Yesterday, as Matthew Shepard was laid to rest in the National Cathedral twenty years after his martyrdom, the Right Rev. Gene Robinson preached about the concept of anamnesis. From the Ancient Greek, anamnesis comes to us from two different words: ana (ανα), a preposition that denotes up, above, or again; and mneme (μνημη), meaning memory or remembrance. From its early beginnings, anamnesis has accrued a great deal of philosophical and historical connotations—for us, it’s particularly used to describe the moment during the Eucharistic prayer when we recall the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ as a community. In other words, when we enter into the Biblical memory again, collapsing the distinction between the present and the past into a single, transcendent moment. When we live the Gospel, however briefly. Bishop Robinson argued that, just as we believe that we enter sacred time during our services, the memory of Matthew should prompt a similar transfiguration in our lives and work.
The thing is, I have never really known a world where Matthew hadn’t died, hadn’t been taken from us too soon. I was 10 when he was hanging on a fence in a lonely corner of Laramie, Wyoming, and the fact of it is one of the first news stories I can remember taking any notice of. The entirety of my adult life—and particularly my life as part of the LGBTQ community—has been in some small way bounded by his death. Just as James Byrd, Jr., might have helped to define yours. Or Kitty Genovese. Or the at least 22 transgender people who have already been martyred this year. We are rarely in short supply of righteous dead; it’s the living saint who is a rarity.
I don’t mean to sound grim, but I wonder if it’s really Matthew who we need to worry about. For whatever reason, his death prompted people to take notice. The gay community and the rest of the world were roused, and people made Matthew’s story their own in ways real and immediate. We demanded action, demanded that, even in the out-of-the-way corners of the country, LGBTQ people should be allowed to be who they are with dignity. We didn’t get it all right, but the outcry around his death transformed the dialogue in this nation, reshaping communities in ways that I will never truly know—I only know what it means to walk in a world indelibly marked by his footsteps. And on Friday, the young political science student who dreamed of changing the world was laid to rest in state, untold thousands collapsing time and distance to seem him safely home and finally at rest.
As I read the news about attacks on immigrant and trans communities this week, I pray that there is a day when there is no more need for anamnesis, no more need to recall the martyrs who have journey the way before us. May we treasure each death the way we treasure Matthew. May treasure each life even more. After all, we are each and everyone one of us made in the image and likeness of God, loved beyond any possibility of our comprehension. Too often we have let ourselves forget that fact, let ourselves leave some behind. So, let’s get up; let’s remember not just who we have been but who we might be; and let’s demand dignity for ourselves and our neighbors once more. Resurrection is for all of us—again and again and again.