Two Letters to My Beloveds

(This post started as just the first letter. I have felt the push to write that letter for months – maybe years – as a call for people after my own heart to see their real enemy and to stop serving as weapons of the powerful against other poor people.

I long to see the loving people I love vote and act according to that love and not political talking points force fed to them. I want them to vote and act according to their true identity and not a convenient, falsified identity given to them by the powerful.

Since starting that first letter, Iowa – my heart, my soul – suffered significant destruction, including 10 million acres of crops destroyed and 20% of the counties under a state of emergency. This happened to almost no acknowledgement and almost no national coverage. A forum post actually said, “I know we’re a flyover state, but still…” like being a flyover state is a legitimate reason to ignore the suffering of people.

As I thought more about the first letter, I realized I needed to write the second letter, something I have thought about for many years and wrestled with as my beliefs moved to what the American political spectrum would call “Left.”

As I write them, please read them in love and a desire love – and justice. Truly I love the people who I want to hear both. Both groups lovingly formed and molded me into a loving, compassionate, universal justice-loving pastor who truly wants the church to live as a reflection of Christ’s love, especially to the marginalized, the ignored, the impoverished, the despised.

I want the people I love to love each other and work together to make Christ’s love the definition of the church and the world.

I love you all, so I write you these letters.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To My Rural, White Siblings

I see you. You may take this as a liberal ploy to endear myself to you, but I do see you. I hear your frustrations and laments, and I feel your pains.

You are my heart; you always have been, and you always will be.

I know you are unheard and unseen. I come from you – you created me, raised me, and taught me how to be a pastor – and now that I find myself in an urban area serving on our presbytery council, I see more clearly how much the larger church – and the larger society – ignores you. I speak for you every opportunity I get, and my voice almost always goes unheard.

So, as I write you, I want you to hear me in love because I believe my path and your needs align. I believe a better way forward can come if we focus our anger and frustration at the people actually causing the pain and not everyone just trying to find a way to a better life, a better country, and a better world.

I have heard many blue-collar workers lament the disconnect between laborers, service workers, and the general the working poor and lower middle class, and those who govern us. A common refrain of, “I just wish someone like us would get in there; then things would be better.”

Your lament the poor treatment you receive economically. You lament how gutted your schools become. You lament that your bosses can – and joyfully do – underpay you. You lament seeing the rich keep getting richer and the poor staying poor. You lament the Sophie’s choice of either leaving the area you love – I love – and your home or working exceedingly hard to live in poverty until you die. You lament no one hearing you or caring about your pain.

I feel your pain my heart. When you hear phrases like “white privilege” while you suffer poverty with no opportunity or prospect to improve and while the people in Washington/Des Moines/Indianapolis/(insert your capital city) ignore you unless they want your vote, and then ignore your more until they want your vote again, you feel attacked while you presently suffer. You lash out – at people of color, at our “ruling class” of a different political party, at educated elites who tell you how awful and sinful you are – because no one sees or hears you.

It pushes you toward a political agenda that lies to you, saying “they” are the problem – they being the people who look different, live differently, think differently than you. If you just obediently follow a particular party, the party says it will protect you and punish “them.”  They lie to you – they do not provide for or protect you, and they only harm those who threaten their power – but at least they hear you, even if they will do nothing to help you and twist your concerns for their own greedy and racist agendas. They lie to you, but at least they do not call you “evil” because of where you live and what you believe, so you vote for them.

I get why you believe, but things continue to get worse. Their promises go unfulfilled, yet they tell you to keep believing because, eventually, you will get what you need.

Instead of seeing a system that oppresses you – that takes away your economic privilege, educational privilege, and many of the other privileges that, frankly, people like me enjoy – you only see people who want to oppress you and people who promise to stop them from oppressing you. Instead of seeing that a system built upon racism but also built upon keeping all working poor beaten down so they do not have the energy to revolt against it, the system feeds you a lie that Black and LGTBQ+ folks hate you because you are White, straight, and Christian.

They lie to you, promise fixes that will never come, and use you as a weapon to keep our anger focused laterally and down instead of up at the system that oppresses you and keeps you poor.

The system does the same to Black and LGBTQ+ people, just focusing their anger on you.

It breaks my heart when loving, gracious, good people act and vote hatefully because powerful people lied to them. You are gracious, loving, and good; I want the world to see that.

I will not lie to you and tell you the party you hate has treated you well. I will not pretend you do not get ignored and condemned as uneducated bumpkins who revel in joyful ignorance. I hear you, and I see you; I want your lives to get better, and I want people to see and hear you.

So, I will tell you what I see as someone who loves you.

In the war to control the lower classes – keep them underpaid while making billions for companies and select individuals – the wealthy have weaponized you and your pain, distracting you from the cause of it and convincing you to blame someone lower than you instead of the system.

If you blame people of color for your lack of opportunity, if you despise “educated liberals,” if you believe the LGBTQ+ community does not share your values of love, compassion, and authenticity, then you cannot see someone benefiting from hatred derived from your real pain. You become a vocal weapon in a battle pitting the poor against each other to distract from the real war of systemic oppression that, again, keeps you nearly as poor as our Black siblings and other siblings of color and nearly as minimized and ignored as our LGBTQ+ siblings.

They convinced you to righteously hate the “other” and rebel against identity politics. To do this, they have convinced you your identity aligns with theirs.

Whose identity do you actually align with?

  • A poor laborer who often loses his job because of his unreliable car and who cannot afford good work boots and tools, or a billionaire who started life rich and has never had a real job?
  • A bartender elected to a first term in office, or a senator who was first elected to public office in 1959, first elected to federal office in 1975, and has been a U.S. Senator making over the 2020 equivalent of $150,000 since 1981?
  • People told their culture is violent and they are the cause of their own misery, or people who have never served in the military sending your young people to war – causing literal violence and death?
  • People condemned by the church because of their consensual relationships and chosen identities, or people protected by the church after grooming and preying on vulnerable people?
  • People hassled by the cops, or people who the cops allow to commit crimes without repercussion – and whose political and financial influence helps them in court?
  • Normal people just living their lives and wanting basic human rights and the economic power to live comfortably outside of fear, or rich people who govern and create laws based upon donor requests and political party agendas?

If you take the race, sexuality and gender, and political party away from every person above, you look, act, and live more like the first person listed than the second. I know this, because I hear you and you raised me. I know you want a better world, I know you want no one to suffer, I know you want everyone who works hard to have enough to live comfortably; I know, because I hear you say it.

So, please do this for me. Listen to the stories of people who suffer and listen to their cries for justice. Listen and realize confessing the privilege of your Whiteness – lack of police and societal violence, representation in entertainment, etc. – does not minimize the lack privilege you have from economic disparity, educational disparity, opportunity loss, and generally being ignored by most of the system unless they want something from you. Share your own suffering and help them see that you, too, need what the system promises to provide but never does.

Unless you have vast wealth gained on the exploitation of workers, your fight for what you deserve as a human is the same fight that #BlackLivesMatter and PRIDE fight.

You have sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia to repent of, and smarter people than me have spilled more ink on the subject than a person can consume in multiple lifetimes to help you wrestle with those sins and your confession, but know that system built on racism was also built on keeping the poor, poor. It does not do the same violence to you, but it keeps you poor and ignored all the same.

Stop fighting the people the system also harms – and harms more – and instead focus your anger up at those doing the harm.

In love, my beloveds,
– Rob

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To My Justice-Focused Siblings, Especially Those of Faith,

I grew up with a definition of Christian – conservative, gun-owning, LGBTQ+ condemning, convinced of judgement upon others but not on real Christians who espoused those values – but I found myself questioning how we could believe those things that clearly conflicted with the person of Jesus attested to in scriptures. I could never reconcile my believes about Jesus and this image of Christianity.

Many of you loved me into a space where I could wrestle with the views I held and actually address the inconsistency between what I read and believed about Jesus and what I believed about the world. I have too many to name, but you telling me your life experiences – especially those beloveds of color – and embracing me as my full self unconditionally allowed me to grow and see the pain and injustice we must address.

You helped me find my faith. You helped me see the path of compassion and sacrificial love that I could not find on my own. I owe my soul to so many of you. I would not be the pastor – nor the person – I am without you.

I write you to remind you of the lesson you taught me: give special care to the suffering of ignored and marginalized.

When you call rural people privileged because of their race without acknowledging – or willfully ignoring and/or blaming the victims for – their poverty, lack of opportunity, educational disparity, and how our institutions, especially the church, ignore them, you make it impossible for them to hear you. You pass judgement for the sins of the powerful onto the powerless instead of helping them see how the systems harms BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people and that it harms them, too.

Please try to not mishear me. As I have become more vocal in my calls for justice, many racist views of people I love have become louder and more angrily and forcefully thrust at me. I do not, for a second, believe you should stop the calls for personal repentance and systemic justice. Many rural folk – especially those not encumbered with poverty – hold and act upon incredibly racist beliefs, and those beliefs cannot be ignored.

I do not want you to absolve them of the sin of racism; I only call for you to also see their pain and poverty.

We cannot equivocate rural poverty with the horrors of chattel slavery, violence against Black women and girls, white supremacy, and the unique sins of creating the mirage of race and building our system on racism. We cannot equivocate rural minimizing with violence and silencing of the LGBTQ+ community. We must acknowledge the difference in degrees of magnitude of suffering between the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities and poor, rural communities and definitively name that the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities have suffered more – especially in terms of violence and destruction of identity.

But same system that harms BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people also harms poor, rural folk. The same system that drives educational funding away from inner city schools also drives funding away from rural schools. The same system that keeps inner city laborers poor keeps rural laborers poor. The same system that enriches a select few does so in urban and rural communities.

The same system forces us to see each other as enemies instead of allies in the same war, forces us to see each other as victims of the other side instead of victims from a system of greed and weaponized hate.

The same system harms us all, and many I address this letter to do not suffer the economic and living hardships our rural siblings do because of other privileges you have – education, opportunity, location, etc.

If we want to fix the system – or burn it to the ground – and end the suffering of the marginalized, oppressed, and ignored, we must not ignore the suffering of people who look and act different than us; we must all start working on repenting of our own sins and working together instead of working to only improve the lives of those who look and act like us. For many of my justice-focused Christian siblings, that means you have to stop believing poor, rural folk do not suffer systemic poverty and marginalization.

Instead of attacking poor folk, attack the system that lies to the them and keeps them poor. Love them in the same way you loved me. Tell your stories to them, not accusingly but vulnerably and honestly. Try to not place the sins of the powerful on the shoulders of the powerless.

We cannot correct – or destroy – the system if we continue to punch those who the system has already beaten down. Punch up at your oppressors, not those the system has placed slightly above some of you only to make an ally an enemy – and so the system and pick their pockets while they focus their anger at you.

I truly love you, I truly owe my soul and life to you, I see the holiness of your calls for justice, and I long for our calls for justice to include – and come from – all oppressed peoples.

I know some of them hate some of you because of your identity, I know some of them celebrate your pain, and I know some of them refuse to understand racism and their role in it, but propaganda and lies shaped them and keep them beaten down. Given the fair opportunity, most of them would feed your – our – entire community with their last dollar instead of watching anyone go without.

They want what you cry for: to be seen, to be heard, to have enough, and to live as they want to live (as long as it does not harm anyone else). If we want them to hear our cries for justice, we must also hear their cries for justice. If we want them to see the pain and suffering of racism and homophobia – and their role in it – we must also see their pain.

Rural people value community above almost anything else; community is family to them. If we start treating our rural siblings as our community and not the other, we can help them to see their sin and also how they can fight the system with us.

We are not enemies and neither group is evil nor unredeemable; may we, as the one who know and understand, start fighting our battles in that truth.

In love, my beloveds,
– Rob

A Moderate in a Radical World

I just listened to this podcast and at the very tail end, when discussing why young protesters are more effective today than 20 years ago, one of the qualities of young protesters were described as was, “More radical.”

It stopped me in my tracks.  The whole episode is worth a listen* but that one little bit about current protesters being lauded for being “more radical” just stopped me.

A few days later I read this blog post** and again, I found myself stopped.  Instead of staying stopped, though, I got indignant.  I found myself wanting to scream at the culture of “radical or wishy washy” and being told the only way to be a force for good in the world, or a Christian, or even just a loving person is to be radical in a direction.

I’m not radical, and I will never be radical.  I am very strongly moderate – not moderate because I won’t make a decision but moderate because I believe the middle ground contains more truth than the fringes – and very passionate about extremism being the cause of so much of our world’s problems.  I’m that person who gets accused of being a bleeding-heart, communist liberal (stretching there) or heartless, gun-toting conservative (not much of a stretch) depending on who I’m talking to.

As a moderate, I have always valued discussion from all sides of an issue.  Opinions may be misguided, anecdotes and experiences may shade observations, and your personal feelings and desires will always bias your thoughts, but the truth comes from analyzing everything.  Politics should stop removing the “science” from “political science” and start treating the discussion like a scientist, observing everything, collecting as much information as possible, and then moving forward.

I try to live in the gray.  I fail sometimes, sometimes I get indigent over people not living in the gray, and sometimes I just don’t have the energy to fight for the middle, but I firmly believe the gray contains the most truth.

This nation has become black and white about everything.  Race.  Gender.  Sexual orientation.  Religious and Non-Religious.  Political Ideology.  Pro-Pot and Anti-Pot.  The idea of having conversations to find a common ground on any of these things used to be an uncomfortable necessity; now it doesn’t feel uncomfortable because impossible things aren’t uncomfortable

It is impossible to have a conversation because everything in our lives – politics, church, even our marriages and families – have become adversarially two-sided.  Nothing is a discussion; everything is a battle that must have a clear winner.

Does it bother anyone else that we treat our politics like a damn football game?  Does it bother anyone that we worship the letter that we put behind our name more than we worship Christ?  Does it bother anyone else that if they have the wrong letter behind their name – or, God forbid, they don’t have a letter behind their name – that we demonize them and make them out to be monsters who want nothing more than to kill your children/kill all the people who look different?  Or for those of us who aren’t on a side, we are “lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, [and God] will spit [us] out of [His] mouth?” (Revelation 3:16)

We do this at church, too.  Any time a controversial topic is decided, the losing team – because it is teams fighting each other in a game at this point – prays for the winning team to find God again and stop denying the teachings of scripture/the love that Christ taught us.  Why do we Presbyterians have a new denomination?  Oh, because the PC(USA) no longer follows scripture.  We all know that isn’t true, but that doesn’t stop us from saying it.

If you can’t tell, I’m pissed off.  I’m tired of being told I don’t love enough, I don’t care about safety enough, that I’m not allowed to mourn violence, that I’m not allowed safety because I’m not violently preventing violence (take a second to unpack that one), that I’m being to literalist or I’m ignoring the teachings of scripture.

I’m tired of being condemned because I’m not radical.

And I’m tired of us worshiping those who are.

I posted a comment on the Facebook wall of the seminary classmate who posted the article and his comment went to the motivation or pushing Presbyterians to action and “loving radically” and though I agree with him, I think, especially as pastors, we need to be intentional about what we said, and the article compared middle-of-the-road to being lukewarm.  It did, absolutely, and the comments basically echoed the ideal that we can’t be moderate and do any good.

Again, everything about this being more radical has nothing to do with loving more – or following Christ more – but moving closer to a side of our adversarial division.  No one has said that we need to give ourselves completely to loving our neighbor – all of our neighbors – but they certainly tell us how we are loving them wrong.

Personal politics have no bearing on loving neighbors as self.  You want radical talk?  You don’t love as much as Christ commanded you to.  I don’t love as much as Christ commanded me to.  It doesn’t matter what American political ideology you subscribe to, you are not loving as much as you could nor as much as you are commanded to.

You want to love radically?  Forget your own needs and desires and love at a personal loss to yourself.  Love even when it hurts or is uncomfortable or you cannot help but hate the person you love.  Show love to Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton and Kim Jong Un and ISIS and the drug addict down the street and the husband cheating on his wife and the hacker who stole your identity and the guy on Facebook who’s political posts make you sick.  Show love to people who have killed, to people who have harmed children, to people who have left God completely, to people who rape and murder, to people who enslave and torture.  Show love to people you hate – all of them – and people who mean to harm you.

That’s radical love.  Spouting off about how much someone you disagree with isn’t loving enough or isn’t Christian enough isn’t love; it’s battle and it’s war.  Christianity is neither of those things.  Christianity is submission and sacrifice and love despite our own desires.  Christianity has no political affiliation because both completely ignore the call to act outside of your own desires and your own needs and to love all your neighbors, evil and good alike.

That is not lukewarm, but that is moderate.  That is the middle of the road in our two-sided, adversarial culture.  That is loving both sides more than you love yourself, and showing love to both sides despite their hatred of you and calling you “lukewarm.”

My prayer – my ultimate prayer – is that we can put aside our narratives, our political ideologies, and our need to win, and we can instead take that truly higher ground of loving everyone – literally everyone – and showing that love even to those who desire us jailed, tortured, and dead.

I am passionately moderate, I am passionately in the middle of our two artificial sides, and I am not lukewarm.  Stop interpreting scripture in the midst of American politics and interpret it as love, not war.

Now my head hurts, I killed two hours I didn’t really have, and my blood pressure is up.  Need to breathe a few breaths and do some work.

Out of Love and In Peace
– Robby

* I will make one remark about the second half of the episode talking about the race protests around the country.  It is wholly uncritical of the protests, making out that their methods and ideologies are absolutely correct.  I don’t want to make this a forum to discuss race relations in the country, but I do want to be fair and make that observation.

** </pastor hat>As a side note, Donald Trump isn’t anything other than what he can convince you of to increase his own power.  He is super-pandering, working to combine people’s irrational fears of people who are different, rational but overblown fears of terrorism, and legitimate desire to be not-crazy.  I will, without fail, vote for an other candidate, even the ones I fear most, to prevent him from becoming President.<pastor hat>