Tonight Cliff and I stole a few moments of recreation. We wondered whether seeing the documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine was the best way to spend them. After dealing with religion, race, and violence in the last two sermons and a book study, I had said to him earlier, “That’s it. No more violence. It is just too painful. I am worn out and I need a break.”
We saw it anyway. As fate would have it, writer and director Michele Josue, her co-producer Liam McNiff, and another of Matt’s friends were there for the showing. Afterwards we had a chance to linger over conversation in the cool Berkeley evening air. I am glad we went.
I have told the story many times before about how Matthew Shepard’s death and the communal grief and terror that followed placed an indelible mark on my heart as a young chaplain, bringing my own family history and our collective memory of lynching in the South into sharper focus than ever. Practicing a religion whose crux is unjust suffering and death further sensitizes me to stories like these, as it does my people who take the story of the crucified Christ to heart.
But one thing has always troubled me about the way that story was told me as a child: the very idea that unearned suffering is redemptive. Indeed, even Martin Luther King, Jr. himself said as much on more than one occasion. I didn’t buy it. Still don’t. Unearned suffering is evil. I have never had much use for double-talk. And I am afraid that much that passes for theology is just that, double-talk. Deliver me from a faith that smooths over the gritty reality of human experience. Pain is pain, grief is grief, anger is anger, and suffering is suffering and no, a god who “put you through it to make you stronger” or “let you endure it for a higher purpose” or “knows just how much you can bear” is no god, but a monster. If you cannot tell it like it is, for God’s sake, sit down and leave the story alone.
My conversation with Michele reminded me of something important. She graciously received from me yet another story of how a complete stranger was touched by the death of her dear friend, a story she has heard from people around the world. She said to me, “It may sound strange, but it feels like this is the purpose for which I was born—to be Matt’s friend and to humanize him for people so that he is more than just a tragedy or a symbol.”
I replied, “It doesn’t seem strange to me at all. I so often find that when I move toward that place where the mark on my heart leads me, even when it is the underside of life, I find myself more alive in the end.”
“Yes,” she replied with a pensive look, “It really is true.”
As Cliff and I made our way across the street in search of a late night meal, I recalled the words of José Míguez Bonino: “The task of Christian theology is to take people down from the cross.” If my heart were a locket you would find that phrase neatly tucked therein.
Now, I would never suggest that Michele was born to suffer the death of her dear friend. More double-talk. But I do believe that she was born to redeem suffering. We all are. By remembering her friend Matt, by lovingly removing the memory of his lifeless body from the cold Wyoming night away from that lonely fence, then sorting through the conversations, the wicked sense of humor and winsome smile, the moments of heartbreaking vulnerability, the unsent letters, the diary entries, other people’s loving memories, by sifting out other people’s hatreds and icons and agendas and putting the story of his life back together again, she snatched life from death. By showing this film in places like Russia where the resonance is raw, she brings life and courage and light into places of anxiety and despair. She cannot recreate Matt, but she can—and does—resurrect him. She takes him down from his cross and exalts his human dignity. That exalted human dignity touches more people now than a frail body ever could.
If you wonder why those who nail defenseless bodies to the cross always work so hard to destroy the memory of the crucified—“He was no angel you know!”—it is precisely in order to counter the power of remembering. A community remembering robs death of its power. Not its pain, but its power. The power to drain life from the living. Crucifiers hope the sight of the dismembered will leave communities docile and dazed. Re-membering is the first act of resistance. Remembering brings redemption.
Tonight I felt the power of redemption in each farewell handshake with Matt’s friends, and the electric pulse of life as Cliff pressed his hand in mine.
Text ©2015 D. Maurice Charles. All rights reserved.