The Peripatetic Preacher Something New Under the Sun

The Peripatetic Preacher Something New Under the Sun November 10, 2020

Those of us who voted for Joe Biden for president at the same time voted for Kamala Harris for Vice President. This was no small or insignificant choice, because Senator Harris is, all at the same time, the first woman, the first African-American, and the first South Asian person to occupy the office of Vice President. An astonishing and thrilling reality! I especially enjoyed a meme on Facebook that showed the portraits and photos of all previous Vice Presidents of US America. Of course, they were all white men; and then there was a photo of Kamala Harris, and that photo demonstrated beyond any doubt that there was something new under the sun, despite what that old cynic, Koheleth, claimed over two millennia ago. We need to stop and consider the amazing change that this represents for our nation.

During her first speech as Vice-President elect, Senator Harris made at least two bold statements. First, she thanked all those women who had preceded her and had made possible her presence behind that Delaware podium. And most pointedly and poignantly, she named Black women whom she called the “backbone of the nation.” She stood on that stage in all all-white pants suit as a reminder of those suffragettes who had fought and suffered for the right for women to vote, barely 100 years before her victory. And particularly she singled out those black women who had struggled, and continue to struggle, for their proper place in the country, not only as voters, but as determined fighters for justice and freedom for all Black people, and thus finally for all US American citizens. It was a loud shout-out for the movement of Black Lives Matter, and gave high – level credence to the African-American battle for an equal portion of the US American dream, as well as a statement to us white US Americans to recognize, claim, and attempt to help rectify the systemic white privilege that has scarred our land since the first Black slaves were brought to our shores nearly 400 years ago.

Though that announcement of the necessity for us whites to get ourselves educated about our white fragility and privilege was crucially significant, the second thing she said was as important as the first. “I may be the first African-American Vice President, but I will not be the last,” she trumpeted. Indeed! The huge population changes and cultural shifts occurring in the nation will not be deterred, despite vain attempts to slow immigration or impede vast demographic modifications. The Los Angeles public schools, the second largest public system in the country, is 80% Latino/a. My grandchildren attend (albeit via zoom only for the moment) a public school here in Culver City, a fairly wealthy west side neighborhood, and their white faces are a distinct minority. In fact, both of them, one a kindergartner and the other in second grade, are in a dual language, Spanish-English emersion program, that promises to make them effectively bilingual upon their graduation to middle school. Since Los Angeles itself is a majority Latino/a city, their language abilities will be welcome and valuable for their future lives. Senator Harris was right: she will not be the last African-American to be chosen as Vice President. She will surely be followed by other Black persons, both men and women, by Latino/a persons, by other Asian-Americans of both genders. The march of diversity is on, and it will continue.

But let us not cease celebrating the ground breaking, earth-shattering event that Kamala Harris’ election certainly is. The fact that she is a woman is a crucial event for the country. As we all know too well, US America is well behind the curve of female leadership in the world. While England, New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Liberia, Taiwan, among several other countries have elected women as presidents and prime ministers, US America has finally, and only in part, joined that club. Senator Harris will be Vice President, and that is a wonderful achievement, but those nations I named have named women as chief executives. Here, only Hilary Clinton came close to that in 2016, garnering nearly 3,000,000 more popular votes than Donald Trump, but losing the Electoral College totals significantly. I have no doubt at all that we will one day have a woman president; I can only hope that I live long enough to watch her swearing in at the White House.

Why is US America so far behind the world in female leadership? One brief essay will hardly be adequate to enumerate the many causes of our deficiencies in this fact, but surely our Bible has a significant negative role to play. By saying that, I do not at all mean that there are no reasons for us to consult the Bible for valuable resources for our common lives together, but the reality of a male dominant portrait that may be gleaned from its pages are surely not in doubt. Men do certainly dominate the stories of the Bible; the memorable figures are overwhelmingly male, emerging as they surely do from a society where men were overtly, politically and socially, in control. There are of course several potent tales of women, from Sarah and Rebekah to Miriam to Deborah and Jael to Ruth and Naomi to Mary, but I fear their stories are important in part because their very small number stand out in the powerfully male storm; we notice them particularly because they are so unusual.

I cite the Bible since amazingly, even in an increasingly secularized society, it plays an outsized role in this country. It remains a bestseller, and is quoted again and again in our public life. And though we have now had a politician or two swear their oath of office on a Qur’an or on no sacred text at all, all presidents and vice presidents have laid their hands on a Bible to indicate, however thinly, that they represent what that Bible proclaims. It was hardly an accident that President Trump held up a Bible in front of a church, after clearing the streets of peaceful protesters on behalf of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, glowering in silence, using that Bible as a symbol of his support for strict law and order. I might seriously question his belief that that is what the Bible says or implies, but his employment of it was a sign to his followers that he stood by the sacred text as he exercised the power of his office as president. The Bible, and its maleness, and its overt and covert misogyny, has continued to find a crucial place in the formation of the nature of US America.

I would also add that the maleness of the Bible is strongly emphasized by its apparent portrayal of God as the ultimate male. Indeed, the pronouns used for deity in the Bible are inevitably male, and the subsequent iconography of the Bible’s God is nearly universally male. Ask any Christian what they think of when they imagine God, and I think a large majority would say that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel portrait of the muscled, grey-bearded man floats into their minds. However much 21st century theologians and Bible scholars have tried to balance the maleness of God with female images of deity, in the pews and chairs of Us American Christians, God is a male. Even in my quite progressive United Methodist church in Los Angeles, when most parishioners pray, though none of the clergy, it is a male God to whom they lift their prayer.

I must say that when Kamala Harris stepped on to that Wilmington stage, a passage from the book of Hosea sprang into my mind. It is a rather famous passage from a man who spoke words of prophecy to Israel over 2700 years ago. Hosea infamously believed that he had been called by YHWH to marry a prostitute as a sign of the waywardness of Israel. He did just that, and Hosea 3 suggests that the woman, Gomer, soon returned to her former profession while the faithful prophet went again and again in search of her, like God never giving up on their relationship. Perhaps it was that odd and painful marriage that led Hosea to say something quite extraordinary in Hosea 11:9. The power of his words, I believe, have been blunted by what I consider to be either poor translations or fearful ones. In 11:8 Hosea has YHWH say, “How can I give you up, Ephraim (Israel)? How can I hand you over?” YHWH, once again faced with the recalcitrance and evil of the people of Israel, instead of punishing them again, decides now to cease punishment as a way to teach. Now YHWH says, “My heart (seat of intelligence and will in Israelite anthropology) turns over within (YHWH is in process of changing the divine mind); my compassion (the Hebrew “womb”) grows warm and tender” (Hos.11:8). Then follows the amazing lines: “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim, because I am God and not a male, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Yes, you read that correctly; the Hebrew reads: “I am God and no male.” The usual translations have “mortal,” a generic word for humanity, at this place, but the Hebrew ‘ish in the vast majority of its uses means “male,” and is not a generic term for human beings. I believe that Hosea imagines YHWH here not as a male, a man who is prone to fighting and destruction, but rather as a Holy One with a womb (!). In short, I suggest that in Hosea 11:9 God is a woman of warmth and tenderness and will not come again to destroy.

I know perfectly well that women can be just as angry and contentious and battle- prone as men. But when I saw Kamala Harris behind that lectern last Saturday night, I imagined what might be a new world. I know well that Senator Harris is known for her prosecutorial power, her legal toughness; she is hardly a shy retiring violet of a woman! But like Hosea, I saw in her the possibility of new ways of being, new hope for our nation, new ways of being in the world. I am hoping that there really is something new under the sun, and with the departure of that most male-dominant Donald Trump there may now be space to think again about what it means to lead as a woman, to have a woman in the seat of power, to have a woman making the most serious decisions of a nation’s life. I am more than ready for a new thing in the world, and Kamala Harris may well be it.


(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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