Deifying Matthew Shepard

“Did Jesus have a penis?”

The question began as a joke in one of our church’s small group gatherings as we considered the question of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. The group laughed aloud, if a bit uncomfortably, at the question.

The person with the question smiled, but asked again, “Did Jesus have a penis?”

We had to sit for a moment with the implication of a savior with a penis. Most of us had to admit we were uncomfortable with the idea. If Jesus had a penis that means he had the feelings other human beings with penises have – perhaps sexual feelings, or feelings of superiority over human beings lacking such an organ, or perhaps that Jesus peed standing up. Wow! That brings up a whole other topic: Did Jesus pee? Did he poop?

From Sunday School on up, Christians are taught that Jesus is God in the flesh. As God in the flesh, Jesus lived a sinless life. We are also taught, however, that Jesus was also fully human, but we’re never encouraged to actually think about the implications of a fully human, penis bearing, peeing, and pooping Jesus. He’s just somehow above those sorts of things — being divine and all.

But, this is how we treat all of our heroes. Nobody wants to think about their heroes being real people — being tempted to have sex with the penis they possess, or doing their business in the bathroom. The mere mention that Jesus might have actually put his penis to use with a woman, say Mary Magdalene, or a whole movie that suggests the two may have married sends the faithful into hysterics. Protests ensue and those who made such foul suggestions are pilloried as heretics or worse.

We say we want both a human and divine Jesus — but when the rubber hits the road, we don’t want our Jesus to actually have a penis — let alone use it.

In the gay and lesbian community, we have our saintly heroes as well. Our highest deity is a young man named Matthew Shepard. He gained this title after being martyred in a snowy Wyoming field on October 7, 1998 by his attackers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Shepard quickly became the face of anti-gay hatred and violence in this country. So much so that the hate crimes prevention bill currently moving through Congress bears his name.

In a recent article at the American Prospect, Gabriel Arana bemoans the loss the gay community has suffered by making Shepard such an icon. When you looks closely at Matthew’s life you find more sinner than saint.

This familiar story — Matthew as a pure, meek victim of anti-gay bigotry — remains an orthodoxy unquestioned by all but the most ardent gay-rights opponents. In fact, Shepard was a deeply troubled young man. He had a severe drug and alcohol problem, suffered from bouts of depression, and failed out of school numerous times. He spent his money on partying, leaving him unable to pay bills. He contracted HIV, most likely through unsafe sex. These darker details are conspicuously absent from the prevailing narrative about Shepard’s life.

There’s no question that Shepard’s murder was the result of bigotry. But by ignoring Shepard’s flaws, supporters of gay rights make a critical mistake. The allegorical Matthew of vigils and plays is a not a person with conflicting desires and motivations. He’s a one-dimensional caricature. If Shepard’s story is intended as a lesson on the tragic consequences of gay bigotry, the ardent refusal to cast him as anything but an unblemished victim provides another: In order to win rights, gay people not only have to be just like you, they have to be better than you.

As a lesbian, I certainly sympathize with the gay community’s need for a “pure” example of a gay or lesbian person. Our community has been vilified by the religious right for years. We’re called “intrinsically disordered” by the Catholic Church, “incompatible with Christian teaching” by the Methodist Church – although they toss us the sop of recognizing our “sacred worth.” Those are the nicest things being said about us. The extreme religious right paints us as pedophiles, recruiting children to a “lifestyle” of drugs, debauchery, and nightly, unprotected, sex with a million strangers.

We need someone like Matthew Shepard to redeem our community — to serve as the penisless role model who can take away the sins of our community. Arana rightly points out that by elevating Shepard to deity status we have lost the opportunity to acknowledge our community’s shortcomings. Instead of trying to hide Shepard’s faults, why not celebrate them? Shepard was fully human — there is no need for him to be fully divine to redeem our community.

Yes, Matthew Shepard was not perfect — but that does not make his death any less senseless or any less reprehensible. What the gay and lesbian community should have done, instead of deifying Shepard, was to embrace his full humanity. After all, isn’t that what we want from our opponents – to be seen as real, flesh and blood humans, just like them with needs and desires, warts and all? Instead of painting gays and lesbians as hapless, innocent lambs sent to slaughter by evil, homophobic men, perhaps pointing up the broken humanity that filled the whole violent situation of Shepard’s death would have been more redemptive.

Shepard and his attackers are all products of a broken, sick, and sinful society. Society told Matthew Shepard to be ashamed of who he was – to skulk around in bars looking for anonymous sex. That’s what homosexuals are supposed to do in our society. We can’t have long-term loving relationships, blessed by the institution of marriage. So, our relationships need to be dark, furtive, fleeting, and in the end violent and deadly. It’s what we deserve for our perversion, according to society’s rules.

Shepard’s attackers were told by society that homosexuals are filthy creatures, a little below the animals and a threat to their manhood. To prove themselves worthy of that white, male, macho, manhood, they had to annihilate this threat — beat it to death if necessary and hang it out to dry in a forlorn field in the middle of nowhere. If they did, society told them, they’d be heroes — given accolades and no punishment.

Instead of painting Shepard as angelic and vilifying Shepard’s attackers as demons, the more redemptive path would have been to acknowledge the humanity of all three men and the real reasons that brought them all together on that fateful night. A tragedy befell all of them that night — one set up by the societal norms we all see, but may feel powerless to change.

We can change those societal memes, though. We begin by acknowledging that Matthew Shepard had a penis. He apparently used it in irresponsible ways — perhaps driven by a society that told him he was worthless and would never have happiness because of how he wanted to use his penis. At his core, Shepard was human and he needs to be embraced in all of his flaws. Shepard can still be a hero to the gay and lesbian community, but he’s more effective when his complete life is celebrated, not just his myth.

As Christians especially, we can change society by acknowledging that Jesus, too, had a penis. Chances are good that he used it and not just to water fig trees around the Middle East. We do ourselves and our world a great disservice, and keep ourselves stuck in cycles of violence and brokenness, when we elevate our heroes to the point of being untouchable. We ask, “What would Jesus do?” then give up aspiring to it because Jesus’ was so wholly other than us we could never actually emulate him.

I much prefer a fully human Matthew Shepard and a fully human Jesus — men who peed standing up, and used their penises to fulfill other very human desires. It is only in embracing the depth of our humanity, and the full humanity of our heroes, that any of us will find ultimate salvation.