By The Reverend John Ohmer
Dear reader, if you are LGBT, or a person of color, or economically poor, or female, or living with a disability, or Muslim or Jewish, or don’t identify with any faith tradition, thank you for reading, but please know that this plea is not directed at you. Instead, I have a question for those who, like me, are straight, white, wealthy, male, able-bodied, and Christian.
(And by the way, by “wealthy,” I don’t mean Bill-Gates-wealthy or famous-actor-wealthy. I mean relatively wealthy, which is most of us.)
My plea stems from a racism reconciliation workshop I recently attended at Dulin United Methodist Church, and is indebted to a panel discussion at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.
The discussion had to do with “what is the role of the religious voice in the pubic square?”
However you define “the public square” – and with the advent of television and the internet, the definition is changing – the public square is the place or places where people show up and speak up. The public square is where people have a voice, and a say.
One of the takeaways from the Temple Micah discussion is that the public square is noisy. And part of the reason the public square is so noisy is that there are so many more people in it. So many people are aggrieved, and airing their grievances.
That is not a bad thing. That is a good thing – a very good thing. As one of the panelists, Riv-Ellen Prell, a professor at the University of Minnesota pointed out, our country is wrestling with an important question: “who – by law and social custom – is entitled to speak, and have a say, and make a difference?”
Here’s the thing: in this country, for too many years, those of us who are straight, white, wealthy, male, able-bodied, and Christian had a monopoly on that public square.
We were the ones – pretty much the only ones – who were entitled to speak, have a say, and make a difference.
But over the years, there’s been a broadening going on, as our country wrestled with the questions of “who is entitled to show up, speak, have a say, make a difference?”
Over the years, the public square has expanded as more people and voices were added: people of various faiths and of no faith tradition. Workers. The poor. Women. People of color. People who are LGBT.
Those insights from Temple Micah help me make sense of the controversies over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, bakery-owners refusing to make wedding cakes for gay couples, and the removal of Confederate monuments.
Because when I see how visceral those controversies are – how deeply emotional and intense they are – it tells me that something more is going on than just the physical actions of someone taking a knee, baking a cake, or removing a piece of granite or bronze.
And I think the “something more going on” is that the people behind the controversies are more than individuals: they represent, and remind us of, something larger going on.
What I mean is this: I think the Colin Kaepernicks of this world – and the David Mullins and Charlie Craigs of this world (the gay couple suing the Colorado bakery), and the anti-Confederate monument people – those people represent not just their individual causes, but their very presence in the public square reminds us of something bigger going on.
And that’s the end of the straight, white, wealthy, male, able-bodied, Christian monopoly.
Which brings me to the question I want to ask of you, my fellow monopolizers:
Would you join me in just being quiet and listening for a while?
We need to listen. Really listen – not just nod and wait for our turn to speak again.
We need to stand with people long enough to hear them – really hear them.
That’s a new role for most of us. And it’s a much more difficult role than the one we’re used to playing, which is hogging the microphone, spotlight, and power.
But again, the problem is not more people and voices in the public square, the problem is that people are talking AT each other instead of WITH each other.
When people don’t feel they are being heard, they talk louder. And I don’t know about you, but when people talk louder, I either talk louder myself, or plug my ears and retreat.
So – in the best spirit of American egalitarianism and democracy – instead of fighting against free enterprise of speech and power, we straight, white, wealthy, male, able-bodied, Christians need to listen to – and then, when asked – help amplify voices other than our own.
The Reverend John Ohmer is the Rector at the Falls Church Episcopal