval on more minds. But those who draw on one of the favored terms in the Christian vocabulary--the word "repent"--can let the Laramie victim inspire sympathy and the resolve to change. It is possible for them, for us, to help create a climate in which deaths like his become not only unthinkable but virtually nonexistent. Until then, the image of Shepard, cold, bloody, defiled, near death on that Wyoming fence, competes for a place in the mind next to the photos of him before that night, smiling. Innocently.

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