Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers... He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. (Psalm 1.1,3)
Last week’s news of Tyler Clementi’s suicide burdened our nation, and many around the world, with heavy hearts. His was an unusually happy story that turned tragic in a matter of minutes and ended abruptly the next day. The implications surrounding the tragedy go beyond the premature loss of a talented young musician whose gifts were meant to impart joy and inspiration for years to come. They expose corrupt, distorted values that inevitably emerge when a society becomes preoccupied with fear and hate.
The unjustly sad and final chapter of Tyler’s life starts with a foolish prank. A freshman at Rutgers University, he—like many at his age—was self-consciously discreet about his same-sex orientation. But he appears to have caught the attention of another young man. When he asked for privacy to spend time with him, his roommate pretended to oblige. While Tyler and his friend enjoyed one another’s company, the roommate streamed live video of their visit to an audience he rustled up with this Twitter feed: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s [sic] room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” With one invasive mouse-click, he uncovered a secret Tyler purposefully held until he could feel confident and comfortable revealing it. If his wishes and feelings were even considered, they weren’t respected. And we wonder: while his privacy was maliciously violated, was he waiting—hoping—for love and companionship to open the door so he could live openly and honestly? While unknowingly victimized by haters who vent fear through ridicule, did he envision the complete opposite—pride, integrity, and courage? Such sentiments often race through the minds of young gay people at moments like this. Whether Tyler pondered them we don’t know, because he left without telling. He typed six words—“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry”—on his Facebook page, got into his car, and spent his final hour en route to the George Washington Bridge.
Absence of Light
Without minimizing the tragedy, Tyler’s story was perfect for TV. It had terrific video of him playing the violin. It occurred on a highly esteemed campus, complete with leafy quads and Gothic architecture. It involved technical savvy and social networking—hip, hot topics. Tyler’s sexuality definitely added edginess. (Many news outlets deviously upgraded “making out” to a “sexual encounter.”) Still, while watching the coverage unfold, I thought of the innumerable teen suicides that go unreported simply because they occur in less auspicious places and less viewer-friendly situations. How many other children took their lives that day because someone had no problem humiliating them? How many fell to gun violence? (Last week, four Chicago teenagers’ lives ended that way.) How many decided another minute in a world drunk with malice, fright, and pessimism was more than they could bear? And—God help us—how many are silently, invisibly inching closer and closer to the precipice, where the dark unknown frightens them less than terrors hiding in absent light?
And absence of light truly is the issue. Before we slap indictments on the disciples of hatred and fear, it’s our duty to assess how fervently and insistently our light shines. Have we misused Christ’s calling on our lives as a rationale for polite meekness? Are we too concerned about ruffling feathers and alienating people to seize every opportunity to restore light where it no longer exists? Must we actually experience tragedy born of our timidity before mustering courage to fight a cultural tide of thoughtless evil? Had any of us known Tyler or his roommate, does our typical behavior enable us to imagine we might have been instrumental in preventing their tragedy? Or would we have been the sort that thinks we're "making a statement" by not laughing at hateful jokes or sitting silently by while others promote fear and prejudice? Is our concern about being stigmatized victimizing others? No doubt, at this very moment, people who knew these young men wish they'd said or done what they should have said and done to prevent this horrible outcome.
We Will Not
Something’s very wrong when the people we live, work, and associate with presume we’re okay with their destructive attitudes and behaviors. Getting along with everyone is less essential—indeed, it’s non-essential—than spreading our light. To think we can remedy this crisis while abiding its causes is nonsense. Our commitment to justice and righteousness should precede us. We shouldn’t be welcome where hatred and fear reign. We mustn’t be seduced by the idea permission indicates tolerance. We can’t risk perils that befall those who believe it’s possible to indulge darkness up to a point. The first sign of its presence is the moment we say, “Enough!” and mean it. The safety of innocent lives is at stake. Our personal fulfillment and peace of mind are as well.
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers,” Psalm 1.1 wisely asserts. When we think this through, the focus shifts from what’s unacceptable in others to what’s unacceptable for us. Saying “Enough!” says, “We're not allowed to do this. We won't contribute to the crisis. We won’t risk the consequences. We will not surrender our light to darkness.” The psalmist tells us the person who defies wickedness and mockery cannot be shaken. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water,” verse 3 says, “which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” Why does the poisonous produce of hatred and fear overwhelm us at present? Too few trees bear the fruit of love and faith. We must stand firm in the light, all of us, every one of us, upholding the light, and declare without qualm or condition, “We cannot be shaken. We will not move.”
Absence of light perpetuates a culture of hatred and fear. We cannot falter in our resolve to restore light and end this crisis.