When I was a child, I enjoyed a lot of reading. When I was very young I would go to bed with a pile of books beside me so I could read them to fall asleep but have them near when I woke up. As I got older I read stories like the Hardy Boys and the Three Detectives and Encyclopedia Brown. What I never noticed was that all the characters in these books were white, usually white men or boys. They didn’t make a big deal about their whiteness. It’s just who they were or at least how they were portrayed on the cover.
When I got to middle school and high school (in the mid-1980s) and we were taught American Literature, it was mostly comprised of the works of white men (usually troubled white men). F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Sherwood Anderson. Again, they didn’t make a big deal about being white men (though Hemingway made a big deal about being a real man) and we didn’t talk in class about them being white. Now and then they would trot out a book called Kaleidoscope that had short stories by more modern authors and authors of color, but when we were asked to discuss “great” literature, it was typically the works of white men.
When I was in college and seminary, that was when I became aware of people criticizing the white male as the dominant voice of American culture. And you don’t have to scratch the surface of history too deeply to find stories of white men doing bad things, terrible things in order to be that dominant voice or keep that dominance. So we started looking for other voices, voices like James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, voices like Gabriel Marquez, Alice Walker and Barbara Kingsolver. But there are only so many hours in the day and so many books you can read and when you start reading other voices, you don’t have as much time for the classic books of white men.
And they are good books and they still hold up today, but what we have discovered in the past 40 years is that there are other interesting stories and interesting voices in the world. When I was growing up as a white man I read books about people who looked like me written by people who looked like me. Today as I look in my children’s rooms, my daughter is currently rereading a book called Wonder, by Raquel Palacio, the story of a boy with facial deformities trying to fit into a new class. She recently finished the biography of a transgendered teenager. My son likes sports books and recently finished the biography of an African runner. His favorite book of late is A Home on the Field, the true story of how the children of Hispanic poultry factory workers (some legal and some illegal immigrants) developed a state winning soccer team in rural North Carolina. They are listening to other voices, more diverse voices, and not so much in protest as they simply find them more interesting.
This is one of the transitions that America is going through right now as we become more diverse. That is simply what is happening. It’s far too late to stop it with border walls and immigration bans. America is becoming more diverse and that freaks people out. The story of dominant white males is being crowded out by other stories. And even worse than being told that your story is bad, is being told that your story is boring or irrelevant.
At no point in this next part am I looking for someone to say, “You poor middle-aged white guy,” but my experience as a white guy in the ELCA has been one of seeming increasingly irrelevant. Remember, up until the 1970s, Lutheran pastors were pretty much all white men. Diversity was whether you were a Jensen or Nielsen or Schultz or Schmidt. But as the ELCA became more diverse, the stories of pastors were far more interesting, stories of women who started down a career path and then became pastors when that new path was opened to them , African-American men and women who grew up in the urban housing projects, people who struggled to make ends meet during their education and overcame the barriers of a resistant church and resistant congregations, stories of bilingual pastors leading aging congregations from potluck suppers with jello salads to fiestas with homemade tortillas. My story: I went to college and then to seminary. I didn’t struggle to pay for it because I grew up with some advantages, had some really good pizza in Chicago and now here I am. It is not that interesting and tends to get pushed to the side because it is just a standard, white guy in America story. And I am fine with it getting pushed aside because other stories need to be heard and celebrated and acknowledged.
Looking at some of the rhetoric of the election and how the voting broke down, some of Tuesday’s results are a pushback by a white America saying, “Pay attention to us. Don’t push us aside. We are still relevant,” a group for whom making America great again means returning to a time of cultural relevance and dominance. And the problem with that is America has changed. According to the Pew Research Foundation, about 1 in 3 eligible voters this year were people of color. In the year 2000, it was about 1 in 5. The problem is that this is not the same America as when it was “great” and even then it was not great for everybody.
And as I thought about this, I also thought about the church and how often I hear us pining for the past, the big choirs and the Sunday schools, and we also have this feeling of being pushed to the side and being irrelevant to the conversation. And there are parts of the church that have become irrelevant. Most of America doesn’t care about hymns and pipe organs. Most of America doesn’t care about historic buildings. Most of America doesn’t care about committees and sub-committees. That is all cultural stuff that we have built up and has allowed us to forget why it is we gather. We gather for the most relevant reason, because of the love of God in Christ and we are sent with the love of God in Christ to the world. And if we are grounded in that love and living that love then we are, by definition, relevant.
It was very tempting today to dig deep into the lesson from Malachi with its message of God burning up the evildoers or Jesus’ message of “Everything will be thrown down.” Now that the election is over, it feels like people want to say, “That talk was just how you win the campaign.” I know of many people who are wondering that if hate and insults is how you get elected, we have a broken system. We end the campaign with ethnic groups and many women wondering what their real status is in America. I’ve heard a couple of stories of Muslim children, children of American citizens, waking up on Wednesday and wondering if they get to stay in the country. So it is tempting to take the path of panic and say, “Everything will be thrown down.”
Yet regarding the election, we are a nation of laws, so we will probably have 4 years where half of America has a president it doesn’t really like (but that has been the case most of my life). I guess Nixon got 60% of the popular vote in 1972 but we know how that turned out. If people can keep their fingers off buttons, half us will enjoy 4 years and half of us will endure 4 years and then we will see.
So I want to close with a focus on the final words of the reading from 2 Thessalonians. First we have Paul challenging idleness in the community. I guess you can keep that in mind as you fill out your Time and Talent Sheets this week. (Anyone unwilling to work, gets no cake). But he closes with a simple statement, yet one that is deep in relevance. “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”
This election shows that we as a country may not always agree on what is right, but as a community of faith we have been given some pretty significant clues. Love is always right. Compassion is always right. Looking at a person, whatever their story or their status or their political leaning, and seeing a child of God is always right. If we hope to be relevant in the next few years, it will not be because organ music comes back in style, it will be because we lived out the love of God. So whether you feel disappointed by the election, or fearful because of the election or elated by it, the message is the same, “Do not be weary in doing what is right.”