My Gay Orthodox Friend’s Suicide
Last August, the first real friend I ever made at church took his own life. Jonathan (not his real name) was a year ahead of me at Cal where we met my freshman year. He was received into the Orthodox Church during the weekly liturgy our Orthodox Christian Fellowship chapter held in a chapel located in a literal upper room. Jonathan and I quickly became friends. We were both sarcastic Classics majors with a penchant for drag queens and Baroque music. We bonded in the easy way that freaks who have found their tribe so often do.
This was despite the fact that by most appearances we were very different people. I was a Greek girl raised in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado by upper-middle-class parents, cherished and doted on in a world where I was free to worry about my grades and whether that boy in Physics liked me. Jonathan was an orphan raised in poverty in California’s Central Valley. He was biracial and gay in a place that was segregated and straight. If my life was defined and frequently limited by the ties that bind me, his life was about searching for a place where he could be entirely himself, loved without condition or expectation.
That search brought him to the Orthodox Church. And we failed him. We failed him, because we did not know how to make room for him. We asked him to check pieces of himself in the narthex. We told a man with no family or home that should he ever fall in love, should he ever attempt to create the family and home that poverty and substance abuse had denied him, we would cast him out. Jonathan had been abandoned before and like too many kids who grow up in foster care, he knew to leave before he got left. He just stopped coming to church.
By the time I had started grad school and Jonathan was seeing the world as a flight attendant (a brief detour on his way to law school), he was not going to church anymore, and I did not need to ask why. I already knew. Though as we planned our Sunday afternoon in a coffee shop near Charing Cross during one rainy London autumn, he did meekly whisper to me, “I still pray every day, you know.” This did not surprise me, because prayer had been (and continues to be) the constant in my spiritual life as well. I pray every day. No matter how disappointed or confused I am by the Church and the men in her, I do pray every day. And now, when I do, I pray for my friend.
Since learning about Jonathan’s death, I have spent a lot of time during that prayer thinking about the Binding of Isaac. The story of Abraham offering up his son to God is central to all three Abrahamic faiths (though Muslims put Ishmael, not Isaac, on the chopping-block). It is a troubling narrative that makes the first question of monotheism not, “Would you die for God?” but rather “Would you kill for Him?” Abraham, after all, does not know that God will place a ram in the thicket, that he will not have to kill his son.
Unlike previous occasions when God seems to be unreasonable, Abraham does not put up a fight. The man who bargains with God to spare the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah does not bother to negotiate for the life of his child, the son who is the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise to him. It is a shocking choice at best. And the closest parallel I can find in Scripture to what it seems many within Orthodoxy are encouraging us to do regarding LGBT people: The Scripture and the Fathers have spoken. Either make the sacrifice or leave. Oh, and there’s probably no ram this time.
There was no ram for Jonathan. And there is a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that at least one or two people reading this are going to think he had it coming. I can see the Facebook comments declaring his suicide just another indication of his willful disobedience against God. I am not entirely sure that there are not at least a handful of my fellow Orthodox Christians who imagine my friend is in Hell and do not necessarily have a problem with that. And that saddens me in a way that I cannot fully describe. This is not to mention those who, in light of my pain, think I would be better off outside the faith of my childhood and ancestors.
That is why I am taking to heart what a friend from high school suggested when we met days after Jonathan died. Esther (not her real name either, though I think at this point you can start to get an idea of what my friends look like) is the lay leader of a Reformed Jewish community and so writes the sermons for the High Holy Days. Thus, every year at Rosh Hashanah, she has to find something to say about the Binding of Isaac. When I brought the story up to her, still fresh with grief, she smirked a bit and said, “Yeah, I think Abraham should have just said, ‘No.’” She went on to explain that Abraham had argued with God before and subsequent patriarchs would as well. God has created us with free will and a sense of right and wrong, why would we forgo their use? Especially when we are being asked something so clearly awful? There is actually a Talmudic tradition around this position. And it is not a rare thing for rabbinic commentators to question Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Human beings, it turns out, have responsibilities to each other even in the face of perceived divine telegrams.
Unquestioning obedience is not the relationship of sons and daughters with their father. It is the relationship of slaves to their master. And we are no longer slaves, but children and heirs (Romans 8:17). I do not suspect that, as with anything, there are easy answers. To struggle with God and your tradition is difficult. To look at texts that wound and measure them against the God who heals is not simple. But the death of my friend has taught me that I can no longer in good consciousness take the easy way. The God I have known in Christ Jesus, through the liturgy and traditions of the Orthodox Church, is a God who calls all people to Himself and whose “yoke is easy and burden is light.” We can no longer tolerate the casual hatred we disguise as adherence to Tradition. Orthodox priests should not get applause lines from the murder of gay men by ISIS militants and keep their Ancient Faith Radio podcasts. We cannot declare we know what the tradition says and close the door. If we are truly being asked to sacrifice our LGBT brothers and sisters (and I am, to be frank, not convinced of that) then we should at least start looking for the ram. I fear if we do not it will not come in time for many, because it did not come in time for Jonathan.
Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian whose work focuses on early Medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries.
*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.