By Mitch Randall
Bullying of any kind, regardless of context, must stop. However, a wave of stories is circulating regarding a particular type of bullying that has people of faith reevaluating their words.
In recent months, an upswing in homosexual teens committing suicide has made the news. From Ohio to Oklahoma, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) teens are deciding to end their lives rather than take any further abuse from their communities. The deaths of these precious children have changed the conversation practically overnight. That’s the case here in Norman.
Here, two weeks ago, we lost a bright nineteen-year-old young man who took his own life after attending a Norman City Council meeting where the issue of homosexuality was debated. Opponents, some even ministers, of a non-binding resolution supporting a LGBT history month used harsh and harmful rhetoric to communicate their views. While they succeeded in practicing their right to free speech, they failed in another way. Our society needs to acknowledge the responsibility we bear for those words we choose, especially if those words lead to tragedy.
Zach Harrington’s parents offered this description of their son to The Norman Transcript: “When he was sitting there [at the meeting], I’m sure he was internalizing everything and analyzing everything…. I’m sure he took it personally.” Zach’s death has created a new conversation in our community, pushing it in a direction that might have some very profitable conclusions.
“Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” produced a segment this week discussing the new conversations taking place because of this recent rise in suicides. While many still object to the homosexual lifestyle, reporter Kim Lawton suggested people of faith are going through a soul-searching period of sorts regarding their rhetoric. Some denominations are even coming out with statements condemning the bullying of homosexuals. Others are becoming more vigilant in their efforts, attempting to create dialogue on the issue. While I think these are all good first steps toward a more productive conversation, there is another step that needs to precede this one: repentance.
For too long now, individuals on both sides of this issue have condemned each other. Some conservatives have contributed to the atmosphere of bullying by using dehumanizing rhetoric. Some liberals have condemned conservatives for holding to their convictions, labeling them fundamentalist bigots. All of this name calling, all of this labeling, and all of this back-and-forth pushing has created an environment where everyone considers everyone else “the other.”
Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, author of Exclusion and Embrace, notes our culture has become expert in creating and maintaining “the other.” “The other” is a term identifying a group of people with whose ideology or actions we disagree. Once identified, “the other” becomes the target of destructive rhetoric and demeaning propaganda that seeks to vilify and demonize the intended target. If successful, individuals cease being human and take on the cold identification of a stereotype.
Of course, the first causalities of this effort are civility and truth. Both fade quickly as rhetoric and actions tend to become more mean-spirited and destructive. At some point in the struggle words are no longer enough and actions must be implemented. With an “us-versus-them” notion clearly established and defined, “our team” must do everything we can to destroy “the other” team. Deep-rooted conflict is thereby birthed and nurtured, as opposing sides work fervently for victory.
Sadly, while we adults attempt to achieve victory through yelling at each other, our children have been listening. Thus, we should not be surprised when they act on the words we have uttered and examples we have set for them. Regardless of one’s position on homosexuality, the rhetoric we have been using over the years has failed. With every suicide and funeral, we must recognize the responsibility we posses in regard to this tragedy we have created.
We must come to the realization that we are complicit in creating this environment of hostility. Indeed, we need to apologize for the way we treat each other and the hateful words we use. In addition, we need to repent before God for how we treat his children. Even more so, we need to apologize to our children for the kind of examples we have set before them.
This truth remains: Children are not born bullies; bullies are created. In correlation, children are not born to hate, but must be taught. We need to repent of our failures in this area so that we can begin a new conversation over this issue, a conversation that can bring healing and wholeness to a situation where our children are losing their way. We need to change the conversation so we can change the environment. The door stands wide open for us to begin this new dialogue among our communities; let’s not miss the opportunity. We cannot afford to lose another child.