The RNC and America’s Carpenters

Posted on September 13, 2012

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This post comes as a belated response to the Republican National Convention of three weeks ago. However, I do not desire to talk policy. Rather, what struck me as profoundly horrifying was the excessive language and imagery of hegemonic heterosexuality and white power.Inspiring this response of mine are two excerpts. The first comes from a blog post (recommended by Eric Barreto, whose posts can be found here) by Craig Detweiler on Clint Eastwood’s speech through the lens of Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man. The second, as this blog generally demands, comes from scripture, specifically Mark 6:1-6. First, Detweiler:

Tonight, I watched one of the most famous and beloved American icons [Clint Eastwood] treat the President of the United States like an Invisible Man.    It was shocking, appalling, tragic, freakish, and weird; amongst the most jarring moments in (televised) American political history.   And I am horrified that for all the historic and symbolic importance of Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, tonight, he was talked down to and rendered invisible.   While I am deeply committed to free speech and dissent, the sight of a white man figuratively putting a proud black man in his place is nevertheless disgusting.   And twice putting the most offensive profanity in his mouth is nearly unconscionable.   Harry was definitely ‘dirty’.

Mark 6:1-6 (NRSV)

1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.
2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!
3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

What do these passages have in common? What is their relationship to the things many Americans heard coming from the RNC? In truth, they may have just as much to do with what was said at the convention than with what was left unsaid. While Clint Eastwood spent part of his speech telling Obama, explicitly, that he wasn’t going to “shut up,” because it was “his turn to talk,” Mitt Romney took a far more implicit, yet equally desperate approach. Beginning his speech with a remembrance of a Leave it to Beaver America, Romney offered a return to something better: he proposed an America where people have freedom, “freedom of religion, freedom to speak their mind, freedom to build a life, and freedom to build a business with their own hands… This is the essence of the American experience.” And, indeed, this might be the essence of the American experience, for people who actually have that freedom, and had it in Romney’s America. The trouble is, this sort of American “freedom” has belonged only to those who broker it.

Yet the implications of such statements become far more problematic when we consider Romney’s claim that America must return to a time before Obama’s presidency. Now, I’m not making a policy claim here; I have no desire to enter into the debate over whether or not Republican policies had a hand in the current economic situation in which we find our country. Rather, I’d like to note that these freedoms are not gone. Nobody has truly threatened religious liberty, nor have we woken up to suddenly find a society where it is illegal to start a business.  Instead, the difference appears to be that Barack Obama, a man who by all accounts is supposed to be invisible to the public eye, has begun enacting policies that make men like Governor Romney afraid. But Don’t take my word for it:

  1. In this very speech, Romney called Obama’s energy policy, which has focused on renewable energy and raising MPG requirements for all vehicles an “assault” on oil, gas, and coal.
  2. He even accused President Obama of “attacking” success and “apologizing” for it.
  3. Ryan’s speech on Wednesday, August 29, labeled the president’s moves to enact healthcare reform “power plays.”
  4. And Ryan went to so far as to accuse the President, in lieu of Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the United States’ credit rating, of “downgrading America.”

These points, among others, are notable, because they do not simply mark differences in policy or beliefs, but because they also paint a picture of a person who would threaten America’s way of life. But the reason these policies are threatening is not because they have been put into place. Rather, they threaten these powerful white men, because of who put them into place: a powerful, well-spoken, intelligent, black man. And, frankly, I don’t know if I can blame these men. If an invisible man began actively working to change the country I lived in, I’d be freaked out, too! But, I’m not so sure that is the fear Romney, Eastwood, and Ryan are invoking. Instead, it seems like they are afraid that this invisible man has assumed the role they always thought they “deserved” (another theme from Mr. Romney’s speech).

And at this point the text from Mark seems particularly relevant. In much the same way many influential invisible others do in our society, when Jesus assumes that role of teacher in their synagogue and becomes a leader in their community, his former neighbors and family begin to ask, “What happened to the carpenter we once knew? That invisible man?” They were “offended.” And indeed, Jesus had come to occupy a space in their society far outside what was expected of him. Perhaps, he appeared to take someone else’s role. Still, the power of this passage comes from some place else. It comes from a place where we recognize that even though Jesus is not supposed to occupy this role, and even though it might belong to someone else who deserves it, he still has it.

Because, when the invisible people occupy roles the privileged class is “supposed” to occupy, that’s when things change. The systems move, institutions are redefined, and new possibilities open. And this can be scary for some, especially those who “have,” but change does not care for their power; change does not take sides. Change happens when the unexpected person does the unexpected thing. It happens when carpenters prophesy and when same-sex couples marry. Change comes when, yes, when African-Americans become president, but also when everyone has the right to vote for a president they want regardless of gender, sex, race, or wealth.

Now, I am in no way claiming that Obama’s presidency has much of any connection to Jesus’ ministry, nor am I predicting a second term, or making a judgment on a possible Romney presidency. But I can say that the reaction to President Obama’s first term has told us a lot. And indeed, it was a meaningful election for a lot of racial minorities and for young people. However, I think we can learn just as much about the value of this presidency from the reaction of his opponents, those people with power who have demonstrated fear and desperation in the face of a massive change, and watched their privilege slip. It is at this point, we see the immensity of what has happened in our country.

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