"Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people."
-Fred Rogers, The World According to Mr. Rogers
As a father of two young children, one thing I know is this: they tell it like it is. If my four-year-old doesn’t approve of my wife’s outfit, she voices her opinion boldly. Likewise, if my son needs to poop, he announces it to the whole world. No matter how rude it may seem at the time, my children feel comfortable saying exactly what's on their mind.
Part of our role as parents is a cultural mediator of sorts. We teach and model cultural and social norms for our children. We want them to know that it is not acceptable to wipe their nose (or anything else) with their palm before shaking someone’s hand. We are expected to teach our kids that it is neither appropriate nor kind to point out the fact that the librarian has a big fat tummy.
But as hard as we practice and model appropriate public behavior, and how to treat their friends, the thing that endears me to my children is also the thing that makes me cringe: they always tell the truth.
In many ways, that makes me thankful. I want my children to speak up about injustice. I want them to be brave enough to offer an unpopular opinion. I want my children to feel free enough to cause ripples when they feel passionate about something. I want them to be comfortable in their skin, to own their story, and to boldly speak the truth. I don't want my kids to always go with the flow, just because "this is the way it's always been."
It’s also the reason we all (hopefully) teach our kids, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."
When I saw the news of Jamel Myles, the 9-year-old boy who recently died by suicide after being relentlessly bullied at school, my heart did something more than break. The story pulverized my guts and pounded me into dust. No, I don't have a nine-year-old, but my son will be there before you know it. And my daughter isn't far from it.
I've seen several people ask, "How could this happen? How could a child even know about suicide? Children are supposed to be carefree! Reckless! How could a child feel such despair that they choose to die?!"
The answer is in the mirror.
Recently, my wife and I were watching a superhero movie with our son. During one particularly tense part of the film, Ben whispered under his breath, "Oh shit!" As shocked as I was, and as hard as I tried to conceal my laughter, the truth is that my son is only repeating what he has heard his daddy say.
Our children reflect the very best and the very worst in us. This is the uncomfortable truth. Our children notice our superficial relationships. They hear the angry ways we deal with people who seem unlike us. They feel the judgment and hatred we project on those with whom we interact.
Children are truth-tellers. The little parrots copy what they see and hear. When they learn that we won't take communion from the gay couple at our church, they make a mental note, "gay is not okay." When they hear our toxic theology about those with mental illness, they learn, "Don't show weakness." As we demonize those with whom we disagree, our children understand that they should never disagree with us, either.
Children learn from our example, and they strive to make us happy.
"My daddy says that God doesn't like when people are gay,” suddenly becomes, "I know gay people and I hate them, too." The real problem is that when our little ones mimic what we do, it is without our slick and hypocritical filters or self-control. While we criticize what we don't understand, children say things like, "You should just go ahead and kill yourself."
Our own closed-mindedness is what killed nine-year-old, Jamel Myles last week. Unless we speak up and invite future generations to see a world full of compassion and understanding, we are culpable in their hatred. Our mere closed-mindedness becomes their hate crime.
When a child hears you say that suicide is selfish, they follow your lead. When a little one hears a pastor refer to suicide as "self-murder," they remember.
If children are nasty to each other, it is only because we have shown them the way. When we don't remind those around us of their loveliness, when we refuse to make room for diversity, when we unwilling to change our perspective, it is our children who pay the price.
While I don't want to sentimentalize the tragic death of Jamel Myles, because this is someone's child, I do believe it is indicative of a much broader social and cultural problem.
I've heard horror stories about someone coming out and experiencing rejection, being shunned, and sometimes enduring outright violence, simply for being real about who they are. Is it any wonder people struggle to believe there is good in them, that they bear the image of the Divine?
And I can’t help but wonder why we do this to each other.
If people believe the lie that their lives don’t matter, it damages the soul and sometimes kills the body. People don’t want to live in a world (read: a family or a church) where they aren’t known, accepted, and loved. All people deserve love and justice. Perpetuating hate and fear through destructive theology or political ideology is damaging the collective soul of this worldwide community of humans.
When religious people stop expecting people to fit their mold, agree with their politics, or live up to their social expectations, they extend freedom and joy to all of God’s people. And isn’t belonging what we all want? Isn’t that what Christ offers us?
No matter how we were raised or if we cling to faith of any sort, genuine love doesn’t have prerequisites. Grace doesn’t have qualifying criteria. Compassion has no strings attached. It is more important to love my neighbors than to expect them to pass a litmus test on morality or religious fervor.
In the past, I’ve been a coward. I was more concerned with my own acceptance and belonging than standing up to help others receive them. I was wrong to hold back, and I am sorry. These days, I am learning to do better. I’m saying in no uncertain terms that it is wrong for any group of people to be demonized by any institution. I will not stay quiet any longer.
Please hear me: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done: you are not bad. If you’ve received that message, know it’s a nasty, hideous lie. Your dreams, your experiences - your joys and pains and sorrows and traumas and successes - are as unique as the stars in the sky, as varied as the number of hairs on your head. The vastness of that same beauty is contained in your soul, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve been told.
When a nine-year-old dies by suicide, the truth is: I don't give a damn what you think about homosexuality. It is time to put our differences aside and care for one another with open hearts. It is time we come down off of our moral high horses, set our agendas aside, and begin to treat the world around us with love and empathy. It's time to quit making someone's humanity a religious or political issue, and instead, invite everyone we know to sit at the table of brotherhood. We must let those around us know that we are safe people. We must create a world where compassion and understanding are the cornerstones of our culture. And wouldn’t that be an example worth following?
Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.