Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Strike Zone, Professor Gates and the Archbishop

One of the important things baseball players need to learn early each game is the dimension of the home plate umpire’s strike zone. The rule book spells it out, but in reality the strike zone is whatever the umpire says it is. The players have to figure out if the umpire’s zone runs a bit high, or favors pitches that are low. Players adapt to the umpire’s perspective – and calibrate their split-second decisions to swing or not to swing accordingly. A relative harmony exists if the umpire is consistent. But if the umpire changes the strike zone in the course of a game, players get disoriented and squawk, managers kick up dust – and home plate umpires have the authority to toss offenders off the field, which they do with great flourish.

A couple of weeks ago, Professor Henry Louis Gates of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Harvard University, no doubt felt that the local strike zone had radically changed when, after having difficulty getting the key to open the door of his house, a Cambridge policeman appeared in his kitchen (having being alerted to a possible break-in) and demanded identification. Professor Gates squawked -- and the officer/umpire handcuffed him and carted him down to the station. Charges were soon dropped when details were sorted out, but conversation about the incident – in print, on the air, in the Rose Garden and around kitchen tables all over the country, has continued, often with great passion.

And well it should. Yet from where I sit – and squawk, the conversation should not be about the details of the incident – or whether or not Professor Gates or Officer Crowley is racist; but on the dimensions of the strike zone of civil rights. The Constitution has spelled those dimensions out, and decades of civil rights laws have reinforced them; but in reality one’s civil rights are whatever an umpire says they are. And for decades, no – for a couple of centuries, the umpire– be it the police department, the school system, the church, a corporation or a community association, has been taught to favor those who are white and punish those who are not.

Most of us have learned this cultural prejudice – and have adapted to it. We need to unlearn it. We need to create a strike zone for civil rights that is fair and consistent for everyone. Our diocesan mandate to anti-racism training speaks to this need for learning and change. It is hard work, because habits die hard. But it is necessary work; indeed it is Gospel work. In response to the number of conversations that have been generated as a result of the Cambridge incident, we are thinking of renaming our work anti-racism “dialogue” rather than “training”, to dispel any illusion that a training can provide some sort of certification that renders one an expert. We are all life-long learners on this one.

Around the same time that the Cambridge incident took place, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a twenty-six paragraph response to two actions of General Convention, which offered pastoral generosity to same gender blessings and full inclusion of gay and lesbian people at all levels of ministry. Perhaps out of need, and certainly because of circumstance, the Archbishop has become the de facto umpire for the wonderfully diverse, deeply faithful yet fractious Anglican Communion. Clearly, he wants to hold the Communion together. To his credit, the Archbishop is deliberate in thought – and in expression. He is a gifted scholar. He draws on the insight from scripture and the clarity of prayer. Yet in two places, he refers to homosexuality as a lifestyle (“their chosen lifestyle is not one that the Church’s teaching sanctions [paragraph 8]; “it is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences” [paragraph 9]). His phrases cause me to squawk, because the Archbishop has tried to change the strike zone.

Homosexuality is not an issue of lifestyle; it is a matter of identity. We don’t choose our identity; we are challenged to claim our identity as God’s gift to us. The Church that I have chosen to serve is about the mission of helping all of God’s children claim and celebrate their identity as imago dei – as created in the image of God. The heartbreak for so many these past decades is that countless numbers of people have been taught to hide or deny their sexual identity – or have been pressured to choose a lifestyle that keeps anxious and angry umpires at bay, at the expense of their soul’s health and their true giftedness.

The Episcopal Church has made a rather courageous decision to reverse this trend, to be honest about who we are as a church -- and to affirm the giftedness of all among us. We are daring to create a strike zone that provides opportunity to all, and does linguistic violence to none.


  1. Nicely stated Mark.

    Two parallel events, same metaphor, shared problem requiring similar solutions.

    peace and prayers,


  2. Human Rights Act 1998 (in Great Britain) forbids discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual preference. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury prevents an American Bishop from performing the duties of his emploment, precisely on the basis of his sexual preference. Why should church law or policy so deliberately and categorically contradict the letter and spirit of the secular law? Why should any church in the Anglican Communion simultaneously be asked to endorse one document promulgated by the United Nations (Millennium Development Goals) and to dismiss another United Nations Document (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)? I think the Episcopal Church should endorse the Universal Declaration once and for all and demand that other entitiies in the Anglican Communion rise to this standard of practice.


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