Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Civil Discourse (Part 4)

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

Editor's Note: This is the last installment 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.

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.

So it will take religious people and religious voices to undo the harm done by religious institutions. While there’s been a decline in the number of people who experience and express their spirituality in and through formal religious institutions, religion is still a powerful force within the culture, and it generally works against progress in the inclusion and full civil rights for gay and lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. It’s time that progressive Christians rescue the Bible from the Religious Right, which has held it hostage and claimed it as its own private territory for far too long. It’s time that Christians and Jews actually read the holy scripture they claim as the basis of their beliefs, instead of simply believing what others tell them it says. It’s time we use reputable scholarship, sound reason, and thoughtful exploration to understand what the words of scripture meant to the person who authored them and what they meant to the people for whom they were written, before deciding whether or not those words are binding on people outside that ancient cultural context. It’s time that progressive religious people stop being ashamed of their faith and afraid to be identified with the Religious Right, and start preaching the Good News of the liberating Christ to all God’s children.

But what is a good, positive and appropriate way to voice one’s religious convictions in public discourse? I think it involves a simple shift in focus from the public to the private in these expressions. I’m free to express my own personal and religious reasons for coming to the opinions I express, but the minute I start arguing that you must come to those same opinions because my religious truth must be your truth too, then I violate the divide between private and public. Most alarming of all is when “my” truth becomes “the” truth, applicable to everyone. James Dobson or Pat Robertson are perfectly free to tell me about the religious beliefs that compel them to oppose the acceptance of gay people, but when they claim that their beliefs are right and true for all humankind, they move from democracy to theocracy.

Similarly, if I argue for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in society, I must do so on the merits of my argument, not on a claim that my understanding of God is right and true and compels everyone. I must make my arguments based on decency, compassion, democratic principles, and a notion of the common good – not on any reading of any sacred text to which I might subscribe.

We need to separate, as best we can, the civil realm from the religious, especially in the struggle for equal civil marriage rights for all citizens. Clergy have long acted as agents of the State in the solemnization of marriages. Because a priest or rabbi or minister acts on behalf of the State in signing the marriage license and attesting to the proper enactment of the marriage, we’ve lost the distinction between what the State does and what the religious institution does. In fact, the State affects the marriage, while the Church pronounces its blessing on it. In France, everyone is married at the mayor’s office; those who are religious reconvene at the church for the religious blessing. Those who don’t desire such a blessing are still fully married according to the laws of the State. In such an arrangement, it’s clear where the State’s action ends and the Church’s action begins.

We need to make a clear distinction between civil rights and religious rites. It may take many years for religious institutions to add their blessing to same-sex marriages, and no church or synagogue should be forced to do so, but that should not slow down progress toward the full civil right to marriage as executed by the State for the benefit and stability of the society. Because in New Hampshire civil unions is now legal, my partner of twenty years and I have made plans to enter into such a union in June 2008. On the steps of the State capitol, our legal, civil union will be solemnized by our female Jewish lawyer. That’s the civil part, accountable to the State. Then we will walk across the street to St. Paul’s Church for prayers of thanksgiving and blessing for our union—that is the purview of the Church. Such a separation of the roles of Church and State might be helpful in many ways. Perhaps it’s a separation that ought to be made for all couples, heterosexual and homosexual alike.

In the end, I know everything will turn out right. Christians are hopeful by nature – not because we have any special confidence in the desire of human beings to do the right thing, but because of our confidence in God to keep prodding, inspiring, and calling us until we do it. The world may be ready for change, but our faith tells us that change is anything but random. God is always working for the coming of the kind of Kingdom in which all are respected, all are valued, all are included. I believe the Holy Spirit is working within the Church and within the culture to bring that full inclusion about, and in the end, God will not be foiled. In the meantime, we need to work with all our might, intellect, dollars—and all our hearts--to bring that new world into existence.

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.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Ginny Gibbs said...

Congratulations! And mazeltov! There, we've covered the bases for my family. Blessings on you both.

1/22/2008 9:53 AM  
Blogger GraceAcolyte said...

I happen to think that Bishop Robinson is a magician. Every time he opens his mouth in public, he turns thousands of Episcopalians into Lutherans, Methodists, & Presbyterians.

1/23/2008 8:12 AM  
Blogger SCG said...

Thank you for posting these excerpts! He speaks truth, and inspires others to do so. And his election and consecration have opened up the church doors again to many of us cradle Episcopalians who believed the church had locked us out. I look forward to reading the whole book!

1/26/2008 9:35 PM  

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