Finding the Words
Assistant Professor of Homiletics
Columbia Theological Seminary
I try to talk to my family, my old high school classmates, my former congregants. I try to find the words to address the moral injury Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has wrought upon our society. Regretfully, these attempts have yielded nothing. Sometimes it feels like we are speaking different languages, them and I. But that’s not quite right. Our communicative challenges run deeper. We speak the same language, but our words don’t mean the same thing.
When “Mexican” now means rapist, and “Muslim” means terrorist, and “African American” means thug, and “transgender” means deviant, the relationship between a word’s meaning and how it is understood—its signification–is not easily broken. How do we find the words to advocate for the most vulnerable in our society in ways that resist these insidious connotations?
We seek the right words, but do we ever find the right words? How do we know? Behind every word is a desire, an intention to say something. If your experience is anything like mine, the more desperately we desire to say the right thing, the harder it is to say anything. And how do I, with my degrees and my titles and my GRE vocabulary, speak to Trump supporters? Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone sums up this dilemma perfectly. He writes,
There was a great deal of talk in this campaign about the inability of the ‘low-information’ voter to understand the rhetoric of candidates who spoke above a sixth-grade language level. We were told by academics and analysts that Trump’s public addresses rated among the most simplistic political rhetoric ever recorded. But that story cut in both directions, in a way few of us silver-tongued media types ever thought about. The People didn’t speak our language, true. But that also meant we didn’t speak theirs.
How may I find the words to communicate just how problematic I find the prospect of Trump’s presidency when I no long speak the same language as many of my family and friends?
What is more, I have been lazy with my words. Facebook memes and viral hashtags have sidled so inconspicuously into my consciousness that I rarely felt the need to find words to express how I was feeling, what I was thinking. I convinced myself that my shares and retweets—and my clicks on that increasingly ubiquitous thumbs-up emoji—were more sacrosanct than my conservative family members because they came from The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Slate. As a scholar, I’ve been trained to interrogate sources. The problem is that Trump supporters have been trained to do the same thing, and so they post quotes from Chuck Norris, Sean Hannity, and that guy from Duck Dynasty. Haven’t they studied source criticism?
The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that finding the words to provoke transformation or compassion is not really our problem. Words find us. They are drawn to us like metal to a magnet. For many on the left and the right, words are no longer about signification. They function as emotional echo chambers. They have no specific destination beyond their sender.
And the Bible isn’t much help. Finding the right words in the Bible is just as fraught. For every Micah 6:8, Amos 5:11, and Luke 4:16-21 there’s a Genesis 19, a Romans 1, a 1 Timothy 2:12. It doesn’t really matter what scripture says because we each wear our ideological safety vests and have our hermeneutical escape hatches to employ in a pinch.
The Bible is words. And lest we forget, these are words wielded by the victors of history. We do not find in scripture words from the Canaanites’ perspective or those who stood for tradition against Paul’s call for inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 15. We don’t get King Saul’s side of the story. The wordiness I find in scripture provides me with hope, with resources for enunciating the truth I desperately need. But it is that same wordiness that gives me pause, that confounds my speaking.
Where do we find words? Do we even believe in the power of words anymore? When words can be twisted and mutilated to spew venom, incite fear and violence, and demonize those different from us, are there words?
I’m reminded of that incident in John 8 when the religious authorities bring before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery, for which the punishment was death by stoning. John tells us that they brought this case to Jesus to trap him rhetorically. Instead of responding, Jesus begins to write in the sand. Finally, he says, “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone.” Why does Jesus write in the ground? What does he write? The history of interpretation on this text is vast and varied. These questions concern me less than what the act of Jesus’ writing in the sand teaches me about finding the words to respond to injustices today.
What I take away from Jesus’ response to his religious and political antagonists is that words are promiscuous and their meanings are as evanescent as letters in the dirt. This teaches me that the move toward justice is less about finding the right words than it is about making the right words for particular times and places. This gives me hope that we have the power to structure words to challenge the tyrannies of sexism, racism, heterosexism, and xenophobia. When we nurture this power in community, we leave the enemies of God’s grace, forgiveness, and inclusion speechless.
“They Don’t Want Us to Vote!”
Professor of Ethics and Practical Theology
Perkins School of Theology
I spent election day ferrying voters to the polls in east Texas. The toughest moments were watching as two voters who were disabled met resistance when they tried to vote without drivers’ licenses. Both of these voters had the proper documents and should have been able to vote without objection.
In one case, I accompanied a man with cognitive impairment to the polls. When he was challenged for having no photo ID, I recited the proper forms of identification for Texas voters. Without an advocate, it is unlikely he would have been able to vote. Later that same day I was escorting an older African American woman who ran into similar problems; when challenged for lack of photo id, she recited the Texas voting laws. She, too, was allowed to vote, though she probably would not have been if she had not known the law.
On the way home, we drove passed the place where she had voted in previous elections. Her old polling place was next to a bus stop; the close proximity made it possible for her and others without cars to get to the polls. The new polling place, by contrast, was a mile from the bus stop up a long hill on a road with potholes and no sidewalk. There is no way she could have made it up that hill with her walker. As we drove home, she cried and whispered again and again, mostly to herself, “They don’t want us to vote! They don’t want me to vote!”
Texas is just one of the states that enacted major voting restrictions in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Across the country, many states restricted voter registration drives, stiffened voter ID requirements, purged voting roles, and closed or moved polling places. These changes disproportionally affected people of color and the poor.
Journalists have argued about whether the new voting laws helped Donald Trump win the presidency. But the point is not whether the election results were changed; the point is that U.S. citizens were effectively disenfranchised. The changes are wrong whatever the election outcome. But, of course, a Trump administration is especially challenging on the issue of voting rights, because he and his aides have promised to increase restrictions on voting and even bragged about voter suppression before the election.1
These recent changes in voting laws occur in the context of a long history of African-American voter suppression. Until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed, southern states blocked the huge majority of Africans-Americans from registering and voting through various strategies. Soon after the 1870 passage of the 15th amendment, which gave voting rights to previously enslaved men, southern states began enacting laws to restrict African-American voting. Between poll taxes and literacy tests, most African-Americans were disenfranchised, as were many poor whites. Over time, as various strategies proved unconstitutional or ineffective, white leaders came up with new methods for African-American disenfranchisement. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and mandated federal supervision of voting laws in states that had had discriminatory practices. With federal supervision the formal barriers were largely dismantled.
In 2013, when the Supreme Court took away federal supervision of state voting laws, many states began the familiar routine of experimenting with voting restrictions. States limited voter registration drives and closed polling places, more often in neighborhoods populated by people of color. They enacted voting requirements for a government issued photo ID, which 25% of African-American voters and 16% of Latino/Latina voters do not have, compared with 8% of white voters. (This striking difference is easy to explain; the most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license; 24% of African-Americans and 17% of Latino/as do not own a car compared to only 7% of whites. And, of course, many people with disabilities also have no driver’s license or car.) As Martin Luther King put it in his 1957 speech Give us the Ballot, “The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”
When we look at the long history of voting restrictions, difficult questions confront us, not just as citizens in a democracy but also as people of faith. Foremost in my mind is this question: How could so many people of faith—both Democrats and Republicans–have enacted and allowed these voting restrictions, not only in the distant past but also in the last few years?
Theologians Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr believed that the problem was rooted in privilege and self-deception. People with privilege and power are loath to share it. And those same people have a strange way of convincing themselves that what they are doing is right; they deceive themselves. Niebuhr wrote, “The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterized by universal self-deception and hypocrisy. . . Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.”2
King drew on Niebuhr to highlight the way privileged groups deceive themselves into thinking that efforts to protect their own interests are actually for the common good. Because of the reluctance to share power, legal, judicial, and moral pressure is necessary. And because the reluctance is fueled by self-deception, full justice cannot be enacted until people of privilege begin to look honestly at their self-deception and see things as they really are.
King offers this challenge:
The future will depend on the ability of white America to honestly admit that it has been unjust, that racism is deeply rooted in this country, [and] that the white backlash is nothing but a new name for an old phenomenon . . . [It] will depend on the ability of white America to honestly face its racism and honestly respond to the demands that will not cease.3
The elderly African-American voter who I accompanied to the polls was right when she said, “They don’t want us to vote!” Many in our country, consciously or unconsciously, did not want her or others like her to vote. It’s time for U.S. citizens – whatever party, whatever faith – to admit that we have unfairly barred people from voting on the basis of ethnicity, class, and ability and have tried to cover our injustice with claims to righteousness. The only faithful response is to admit our sin and deceit and work together across lines of party, faith, and ethnicity, to protect the voting rights of all U.S. citizens.
1 Matt Taibbi, “President Trump: How America Got It So Wrong” Rolling Stone, accessed November 14, 2016, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/president-trump-how-america-got-it-so-wrong-w449783.
2 Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: a study in ethics and politics (New York: Scribner, 1932, 1960), 117.
3 Martin Luther King, “Martin Luther King Responds to Questions Pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement,” (Unpublished typescript), The King Center (1967), 12. http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/mlk-responds-questions-pertaining-civil-rights-movement (accessed December 2, 2016).