, November 13, 2003

    What Gene Robinson Can Learn
    From Jackie Robinson
    The new Episcopal bishop is successfully taking a low-key
    approach to his detractors, notes Bruce Kluger —
    just like the legendary Dodgers infielder.

    By Bruce Kluger

    With the Episcopal Church in a
    perilous state of fracture, one would
    expect that V. Gene Robinson—
    whose consecration as the first ever
    openly homosexual Anglican bishop
    instigated the rupture—would use
    this landmark event to strengthen
    the public case for gay rights, both
    in and out of the church.

    This has not been the case. Indeed,
    since his appointment, Bishop
    Robinson has responded to the
    condemnation of thousands of fellow parishioners—including that of the Archbishop
    of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, himself—not with proud chest-thumping or a
    passionate polemic on the need for tolerance, but instead with empathy, even
    support, for his adversaries.

    “There are faithful, wonderful Christian people for whom this is a moment of great
    pain and confusion and anger,” Robinson said. “If they must leave [the church],
    they will always be welcomed back.’”

    Why the humble self-control? Wouldn’t it better serve Robinson—and the church
    itself—to celebrate his consecration with a flashy, public victory lap, if not the sweet
    retribution of a pointed “I told you so?”

    Not necessarily. In fact, Robinson’s silence may be his smartest move yet. Half a
    century ago, a similar strategy was employed—with remarkable success—by a man
    who coincidentally shares the Bishop’s surname: Jackie Robinson.

    When Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he did
    so having made a promise to the team’s president, Branch Rickey. Two years
    earlier, Rickey had met with Robinson, then a star in the Negro Leagues, grilling
    him for three hours over whether he could endure the personal pain of being the
    first black man to play Major League Baseball. A devout Christian, Rickey wanted to
    test Robinson’s ability to—as they say in the Bible—turn the other cheek.
    Replicating the ugly bigotry of the time, Rickey shouted at Robinson, hurling at him
    a litany of venomous epithets and racial slurs.

    Ultimately, Robinson withstood the mock attack, and vowed to Rickey that, were he
    to be invited to join the club, he’d remain silent for three years, no matter how
    vitriolic the personal and professional assaults.

    True to his word, Robinson kept his feelings to himself, and went on to become a
    star, in the end using his bat and base-running wizardry to silence those unable to
    see past the color of his skin. Only after the three-year promise had elapsed would
    Robinson begin to talk back. But by then he’d already achieved his and Rickey’s
    mission: the American Pastime was well on its way to becoming desegregated.

    Like baseball’s Robinson, the church’s Robinson arrives in the major leagues with
    glowing stats. Over the years, he has launched and sustained countless programs
    geared at educating and enlightening congregants of all ages; his ecumenical and
    interfaith resume has taken him to the cradle of his faith—the Middle East—where
    he has worked tirelessly with Christians, Jews and Muslims alike; and his unflagging
    community outreach efforts have tackled a host of social ills, from unaffordable
    housing to inadequate health care to the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

    These are the accomplishments that brought Bishop Robinson to the international
    stage—not his sexual orientation—and it would be a shame if he or his newly
    expanded parish allowed those works of humanity to be upstaged by the antics of a
    mob of angry bleacher bums.

    Like the integration of baseball, organized religion’s centuries-long practice of
    discrimination—of women, of gays—will come to an end in our lifetime. Those in
    Bishop Robinson’s corner know this to be true, as do those who oppose him. It’s
    now simply a matter of waiting for the storm to pass.

    That’s why it’s okay for Gene Robinson to resist the temptation of facing off with his
    enemies, and, instead, letting them fight it out among themselves as he quietly
    goes about his work. Just as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ number 42 achieved the
    greater objective of integrating baseball through the smaller but significant acts of
    sharpening his lead off first and perfecting his swing, let us hope that Bishop
    Robinson will remain unbowed by the heckling from the pews, and continue to
    grace the world pulpit as a shining example of decency and goodness.

The baseballer and the bishop: Jackie and Gene Robinson.