In this last installment of my interview with Bishop Gene Robinson, we discuss interpreting collective story in an inclusive fashion culminating in Gene’s interpretation of Exodus as “The Greatest Coming Out Story Ever Told.”
Feel free to check out the first two installments if you are so moved:
Morning Feature: Bishop Gene Robinson Speaks About Obama and “The Left”
Furthermore! Bishop Gene Robinson Speaks: From Tolerance to Empathy
LR: So that was fascinating. And that’s a great segue into my next question. In organized religion, there seems to be a tendency to substitute a particular interpretation of a collective ambiguous story for the story itself. And often, the narrow interpretation excludes specific people from participating in the power structure. So as a bishop, you are now a participant in the power structure. How do you revitalize the collective story? How do you develop a shared interpretation that is inclusive? What kind of a role does this play in the process of healing a community? So that’s kind of a handful. I can repeat some of it if you want.
GR: No. I think that it is human nature to tie everything up into a neat and tidy package. Not many of us are comfortable with loose ends and certainly not for very long. And so what we do is to arrive at some one interpretation of story so as to be definitive. The fact of the matter is life isn’t that way. Life is never neat and tidy and is always full of loose ends. And so I think religion or anyone for that matter does a disservice when it tries to shoehorn that into one interpretation of story. The thing that makes me believe in the institutional religions, whether it be Judaism or Christianity or even Islam although they’ve had several hundred years plus time to do this, is that the sacred stories are there and challenge each new generation to come back to the story in its fullness and in its ambiguity. And so while we might try to force it into one interpretation, I think the story itself challenges the community to keep coming back to the story to find the richness in it as the many facets of the diamond.
LR: So we’re co-actors or co-writers of the story?
GR: Exactly. It’s very interesting. One of the great similarities between Judaism and Christianity is this: the whole action in the Seder meal is to recall this past event but to bring it into the present in such a way that we become part of the event. And that notion…the Greek word for it is anamnesis. If you take that word apart, the ‘an’ means against, and ‘amnesis’ means forgetting. That’s where we get ‘amnesia’ from. ‘Anamnesis’ is the Greek word that we use to describe our communion service, our Holy Eucharist, which remembers the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and particularly the last supper, in a way that we become a part of that event. It is straight out of Judaism in the way that the Exodus is lived out in the Seder meal so that we become a part of it. And I think that that does make it present. That does mean that we have a hand in writing the story because the story isn’t just in the past, its in the present and we’re a part of it.
LR: In the Seder there’s the question about the wicked child, which always in our Seders sparks so much discussion. How can you have a wicked child? But really that child is the one who is challenging you because that child is not included somehow in the story.
GR: Yep. Exactly.
LR: And so it’s the role of parents to hook that child into the story and to provide that child with some sort of stake in the story so that they want to retell it too as their story.
GR: So while I have my own problems with institutional religion of any ilk, what makes me believe in it is the fact that institutional religion over time, and I stress over time, is self-correcting. That is to say, whatever we’re doing is always under the judgment of the story. There is something mystical about it: that that story continues to correct us over time and get us back on track when we inevitably get off track.
LR: So what do little folks…lay people do who want to help, whether it is the natural story we tell ourselves or the story that’s related to our organized religion? What do we do to help get ourselves back on track as a community?
GR: Well, I think the story works on both the macro and the micro levels, you know? It is self-correcting in very large communal ways, but I think the story also helps us be self-correcting to us as individual human beings, or as families or as congregations. So that’s why I believe in studying the sacred texts. Because I think that that part of self-correction is operative on individuals as well as broad, broad communities. So part of it is steeping yourself in that story and part of it is wrestling with those parts of the story that seem the most offensive because they may be the very place that we need self-correction.
LR: Mm..hmm…That makes a lot of sense to me. That makes a lot of sense!
GR: It’s hard work and, and we’d much rather read the, you know, words of comfort and, you know, God is going to wash away every tear and lead me beside the still waters. I mean, you know, it goes on and on and on. It’s the tough stuff that will probably do us the most good.
LR: That makes a lot of sense. I think our most important leaders are the ones who have tackled the tough stuff.
GR: Yup. Absolutely!
LR: Well, I’ve got one last question for you and you’ve kind of segued into that one, too! I think one of the reasons that everybody in the congregation felt you were speaking directly to them was that you told us the story of Exodus as “the greatest coming out story ever told.” Now, not everybody there could understand a coming out story, necessarily, but every single person there deeply connects with the story of Exodus. So I wonder if you could just say a little to me about Exodus as the greatest coming out story ever told because I thought that was brilliant.
GR: Well I think that one of the things that we as gay and lesbian people have to do is assume that the holy text applies to us all. We have been told for a long time that we’re not there. We’re not in the text. People like us aren’t godly people. And so, I’m always looking for myself in scripture, and to see if God has a particular message for me as a gay man in that scripture. Just as I was saying to you that I don’t know what its like to be an undocumented worker, but I can identify with all these things, I just, you know, as I steeped myself in the Exodus story, thought, “Oh, my God! I share so much with these people!” I know a lot of what they are going through. I know what its like to be in slavery. I also know how frightening it is to be told by someone that there might be a promised land out there…that there’s something beyond slavery, and that leaving…even slavery…leaving is hard! Sometimes it’s easier to put up with the pain you know, than risk the pain you don’t know. If you do leave and you follow that call, and you thought that was the hard part, but then, you know, bad things happen. Pharoah’s army is chasing you. You find yourself at the water’s edge and, “oh my God, now what am I going to do?” So you think that crossing the Red Sea is the tough part but then there’s the desert, and there’s no food or water and you even dream of turning back…going back to that painful place! The pain of the present and the anxiety of the present is so real. There were just so many places where I could connect with the ancient Hebrews as they made that journey. It just so reflects my own journey of coming out and so many other gay and lesbian people. And all of the sudden it became my story in a whole other way. I’m just always indebted to it. It is of such great comfort to me that people have been going through this for a very long time. I’m not alone. There’s a lot of wisdom and strength to be drawn from those ancient Hebrews three-thousand plus years ago because their story is my story.
LR: That sort of brings us full circle back to the original question because as you were talking about how at each stage of that story you kind of want to go back because this new phase is so frightening? It seems like that’s where we are eighteen months into this new administration and into this attempt to do something new. Okay, we passed this bill [HCR] and now what? We thought that was all you have to do was pass a bill but it turns out that the bill is only half of what we wanted and then there’s also the issue of when you really get killed is in the regulatory phase and none of us knows how to deal with the regulatory phase. That’s a new thing to learn. I can just see in some of my fellow bloggers on the inernet, I can just see the ancient Israelites saying, “Oh, hell no! We’re not crossing this Red Sea! Take off your jewelry and let’s make a golden calf.”
GR: Right. Absolutely! Those temptations are just as alive today. And in terms of the upcoming elections, the midterm elections…What? We’re wanting to put back into power the very people who got us into all this trouble? If that isn’t like wanting to go back into Egypt so you can have garlic, I don’t know what it is! I mean, it makes no sense to go back to that thing that has caused us all this pain! But people in their anxiety just get frightened and instead of saying, “Okay, let’s be out in the desert for awhile, and improvise, and okay, so the manna doesn’t taste all that great? And you can’t hoard it in barns because it only lasts for one day, and, well we just need to live out here for a little while!” This demands a kind of spiritual maturity that I fear we don’t have.
LR: I wonder. The Israelites didn’t have it either. But somehow they managed to get through the desert.
GR: And that’s the role of the leader, isn’t it? Moses, for all of his frustration with those ninnies out there in the desert, was able to say, “Hang in there. This is gonna be okay. God is with us. It’s gonna take some time. No, I can’t give you a timetable. But its gonna be okay! So, you know, think up some new recipes for manna.”
LR: He took a census!
LR: He said, “Let’s count ourselves so we can feel reassured so first of all, we know we count, and secondly, we can see how many of us there really are out here.” Well you’ve given me a lot to think about! I totally appreciate that.
GR: You’re very welcome!