Greater empathy is needed in the church and the nation, according to a woman facing a challenge to her election as a United Methodist bishop about her same-sex civil marriage.
Karen Oliveto of the Denver-based Mountain Sky Episcopal Area spoke March 27 at United Methodist-affiliated Boston University School of Theology as part of the seminary’s Lowell Lecture Series.
In her address, the former pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial United Methodist Church alluded several times to resistance within the United Methodist Church to her sexual relationship to another woman. Asking “how do we tell our own truth without denying the truth of another?” Oliveto made an appeal to foster “othering” in order to “celebrate diversity as a sign of God’s infinite imagination.”
Oliveto – whose episcopacy may be affected by a hearing before the denomination’s top court later this month – called for regaining “the power of empathy” to see difference as “a necessary part of healthy community.”
“These are certainly troubling times we’re living in,” Oliveto diagnosed before a classroom of students, faculty and visitors. “As I reflect upon our history as a nation, I don’t need a climate change expert to rank the current climate in our nation as one of most chilling.”
Oliveto alluded to the recent U.S. presidential election, declaring, “The triangulation of our populace has been nearly flawlessly executed, pitting races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, political persuasions, classes and religions against each other, creating a myth of scarcity which has us all competing with each other for a piece of the pie, rather than a sharing of the pie.”
“At that same time, we who are United Methodists are watching our beloved denomination experience a rupture as we stand on a theological and cultural divide,” Oliveto noted. “The tension is so great that many wonder if the United Methodist Church can remain intact. Voices talk at each other rather than with each other, holy conferencing becomes a chess game rather than listening for the spirit of God.”
Oliveto asserted that a fracturing of humanity was underway “with an understanding of who is in and who is out.”
This “othering”, she explained, is currently most visible in the public square conversation regarding the building of a border wall and attempts at a ban on admitting refugees from some countries.
“The darker the skin, the more to be feared,” Oliveto summarized. “The more unlike our speech or religion, the more suspect. So we build a wall to keep us in and them out.”
Oliveto said this was in contrast to the Apostle Paul’s writing in the Epistle to the Galatians that “God keeps pushing borders wider not to keep some out, but to keep us all in.”
Oliveto proposed that there is an “empathy deficit” in the United States and an inability to understand others’ experiences. “Injustice increases and communication breaks down.”
“When we refuse to hear the truth of the lived experience of others, we become oppressors, exercising power over others as a way to keep ourselves safe – at least, that’s what we try to convince ourselves we are doing,” Oliveto stated.
Recounting a black college professor of hers in the 1970s who told of being repeatedly pulled over on his way to campus, Oliveto said that “It forced me to see my own privilege and began my commitment to be an ally in the dismantling of racism.”
Showing a photo of a Trump administration cabinet meeting as “a more recent example of a lack of empathy” Oliveto claimed “white, presumably heterosexual men decide they know what’s best for women’s healthcare and reproductive rights.”
“Sameness is not sacred”
Oliveto summarized the gospel message as to love God and love others, “but without an integration of empathy and love, love continues to other. It is what fosters the saying ‘love the sin but hate the sinner’ – or the ultimate in passive-aggressive love, ‘bless your heart’.”
Oliveto called for the learning of spiritual practices and disciplines that “open us up to the depth of empathy which connects us to the experiences faced by others in the human family.”
Healthy spirituality, Oliveto claimed, doesn’t provide black-and-white answers but enables life with ambiguity, “stretching ourselves beyond our own comfort zone as we learn of lives that are so different from our own.”
Oliveto proposed that spirituality opens the heart to differences and encourages curiosity.
“Sameness is not sacred,” Oliveto stated. “Diversity is a reflection of God’s creativity.”
Describing her visits to churches across her episcopal area, Oliveto said “I confess that I have encountered churches in communities that see diversity as a threat, or accept a small bit of tokenism to assure themselves that ‘we really aren’t exclusive at all’.”
“We are living in a world where love is in short supply. What is being replaced is an intolerance that is permeating violence in our communities,” Oliveto asserted.