The empty space in the photograph

By Steven Charleston

What do you know about Joseph Stalin? I ask that odd question because a momentary glance back to his era in the old Soviet Union gives us a useful image (or perhaps, the lack of one) to use in considering our situation in the Anglican Communion.

Stalin liked for people to disappear. Those he purged actually did vanish in a very real physical sense because he had them executed, but they also vanished from memory by being erased from public photographs.

This idea was nothing new. Egyptian pharaohs had been chiseling out the face of unpopular or discredited predecessors thousands of years before Joe Stalin took the hint. But by the age of mass media, the process had become more refined. Historic photographs that showed a line of leaders waving to the crowd were simply “doctored” by having the offending person erased. It worked very well, with only one small detail: it left an empty space in the photograph where someone used to be standing. In some instances this was hard to detect, but in many others, it was glaringly obvious. Like a kid who has lost a front tooth, the line up on the platform looked odd with one big empty space in the picket-fence perfection.

What’s wrong with this picture? That became a sort of joke for Soviet watchers. You could tell, literally, who was in and out in Soviet politics by seeing who disappeared from the official photographs. The doctrine of erasing history like this seems ridiculous, of course, but it continues to be practiced under the rubric, “out of sight/out of mind”.

Now please don’t make any quantum leaps of comparison between Stalinist Russia and the Anglican Communion, because that would be silly, but also please do think about this one, small, but important point: when the official photograph of the bishops at Lambeth is taken, will we notice the person who has been erased (in advance) from the picture?

And if we do, what does that tell us about the integrity of the institution that would do such a thing? I am not attempting to make any exaggerated points here beyond holding up an image of the assembled bishops and asking: “what’s wrong with this picture?” Someone is missing.

As Anglicans, we should be ashamed that Gene Robinson has been disappeared from Lambeth, but we should keep that image always before us as a reminder: if it can happen to one, it can happen to all and to any. Gene was erased for pure politics, nothing more. His disappearance was designed to keep power in the hands of the status quo. His absence makes us all anxious, embarrassed and uncertain. Are we more secure now that we pretend one of us doesn’t exist? Are we more credible before the masses? Have we fooled anyone out there who is watching? Not likely. We are no more successful at doing this than Joe Stalin or Ramses II. We make ourselves look like what we are: a vacant space where leadership ought to be.

At the very least, the rest of us who still get to smile for the camera should acknowledge that as we wave at the crowd.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS’s Stepping Stones. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church.

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