Martyrdom, Mark Carson, And A Testament To Love

by Rev . Katherine Katsanis-Semel

I just returned from a march in Manhattan’s West Village. It was a rally to end homophobic hate as well as to promote justice and peace. Our journey ended at 8th Street and 6th Avenue, the scene of a recent tragedy. For those who may not have heard, a young gay man, Mark Carson, was brutally shot on May 18th; the act was a hate crime.

Though marches can empower and bring a sense of solidarity to our community, marches alone cannot undo how disturbing it is to learn of such violence.

This is especially true when such violence is so close to home – literally. Last Friday evening, my spouse and I were just blocks away from the scene of the crime. We live in Manhattan’s West Side, where in just the past two weeks, five LGBTQ hate crimes have been committed. Ironically, the West Side of New York has been a haven, a heaven of sorts, for lesbians, gay men, and transgender folks for decades; it is sadly no surprise that these acts were clearly intended to disrupt a usual sense of geographic safety.

This is a safety that I admit to taking for granted at times; I no longer have that privilege.

NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn has requested that the NYPD increase police presence in multiple neighborhoods during pride month and also announced a “Speak Out Against Hate Interfaith Weekend,” where fifty houses of worship will deliver coordinated messages against hate speech and other forms of violence. While efforts such as these are crucial in creating safety and awareness moving forward, I suggest that we turn back to history in order to re-establish our hope.  

As Christians, martyrdom is an often overlooked part of our legacy. We are often uncomfortable with martyrdom, but early Christian history has actually bequeathed us a remarkable heritage. Martyrs were celebrated saints—heroines and heroes who sacrificed their lives for the sake of fully being who they were. Does that sound familiar?

Before martyrs were thrown to the lions in the Roman Empire, they were often asked if they wanted a way out. 

By denying Jesus as Lord, they could walk away unscathed. In other words, they could go back into the closet in order to save their earthly lives. Early Christians became famous for not taking the easy way out; rather than preserving themselves, they would actually be eaten alive for the sake of truth. Where do we witness such courage and conviction today.

There are startling parallels between the martyrdom in the first centuries of the Jesus Movement and the martyrdom that we see today during the first centuries of the LGBTQ equality movement. Like the martyrdom that occured as the Jesus Movement formed into a Church, the martyrdom that we recently witnessed is not self-inflicted. Early Christians were given the choice of death or selling out on their beliefs, and they chose death. Isn’t this bold defiance of the social and governmental status quo, even to death, similar to how many LGBTQ individuals in America and around the world find themselves living today?

As LGBTQ citizens, we would rather live in an authentic manner than be broadly accepted by our current-day society.

We pray for a day when we will not have to make such sacrificial choices, but we choose to live lives that are aligned with how we believe God would have us live. In the most horrific cases, this means we would rather die for our choices than be forced to accept idols that are false to us—like the idols of heteronormativity and gender-normativity. Simply by being ourselves, we proclaim to the world-at-large, to utilize Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “You will be overwhelmed by our capacity to suffer.” 

Suffering for a noble cause can take many forms, whether it’s overturning religious oppression (Early Christians), overturning racial oppression (Dr. King’s work), or overturning homophobia (Mark Carson’s tragedy). Martyrs—conscious martyrs—are those who consciously decide to utilize the universal force of love to transcend victimhood. Martyrs—those who live with fearless authenticity even in the presence of life-threatening danger—teach us what living is really about, whether or not we are Christian or otherwise, gay or otherwise.

As I marched with my LGBTQ colleagues and friends, amidst drum-beats and chants of “We’re Here/We’re Queer/And we refuse to live in fear,” a revelation took hold of my body with gentle might. I realized that as a Christian, I inhabit a tradition of wise ones, like Justin and Origen, who refused to bow down to pretense in how they lived their lives. Then I realized that as a queer person, I inhabit an emerging tradition of brave ones, like Matthew Shepard and Mark Carson, who refused to bow down to pretense in how they lived their lives.

Both the Jesus Movement and the LGBTQ equality movement have produced and are producing people ready to live out their truths, even if the consequence is death. Both the Jesus Movement and the LGBTQ equality movement are based on a foundation of love, a love that seems radically countercultural to the broader world that houses both movements.

As the LGBTQ equality movement gains remarkable strength in this country and abroad, backlash can be seen, through the lens of Christian martyrdom, as a mark of victory.

This is not said to minimize the tremendous tragedy of Mark Carson’s murder, nor to be a call for voluntary martyrdom among Christians or LGBTQ individuals. Instead, it is in recognition that we cannot change the past, only the lens through which we see it. So let us see these recent, heinous hate crimes as a fearful reaction to real progress. As Harvey Milk famously said, before he was gunned down, “You have to give them hope.”

Though I do not know what Mark Carson’s personal beliefs were, nor how they were tested as he stood outside in the warm, spring air last weekend, I do know that his testament to love—in other words, his determination to live as a visibly gay man—baptized him in the canon of LGBTQ history. In my eyes, as it was said by the early Church Fathers and Mothers, Mark Carson was, “baptized in blood.”

Rest in Peace, beloved one—and know that your life, and your death, made a difference.

“Do not be surprised that I call martyrdom a baptism, for here too the Spirit comes in great haste and there is…a wonderful and marvelous cleansing of the soul, and just as those being baptized are washed in water, so too those being martyred are washed in their own blood.” —Saint John Chrysostom

Photo via flickr by user sixpee2013