Do you remember when Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court? Within minutes of her appointment, there was a raging battle over a comment she had once made about a “wise Latina.” That phrase came to dominate much of the debate over her appointment—even though it was a single phrase uttered over the course of a lengthy career as a lawyer and judge. I remember thinking at the time, “Ummm… aren’t we missing the point here? Isn’t there so much more to talk about?”
Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings came to mind recently as I reflected on the blow-up over a sermon Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached in Venezuela in May. For about two sentences, she gave a reading of Paul’s actions in a passage in the Acts of the Apostles that was unusual. Although the rest of the sermon was about the glory of God—a deeply Biblical concept—conservative Anglicans pounced and used those few sentences as an opportunity to do one of their favourite things—beat up the Presiding Bishop.
There were some people in the world who were not going to support Sotomayor’s confirmation no matter what. By blowing the “wise Latina” comment out of proportion, they gave themselves cover to do what they were already going to do—and tried to bring a few others along with them.
Similarly, there are people in the church who will never find a single redeemable feature in the tenure of Jefferts Schori. So out of all the words and sentences and paragraphs the Presiding Bishop produces, they take a handful of sentences and blow them into an imbroglio of epic proportions—just to confirm themselves in the apparent rightness of what they already believe.
This is not to say that it is not worth debating either the “wise Latina” comment or the two sentences from the Presiding Bishop’s sermon. But it is to say that when conversation comes to focus so exclusively on these tiny portions, our common life suffers because we miss the much larger picture.
I’m not saying it’s not alright to disagree in the church. Nor I am saying it’s not alright to take issue with the Presiding Bishop—I’ve done it. What I am saying, however, is that artificially restricting our focus—as we have seen in this sermon “debate”—misses the point. And this is far from the only instance of this trend. We see something similar in the common view that the only salient feature of the “African church” is its views on sexuality. We end up arguing with caricatures of our opponents, instead of the real person God has created them to be.
Christians believe that honouring and valuing the whole of what someone has to offer—the whole of who God has created them to be—is a central theological virtue. In conversation and engagement with the whole of someone, we come to see what they have to offer to and receive from our common life together. Instead, most of the time, the church seems intent on spending all of its energy on manufactured and illusory controversies, thereby neatly avoiding substantive, honest, and mutually enriching conversation.
It’s one thing when Congress does this—but the church has a much deeper, broader, and exciting calling than that. We ignore it at our peril.