Twenty years after his death, Matthew Shepard still inspires me
This morning, I watched the interment ceremony for Matthew Shepard’s remains at the National Cathedral. It’s been 20 years since Matt was killed. I remember those events vividly. I recall speaking to a large crowd of hundreds of people at a candlelight vigil at The College of New Jersey, where I was a young assistant professor at the time. I will never forget how I cried when I listened to Dennis and Judy Shepard talk of the loss of their son, so overwhelmed with emotion that I decided I needed to change my personal mission as a teacher and scholar to focus advancing social justice. As I listened to the beautiful service for Matthew, I was reminded that I need to do more. Indeed, I think we all do. The service also caused me to reflect on several, seemingly disparate themes I feel the need to share that range from religion to politics.
As I watched the moving and multicultural service for Matthew, I was struck by the sense of inclusivity that seems so foreign to me as someone who was raised Catholic — a faith I long ago renounced. The service for Matthew was the second Episcopal service I experienced in the past month (the other being a beautiful wedding for two loving women whom I adore). During both ceremonies, the presiders welcomed people from all faiths, as well as nonbelievers. Indeed, during Liz and Angel’s wedding, I was flabbergasted (in the best of ways) when the minister invited all to partake in communion, regardless of what faith they practiced, if any.
What a contrast to the exclusion of non-Catholics from communion during Catholic masses or the antigay messages spread by dozens of evangelical Christian faiths (messages, of course, that run completely counter to the commandment to love one another). But the inclusiveness of these two Episcopal services went beyond messages of welcoming to all. An out, gay bishop and a female bishop jointly presided over Matthew Shepard’s service at the National Cathedral. Ordained women — what a concept! In short, these two recent events reminded me that religion can be used as a tool to spread love. It’s easy to forget that notion when far too many religions preach intolerance — even hatred. Some even sanction killing others to enforce an extremist interpretation of their religious texts. These truisms usually cause me to view religion as a tool of oppression, a device through which “othering” is perpetuated in the worst of ways.
Religion is even being used today as an excuse for legalized discrimination. There is little that can convince me that organized religion (which, of course, is quite different from spirituality) is a force for good. But once in a while, I see glimpses of organized religion actually spreading messages of compassion, love, acceptance, and inclusion of diversity in all its forms — just as the Episcopal Church did at Liz and Angel’s wedding last month and at Matthew Shepard’s interment ceremony two days ago. And that gives me a small glimmer of hope.
In the two decades since Mathew Shepard and James Byrd were both murdered — one for being gay, the other for being black — so much progress has been made. And yet, in the past two years in particular, it seems far too much ground has been lost. All one need do is look at what happened two days ago at a synagogue in Pittsburgh to see that senseless and tragic acts of hate-fueled violence are still far too common in the world, including here in the United States where we pride ourselves in the celebration of liberty without realizing it is all-too-frequently denied to marginalized people who don’t even have the freedom to live without violence depriving them of their lives. Hate crimes rose by 12% last year in our top 10 cities; data is harder to come by rural and suburban areas since 90% of jurisdictions refuse to even supply hate crime data to the FBI. But independent research, like the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual census of extremist groups, reports that the number of hate groups in the United States has increased for the past three years and hate crimes have increased approximately 44% over the same period of time. These extremist groups and people who align with their far-right ideology are responsible for nearly twice as many domestic terrorism incidents as radicalized Islamists. Although data suggests the latter group can be more deadly, to me, both of these groups represent the same threat to our domestic peace and tranquility. And people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and religious minorities bear the brunt of such hate-fueled violence.
That being said, there are far too many people — especially so-called “leaders” in government — who are complicit in creating divisions in our country that contribute to racism and other forms of intolerance, rather than uniting us along commonalities. Only the ignorant or willfully blind can ignore the “Trump Effect” and its role in increased polarization in the United States. Consider that just in the past week, a rabid Trumpian sent bombs to 13 vocal critics of President Trump, a white man killed two black people in a racially-motivated attack in Kentucky, and a hatemonger gunned down 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. That’s just one week in America. Trump condemned the latest mass shooting as “evil” and called for unity. He then referred to Democrats as a “mob” and questioned whether his political opponents committed these acts to make him look bad. Moreover, for nearly three years, Trump has incited his supporters to commit acts of violence against his critics. Anti-Trump protestors should be punched in the face and, don’t worry, if someone is arrested for doing so, Trump will pay that person’s legal fees! Moreover, the president consistently spews racist and racially-tinged messages against nonwhites. According to him, Mexicans bring drugs and crime — “they’re rapists.” Haitians “all have AIDS.” Nigerians should “go back to their huts.” Federal judges of Hispanic ancestry cannot be fair. Obama is a Kenyan. Muslims are terrorists. And there are Neo-Nazis who are “very fine people.” In short, we have a president who calls for violence and spews racist rhetoric, then turns around and wonders why such acts of hate-filled violence are on the rise.
Finally, I want to talk about mental illness. First, let’s keep in mind that when a white person kills, we talk about mental illness, but the same is not true when the perpetrator is a person of color. Second, it’s important to remember that mental illness does not cause people to act violently. People with mental illnesses are exponentially more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. But most of all, haters may be crazy (in the vernacular), but hatred is learned and is not the same as mental illness. Racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia — these are not mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia. Rather, these types of intolerance are social ills, caused by ignorance and unjustified fear. Worse yet, there are people adding fuel to these misguided notions, spreading messages of hate and intolerance. Yes, we have a mental health crisis in this country since the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1960s and 1970s. But we have an another, more insidious crisis of intolerance and hatred that has been growing more intense in the past few years. Sadly, the violence we witnessed in the past week proves that we still have much to learn from the deaths of Matthew Shepard and other victims of hate-fueled violence, including those killed a church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a mosque in Quebec, and a nightclub in Orlando.
As an agnostic who borders on being an atheist, I don’t believe prayer can do anything to fix our significant social problems. We need changes in public policy and we need real leaders who promote unity and peace. Still, since I’ve been inspired by the two religious events I previously mentioned, I think I’m going to take a moment tonight to pray for the first time in years. It will be a prayer of remembrance for Matthew Shepard, someone whose tragic death inspired a dramatic change in my own life. And it will be a prayer of hope that we, as a nation, can find the better parts of ourselves and chart a course for a better tomorrow than the ongoing state of affairs in the in present.
Dr. Henry Fradella: Arizona State University (Interdisciplinary Justice Studies), J.D.; The George Washington University (Law), M.F.S.; The George Washington University (Forensic Science), B.A.; Clark University (Psychology)