Eye of the Storm

When you try to love the world the way that God loves the world, you’re going to get into trouble.

Yesterday’s morning yakfests brought us an an interview with Bishop V. Gene Robinson by the Today Show’s Matt Lauer. The occasion was Robinson’s new book, In the Eye of the Storm – Swept to the Center by God.

I found the way that Lauer handled this interview to be rather disappointing, even at times offensive. It may be that he thought his job was to channel the “opposing view,” and one certainly expects such an interview to contain provocative, challenging questions. But this just seemed geared to be as salacious as possible. Take a look at the video and tell me if you disagree.

Relying heavily on the “some people say” method, Lauer again and again returned to a shaming, accusatory line of questioning, implying that Robinson should somehow be held accountable for the vile, criminal, and decidedly un-Christian behavior of others, i.e., the “firestorm of controversy” over his consecration, including threats on his life. The entire interview is framed this way: In the face of the murderous rage you have engendered, don’t you feel guilty and remorseful? Why are you continuing to fan the flames? Doesn’t it make you regret choosing this path? Consider this exchange about the upcoming Lambeth conference (a gathering of Anglican Bishops held once a decade; Robinson has received more death threats from people who identify themselves as Christians in the event of his attendance):

Lauer: Let me go back to the Lambeth conference…You have basically been disinvited [to placate conservative activists who threatened a boycott]. They don’t want you to be [t]here. But it goes a step further. There are several Anglican Bishops who have decided not to attend – get this – because they don’t even want to be under the same roof as the American Bishops who elected you as a Bishop. So how do you respond to people who say, is the elevation of one man worth all this? [emphasis added]

As if this petulant behavior is his fault, and as if the theological struggle within the Episcopal Church is about “the elevation of one man.” What an absurd question. Does any thinking person believe that this historic struggle would evaporate if only this “one man” would let the bullies win? Why are these conservative Bishops so unable to engage those with whom they differ in principled discussion of these matters? Isn’t that the point of having such a conference?

Robinson: You know, the table that God invites us to includes everyone, and the Church is going to get it wrong sometimes, and I think the Archbishop of Canterbury has gotten this wrong by not inviting everyone, and then having the conference with all those who can come. I’m going to go, and offer myself…

Lauer: You’re going to go kind of and stand outside, right?

Robinson: I am, and I’m going to talk with anyone who wants to talk to someone who is unashamedly gay, and unashamedly Christian.

The simple power of that witness is revealed by the fact that he will need to wear a bulletproof vest. That’s what is interesting about this experience, the outlandishly fearful response to a life lived with integrity, and what Robinson goes on to discuss as what he has come to understand as the particular historic role he discerns to be what God has called him to play at this moment. That would be an interesting and challenging question – why, do you think, is it so incredibly scary to even allow this conversation to take place? Why has sexuality, of all things, become the eye of the storm? Lauer doesn’t get it – or he’s figuring the audience doesn’t get it and is trying to be a cypher.

Lauer: The fact remains that about a hundred parishes or a hundred churches in this country have split with the Episcopal Church, and they are now more closely aligned with the much more conservative Bishops of the Anglican Church in Africa and South America. Do you feel guilt about that? [emphasis added]

Again, the implication is that Robinson should hold himself accountable for the choices of others – a very few others, as he points out in response, around one hundred parishes out of nearly eight thousand. We’ve discussed the coordinated campaign to take over these parishes in Virginia before, here and here.

I love this one. Responding to a question about the book, in which Robinson states that “the traditional understanding of what the Bible says about homosexuality is flawed, and needs to be reinterpreted,” he explains:

Robinson: We’ve often misinterpreted Scripture; we’ve used Scripture to justify slavery, the subjugation of women, and now we’re realizing that what the Bible initially seems to say about same sex relationships is not actually what we’re talking about today…

Lauer: So, so, is that one man’s interpretation, because that interpretation suits that one man? [emphasis added]

Sure, Matt. This man has devoted his life to study and ministry in the Church he loves, and taken on this difficult historic role in the face of threats on his life, just so he can justify having a sex life. A truly tacky question.

Robinson: Well, it’s the interpretation of many Biblical scholars today, that what the Scriptures are talking about [i.e., those obscure, yet infamous, six passages that decry things like temple prostitution] are not what we’re talking about today – faithful, monogamous, lifelong intentioned relationships between people of the same sex.

Clearly, the Today Show folks very much wanted this to be a news item about same sex marriage, and the headlines on the MSNBC website reveal that desire. One incongruously reads “Gay bishop plans to marry” (although that is not yet a possibility in New Hampshire) and the description under that headline reads “Gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson speaks with TODAY’s Matt Lauer about his support for same-sex marriage and his upcoming plans” (although nowhere in the interview do they discuss same-sex marriage). Another telling headline on the site reads “Despite death threats, gay bishop plans civil union” [emphasis added].

No, no, no, no, and no. Robinson and his partner are planning to enter into a civil union explicitly because of the death threats, not in spite of them. Here is what he says in response to, yet again, a ridiculously framed question:

Lauer: I want to mention something else about you and your partner Mark Andrews, you are going to enter into a civil union in the not too distant future, and you know there are people who say ‘that is just going to fan the flames, and why does he need to do that?’ How do you respond to that? [emphasis added]

Robinson: In the face of death threats, this summer, I am simply not going to go to that conference and put my life in jeopardy without putting into place the protections for my beloved partner and my children and my grandchildren that are offered to me in a civil union; I think any husband or wife would want to do that.

Can we get a show of hands of those who would prefer that their beloved partners and children be without whatever legal protections are available to them, especially if they will be going into harm’s way? That’s what I thought. The attempt to present this no-brainer decision as a “political” act is really a bit shameful. Robinson and Andrews are not responsible for the uncontrollable rage of other people. The fact is that there are some folks who can’t tolerate dissent and change and simple honesty. While I’m genuinely sorry that they are on fire, it does not follow that the targets of their rage must therefore be motivated by a desire to “fan the flames” – rather than by a desire to protect our families, be treated fairly, or any of the other things that would motivate anyone else. This blaming-the-victim slant has become tiresome.

Here’s another video, of interviews with Daniel Karslake (director of the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, for which he received a 2008 Equality Virginia Commonwealth award) and Bishop Robinson, who has a prominent role in the film.

Excellent film. We’ll keep you posted on plans for local screenings.

My favorite doc at Sundance this year. Karslake has made a powerful film, one that I hope will be widely seen, because it addresses the fulcrum of the religious right’s objection to homosexuality without attacking those who hold those beliefs. Rather than smacking down with a righteous hammer, Karslake instead simply takes those who would believe that there is no common ground between faith and homosexuality and gently, relentlessly chisels away at every argument that bolsters those beliefs.

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2 Responses to Eye of the Storm

  1. Jonathan says:

    Thank you David. I saw the interview and was really shocked because I like[ed] Matt Lauer and I thought he was a decent guy. I don’t know if he personally agreed with the line of questioning, or not, but he kept a straight face and played his role for NBC and GE and the sponsors. Bishop Robinson was poised and intelligent and sharp. He didn’t waiver, and he redirected every question to the essence. You captured it beautifully (as always). It’s about faith, family and mission, not about a personal agenda. Bishop Robinson’s story is the classic human struggle of good versus evil. Let’s not turn it into its opposite.

  2. David says:

    To be charitable, I suspect that Matt Lauer may see it this way: Those are the questions (he thinks) that are on everyone else’s mind, and he is providing a forum for Bishop Robinson to respond and set these accusers straight, so to speak. He’s being fair to both Robinson and the accusers by being the cypher for the accusers. I haven’t seen that he has interviewed a leader of the schism, although he may well have. It would be interesting to see what questions he would ask one of them; would he play the cypher for the pro-inclusion camp, and what would that look like?

    In any case, it was positively revolting to compare this to the segment the very next day in which the entire cast was goo-goo over the Jenna Bush wedding. Since the Bush family could hardly be called non-controversial, it might have been appropriate to at least entertain the possibility of asking some substantive questions about this event; for example: “Some people say that this is akin to an arranged, dynastic marriage. Do Jenna and Henry actually love each other, or is it just for show?” Or, how about: “How do you respond to people who suggest that Henry’s employer, one of the top polluters in the U.S., stands to benefit in some tangible way from this union?”

    I’m just sayin’.

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