Attending to Voices

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the voices I hear. Or perhaps more accurately I’ve been thinking of the voices I don’t hear and that we collectively don’t hear. 

One of my favorite stories from the interviews I did in preparing for my book Holy Mischief is a story from a male bishop. He shared that in the ELCA’s Conference of Bishops worship service, just a few years ago when the Conference of Bishops was overwhelmingly male (seven or so female bishops out of a total of sixty-six) another male bishop pointed out that he could not hear the women’s voices. So, that bishop had asked the men to modulate their voices so that they could attend to the women’s voices. The bishop who shared this with me thought it was such an apt metaphor for the need in the church and the world to actively seek to attend to women’s voices. As did I.

Fast forward to last week, when I received a lovely email from one of the few female bishops who had been at that particular meeting of the Conference of Bishops. She had just finished my book; she thanked me for using my voice to give voice to the experiences of women in ministry. But, she also wanted me to know that her memory of that story was a bit different. She shared that the women had been saying that the sopranos and altos were being drowned out by the male voices for quite some time before this particular event. She remembers, with gratitude, the male bishop who did ask the men to modulate their voices, but she said it is so telling that when the story was shared with me it was remembered as having been because a male bishop had noted the silencing of women’s voices. Not one of the men had noticed that the women had been saying this all along.

A list of 35 LGBTQIA+ books to read

Since receiving this email I have been made aware of ways that I have failed to attend to other voices. In one of my classes a student who identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community pointed out, very respectfully, that the author of a book I had assigned was homophobic. It was not clear to me or most of the other students in the class, but there was coded language that clearly signalled this to my student–language I had completely missed. A long, thoughtful conversation with this student and a quick Google search showed me she was right. I had not, at all, intended to use material that would deny her humanity. But I had, in fact, done so because of my failure to attend to the voices that were silenced by the author of the book.  

Then an African American friend of mine asked what I heard when Amy Coney Barrett was introducing her children during her confirmation hearing. I had not yet listened to it, so I listened twice. After a second listen I thought, “Well, she seems like a good mother. She clearly loves her kids…” I knew this was the wrong answer or my friend would not have been asking the question. Listen again, I was told. “Listen carefully.  Listen with the ears of a black child.” So, I listened again.If you didn’t listen–or hear–Barrett praises the intellectual and academic accomplishments of her white children while praising the athletic prowess of her Haitian daughter and the “happy-go-lucky” disposition of her Haitian son. And I didn’t hear it. I mean I did. But not really. I heard the words, but I missed their weight. And regardless of any political disagreements we might have, I do not assume any ill-will on Barrett’s part. Just the opposite.  I imagine her to be a good mom who loves her children and who did not hear the voices she has failed to attend to either. And I wonder how many white Americans heard Barrett’s remarks about her children and thought, “Oh how sweet.” And how many Americans of color heard Barrett’s remarks and thought, “Oh, sweet Jesus.”

The reality is that we attend to the voices we value, the voices we need, the voices we respect. We attend to the voices of power and prestige. We have been so thoroughly socialized to do so that we do not even know who or what we’re not hearing. 

I wonder how many voices I miss every single day. How many voices we miss–intentionally or otherwise–every single day. Because we have been socialized not to attend to them. To flip that around, the reality is that we attend to the voices we value, the voices we need, the voices we respect. We attend to the voices of power and prestige. We have been so thoroughly socialized to do so that we do not even know who or what we’re not hearing. 

But how do we learn to attend to the voices we don’t even know we are missing? How do we learn to attend to voices that have been dismissed or silenced?

I really don’t know the answer to this. I have been working on decolonizing my syllabus for several years. As a theologian, I focus on theologies of liberation and am continually seeking to find a greater diversity of voices.  My students read black, latino/a, womanist, feminist, mujerista, queer and native theologians. But it is not enough. Because at the end of the day, I still attend to the loudest voices. And they tend to be white, male, and hetero-normative. And it is so much a part of the water I swim in that I still fail to notice.

I am grateful for colleagues and students and friends who help me see what I’m missing, who help me hear what was right in front of me but unattended by me. In Lutheran theology we sometimes speak of the uses of the law. We understand the first use of the law to be a civic use; the law restrains evil and punishes evil-doers. But the second use of the law we sometimes speak of as a mirror; the second use of the law reflects back to us the ways in which we have failed to be who we are called to be and to do what we are called to do. We also argue about whether or not there is a third use of the law and if so whether or not it might have something to do with personal growth and holiness. 

After a week of auditory mirrors that have reflected back to me the voices I have failed to attend to, my vocational hope is that, as institutions of higher education, we can be/become places were the second and third use of the law are realized. That is, I hope that we are spaces where our failure to attend to voices can be called out and that we will learn to listen. To really listen. Because I believe that our growth–our flourishing–depends upon it.

Mindy Makant is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Living Well Center for Vocation and Purpose at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina.  She is the author of two books, The Practice of Story: Suffering and the Possibilities of Redemption (Baylor, 2015) and Holy Mischief: in Honor and Celebration of Women in Ministry (Cascade, 2019). For more blog posts by Mindy, click here.

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