February 3: “Ring Out” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Let’s review, shall we? Tuesday, November 3, 2020 will be 100 years and one day since Tuesday, November 2, 1920, the day of the first federal election in which all female citizens of the United States were entitled to cast ballots. Any year that starts with 19 is beginning to sound like ‘a long time ago’ to me, but the truth is that until that election day two long, or eventful, – or both – years from now, it has not been 100 years since women even had the franchise. Most of us in this room will not live to see the day, in 2064, when women have been voting for even half the history of this nation.
Another bit of math, if I may. The same kind of calculations show that on election day 1964, the black citizens of the United States had been eligible to vote for exactly half of the country’s history. Yet it was not until the passage of the federal voting rights act the following year, in 1965, that as many as half of the eligible black voters across the nation were registered, let alone permitted to actually cast a ballot. White men had quite a long time in which to construct a legislative playing field that favored the inertia of their privilege, and it is facetious to claim that we have yet arrived at a point where anything truly level has since been achieved.
And yet, I submit that any degree of progress is not to be despised. According to Politico.com, in the 2018 general elections, there was a wave of firsts elected to the United States House of Representatives for the 116th Congress. A record-breaking 103 women have been elected or re-elected into the United States House of Representatives, and 42 of them are joining congress for the first time. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women ever elected to either house of Congress, with Tlaib the first Palestian-American woman, and Omar the first Somali American of either gender to be elected to Congress. Also in this election, Angie Craig became the first lesbian mother to be elected to Congress. Sharice Davids became the first lesbian Native American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Deb Haaland became the first Native American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman to be elected into either house of Congress. The 116th Congress is also on track to be one of the most diverse yet; there are 24 people of color in the freshman class, and many of them will represent mostly white districts. Andy Kim, Democrat of New Jersey, will be the first Korean-American in Congress in 20 years.
While all these shifts appear to me cause for celebration, it should be acknowledged that both legislative houses continue to consist in the majority of white men, who do not reflect the overall demographics of American citizens in gender, race, sexual identity, physical ability, or economic status. We have taken a step in the right direction, but we have quite a long way yet to go. So the question arises, Why does it matter, this advent of women, and of various marginalized identities, in our nation’s highest deliberative body? And with that, a companion question; What is it that we expect from these new representatives?
I would like to propose, first of all, that the difference that women and other people with historically marginalized identities make in representative and leadership roles, like congressional offices, is not by virtue of their inherent virtue. I believe that women as a group and as individuals can be just as greedy and selfish as men as a group and as individuals. There may be some moments in life when female hormones drive toward affiliation and male hormones drive toward aggression, but either of these directions can lead to collective mistakes, which is why a balance might be most helpful – in an all other things being equal scenario. However, as I have just reviewed, we 21st century Americans do not live in that scenario, or anything really like it.
Which is, in part, why the story of Sky Woman, falling to into the embrace of the creatures to create Turtle Island, is one we would do well to remember. It is the culture of toxic masculine aggression and privilege that needs to be challenged, not the existence of masculinity in itself. A creation story in which a male god creates a male human, with woman as a subservient afterthought, and charges humanity to rule and subdue everything else, calls into being a certain kind of social structure, and a certain set of default assumptions about the superiority of maleness. Western European culture has been informed by those assumptions at least since it adopted the scripture traditions of Judaism and Christianity, or perhaps since the invention of agriculture, cities, and iron weapons. Either way, it has been quite a long while. And so it seems to me that whatever essential differences between male and female leadership may or may not exist, there are certainly culturally created differences to be observed, two of which are worth our attention this morning.
The first of these is that for either a person of color or a woman to win a popular election is to change the default narrative of white male privilege. It is a deviation from the expected, something to notice, as we are doing right now. Whether or not that successful candidate goes on to accomplish anything of significance while in office, the very fact of their victory subverts the paradigm of dominance, and implies the potential for other kinds of changes to follow. If there can be a woman senator, a Native American congressperson, a lesbian mother, a Muslim, a Somali-American, then what else becomes thinkable? When a photograph of the House of Representatives shows a variety of genders and a diversity of complexions, it is proof that something different is going on – this is not your father’s Congress. The inertia of privilege does not always prevail; it can be overcome. You have to be able to imagine a new order before you can prepare to start living into it. These new members of the House, just by being who they are where they are, exist as a promise and a prophecy – that America does have before it the possibility of a greatness that it has never yet experienced; that we could choose yet again to shed the constraints of outdated assumptions, and live into a more authentic equality.
That image of a new congress will make some people cling ever more fearfully to a way of being in the world that is dying, and deserves to die – which means there will be conflict, and confusion and pain and tragedy ahead of us, no doubt. But for some of us, that image creates a hunger for the new way that we have not yet seen, but can almost taste. We do not yet know the exact shape of it; and we do not yet know what it will demand of us, here on the threshold – what sacrifice of privilege and comfort, what wrenching change in our unreflective patterns of thought, what reconsideration of what we have always held as true, and always thought we knew. It is no occasion for complacency, of that I am sure. The wild bells of a new era are calling us, says Tennyson, not to certain victory, but to adventure, and new possibility.
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Our old assurances, with all their comfort, must be given up, if we are to ring in a new era.
The other difference I see as women move into power and leadership as a cohort, rather than outstanding individual exceptions, is a shift from the vision of heroic personal achievement to the work of co-creation. Sky Woman does not fall into the world and start arbitrarily creating stuff; she works with the creatures who find her to make a livable place for herself and all the others, giving thanks for their gifts and using them with respect. The older I get, the more I learn that little if anything has ever actually been accomplished by lone heroes, rejecting both the constraints and the assistance of community. Rather, resistance to injustice is always a collective effort, a function of gathering and organizing and experimenting and trying again until a critical moment comes, when energy and memory, and resources and trust are where they need to be in order for transformation to ring out. Which is not to say that women don’t have egos, or don’t want to be at center stage; we do. But we have also learned from long and hard lessons in this culture how essential it is to lay groundwork, and to stay connected and accountable to others. I am cautiously hopeful that this is an artifact of the struggle against privilege that we may carry with us into roles of power. Women surely know that we will not create a place at the table of decision-making by our own heroic selves without help, and I urge us not to forget the importance of co-creation once we have arrived at that place.
Of course, there is nothing to stop other legislators, including men, from taking this lesson to heart as well. Nothing but the inertia of success, if the heroic model has always worked for them, and reflects the way that the world actually is structured in their minds. I suspect that one of the many charming things about Barak Obama, for instance, was that he learned the fragility of individual heroism early in his work as a community organizer, and even though he was routinely cast in that role of uniquely exceptional super person, he never forgot that he actually represented the combined efforts of a coalition. It’s not quite the same thing as personal modesty as opposed to arrogance, though it sometimes gets described that way. But it is a quality of leadership that is not inherently limited to any particular gender.
In fact, there are progressive men, including white men, in the new congress too, and that is as it should be; we need their creativity and dedication, too. We need them to leverage their privilege and their access to the workings of power to make a difference along with their colleagues. If they listen, they too can hear the bells of change.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson described these in his 1850 elegy, inspired by the English tradition of rural churches with sets of bells to ring elaborate patterns called “changes” to signal midnight on New Year’s Eve, much as New Yorkers now watch the lighted ball drop down a flagpole in Times Square. The poet and his sister were grieving the death of her fiancé and his good friend, and Tennyson makes the connection between accepting loss and the end of the old order, for the sake of the new and better world that might then become possible. I wish I could read this poem to all my sisters and friends who are now at work in our national capitol, who give me such renewed hope; I wish I could share it with all those there, whose decisions will shape the good or evil of our country over the next two years, and beyond – so many of its lines resound with utterly fresh relevance in the face of our present challenges. Instead, I share it with you, dearly beloved, because all of us must gather hope and courage to go forward, to leave the comforts of the past, if they stand in the way of greater justice, equality, and freedom from bondage.
I want to let you know that I have edited just a bit, so that the gendered theological language of the 19th century does not get in our way, and I want to give you some time at the end of each verse, to think about how these lines reflect our present as well as past struggles. You must picture the poet, on a cold, windy, moonlit winter night, hearing the clang the church bells across the sky, tolling out the old year, and announcing the new.
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to humankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander, and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant soul and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the good that is to be.
There is change in the winds, my friends; new faces, new hands to shape the dawning future, the good and the bad. Bless them as they go about this work, oh, bells; call them to courage and candor, to integrity and insight; ring in them as a summons to let go of what must pass away so that our visions of a better world may come to be. Ring in us all; in our minds and hearts, in our spirits and our bones, so that we may follow leaders of vision and honesty; so that we may give them our support, and have their backs in the upheavals before us. Ring out, and call us, ourselves, to leadership in our times, to be valiant souls in the service of the common good – the good that is to be. Ring out, and let us reply to your call with our song.