Dwain has given me permission ...
I learned today that a former acquaintance died. I never met him in person, but I knew him online, as a fellow member of a music-related forum, for the better part of two decades, in the era just before the social media explosion. For years, I considered him a very dear, close friend.
Despite the fact that the forum - family of forums, actually - was primarily music-related, a lot of the conversations revolved around politics, religion, all the touchy social subjects that you aren't supposed to talk about in polite company. The forum was populated by many really intelligent and diverse people, and it really became a family. We hosted in-person gatherings all over the country. The forum itself was featured in a New York Times Best Seller, written by one of the forum members - one of several accomplished authors who were members. Together, we celebrated life's major milestones and joys in our own lives and the lives of our loved ones. We celebrated weddings. We mourned deaths. Our hearts were broken by a murder. In fact, it was a forum member who first pointed out that it seemed that I was being called to the ministry - a comment that, given what would later become our polar opposite theologies, I'm sure he came to regret. But that's another story.
For a long time, the political/social discussions, while sometimes getting quite intense, were mostly fairly high level. The forums were unmoderated, and on occasion, they could get pretty nasty - more than once, the comparison was made between some forum debates and the cantina fight scene in the original Star Wars. Still, on balance the arguments were relatively harmless - at least originally.
Over time though, that changed. Things got nastier, more partisan. Factions formed, or I suppose, it's more accurate to say that they became more entrenched. With some of the members, the arguments got intensely personal and abusive. A small group of members - I'm ashamed to say that I was one of them - banded together as the conservative "guardians," ready to go on the attack against not just progressive positions, but against specific individuals in personal ways that I can only say was a forerunner to the Trumpist school of destructive personal discourse. I cringed during the worst of those personal attacks, but I'm ashamed to say that I often agreed with them in principle, if not in their actual execution. So I only rarely objected to any of the attacks. On the contrary, I was an enabler of them.
I did so because I'd become good friends with the man who would ultimately become the leader of this wolf pack. He'd shown himself to be a good person in many ways, and that resonated with me - so much that for a long time, I couldn't bring myself to stand up and oppose him when he crossed the line - and as time wore on, he crossed it increasingly often. He eventually just went almost completely dark.
It was while I was studying for the ministry when the real cracks in our friendship began. He'd always known me as having very conservative religious views that he agreed with - at least in theory. He wasn't really a religious person at all; the whole subject only mattered to him insofar as it bolstered his extreme right-wing politics. But the more my religious training continued, the more I questioned, and eventually rejected, those conservative views, theologically, and by extension, politically.
And that's when he turned on me, with a vengeance.
I suddenly became the target of his abuse. Even after I tried to ignore and disengage from him, he continued to harass, insult, and abuse me online. I came to be the recipient of all the vitriol and personal attacks that I'd earlier laughed at, and enabled, and defended when he'd targeted others. Karma is indeed a bitch.
Much of his abuse against me revolved around my theology of full acceptance of LGBTQ people in society and church. He was a rigid ultra-conservative in all regards, but his rabid homophobic bigotry was his most strident position. When my views changed, and I found the courage to disagree with him - which was an intellectual, theological turn that actually predated my recognition and acceptance of my own sexuality - that was the last straw for him. He smeared me with a number of falsehoods and constant personal insult. He was in every real sense, an online stalker. The abuse intensified to the point that I seriously considered investigating what actual charges might be filed against him.
And today, I learned that he has died.
With his passing, many are offering kind words about him, and many of them are justifiable for certain aspects of his life. At the same time though, the truly horrible, harmful, abusive aspect of his personality, and the real and deep harm that he inflicted on people, are being minimized - partly, I suppose, out of a desire to not speak ill of the dead, but I think even more because only those he abused can understand the magnitude of the pain and suffering he caused. Only those who never received it, or at most were only passive observers of it, can dismiss it with such ease. I can't, not for my own sake, or the sake of others he abused.
In remembering him, one person said that despite his flaws, when push came to shove, he could be relied upon to do the right thing. In reality, when push came to shove, it was usually him doing the pushing and shoving, and while doing it, he very frequently, in fact, did the wrong thing.
I do genuinely mourn the loss of all that was good in this man - and at least at some point in his life, there was significant good. My condolences go out to his family and all who loved him. But I recognize the good, and I offer the condolences, while bearing the scars that he caused. It does nothing good, and it does a real disservice to those he hurt, to ignore or minimize the magnitude of the horrible side of his personality as well. He was often a vicious, abusive bully. Only God knows why he was so often gleefully cruel to others, and especially so constantly, vehemently homophobic. For all his good, and all his bad, he is now in God's hands, and I trust God to deal with him with the appropriate measures of mercy and justice.