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Carlos was right

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Carlos Vigil, a gay teen in Albuquerque NM, has committed suicide. I know better most that suicide isn’t rational and isn’t traceable back to a single or even series of acts. I get that he may have had deeper problems than any of us may realize. But Carlos himself was rather upfront about the cause of his suicide. According to the Advocate,

Carlos Vigil posted a suicide note to his Twitter account on July 13, moments before he ended his life. “I’m sorry to those I offended over the years. I’m blind to see that I, as a human being, suck. I’m an individual who is doing an injustice to the world and it’s time for me to leave,” reads the note. “The kids in school are right, I am a loser, a freak, and a fag and in no way is that acceptable for people to deal with. I’m sorry for not being a person that would make people proud.”

Carlos is wrong about so very much here. He does not suck. He was doing no injustice to the world. And it was so, so not time for him to leave. As for being a fag? I won’t dignify that with a response. But he is right on one thing. Thinking that you are any of these things, particularly that last one? “In no way is that acceptable for people to deal with.” Himself included – being forced to think of yourselves in those terms is too big a burden for such young shoulders.

I don’t know much about Carlos, except for two facts from various eulogies I’ve seen online. First, again from the Advocate piece, “The Los Lunas High School student was known for his antibullying advocacy and would often counsel other teens who were also dealing with harassment from their peers. He even traveled to North Carolina to lobby an antibullying bill in the state’s legislature.” And later: “Carlos’ parents have said his organs will be donated, as it was his wish to continue helping people, even in death.” He strikes me as a deeply troubled boy who could not accept his own value, and that is of course each of our responsibilities to ourselves. But having seen anti-gay bullying impact some of my friends at the college level, I know how hard that can be when everyone around you says you’re useless and an abomination. I can only imagine what that’s like at seventeen.

If I had known Carlos I would have told him what an awesome young man he seemed to be – such activism at that age, and his drive to help others even in his death point to a seriously cool dude that I think I would have gotten along with. And as for the others?

prov 9-8

In case you don’t have that one memorized, here’s the surrounding verses. I usually quote NASB or NKJV because I prefer more traditional, rigorous translations, but in this case the Message really hits it out of the park.

If you reason with with an arrogant cynic, you’ll get slapped in the face;
    confront bad behavior and get a kick in the shins.
So don’t waste your time on a scoffer;
    all you’ll get for your pains is abuse.
But if you correct those who care about life,
    that’s different—they’ll love you for it!
Save your breath for the wise—they’ll be wiser for it;
    tell good people what you know—they’ll profit from it.

I’m so sorry he couldn’t hear this truth while he was alive for whatever reason. When I heard about the kids who stole his smiley-face lunchbox and trashed it when he was eight –eight!– I cried on his behalf. No one should have to put up with the thoughts he had put in your head. And based on his parents’ comments, it seems like there are people who really did love him. Which seems utterly believable to the point of not being news.

I get that some Christians truly believe homosexuality is a sin. I respectfully disagree, but I do get that’s where they’re coming from. On behalf of all the Carlos’s out there, I feel compelled to remind them of a bit of another bit of Scripture. This time from Mt 18:15-17, NKJV:

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth fo three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

I’ve always taken this as the paradigm for how a Christian should confront a sinner within the church. If you really believe someone’s sinning in such a way you need to call them on it, you should first go speak with them in private. If it’s a good-faith mistake, an accident, something they hadn’t thought of as a sin this gives them an opportunity to correct before it becomes so public. And if they refuse, then you still try to handle it in as small a group as possible. You approach them with witnesses to make it more formal, show you’re taking it seriously – but you still don’t shame them. The goal is on addressing the problem, restoring the brotherly relationship. It’s not really on punishment. And it happens within a community. So even if you think homosexuality is a sin Sagainst you, The proper way of addressing the problem is locally, with an aim to restoration and moving forward rather than beating down on the other person.

And if none of that works? You cut the connection. If someone commits a serious sin, if he refuses to address the situation, you make him like an outsider, a tax collector – someone no longer in the community. That seems harsh, and it is harsh, but it’s also liberating in its way. The last words of Carlos’s tweet (not included above) are “I’m free. XOXO” And that’s just what this model of confronting someone with their sin is supposed to be about. When you approach someone with their sin, if they won’t or can’t fix the problem? Then that’s no longer involving you. You cut them out of your life, but you also don’t hold on to any claim on their behavior.

I don’t believe being homosexual is in itself a sin. I don’t even believe homosexual sex is a sin. But if I did, I hope I’d keep this model in mind. When someone sins against you, you don’t punish them for it forever – you repair the bridge if you can, and if you can’t. You move on. The problem is, so many people today engage the world as “issues” (homosexuality is wrong) and this gets translated into a criticism of specific individuals – but coming from a faceless person, a stranger they cannot interact with, in a very public and critical way. Often it’s not the preachers and the heads of Christian charities who tell the individual they’re so sinful they’re beyond hope – but they set the stage in a way that gives meanspirited people (or just teens being teens and bullying each other) permission to go that extra step in viciousness.

I’m not sure that Carlos would still be here, if the kids at his school hadn’t gotten the impression it was okay to target him in this way. But I know I’d like to find out one of these days. Wherever those thoughts came from, however avoidable those thoughts were – no one should have to deal with being told he’s a freak and a loser so often he ends up believing it.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 17th, 2013 04:04 pm (UTC)
The problem with the Matthew 18 model is that it presumes a model of sin that is action, not a state of being. It's a model that works with sins like theft, or lying, or wife-beating, because those are actions that people choose to commit. It does not work with things like being gay, because that's not a choice.

You can confront your gay kid in private until you're blue in the face, and the kid won't stop being gay, because that's not something you can stop doing, because it's part of you. Following Matthew's model, you then escalate. You bring in the rest of the family to tell the kid not to be gay. Kid still cannot stop being gay any more than kid can change the color of kid's skin. You still follow Matthew, so you escalate again. You get the pastor and the entire congregation to tell the kid not to be gay. Kid is under tremendous pressure, and still cannot stop being gay.

So you escalate one step further. You cut the kid out of your life. You show kid the door. You throw kid away onto the street. Kid is "free," but for a value of "free" that means "cut off from home, family, financial support, friends, entire world."

Can this really be the desired end result of that verse? I really want to believe that it isn't, but I think that's what happens to a lot of gay kids from intolerant households. It's not that people aren't taking Matthew 18 into account. It's that they are taking it it into account, too much and too literally.

(For the record, my own proof that homosexuality is inborn and not a choice is this: If it were a choice, I'd be bisexual. This is not because I'm especially enamored of bisexuality either way, although I think it's a pretty nifty concept, but because I suck at that kind of choice. If you offer me the stark choice between A or B, half the time, I'll ask if there's any way I can have both A and B. I love those containers of half vanilla, half chocolate ice cream. And if I can't choose between something as simple as ice cream flavors, I know I'd suck at making an important choice like Attraction To One Gender Forever And Ever Amen. So I'd choose to be bisexual. But I'm not bisexual. So I gather from this that sexuality is not a choice.)
Jul. 17th, 2013 09:28 pm (UTC)
...I think that must be one of the most lovely and unassailable arguments in favor of sexuality not being a choice that I've ever read :)

Edited at 2013-07-17 09:29 pm (UTC)
Jul. 18th, 2013 06:50 am (UTC)
Thanks for the thoughts, FrenchPony. I replied to both you and Fractal Wolf below together, if you're interested.
Jul. 17th, 2013 09:22 pm (UTC)
And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

I'm sure I've read that verse before, but I don't think I've ever read it phrased this scarily.

(Sorry if this isn't very coherent... I'm still working through it in my head.)

I call it scary because of the way modern society works. In any area with a highly dominant religion (e.g. the deep south, or Utah) the assumption is that everyone belongs to that religion. The effect of this is that for a lot of people there's basically no mental line between "in church" and "not in church". Especially when you've got an evangelical religion, or one that urges its members to actively pursue/demonstrate their religion in a public way.

So assuming you think a congregation has a right to defend itself and its place of worship by turning away heathens, what happens when everywhere they go is, in their heads, no different from their place of worship?

To make matters worse, there's the matter of persecution. Growing up in Salt Lake City, I was extremely aware that Mormons Were Persecuted. Nevermind that they were persecuted hundreds of years ago, and in places where they were a distinct minority, the important thing was that Mormonism Was a Persecuted Religion and Must Be Defended. Preferably in an active manner. Maybe that's strictly a Mormon thing, but those kids were aggressive in their search for things that were different, because anything that was different was clearly attacking/persecuting their religion, because Mormons Are Persecuted.

So we've got people who consider everywhere and everyone to be part of their "church". "Tell it to the church" becomes "announce it everywhere - at work, in school, in friend's homes, on the internet..." And along with that is the assumption that everyone who hears will join together in treating the offender like a "heathen", and, depending on the temperments involved, either try to convert them, try to shun them, or try to attack them. Which means that an outsider in a dominant religion area gets shunned/physically or emotionally attacked ... well, everywhere. Which is no news to anybody. But this verse made me think about a different aspect of it, explaining part of why people think it's okay to act this way, and that insight is just kinda scary to me for a variety of reasons I haven't fully sorted through yet.

Sorry if this got babbley.
Jul. 18th, 2013 06:51 am (UTC)
I really appreciate the thoughts. Not babbley at all! I think some of this is not quite understanding what I was saying, which is quite possibly a problem on my end. Anyway, both you and French Pony got my thinking along similar lines, so I replied downthread, if you're interested.
Jul. 18th, 2013 06:49 am (UTC)
I swear this post sounded better in my head. I still think it makes sense, at some level - I didn't mean being set free the way both of you seem to read it. This is the danger of late night blogging. It seems I meet with students, I teach, I grade, I come home around midnight fully prepared to crash... and end up reading a news story or two and getting so infuriated I feel the need to write about it before I go to sleep, because I'm sure not going to have time in the morning. None of which makes for particularly gracious thought or writing. So I really can't blame you for misunderstanding me, if that's what this was.

What really eats me up about situations like this (other than the obvious fact that another kid is dead) is how they flow from an attitude I consider so un-Christian. Or at least Christians don't have to act this way. My hunch is people like Carlos have been told time and time again that their sexuality, who they love and who they are, simply isn't acceptable. They're being told this not by people who care about them and are concerned that they're living an unhealthy life, but by more or less complete strangers. And that's the thing: it's really not these peoples' business. That's why I quoted the verses I did, because it says that first, chastisement happens within a community of people invested in each other, and second, when it's clear the other person isn't going to change you stop trying to control them and leave the sin between the person and God. Chastisement is supposed to be for growth and making yourself better, but these days when we call someone a sinner it's to build ourselves up and beat the other person down. And that seems like such a departure from the way things ought to be.

So a few corrections. First, this passage isn't talking about parents or anyone with a special tie to the people we're talking about. Your parents have no right to just give up on you, particularly if we're talking about minors. And if I had seen a hint the parents tried to shame this boy, I would never have responded differently. It seemed to be other classmates, other kids in his life who apparently thought they had a right to pass judgment on his most intimate aspects not because they were actually close but because Carlos was gay which meant he became a target. Parents obviously aren't the same as people who really have no business in the matter. And even though the verse I pointed to uses the language of brothers, it's one of those words that doesn't mean actual families. I know that gay people have a hard time with their biological families, I'm not denying that, but that's also not what seems to be going on in this particular case.

Now, on the sin thing. Personally, I consider it beyond ludicrous to view something immutable as a sin. sin involves rebellion, which involves choice. That's why most theologies out there condemn sex acts rather than sexualities. (Your average religious person is often a different matter, of course.) Now, to be clear, I don't consider homosexuality a sin or wrong generally, nor do I have a problem with monogamous, consensual sex whether the genders match up or not whether the people have matching genders or not. (I may be a bit of a prude in some matters, but I honestly am an equal-opportunity prude.) My point was, if you have a problem either with homosexuality or gay sex, some ways of expressing that are worse than others. Using that belief to judge the gay people you're close to is bad enough. But when preachers make blanket boo-homosexuality sermons, that turns into carte blanche for teenagers to point to their homosexual classmates and say boo-you, and after a while that gets morphed into a faceless, nameless, suffocating message that the person being bullied just sucks as a human being. That's why I brought up the Matthew thing. The point is: if someone is in your life and they've wronged you, then you confront them up to a point and if it seems like they aren't going to change for whatever reason, eventually you leave them to make their own way in the world. But this is the method of confronting sin - it's not done through strangers, let alone mass media.

Jul. 18th, 2013 06:50 am (UTC)
Gwen, I think you have a point on the problem where the church is everywhere and treats everyone like they have to be part of the church. I'd question how much that's the case in the South these days. I mean, I know there's an expectation that pretty much everyone will be Christian, but to my mind there's a lot of difference between a progressive, LGBT-affirming church like the Episcopalians and those that are virulently anti-gay like the Southern Baptist Church. (Remembering of course that there's a lot of variation between different churches - it really can depend on the pastor and local church culture.) I always thought there was much more leeway to not be a Christian, or be a Christian of the kind that would make a fundamentalist throw up a little in her mouth (guilty, I hope) around the time I left NC than what I saw growing up in SC. But maybe that was the circle I was running in those days.

But to the extent your impressions are accurate (and I really don't know anything other than my memories here!), I can see why that would be a huge problem. I'd say one thing that this verse fights against is this idea that situations like that are good. If you're supposed to let someone go after they refuse to change, that means there needs to be something outside the church to let them go into. I get that that's not the reality; but I do think this calls religious people, Christian or otherwise, who talk like the whole culture has to be inside the church - part of letting go means letting them make their own life somewhere else if they like.

Anyway, it's late once again. I'm sorry to scare/offend you both, and hope this explains a bit more what I was talking about. Thanks for the comments - I love being challenged, both to explain myself better and also to correct myself when I'm wrong.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )



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