On April 6, Bishop Gene Robinson will be visiting Cornell University as the annual Wood lecturer. The title of his talk here on campus is a hard hitting one: How Religion is Killing Our Most Vulnerable Youth. Based on a Huffington Post piece the bishop wrote in the wake of a rash of teen suicides last year, the Bishop minces no words when it comes to condemning the steady stream of religiously inspired venom directed toward glbt persons. It need not be as obvious as the vitriol of a Fred Phelps. As Janet Shortall wrote in a superb piece on this blog last fall, anti-gay church folk have learned how to mobilize ‘tolerant’ rhetoric even while making it clear that they view glbt persons as engaged in immoral and depraved behavior. Being polite, Bishop Robinson has argued, is better than nothing, but given the deep-seated animus directed at glbt folks for so long in many religious communities, much more is required of us on the religious left. We must be bold in our witness to the many and varied gifts glbt persons have brought and continue to bring to our faith communities.
For myself, I have often rejoiced at the presence of my glbt brothers and sisters in the midst of a church that has so often received them with hostility or stony silence, when it has received them at all. Karl Barth famously wrote, alluding to an encounter of Frederick the Great with his physician, that if one wanted a natural proof for God’s existence, one had only to look at the survival of the Jewish people. In times when I have wondered where hope is to be found amidst the church’s many failings and betrayals, I’ve often felt that one of the best answers is simply this: glbt persons continuing to draw near to the throne of grace, steadfast in the face of so much hostility, humbly insistent that they are children of God.
It is this hopefulness, above all else, which makes Bishop Robinson such an inspiring spiritual leader for all of us—in the wake of death threats, verbal vitriol hard for most of us to fathom, much less be the object of on a daily basis, including attempts to blame him for all of the troubles in the world-wide Anglican Communion, he has refused to demonize those who attack him, insisting, remarkably, that he needs these brothers and sisters for the sake of his own salvation. Early in his life he heard in the scriptures the voice of God calling him beloved, and he has allowed this voice to sustain him even in the whirlwind of hatred, self-doubt, and personal failure. Having grasped the taproot of faith, God’s unconditional love, he longs to share this sustenance, not merely with glbt persons, but with all of us—regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.
In his book In the Eye of the Storm, the bishop shares a wonderful story of a man who, upon coming across a stranger trapped in the bottom of a deep crevasse, promptly leaps in after him, causing the first man to shout in exasperation: Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here. To which the second man replies, Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.
Whatever hole we may find ourselves down in, one senses we have a familiar friend in Bishop Gene Robinson, who's gone to the depths many times, and knows of a few precious stepping stones to help us on the long way out.