Gene Robinson on Civility

We had the privilege of hearing Gene Robinson speak at the Monadnock Summer Lyceum last week. Among other things, his talk offered an unusually profound perspective on what is normally referred to as “civility.”

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, elected in 2003 by a process involving both clergy and laymen of the Episcopal Church in the state. He is also an openly gay man in a long-standing committed relationship (one is not allowed to use the term “marriage” yet). And, as many readers will know, he has been a lightning rod for a storm of controversy that threatens the unity of the international Anglican community of churches.

He has been the target of extremely hostile words and actions, including death threats. But it was only as an example of the breakdown in civility that he talked about his own situation. Here are a few points that stand out in my recollection:

  • “Sin” is not about doing something that is prohibited (violating a thou-shalt-not injunction); it is about acting in a way that separates one from one’s fellow human beings and/or from God. It would be, therefore, the opposite of agapē, love towards one’s neighbor and God.

    (Though controversial, this would seem to be a point of view well established within the Christian tradition: that immoral behavior is that which causes alienation from God and others, and morality is that which promotes reconciliation. It’s a concept of “sin” that allows one to think about sexual morality in terms beyond simplistic proscriptions, while at the same time requiring one to travel a far more demanding moral landscape.)

  • One tendency of human nature is to see the world in terms of “us” and “them.” We are naturally gregarious (we flock: we locate ourselves in relation to family, clan, nation, class, religious affiliation, etc., and we often define our identities in terms of group membership), and so we are acutely aware of group boundaries, that “the other” does not belong and is not one of “us.”

    Moreover, there is a strong tendency to demonize “the other.” Whether this is motivated by fear (legitimate or otherwise), or perhaps by a need for group solidarity, it is a long-standing and well documented feature of “being human” that “the other” is often seen as a challenge to our sense of specialness, or as the source of our problems, or as a threat to our purity or prosperity and even to our very existence. Consequently, “the other” must be shunned, exiled, oppressed, or exterminated.

  • A mature way to deal with the otherness of the other is to seek out that which we share in common. That means finding the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other. I don’t recall whether the speaker used the term “empathy,” but he quoted a wonderful example in which a lesbian priest reflected on the fears that underlay the homophobia of a colleague, comparing it to her own fears as a swimmer — and she wondered whether the care with which her friends helped her overcome her fears could be effectively transferred in the current situation.

    This story was “wonder-ful” in that it proposed breaking the vicious cycle of demonizing the other: it depicted a generosity and respect towards one’s detractors and oppressors that could be deeply transformative.

  • During the question period Robinson was asked if he had any personal heroes, living or dead. Without pausing, he named Bishop Desmond Tutu, one of the chief architects of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. It is the intentional work of reconciliation that is able to overcome the all-too-human tendency to emphasize the otherness of the other and to ignore that which binds us.

Gene Robinson’s speech reminded me that “civility” is not a matter of being polite to people with whom we are in serious disagreement. It is much harder than that. It requires restraining our instincts to divide the world into “us” and “them,” to resist any inclination to “demonize” those with whom we disagree (no matter how obvious it is that they are wrong), to seek out common ground in a spirit of generosity and respect — and to be prepared to fall short of success over and over again. But if we can leave the impression that we actually listened to the other guy, and demonstrate that we can articulate his point of view in a way acceptable to him (even while acknowledging that we continue to disagree), and emphasize the need to identify areas of common belief and experience, success in some form (though probably short of full agreement) may not be that far off.

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