Saturday, June 27, 2015
Eleven Years in Exile
No, we all are that nation, which means our national history is made up of hundreds of millions of personal histories. Mine is but one of those hundreds of millions, but I want to share with you briefly a story of it.
Eleven-some years ago, in my senior year of high school, the student newspaper put out a pro/con-style column debating equality for same-sex marriage. The column's arguments against equality for same-sex marriage--that gay and lesbian couples don't procreate, and that basically their sex was gross--so infuriated me that I wrote an impassioned letter to the editor about it that got printed in the following edition.
As I sat there, the completed letter before me, I thought to myself, "You know that if you send this, everyone will think you're gay. Do you really want to do this?"
And I thank God that there was a stronger, louder voice in my head that said, "Screw them if they think that. It's their problem, not yours."
Thus this codified that which had already been the basis for a not insignificant amount of bullying I had faced in the Shawnee Mission public school district to that point: that Eric Atcheson was a closet homo.
In writing that letter, I planted myself firmly outside of the mainstream of my school, my hometown, my entire environs save for my immediate family and my church family. Eleven years ago, I went into exile from the approval of American public opinion, joining the millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people and their allies who had been far more courageous, far more hurt, and far more deserving of change than I ever was.
They, and I behind them, emerged from exile yesterday. That is why yesterday was so important. Millions of people were welcomed back into the mainstream of public approval, acceptance, and, dare I say it, maybe one day affirmation.
While in exile, I heard the stories and narratives of people so profoundly moved by their faith and hurt by their churches, all because of their sexuality, that I considered it a badge of honor to even be invited into their lives to begin with, even though I secretly worried that I might be the biggest bad luck charm for them...
I moved to Portland, Oregon in the summer of 2004. That autumn, Oregon voters passed Measure 36, a same-sex marriage ban.
I then moved to Berkeley, California in the summer of 2008. That autumn, California voters passed Proposition 8, their state's own same-sex marriage ban.
I moved to Longview, Washington, in the autumn of 2011. A year later, legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage appeared on the Washington ballot as Referendum 74. I campaigned openly for it, even at the genuinely saddening expense of losing a household or two in my congregation over it.
But Referendum 74 passed. And I began to see, firsthand, what it looked like to see God's children emerge from exile, like the Israelites out of Babylon, headed for their Promised Land where they could experience love and home and family.
Yesterday, Babylon was emptied, at least this once. There are plenty more Babylons left to overthrow, not the least of which is the Babylon that still puts GLBTQ youth at a 4x higher risk of suicide and a 2x higher risk of homelessness than their straight counterparts. There's the Babylon in which it is still legal to be fired for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in a majority of states. And there is still, lest we even begin to forget in the midst of our celebrating, the towering, forbidding Babylon that fashioned a white racist into a terrorist who killed nine brothers and sisters whose bodies our nation's President buried in a profoundly moving fashion yesterday.
That is the way of empires of evil: they do not surrender after merely losing one group of their prisoners. As long as they still hold captive the others, they can still dig in against our peals for liberation.
And make no mistake--that liberation is still awaited. It will not be fully and truly realized until God returns to earth, be it in the form of a homeless carpenter, or in the form of the flame and dove, or in the form of the Creator who made all things seen and unseen.
But in the meanwhile, we can and must continue to bring back our brothers and sisters out of exile. Think of the gay and lesbian friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues you may have. Add up for each of them the number of years they have spent in the closet, fending off harassment, enduring threats, and otherwise being forced to live outside the American mainstream until yesterday.
Now take that number, and multiply it several millionfold.
That is the sort of exile we are talking about ending. My own experience in exile pales in comparison to that of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I never had to fear for my life due to being transgender, or had to be told I couldn't adopt due to being gay or lesbian. I never had my identity stripped away from me by others until it was in tatters.
No wonder, then, the return from exile in Babylon is treated by some of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible as the turning point for rejoicing in their nation's story: that identity of theirs that was likewise stripped away painfully and humiliatingly until it was in tatters was finally, after fifty-some years in exile, reclaimed, restored, and lived out in spirit and in truth. Returning home didn't mean the work was over, not by a long shot--the people had to rebuild the temple, reseed the land, reconstruct their dwellings, but it was a start.
And this can be a similar start for us now, if we let it.
Welcome home, you who were once living your lives in exile. Welcome home.
Yours in Christ,