On Sunday morning, Bishop Gene Robinson spoke as part of the Interfaith Conference at the College in Thompson Memorial Chapel. Robinson was one of two keynote lecture speakers. The topic of the conference was “Forgiving the Unforgivable.” Audi Scott Williams, the other keynote speaker, spoke on Saturday.
The purpose of the conference was to create a forum for students to engage in dialogue across different religions and speak about what each defines as unforgivable as well as how communities work to forgive and reconcile. Chaplains and three student delegations from 10 colleges in New England were invited.
The conference consisted of lectures, panels, smaller group discussions, worship opportunities and service projects. The chaplains of the College chose the topic “Forgiving the Unforgivable” in part because they believe it is timely given the current events taking place in the United States and the world.
Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding introduced Robinson. Robinson, originally from Lexington, Ky., started on a pre-medicine track and ended up majoring in American Studies at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
He later went on to become the chaplain at the University of Vermont. He was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003 after serving as the Canon to the Ordinary, or assistant to the bishop. In 1986 he came out as gay and has advocated for full rights and marriage equality for gay, bisexual and transgender people at many levels. President Obama invited Robinson to give the invocation at the opening inaugural ceremonies in 2009.
Robinson started by stating that, while he could talk about his background and story and would answer any related questions, in his talk, he was going to focus on the topic of the conference: “Forgiving the Unforgivable.”
“No matter how badly people treat me, it does not relieve me of my responsibility to treat them like the child of God that they are,” Robinson said.
He explained that the urge to treat evil for evil is an urge that is very seductive but cannot be acted upon. “If we are all going to get along, it is not a bad thing to practice now,” Robinson said.
He then turned to the famous quote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” by Alexander Pope. Throughout his lecture, Robinson encouraged the audience to listen and think about the ways in which his thoughts compared to those of their own faiths. He used various biblical references to open up the discussion of forgiveness.
He then went on to discuss various acts that people can consider unforgivable, such as a drone killing a civilian, a country deporting the parents of a child and people selling other people into slavery and sex trafficking, among other examples. Robinson also brought for-ward several other ideas that he called “personal, unforgivable things,” such as rape and a drunk driver hitting another person.
“Sometimes the victim has to let go of the hurt and let go of the person who did that to them so they can get on with their lives,” Robinson said. “But what if I am the one who has done the unforgivable thing?”
Robinson believes that people are much more willing to forgive someone than they are to accept forgiveness. “We are our own worst enemy in a way,”
Robinson then posed the question, “What does justice command,?” tying it in with his beliefs about forgiveness.
Robinson told a story about a son who asked for his inheritance while his father was still alive. He then used the money and spent time trying to figure out how to apologize to his father. Meanwhile, his father stayed on the porch of their home waiting for him to come home. When he saw his son, he ran down the street and embraced him, not asking for an apology. Robinson used this to emphasize the strength of love.
He then turned to truth and reconciliation. “The last thing we want is the truth to be told because that is really painful,” Robinson said. Referencing the #BlackLivesMatter movement, he said, “[The movement] is important because they are telling the truth until we believe it.”
Robinson’s last point touched on blasphemy, or actions that go against the Holy Spirit. He finished by saying, “The only thing that is unforgivable is for us to walk away from each other.” He stated that people need to care for all classes, races and groups. “The only way that we are going to make process is if we hold on to one another as we fight it out,” Robinson said.
Robinson emphasized that if people are not willing to hang in there together there is not much hope for the future. “It is not nearly as easy as it sounds,” he said.
Robinson then opened up the floor for discussion. He was interested in hearing what the students in attendance had to say or ask. One student asked him what happens when people are aware of the unforgivable act they are doing and still go through with it. He responded, “The more evil the deed, the harder it is. Sometimes you just have to leave it over to God.”