A post-election sermon


Tuesday’s election left many of us stunned, some of us distraught and some delighted. Only half the eligible electorate voted. While polls clearly proved incorrect, a CNN poll published in The Guardian newspaper in the UK found[1]

  • White voters, who make up 69% of the total, voted 58% for Trump and 37% for Clinton. Non-white voters, who make up 31% of the electorate, voted 74% for Clinton and 21% for Trump.
  • White men opted 63% for Trump and 31% for Clinton; white women voted 53% for Trump and 43% for Clinton.
  • Among non-college-educated whites, 67% voted for Trump – 72% of men and 62% of women.
  • Among college-educated whites, 45% voted for Clinton – 39% of men and 51% of women (the only white demographic represented in the poll where the former secretary of state came out on top). But 54% of male college graduates voted for Trump, as did 45% of female college graduates.
  • More 18- to 29-year-old whites voted for Trump (48%) than Clinton (43%).
  • Trump, meanwhile, while winning just 8% of the black vote, collected 29% of the Latino vote – two percentage points more than his 2012 predecessor, Mitt Romney.
  • Broken down by income bracket, 52% of voters earning less than $50,000 a year – who make up 36% of the electorate – voted for Clinton, and 41% for Trump.
  • But among the 64% of American voters who earn more than $50,000 a year, 49% chose Trump, and 47% Clinton.

I share these percentages in the context of a sermon to remind us no matter who we voted for, or against, that all the folks who cast their vote in a way we cannot fathom, are speaking to us, of their values and their discontent, their fears, their desire, and their hope. And thus, the outcome invites us to listen more closely to the disaffected and the hopeful, the afflicted and the comfortable—to recognize wherever we are on the political spectrum, Tuesday’s election was clearly a referendum on being heard.

Of the eight percent of African Americans and twenty-nine percent of Latino voters who supported Mr. Trump, I suspect what they heard was not simply the bellicose rhetoric that captured media attention, but something deeper—and it is a depth of listening to which we are called.

The poet David Whyte writes in his lovely book, Consolations,

What we call disappointment may be just the first stage of our emancipation into the next greater pattern of existence. …The great question in disappointment is whether we allow it to bring us to ground, to a firmer sense of our self, a surer sense of our world, and what is good and possible for us in that world, or whether we experience it only as a wound that makes us retreat from further participation. … Disappointment is just the initial meeting with the frontier of an evolving life, an invitation to reality, which we expected to be one particular way and turns out to be another, often something more difficult, more overwhelming, and strangely, in the end, rewarding.

So whether the disappointment relates to the outcome of the election, the divisiveness of the campaign, or the state of the country, the question applies to us all: do we seek a firmer sense of self, what is good and possible? Do we retreat or meet that new frontier? Do we suppose the rancor and racism, xenophobia and American exceptionalism really arose in this campaign or do we reckon with the fact that it’s been there all along, waiting for a large enough platform to amplify it? And thus the bitterness and bigotry that frighten so many of us are preexisting conditions. They dried the ink of convict leases and peonage agreements that kept African Americans enslaved long after the 13th Amendment. They pinch the handcuffed wrists of young men of color; they drape the discarded bodies of black and brown trans-women slain without notice. The visibility of white supremacy may owe a debt to the internet but nary an African American has missed its signs in the last two hundred and forty years. Bitterness and bigotry slough like lead in drainage pipes. Remember dear sisters and brothers, the poisoned waters of Flint happened prior this election. Some of us and most of our parents were alive when Japanese Americans were herded like cattle into internment camps.

The waves of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish and Italian immigrants met with an anti-Catholicism as staunch as the Islamophobia that bites us now, attesting to a fear as deep as the water table from which current iterations of hostility and xenophobia spring. The “micks” and “paddy’s,” the “guineas” and “dagos” hurled in the early twentieth century are the precursors of the ethnic slurs we hear now.

We did not awaken to a brave or terrifyingly new world on Wednesday. We crawled up and out and into the same world where millions of Syrians faced yet another day under the murderous reign of Bashar al-Assad. We arose to a night over in North Korea, where more than half its twenty-four million citizens subsist in abject poverty and all suffer under the rule of an erratic despot with nuclear weapons.

When panic threatens to overtake us, if we ground ourselves in the reality that every day, millions, perhaps billions, of people arise into circumstances far more ominous, that the people who manage to reach our country as refugees choose this nation because it remains safer than what they have left, we may gain “a surer sense of our world, what is good and possible for us” in it.

Perspective is useful always, and particularly now. The playwright Paul Zindel offers it in the opening monologue of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds:

He told me to look at my hand for a part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine. This part of me was formed from a tongue of fire that screamed though the heavens until there was our sun. And this part of me—this tiny part of me—was on the sun when it itself exploded and whirled into a great storm until the planets came to be. And this small part of me was then a whisper of the earth. When there was life perhaps this part of me got lost in a fern that was crushed and covered until it was coal. And then it was a diamond millions of years later—it must have been a diamond as beautiful as the star from which it had first come. Or perhaps this part of me got lost in a terrible beast, or became part of a huge bird that flew above the primeval swamps. And he said this thing was so small—this part of me was so small it couldn’t be seen—but it was there from the beginning of the world.

Each of us contains atoms recycled from the raw ingredients of evolution. We breath recirculated air. The molecules in our lungs, in the oxygenated blood that pumps through our veins, did not originate in us—no, they came from a world so much bigger than any of us, so much greater than this single moment, a flash in the pan of history. We are inextricably bound to all being, even the beings we never glimpse, or the very ones whose lives juxtapose our own. Let us be curious together. Why the hell would they vote that way? is not curiosity; it’s judgment. Curiosity asks: Would you tell me the story of how you came feel the way you do?

We know our stories connect us. It’s why we gravitate to stories, for that sense of connection: to each other, to history, to the “whisper of the earth.” We are born into sentient existence tethered by a literal cord severed at birth. Thus we spend our lives seeking reconnection with that which sustains us. In utero, we did not float in isolation. Our earliest experience of inchoate incarnation is the pulse of our mother’s blood becoming ours. All we know of this world upon birth is connection. We disconnect at our peril. The divisions we create deliver injustice, inequity, economies of exploitation—none of which return us to sources of sustenance.

Look at your hand for a part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine. In our cells, we carry and are carried by a knowing greater than our propensity for disconnection. We disconnect out of fear: that what we have is not enough, that someone else will take it, that we ourselves are lacking, that our best efforts and noblest intentions will gather the moss of disappointment on our headstone. We fear inconvenience. We fear change. We fear that our constraints will always be the same. That grief is inconsolable and justice, out of reach. We fear the unknown.

And as much as fear drives us apart, constructs an illusion of us and them, we share it just as surely as the molecules we inhale, exhaled by the mighty oak or giant sequoia.

This week I met with a student, a white eighteen-year-old young woman writing a research essay on police brutality. In trying to push her from report to essay, statement to idea, I ask why she cares enough to spend six or seven weeks writing about this topic. “Because it’s wrong. People should not be treated differently, badly, because of their race. We’re the same. It’s not fair.”

Her research reveals a common observation. George Zimmerman says he feared Travon Martin. Police who shoot unarmed black men also express fear that their lives are in danger.

“You and I might sit here and say ‘the fear is irrational when you’re the one holding the gun and the power’ but just because because a person’s fear is irrational doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

I relate the experience of driving when an animal darts into the road. A rush of adrenalin, rapid heartbeat. The autonomic response of a rational fear of hitting a deer that could cause serious damage to me and the deer. But one day, as a flock of geese fly far overhead casting a shadow across the road, the same accelerated heartbeat and rush of adrenalin occur. The pre-frontal cortex registers that it’s only a shadow, no danger at all, but the amygdala fires off the alert. There’s no arguing with the amygdala.

Quiet for a moment, the student responds. “I went home to Boston recently. I was out walking and passed these African American men. I felt afraid. And I don’t want to. But I was. That makes me sad.”

In class we have studied how the intentional association of criminality and blackness emerged during slavery and Reconstruction, how we reinforce it with every image of another black man in handcuffs, or face down on the police cruiser. It’s hard to avoid molecules of fear that have been in circulation for centuries. But being willing to be honest, to acknowledge the amygdala, and recognize everyone else has one too, creates an opening, an invitation to listen closely to the narratives of fear.

When we realize the fear that separates us, strangely, paradoxically, connects us, we might be wiling to ask, as the great Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry does,

Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us hatred of each other?

Who has armed us against each other with the death of the world?

Who has appointed me such anger that I should desire the burning of your house or the destruction of your children?

Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought

That we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and rivers,

And the silence of birds?

We lost Leonard Cohen this week but not his words. “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” May the fissures we feel so intensely offer sufficient illumination so that across the great divide, we can still recognize ourselves in each other. Amen.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/09/white-voters-victory-donald-trump-exit-polls?CMP=share_btn_link

One thought on “A post-election sermon

  1. Carol says:

    Simply beautiful thank you leafele

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *