Representation Matters (A sermon by Alejandro Flores-Brown, WashU '19)
On June 26th, 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley, the 4th ranking Democrat in the House, in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Those pundits who looked beyond their favorite narrative of the centrist establishment vs. the insurgent far left noted little political difference between the two candidates - but political differences were never really the most important part of the primary. Crowley is the nephew of a Queens politician who was handed his congressional seat and the control of his local Democratic party by a local party boss without ever having to work for it. He continued to effectively control the party for years despite the fact that Crowley, a white man, did not represent his 82% non-white district. When he received a credible challenge from a young brown woman, he responded by complaining that she was trying to make the campaign “about race” and saying that he “couldn’t help being born white.” After agreeing to debates (and losing one soundly), he skipped out of another and sent a brown women in his place, as if that would make up for the fact that he didn’t represent his district. After he lost, he tried to blame his failure on the low-turnout nature of New York’s congressional primary rather than the fact that he was a simply terrible representative for his district.
The point of this story is simple: representation matters. The inhabitants of a majority Latinx, 18% white district deserve to have a representative who can, in fact, understand them well enough to represent them, and a white son of privilege does not qualify. To paraphrase Sonia Sotomayor, sometimes the identity of a person makes a difference in their judgement - and there is a value to having a wise Latina woman making decisions with “the richness of her experiences.”
Which is where we get to today’s Gospel, because our readings are all about what wisdom is, why it is important, and how it plays into good law. The role of wisdom is obviously most explicit in the reading from the Apocrypha, but we also see it clearly in the Gospel. When Jesus criticizes the “teachers of the law,” he cannot be criticizing lawmakers and law itself, for then why would he want us to go to God’s kingdom where God’s law reigns? Why would we aspire to follow Jesus’s teachings - Jesus’s laws - if laws and lawmakers were inherently bad? Why would we say “the Law of the Lord is perfect . . . the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy . . . the precepts of the Lord are right” in today’s Psalm?
What Jesus indicts when he calls out the teachers of the law is their lack of wisdom. And when he points out where wisdom is, he points to the poor widow who, despite her poverty, still gives “all that she had to live on.” He points to one of the most disenfranchised members of his society for wisdom!
And this is the argument for representation. The most disenfranchised members of our society have a lot to offer, not just because they are overlooked but also because they bring different perspectives and wisdom and insights to the table that are directly important for the process of making laws and policy. As my own profession is currently learning, if you ignore the entirety of the distribution of people and just focus on the welfare of the better-off, you ignore subtleties of the real world that materially affect not just the welfare of those people you ignored, but also the welfare of the people who you included in the first place.
I was talking a few months back with one of my friends after she had once again experienced racial microaggressions against her. And while we were helplessly expressing our anger and frustration, she mentioned that she hopes that when the Second Coming finally happens, she hopes God is revealed to be a queer person of color. Initially I think we were both just hoping to make certain people’s heads explode, but as I reflect on it more, it’s more and more something that I want and think might happen. Yes, God is above race and gender and sexuality. But there could be no more powerful statement that everyone is and should be an equally important part of God’s kingdom than the manifestation of God in the form of someone at the intersection of our most marginalized identities.
Of course, we shouldn’t wait until the Second Coming to put representative people in positions of power. For Latinx people, representation has already been too long in coming. There are very few Latinx people in high office in this country, and most of them either come from particular communities which have been socialized as white or otherwise are not in touch with the communities they are held up to represent. Putting Latinx people in positions with the power to effect change would be also be a statement that we are an important part of this country, this world, of humanity.
But including Latinx people in leadership would also be a way of bringing God’s wisdom back into our leadership through the wisdom of inclusion. As the Psalm for today says, “by [God’s precepts] your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward . . . Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.” We cannot say our elected politicians are innocent of great transgression when they continue to mistreat and marginalize Latinx people. I refer not just to the current leadership of this country, which is downright enthusiastic with putting children in cages and stripping brown people of their citizenship and human rights. I also refer to those who ostensibly believe in the human rights of the Latinx, but put us last when forced to make compromises. Chuck Schumer, the current leader of the Senate Democrats, stood on the Senate floor after the 2014 election and blamed the party’s losses on the Democrats’ efforts to make real changes in the lives of Dreamers, as well as women and Black people and queer people and anyone else who wasn’t a white straight cis-male. Bernie Sanders blamed the election of Donald Trump on the Democrats’ campaign focus on the rights of the marginalized, and continues to make excuses for white people’s racism two years later. Barack Obama deported more people than any other President.
I’m not saying that all this could have been fixed by putting Latinx people in positions of power. Aside from ignoring our own imperfections and internal divisions and bad actors, nothing about putting Latinx people in power necessarily means that people outside our community will be willing to respect our God-given human rights. But if we take this Gospel seriously, then we should be lifting up marginalized people, like the Latinx community, into positions to make and judge our laws. The marginalized are the people who Jesus identifies as having wisdom, and that wisdom is what is needed to defeat evil and bring us to the city of God described in Revelation. Then “the leaves of [our] trees will be for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse . . . The Lord God will give [us] light. And [we] will reign for ever and ever.”