Monday, January 14, 2008

Civil Discourse (Part 3)

by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson (New Hampshire)

Editor's Note: This is a continuation of the essay posted here, an excerpt from Bishop Robinson's In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, scheduled for publication in April 2008 from Church Publishing. We are grateful to CPI for giving us permission to publish this chapter from Bishop Robinson's forthcoming book.

These things may seem hopelessly off-topic for issues related to gay and lesbian people, but they’re all deeply related. We’re talking about how we change our minds – as a culture, a nation, and a Church – about something we’ve been very sure about for thousands of years. To some, it seems like the height of madness and a willy-nilly discarding of ancient truths. To some, it seems as if nothing is certain anymore, or that the Church doesn’t know what it believes. But to others, it seems like the kind of change that Jesus promised would be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Only through such a gentle and comforting understanding of the continuing work of God will people find the courage to change their minds about this issue.

But why is the resistance to change on this issue so vehement, so vitriolic, so deep? Why would two people wanting to pledge their love and fidelity to one another for their mutual benefit and the benefit of society be seen as a problem? Why wouldn’t conservatives applaud the pledge of faithful monogamy in gay marriage for the people they’ve always accused of being promiscuous and irresponsible? Why wouldn’t conservative Christians want to see gay people stop entering usually-disastrous heterosexual marriages just to be happy and accepted? Why can conservatives use gay marriage as an effective wedge issue in political campaigns?

Or, in the Church, why would my election as bishop of a fairly conservative, rural and small-town diocese in New England turn into a worldwide controversy? How could my election spawn thousands of hateful letters and emails? Why would I, a Christian elected by the clergy and people of a diocese to be their bishop, receive death threats from other religious people and have to wear a bulletproof vest for my consecration? Why would people around the world, from the bush of Kenya to the remotest of Pacific islands, debate my fitness for this calling, based not on my skills, experience, and faithfulness, but on my sexual orientation? Why would some leaders in the Anglican Communion consider it dangerous to meet with me, talk with me, or even be seen with me?

First, we’ve never been very comfortable talking about sex. The Puritans in American culture didn’t help, nor did the Victorian Age in Britain, with its often duplicitous sensibilities. The realities of our sexual lives are perhaps too frightening to bring to the light of day.

Yet many of the moral issues that face us today involve sexuality. Abortion, fertility therapies, alternative methods of reproduction, the role of men and women, and the ending of half of all marriages in divorce that signals a crisis for the contemporary family—all these involve sexuality. We need to talk about these things, yet we have little experience doing so. Parents still falter over what to tell their children about sex—and when. Perhaps our near-obsession with homosexuality is a group denial mechanism for heterosexuals not to talk about their own sexual issues. If we can talk about them, then we don’t have to talk about us. If we can focus on their problems, we don’t have to talk about our own.

Most people resist seeing the treatment of homosexuals as “their” problem. Gay and lesbian people have known for a long time that the problem isn’t gay and lesbian people’s sexuality, but their ill treatment by a hostile society.

The problem, though, isn’t exactly “homophobia.” That surely exists, but it’s always a conversation stopper. Some claim they’re not afraid of homosexuals so they’re “not guilty” of homophobia. But the further sin our society is guilty of is “heterosexism.”

Everyone knows what an “ism” is: a set of prejudices and values and judgments backed up with the power to enforce those prejudices in society. Racism isn’t just fear and loathing of non-white people; it’s the systemic network of laws, customs, and beliefs that perpetuate prejudicial treatment of people of color. I benefit every day from being white in this culture. I don’t have to hate anyone, or call anyone a hateful name, or do any harm to a person of color to benefit from a racist society. I just have to sit back and reap the rewards of a system set up to benefit me. I can even be tolerant, open-minded, and multi-culturally sensitive. But as long as I’m not working to dismantle the system, I am racist.

Similarly, sexism isn’t just the denigration and devaluation of women; it’s the myriad ways the system is set up to benefit men over women. It takes no hateful behavior on my part to reap the rewards given to men at the expense of women. But to choose not to work for the full equality of women in this culture is to be sexist.

So the sin we’re fighting now, within the secular sphere, is the sin of heterosexism. More and more people are feeling kindly toward gay and lesbian people, but that will never be enough. More important is the dismantling of the system that rewards heterosexuals at the expense of homosexuals. That’s why equal marriage rights are so important. That’s why “don’t ask, don’t tell” is such a failure and such a painful thing for gay and lesbian people, even those who have no desire to serve in the military. These are ever-present reminders that our identities, our lives, and our relationships are second class – because the very system of laws that govern us discriminates against us and denigrates our lives. Over one thousand rights are automatically granted to a couple who marries. Yet the gay couple who has been faithfully together for thirty years is denied those very same rights.

At their root, heterosexism and homophobia are expressions of misogyny, the hatred of women. If you doubt the currency of this misogynistic attitude, go to the video store and rent a movie with a football storyline. At some point, in so many of these films, when the team is about to lose the big game and the players need to be pumped up, the coach will belittle, anger, and presumably empower the team by calling them a bunch of girls. Why does that work? Because no insult could be worse!

But heterosexism, like sexism, is beginning to erode in society and in the church. For a very long time, most of the decisions affecting the world have been made by white, heterosexual, educated, Western men. Ever so gradually, though, people of color were invited to the conversation; then women; and now gay and lesbian people. And things are never the same when the oppressed claim—and receive— their voice. It’s no wonder the resistance is so fierce, given that we’re changing a system that’s been in place almost forever.

Sneak Preview of Part 4:

But how do we now move forward? And what is the rightful role of religion in this public discourse? Unlike some issues we’ve faced in the past, the movement forward in the civil realm is tied intimately to moving forward in the religious realm. There is perhaps no other prejudice, ensconced in the laws of the land, that’s so based on sacred scripture, so entwined with our theological understanding of the nature of humankind and the sexuality which proves to be both its blessing and its curse. No other attitude in the body politic is so tied to an attitude stemming from a particular Judaeo-Christian teaching. Change in no other social attitude in the secular culture is so tied to change in religious belief.

Note: This text appears in In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, by Gene Robinson, © 2008 Church Publishing Incorporated. Used by permission of the publisher. Bishop Robinson’s book will be available in April 2008. You may click here to place an order from Church Publishing.

The final section of Bishop Robinson's "Civil Discourse" appears here.

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