Monday, April 18, 2022

A Eulogy for an Opponent

John Shuck was not a friend.

He and I interacted on several occasions, none of which were particularly amicable.  I'd gotten to know him back in the early, heady days of the internet, back when we all foolishly assumed that this new medium was somehow going to bring about peace and understanding.

John was a pastor within my denomination, which for a while meant we were part of the same general social network.  The algorithms thought we should be connected, and for a while, we were.  Sort of, in that way you interact with a semi-regular acquaintance.

As I perceived him through the funhouse filter of that medium, he was a fighter, a strong willed soul who aggressively called out anything he encountered as injustice.  Which meant, for a while, calling out injustice towards Queer folk within the church, which how I came to know him.  But his was a restless, quixotic spirit, and that emphasis soon faded.

John's activist energy turned then to his sense that atheists were persecuted within the church, which made no sense to me at all.  Wait, atheists?  Why would atheists even bother being Presbyterian?  He declared himself an atheist, rejecting all of the trappings of faith as a pernicious delusion, but continued to insist that he was perfectly qualified to lead a church.  I found this confusing, because fundamental cognitive dissonance is always confusing.   I honestly couldn't understand how a Presbyterian church could have a committed anti-theist as a pastor, any more than I would understand if the Freedom From Religion Foundation was led by a devoted and practicing Catholic.  I posted about my struggle with this, back when I was regularly blogging.  This started something of an online argument between us.  I tried to be civil, and to find connection, and explain why I found his position confusing.  He took offense.  I suggested that maybe Unitarianism was a better match for this stage in his journey.  He took that as an affront (it wasn't, Unitarians can be lovely), and the whole thing became a mess.

Having no desire to continue the conflict, I severed the few social media connections we had, a parting offer a few years Hemant Mehta at the influential Friendly Atheist blog interested in John.  If he wanted a platform to talk about being a Atheist Pastor, well, I was going to give him one.  Going the extra mile, offering up my cloak also, and whatnot.  

I'd check in, now and again, as John didn't seem entirely stable.  That instability deepened with the tragic death of his son, who took his own life.  His blogging about that loss was utterly heartrending, and I read every single entry he posted, feeling his anguish as a father who also loves his sons.  After that terrible, shaking experience, John spiraled into conspiracism. 

He fiercely believed that September 11th was an inside job by the CIA and Mossad, and became a Truther.  That lead him to connect with Iranian interests, and to Shia Islam, and for a while after a pilgrimage to a Shia holy site he would sing the praises of Mohammed's son Husayn, while also being a ferocious atheist who rejected all faith, while also being a Truther, while also being, somehow, still a Presbyterian pastor in good standing.  

When the pandemic struck, he became radically antivax, as some on the extreme Left are.  He was convinced that vaccines were a corporate conspiracy, designed by the fundamentally corrupt American regime and their oligarchic masters to force population compliance.  He publicly and repeatedly refuted the idea that COVID was a real issue, and declared that to comply with vaccine mandates was a violation of human freedom. 

Then, unsurprisingly, he got the Delta variant.  Back in October of last year, it killed him.  I discovered this when his name crossed my mind, and I did a simple Google search. 

His passing was most prominently marked by a website dedicated to gloating over the deaths of COVID deniers and antivaxxers.  The article on his life was relatively straightforward.  

The comments, on the other hand, were the comments.  They were a horrorshow of schadenfreude and cruelty.  To the commenters, he wasn't even a human being, and their glee at his suffering and death was, well, there's a word for it.

It was monstrous.  It was evil.

Human beings are good at that, particularly when it comes to those we oppose.  We return evil for evil as easily as breathing out and breathing in.  What is harder, when we find someone frustrating or false, is to acknowledge that their personhood matters as deeply as our own.

Jesus reminds us of this, of course, as we need reminding.  No one, not one soul in this world, is loved any less by God than we are.  That we forget this about our opponents is one of our most pernicious failings.  Because I didn't really know John Shuck, not as his friends did.  Or as our Creator did.

So to his family, and to his friends, my condolences at the loss of your loved one.  You knew his graces and gifts more than I ever could, and I hope that you are finding solace and comfort after his passing.  I equally hope you have been able to celebrate the places where he gave you joy in this fleeting life.