the way we live now

The overthrow of personal responsibility
Geoffrey Kirk
on American musicals and Bishops

Admirers of the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim will remember Sergeant Krupke, the ineffectual beat police officer in West Side Story. Krupke is old style NYPD, before jerky camera angles, Sipowicz and Simone. Sgt Krupke’s problem with the Jets is that they are way ahead of him. They have deduced from the sociology-speak and psycho-babble, to which they have been relentlessly subjected, that the concepts of individual responsibility and culpability have been so eroded that they can cock a snook at the law and its enforcers:

Riff: Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
you gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ upke,
that gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
our fathers all are drunks;
Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks.

Jets: Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset.
We never had the love that every child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
we’re misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good.

Riff: There is good!

Jets: There is good, there is good,
there is untapped good
Like inside, the worst of us is good.


The Jets, in other words, portray themselves as the victims of other people’s crimes, rather than the perpetrators of their own. Officer Krupke is old fashioned enough to think otherwise. But they are smart enough to be able to marshal in their own defence all the clichés of the caring classes.

Another movie musical – La Cage aux Folles – takes the matter one stage further:

I am what I am
I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity.
I bang my own drum;
Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty.
And so what if I love
    each sparkle and each bangle?
Why not see things from a different angle?
Your life is a sham
Till you can shout out: ‘I am what I am’.

The Gloria Gaynor torch song and gay anthem defiantly proclaims pride in deviance. Look at me: and if you cannot accommodate to my lifestyle, at least admire my openness and honesty.

The brightest amongst you will by now have guessed that this is an article about Bishop Gene Robinson. And of course you are right. For Gene has neatly expressed the next stage in the argument. He has added to his assertions about homosexuality similar and equally unsupportable assertions about alcoholism. And then he has neatly removed any element of personal culpability from both.

In all this Gene was simply harvesting for his own personal benefit the inchoate assumptions of the American academic left: that no one is ever really to blame, and that for every lifestyle choice there is an equal and opposite therapy. Gene is on record as having undergone behavioural therapy twice: first to remedy his same sex attractions, then to deal with his alcohol addiction.

This is about par for the course for an increasing number of Episcopal clergy. The American Church has bought into secular counselling agencies in a big way. Professionals in everything from family relationships to conflict resolution are the ECUSA answer to increasing dysfunction. They have all but wholly replaced the former traditions of ghostly counsel and time spent on retreat or in the quite healing of religious community. As the Church more and more rejects belief in the redeeming power of the Gospel, salvation by therapy becomes its chosen way. Gene could not have put the case better than in a letter to his diocese in which he compared his return from therapy as akin to the Church’s Easter faith: True Resurrection as someone once called it.

But the Easter faith of the Church is not only about new starts and fresh beginnings. It is also about sin and the costly atonement made for it on the cross. It is about accepting responsibility for who we are, what we are and what we do. Some of that, of course, will be strictly beyond our control and not of our choosing. But we must shoulder it nevertheless – as we watch our Saviour shoulder burdens not his own.

Anyone who has waded through the volumes of self-approving communiqués from official agencies of the American Church in the past ten years will know that the language of sin and transgression is no longer a part of its vocabulary. ECUSA has become a Panglossian world where everything is for the best: a tragic place in which bishops have become spin doctors and where they believe their own spin.

I do not know the extent to which either homosexuality or alcoholism is to be attributed to genes-with-a-small-g – or even if they are. But I do know that genes are not things to give in to. To allow oneself to assume that conduct is genetically or sociologically determined may seem like a species of benign liberalism (‘God made me a homosexual’; ‘It’s just our bringin’upke’); but it leads inevitably to something more sinister. A world in which everyone thought they could pursue with impunity what they supposed to be innate would be more like the Third Reich than the Catholic Church. Bishop Gene must know this; but he seems to have chosen simply to ignore it and to preach the opposite.

Speaking in a pastoral letter of his ‘increasing dependence on alcohol’ Robinson says that he had considered it ‘a failure of will or discipline on my part, rather than a disease over which my particular body simply has no control except to stop drinking altogether’.

The parallels with his growing understanding of his homosexuality are poignant, especially when one takes into account the fact that, in America at least, alcoholism is fifty percent higher among active homosexuals than among the general population.

Modish though it is, the bishop’s reading of his condition needs to be challenged. Granted that alcoholism is a disease, since when has it ceased being a ‘failure of will or discipline’? ‘The self-exculpating dismissal of will and discipline as irrelevant to disordered desires,’ wrote Richard John Neuhaus in the American journal First Things, ‘is always a morally dubious step.’

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