Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Life and Election of Gene Robinson

A couple of years ago I stumbled across The Cassandra Pages, a blog that consistently offers excellent writing and beautiful photographs. Another aspect of this blog that I've found intriguing is that Beth, the author, has been writing a book about Bishop Gene Robinson.

Yesterday I received an email from Soft Skull Press informing me that the book, Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Gene Robinson is now available.

This volume appears to not only offer us an opportunity to walk with Bishop Robinson through the last few years, but also may help us grow in our understanding of how we have arrived at the current situation we find ourselves in within the Anglican Communion.

Here's part of the publisher's description of the book:

...Through a lively text based on extensive interviews with Bishop Robinson, his closest associates, family, colleagues, and observers, and illustrated with photographs from all phases of his life, this book paints a portrait of Bishop Robinson not as a symbol but a human being who is, as he puts it, "neither the angel nor the devil some would make me out to be." It illuminates his life; his struggle with - and eventual acceptance of - his sexual orientation; his calling to become a priest and later a bishop. It tells the story of the critical, central events of his election and consecration amid intense opposition, huge security concerns, and media attention. The book follows him through the next two years as he juggles dual roles - Bishop of New Hampshire, and symbol of gay achievement and the progressive church - while the opposition stirred by his election creates increasing pressure for schism in the Episcopal Church of the United States and the Anglican Communion at large. The book concludes with a discussion of the deep theological and historical significance of Gene Robinson's election and personal vision for the future, and what this means both for individuals and for a Church seeking to be relevant in a post-modern world.
The sample chapter, Centering, opens with a sobering description of the degree that security became a very real concern shortly after Gene was elected:

“I knew what it was right away,” said Paula Bibber. “I was the only one who handled the letter: I opened it, and I bagged it—and then I only let the bishop look at it, because I didn’t want to let anyone else get their fingerprints on it. So I had a little experience with the police department. They were kind enough to come here to fingerprint me, as opposed to having me go down to their office.”

As the bishop’s executive assistant, Paula opened all the mail for Bishop Doug Theuner and for Bishop-elect Gene Robinson. There had been some hate mail after the New Hampshire election, but it increased dramatically after all the media coverage at General Convention made it clear that the consecration would go forward. The date for the consecration was set for November 2, immediately following the annual New Hampshire Diocesan Convention.

The hate mail was taken seriously from the beginning but, perhaps because this was New Hampshire, unused to hate crime and still a little slow to grasp just how big a tidal wave was being created by the ripple in their small pond, the idea that anyone would truly want to harm, or even kill, their bishop-elect to prevent his consecration seemed astounding. But when this particular piece of mail arrived— a clear death threat to Gene—the Concord police contacted the FBI, and the New Hampshire Standing Committee and bishop’s staff realized they had a serious situation that must be addressed. The envelope contained a picture of Gene and Mark from an article in an out-of-state newspaper. Gene’s head was circled in red and an arrow led from the circle to the margin, where words indicated that he was either dead or would be killed. “The threat was more visual than verbal,” said Paula, “but its intent was very clear”...
In this chapter Bp. Robinson offers what he refers to as his "Cliff Notes" version of his response to the inevitable question he is asked about scripture. His answer is quite relevant to many of our recent conversations, so I'm going to reproduce it here, without the italics and indentation, as it is rather lengthy:


...In almost every audience, someone rose to ask Gene about how he interpreted the Biblical passages that seem to clearly denounce homosexual behavior. Gene often said his answer would be “the Cliffs Notes version” and that if the discussion could go on for two days, “we could really do it right.” He usually began his answer by saying that, as Christians, we take Scripture very seriously—and then adding that Episcopalians have always taken Scripture seriously, and never literally. “Some of the critics are calling themselves traditionalists,” he said, “and yet are trying to take us to a place that has never been our tradition. Ever. We’ve never been a denomination that literally read and believed every word of the Bible. On the other hand, we take it all seriously. But what I’m going to end up telling you is that I don’t believe the Bible addresses what we are addressing today, which are faithful, lifelong, monogamous relationships between people of the same gender. The Bible doesn’t talk about this.”

The Bible contains seven brief passages that seem to speak to homosexuality. Gene divides them into several different categories. The Old Testament contains the Book of Leviticus, a part of the Hebrew Bible which contains the “Law.” Leviticus spells out rules about how the Jews were to live, and much of this is a so called “purity code,” detailing how the people were to keep themselves pure and untainted by the pagan cultures around them. That involved keeping kosher, not wearing cloth and leather at the same time, and a number of other rules. To his audiences, Gene explained his view that the Levitical code also included instructions for survival, as a race. At the time, all that was thought to be necessary for continuation of the race was contained in a man’s sperm, and the woman “sort of just provided a nest in which it could grow up.” The woman didn’t contribute anything; what was precious was the sperm. So to “spill one’s seed on the ground” was sinful, and therefore masturbation, sex between two men, and other acts that didn’t preserve the sperm for procreation were excluded. “That doesn’t seem to be about faithful, committed relationships between people of the same sex,” he said.

The often-quoted Sodom and Gomorrah1 story, in the Book of Genesis, is an example of the wide difference between literal interpretation and the interpretation of scholars who examine ancient texts according to linguistic, cultural, historical, and archaeological evidence. The ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located in Palestine, near the Dead Sea. According to the Biblical story, because of the unacceptable behavior of the inhabitants—their specific sin is not spelled out— God tells Abraham that he intends to destroy Sodom. Abraham asks God what would happen if he found there were any righteous people in Sodom. God promises Abraham that he will spare the city if it contains ten righteous people, and sends two angels to investigate. Near the city gates, the angels find a man named Lot, who invites them to his house for a meal and shelter:

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”
Lot refuses to give the visiting angels to the men of Sodom and instead offers them his two virgin daughters. The crowd refuses to accept this compromise. The angels then save Lot from the crowd; Lot and his family are told to leave the city, and God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone.

In speaking about this story, Gene explained that showing hospitality to guests is, and always was, of great value in the Middle East. Travel was difficult; not to offer strangers shelter and food put them in grave danger. “But,” he continued, “even if you want to look at the homosexual part of Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s about homosexual rape, not faithful, loving relationships. And, when the two angels do not offer to be raped by the townspeople, Lot offers his daughters, his virgin daughters, instead. I mean, hello? Are these the kinds of Biblical values we want to espouse? Even Ezekiel,4 and even Jesus, mention that inhospitality was the sin of Sodom, and its failure to take care of the poor, the fact that it lacked justice, and so on. Neither mentions homosexuality. So even within the context of the Bible itself, homosexuality was not thought to be the point of the story.”

Paul mentions homosexuality in the New Testament, but those passages also strike Gene as murky. He uses an interesting analogy when explaining this difficulty: “I think the passages written by Paul are very difficult to be certain about, because no one knows exactly what those words mean. There are a number of theories. But the fact is, we’ve lost the primary knowledge. Let’s say the game of baseball were lost to us, and a thousand years from now, someone discovered a novel, and it said, “Erik is a little out in left field.” Well, you could claim to know what that meant, because you know what left is, and you know what a field is: you would know what each of the words meant, but if you didn’t know anything about the game of baseball, you wouldn’t get the meaning of the text. You wouldn’t know that most people are right-handed batters, and that if you’re playing left field you have to back way up. The term ‘being in left field’ came to mean a person who’s a little out of touch, a little bit isolated and so forth. It’s the same here: some of these texts are pretty difficult to understand unless we can figure out what they meant to those who wrote them and what they meant to the people who heard them at that time.”

Jesus never mentions homosexuality at all. In Gene’s view, in the New Testament passages most often cited, Paul may have been speaking against the common Greek practice by which an older man took a younger boy sexually, as well as intellectually, into manhood. “Today we would call that child abuse, and no one’s arguing for that,” Gene said.

He continued: “It’s very difficult to take a modern psychological understanding, like homosexual orientation, and plug it back into an ancient text, in which it was unknown. Those texts were written at a time when everyone was presumed to be heterosexual. So to act in any other way was to be against one’s nature. The whole psychological construct of sexual orientation is a little better than 100 years old. So we can’t take something that we know now, and plug it back into a text that’s several millennia old, and think that they meant what we mean.”

Gene agrees that the seven passages are all negative. But, he says, “they are not talking about what we are talking about today.” Likewise, he says he values being in a church in which different interpretations of the same passages can and do coexist.

“It’s pretty easy to say that everything in the Bible is literally true, or none of it is true. But the way we have traditionally done Scripture in our denomination is that any one verse must be seen in the context of the whole. In other words, you can’t take one verse and raise it to a position of importance if it flies in the face of the whole of the Scriptures. Conversely, just because we decide that one part of Scripture is not eternally binding on us, it doesn’t mean that the whole thing comes tumbling down”...

Thank you, Beth, for offering us this closer look at the life of Bishop Robinson and the wider issues we face as a justice seeking community. I hope that it will help open a few hearts.

Click on the picture of Gene to order the book.


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