When I found out Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last Friday, I felt like a rapidly deflating balloon, with the air leaking out of me.
I was on the phone with my mom, trying to sort out school issues and upcoming family birthday parties in the midst of a global pandemic, and we weren’t really hearing each other. We were talking above and around each other, as people do when we’re stressed and anxious.
It didn’t help that I had reserved this tiny window to write an article I’d been reporting for weeks. I was trying to do too much at once and failing, and then I got the alert about Ginsburg’s death.
A few minutes later, my husband ran home from the park, sweating. He couldn’t find his wedding ring.
Maybe bad things come in threes, though when I say that I remember resurrection on the third day.
Since her death I’ve been trying to track my own understanding of Justice Ginsburg. What I knew and didn’t know, and how her death had sparked a mixture of grief, fear, and partisan vitriol in America.
She was confirmed to the Supreme Court when I was 8 years old, by then-President Bill Clinton. I don’t remember hearing much about her at the time, which is sad, considering she was only the second woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court. I remember later in life seeing photos of her tiny, almost-antique looking frame, with thick glasses, and finding little I could remember. I didn’t realize at the time how she impacted my life directly, particularly as I was a three-sport female high school athlete, an opportunity that wasn’t afforded to my mom and grandma before the passage of Title IX, which Ginsburg defended.
I remember a vague sense that Justice Ginsburg was “really liberal,” though I’m not sure where that came from. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, and I once served an internship for a Republican congressman, but through consistent experiences (sportswriting, the ministry) as a woman in a male-dominated field, I had little option but to be a feminist and somewhat left of center.
Ginsburg, at her core it seems, understood that and to some extent, understood me. I read this week that she had difficulty finding her first job in law, despite finishing first in her class at Columbia. I’m sure she understood the feeling that you were always proving yourself as a woman in a male-dominated environment, and that there was little - if any - room for even perceived error when you were blazing a trail.
I also read this week that Justice Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 96-3. I repeat, 96-3.
This was only 27 years ago, yet it seems nearly impossible now. There’s no question the partisanship of Supreme Court justices was heightened by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2016, when he failed to give a hearing to President Obama’s relatively moderate nominee, Merrick Garland, and prior to that, when the Republican Senate confirmed just 20 of Obama’s nominees during the final two years of his term, compared with 68 confirmed nominees from Republican President George W. Bush and a Democratic Senate in 2007-08.
Right-wing focus on the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court has far outweighed left-wing judiciary focus for several decades, notably since the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, protecting women’s right to abortion without excessive government restriction.
Still, the increasing partisanship of America in general and the Supreme Court in particular is not one-sided. I’ve been reading tributes to Justice Ginsburg throughout the week, many of them from celebrities, and many of them referencing her nickname, RBG, a reference to fellow Brooklyn native, the late rapper Biggie Smalls.
The nickname became marketing and corporate gold, spawning films, t-shirts, mugs, all sorts of swag for Americans of a certain left-leaning political bent. Netflix even released the biographical film entitled RBG in 2018, and it went on to gross $14 million and be nominated for two Academy Awards.
It’s important to note that the nickname didn’t come from a Hollywood marketing meeting. Rather, it was coined in 2013 by a second-year law student, Shana Knizhnik, at New York University, writing about one of Ginsburg’s famed dissents, in a decision that held a part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
Ginsburg’s dissents were a big part of what made her legendary and important, especially to women and to many who were marginalized in America, whether by race, sexual orientation, poverty, or religion. Despite her own proximity to privilege, Ginsburg took time to understand the lives of others, and she never forgot what it felt like to be discounted simply because of her sex.
Still, as I read tributes to Ginsburg this week that mentioned over and over again her “rock star” status, and featured more and more opportunities to sell items bearing her image, and referencing the dissents that made her a heroine to American women, I wonder also what we’ve lost this week in America in the highly politicized reaction to Ginsburg’s death.
Side by side on social media with stories of young boys and girls reading books about the Notorious RBG and dressing up in Justice Ginsburg costumes for Halloween, you see men and women alike commenting that her legacy couldn’t possibly be worth celebrating because she supported “killing babies,” an apparent reference to Ginsburg’s support of abortion rights.
These reactions lost any sense of nuance. Many of us didn’t even see the reactions of the “other side,” or if we did, we didn’t dare bring it up with one another.
It all makes me sad. McConnell didn’t waste any time (literally, not more than an hour or so) releasing a statement mourning Ginsburg’s death and, at the same time, promising a Senate hearing and vote on her replacement. You got the sense McConnell had been waiting for this moment. Cynics would say of course he was, that this was his role as a political leader, to grab whatever he could for his party and for his movement.
Most Democrats responded in kind, however they could, with snarky memes or anger or reminiscence of past GOP statements about Garland, attempting to shame Republican leaders into going against their party, forgetting that public shaming is never, ever a good tactic to coerce lasting change.
I read an article this week that while Democrats were winning the culture wars, and their narratives about America were winning Academy Awards and scoring at the box office, Republicans were stacking the federal judiciary and rewriting American laws and legislation to reflect conservative values. I think there’s truth to that, and we saw it play out in kind in Ginsburg’s death, though, as a Christian in America, I have to think there’s a more important end than winning.
Uncharacteristically, Trump showed more discipline than McConnell over the weekend, at least waiting two days after Ginsburg’s death to proudly promise that he’d be nominating her replacement very soon, despite the upcoming Presidential Election.
Many Americans already twisting in anxiety and grief over the Covid-19 pandemic and a national reckoning over racism and police violence clenched their collective jaws. Grief and anxiety spilled over strange ways, in masked and unmasked confrontations at grocery stores and schools, and in dimly lit kitchens across America, as parents cried silent tears once their kids were in bed after another unpredictable school day.
Everything that happened in this country, it seemed, even the death of a long-time, once bipartisan-confirmed judge, broke everything down again along the same fault lines it always did. Fox News vs. MSNBC; red vs. blue; no room for understanding or compromise or even grief.
I feel a sense of incompleteness or dissatisfaction when I think about Justice Ginsburg and her legacy and her death. I think of what country we could have today if her dissents could have been shared opinions, written together with others who wanted to find common ground and listen for the rights of the ones who are too often ignored and cast aside.
I feel a sadness too, reflected in those I saw who posted laments that Ginsburg’s strong yet elderly and diminutive shoulders were forced to hold up our whole country, a country the rest of us should have devoted more time to holding up and putting back together, instead of tearing it apart.
I feel a sadness that even in death Ginsburg’s humanity was ripped from her right away. She had to be the liberal lion, the RBG darling of the left; or she had to be the villain, maybe an easy target for Evangelical Christians because she wasn’t “one of them.” Ginsburg was just the second-ever Jewish Supreme Court Justice, another witness she bore and blessing she gave to American Jews and to future Jewish Supreme Court Justices who would follow, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, and others to follow.
I wonder if it could still be possible in America for us to mourn together, if not just for Justice Ginsburg then also for the more than 200,000 Americans who have died of Covid, and for the countless Black Americans who’ve died before their time due to the myriad consequences of systemic racism.
Collective mourning is a precursor to hope for resurrection, as it was for Jesus, who was also a Jew.
In John 11, Jesus first hears from his friends Mary and Martha that their brother, his dear friend Lazarus, has become deathly ill. First, Jesus waits. He recounts the promise of God, but he does not move immediately.
When Jesus comes to see Mary and Martha after Lazarus has already died, they all imagine that it’s too late. Too late for hope; too late for new life.
Then, Jesus mourns openly and collectively with all those gathered who loved Lazarus. In the Bible’s shortest verse, Jesus weeps.
In this shared mourning, those gathered gain hope and strength. Their renewal of faith comes first, then the resurrection.
I write this not to impose a Christian story on a Jewish Supreme Court Justice, who had her own rich faith and a very different understanding of Jesus and of the resurrection.
I write it instead for those of us who would call ourselves Christians and Americans, to suggest that before we work together and grow together and govern together and worship together, that perhaps we might first need to mourn together, not the image of RBG and what she represented to the right or the left, but for Ruth Bader Ginsburg the woman, created in the image of God, our human sibling who cared so very much for humanity.
 “The GOP is confirming Trump judicial nominees it stalled under Obama.” Roll Call. Aug. 26, 2019. <https://www.rollcall.com/2019/08/26/the-gop-is-confirming-trump-judicial-nominees-it-stalled-under-obama/>
 Hornaday, Ann. “RBG and the empty triumph of liberal pop culture.” The Washington Post. Sept. 21, 2020. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/rbg-as-pop-culture-icon-while-right-cemented-its-agenda/2020/09/21/97773e80-fb45-11ea-8d05-9beaaa91c71f_story.html>
Angela Denker, author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump (Fortress: August 2019), is a Lutheran Pastor and veteran journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, Christian Century, and Christianity Today. She has pastored congregations in Las Vegas, Chicago, Orange County (Calif.), the Twin Cities, and rural Minnesota.
To write Red State Christians, Angela spent 2018 traveling across America to interview Christians and Christian leaders in red states and counties. While spending time with the people in her book - and her own loved ones living in red states and counties, she found surprise, warning, opportunity and hope. In retelling those stories, she hopes to build empathy and dialogue without shying away from telling hard truths about the politicization of religion and the prevalence of Christian Nationalism in churches across America.
Twitter | @angela_denker
Facebook | @angeladenker1
Blog | http://agoodchristianwoman.blogspot.com
Website | https://www.angeladenker.com
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