Saturday, May 17, 2014

Refusing the Meaninglessness of Death (Acts 7:55-60)

But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God's glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"
     Then they (the religious leaders) screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul (later known as the christian convert Paul). They were stoning Stephen as he called out: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin!" And saying this he fell asleep (died).
Acts 7:55-60 HCSB

     It is easy to miss that Stephen's death is brutal. The text has so romanticized the event we might be tempted to view it more as a beatific vision than a cruel loss of life. Stephen's vision of heaven sends the religious leaders into a tizzy, yet brings him peace. He is drug outside the city gates to be stoned to death, all the while remaining calm and serene. He dies with a prayer of forgiveness upon his lips "Lord, do not charge them with this sin!" An echo of Jesus' own prayer from the cross, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:24).

     Let us not deceive ourselves. As Wettlaufer painting, The Murder of Matthew Shepard, visualizes, martyrdom is brutal violence at the hands of others' hate and bigotry. Stephen died not as a blessed martyr. Stephen died as a punishment for being a perceived threat to order. What was so dangerous about Stephen was his understanding of Jesus as the Son of Man at the right hand of God. So destabilizing was the perception of his message that the religious rulers themselves picked up the stones and battered him into silence. His broken, lifeless body would have been considered a good thing for the sake of the people.  

     Similarly we sexual and gender diverse people are perceived by our detractors as a threat to order. It would seem there is little difference between the dynamics that allowed for Stephen's death and the dynamics that allowed for Matthew Shepard's and countless other queer deaths at the hands of hatred and bigotry. 

     Elizabeth Castelli in Martyrdom and Memory understands martyrdom to be a contest between domination and submission. Violence and marginalization are tools used by those seeking to dominate. I would add that fear and threat are also tools used to this end. The "queer closet" can only function when fear and threat hold sway over us. Of course the failure of fear and threat gives rise to violence as the means of domination. In Stephen's case, the failure of threats against the emergent christian faith gave rise to death by violence in a public setting. According to Castelli, martyrdom requires an audience. I am not so sure that it is martyrdom which requires the audience, although it does require memory, as Castelli rightfully notes. 

     I am more inclined to think that it is domination which requires the audience. How can we project threat and marginalization if no one witnesses our brutality and cowers appropriately Here I think of the need for the US government to be public concerning its "coercion" tactics with terrorists.

     Still, there is in Stephen's death something more than just the sheer brutality of domination. From a christian perspective, we do not remember Stephen for his violent end, rather we remember and celebrate Stephen as the first of many martyrs who surrendered their lives, but not their faith. Castelli has a wonderful insight, "Martyrdom can be understood as one form of refusing the meaninglessness of death itself, of insisting that suffering and death do not signify emptiness and nothingness…" (emphasis hers). By remembering and recalling those who died for their religion, their politics, or their community we turn the chaos and meaninglessness of brutality into the narrative of justice brought about, in part, by an unjust death.

     What I like about Castelli's insights is that she takes us out of the binary realms in which we tend to view brutal deaths. For her work, the binary categories are Rome and Christian. For us the categories are Straight and Queer. As Castelli notes, we should understand that the true categories are Dominate and Marginalized. Which in itself proves to be a destabilizing view. As a gay man I can count myself among the marginalized and justify my behavior as one fighting for right relationships. Yet, I'm also a white male heavily embedded with authority in the faith community I serve. In Stephen's story I could fit quite nicely with those who "screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears…" At what point do I work for justice, and at what point do I dominate? 

     It might be that what I need to emulate from Stephen and from Matthew Shepard is not their deaths. May be what I need to emulate is their lives. There is a primal call from the Author of Life not to die, but to live! To live so that our lives are on the line for what we hold dear. And if we honor in our living what we hold dear, then our deaths, even if brutal, have meaning for our living has meaning.

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