Gene Robinson is our Martin Luther King

The Episcopal bishop’s voice echoes the moral conviction and message of slain civil rights leader. 

WHEN MARTIN LUTHER King was assassinated in April 1968, many believed that another leader with his moral conviction and ethics would never come along again.

In light of today’s queer civil rights struggles with members of King’s own family — like his niece Alveda King saying gay civil rights are special rights and his daughter Bernice stating that her father did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage — gays and lesbians must ask: Who is our Martin Luther King Jr. of today?

King’s vision of justice and moral leadership are often gravely limited and misunderstood. Too many people thought then, and continue to think now, that King’s statements regarding justice and moral leadership were only about race and the black community. They fail to see how King’s vision of justice and moral leadership were far wider and challenging than we might have once imagined.

For King, justice was more than a racial, legal or moral issue. Justice was a human issue and had to be addressed anywhere it was being denied. And this was evident in King’s passionate concern about a wide range of issues.

“The revolution for human rights is opening up unhealthy areas in American life and permitting a new and wholesome healing to take place,” King once told a racially mixed audience. “Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial injustice.”

Moral leadership played a profound role in the justice work that King did. Gay and lesbian Americans need not look any longer for a modern day King, because he is already among us — Bishop Gene Robinson.

The tumultuous events surrounding the election and consecration of Robinson, a gay Episcopal bishop from New Hampshire, is the prism through which we see the Episcopal Church’s long-time struggle and history with homosexuality.

LIKE KING, ROBINSON’S moral leadership comes at a time in U.S. history when the nation is once again unabashedly discriminating against a segment of its citizenry. And, like King who fought against a broad base of social injustices, Robinson understands that the struggle against homophobia in the Episcopal Church is only legitimate if he is also fighting the racism in the church as well as out in the world.

“King and his era informed me firsthand about race in this country, because I’ll always remember seeing separate water fountains,” Robinson told me. “People thought King was an agitator, and my father called King a communist.”

Today, according to our country’s morality police — groups like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America — and the right-wing faction of the Episcopal Church, Robinson is not only perceived as an agitator, but also as the Antichrist.

Setting off a worldwide firestorm of reactions, both positive and negative, that could possibly lead to a schism in the Anglican Communion, Robinson’s consecration is a symbol of gay liberation that not only challenges the church but also this nation’s existing discriminatory laws that limit our full participation in American democracy.

ELIZABETH ADAMS’ BOOK, “Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson,” depicts a man of quiet dignity and humble beginnings, who was born in Kentucky to tobacco sharecropping parents.

Through Robinson’s life, Adams tells a wider story — that of the Episcopal Church’s relevance in a post-modern world that is challenging other oppressions besides race that have gone on unexamined for too long in this country and continue to create ongoing cycles of abuse and discrimination.

I miss King. The nation misses King. And we all miss the resonance of his voice heard in the inimitable rhetorical style of the African-American tradition of speaking out against American racism.

But today I hear a new voice: Robinson’s.

And it is a voice that also resonates the moral conviction and social gospel ethic of King telling us in our ongoing civil rights struggle: “Don’t ever forget the power behind you is greater than the opposing force ahead of you.”

Published in the Washington Blade, January 19, 2007. 

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