The Unlikely Activist
I get the question all the time. Sometimes it’s well-meaning. Sometimes there’s genuine puzzlement. But the words are almost always the same:
“What happened to you? How did you become so liberal?” In the deep South, calling someone liberal is almost as bad as questioning the bloodline of their favorite hunting dog, talking trash about their favorite SEC football team, or insulting their mama.
I used to let it slide. But I can’t anymore. I won’t. My conservative friends — some of whom, I assume, are good people — elected the moral equivalent of the Nigerian prince who assures you that he wants to give you millions of dollars if you’ll just give him your bank account information. But my political and social awakening came long before the Cheeto-in-Chief.
Here’s what happened: I got out of the deep South for a few years. I traveled. Lived different places. I listened to what my black, Latinx, and Native friends and acquaintances had to say. I made friends with gay people. And trans people. And bi people. I began to see and interact with them as three-dimensional beings, and not those people. I learned they are not the enemy. In other words, I found some small kernel of empathy. Around the same time, I began dating a very liberal Christian woman who would eventually become my wife, and I returned to my own faith, which had lain dormant and ignored for fifteen years or so.
Have you ever tried on an old T-shirt that didn’t fit any more? That’s what my faith was like. Hell, there are days that’s STILL what my faith is like. It stretched. The fibers that held it together popped and gave way until it was as formless and useless as I was. I couldn’t be that conservative guy anymore. I couldn’t spout the party line. I knew better. Like Warren Zevon sings in My Dirty Life and Times: One day, I came to a fork in the road — you know, I just couldn’t go where I was told.
Somehow I became the unlikeliest of activists. I never meant for it to happen. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, married white guy. I’m a homeowner. I have two kids. I have two cars. I am NOT supposed to be a political firebrand. I’m safe. So is my wife. So are my kids. And yet I find myself arguing with people I’ve known for a long time, trying to get them to glance away — just for a moment — from their white-centered, middle- and upper-class lives. I find myself butting in and telling white people who are bullying and frightening people of color or LGBTQIAP+ folks to stop. To shut the hell up and go away. If nothing else, I try to redirect their rage to me. I’ve been called a ‘cuck’ and a ‘race traitor’ and a sonofabitch.
They don’t even KNOW my mother. Jackasses.
But honestly, it hasn’t been that hard to stand up for marginalized people. And because it hasn’t been that difficult, it infuriates me that more white people — especially white men — don’t do it more often. I see the concerns of my white friends. I know them well — because they’re my concerns, too. They’re concerned with the economy. They’re concerned with their Second Amendment rights. And some of them are concerned — whether they’ll admit it or not — that too many black and brown people are moving into the neighborhood.
Compare that with POC and LGBTQIAP+ concerns: They’re concerned with the right to not get harassed, or beaten, or sexually assaulted, or straight-up murdered. They’re concerned with the simplest of human rights: the right to exist without someone else harming them. They’re concerned with the First Amendment. And the Fourth Amendment. But mostly they’re trying to live their lives without being crushed and hated because they aren’t white — because they don’t act white enough or talk white enough. It’s a damned shame.
So I knew my leftist brand of Christianity and politics wasn’t going to be popular down here on the buckle of the Bible Belt. Because the Republicans have claimed Jesus as one of their own. Never mind that they don’t know his message. Never mind that he’s a Palestinian Jew recognized as a religious radical across the world. These folks believe in Jesus, but they damned sure wouldn’t let Him into the country. One of my family members proclaimed that I’d eventually have a “Jesus moment.” And now, maybe with the election of TPOP*, I feel like I have to draw a line in the sand, to stake my claim.
So here, my friends, is what happened to me:
I got tired. And old. I got tired of people thinking Jesus would act like a Reagan Republican. I got tired of seeing people of color, women, LGBTQIAP+, and poor people alike become more and more marginalized by people who ought to know better. I got tired of seeing “Christian” politicians twist the gospel in order to win an office or stay in it. I got old enough to tell the truth as I see it about greed and sin, whether in the pulpit or policy. I have little use for the white American church-as-politics or church-as-business. I don’t think (and I’m backed up by Scripture here) that Jesus cared one damn bit about man’s political machinations.
I had kids. I want them to be proud of their old man, and to know right from wrong. When a person imposes their religious or race beliefs on someone else, I want my boys to understand that we, as white men, have to stand up and be counted. Our privilege allows us to stand between marginalized people and violence. After centuries of that privilege being misused? I think it’s fitting we put it to a good use instead. My faith and my conscience tells me that’s what Jesus would want me to do. I think Jesus cared how we treat one another. I think he wanted us to care for the poor, and the sick, and the elderly, and the needy. Love your neighbor. Who’s your neighbor? Muslims. Jews. Disabled people. Black people. Latinx people. LGBTQIAP+ folks. The poor. The widows. The orphans. These are the people for whom we must stand.
It makes me tired (and angry) when I see people like Joel Osteen claim God’s blessing is about money or physical wealth. That’s a lie, designed to line his pockets. But we don’t talk about that. We let him smile at us with his artificially bright teeth while his manicured hands pick our pockets. And we let our politicians treat us the same way. As long as they smile and tell us what we want to hear, we never know when they’re fleecing us. That’s what Trump counted on. That’s why he won. He told so many of us what we wanted to hear that we laid down like a dog at his feet.
I think Jesus told us how to live, but many ‘conservative Christians’ are either too weak to live that way or too damned selfish. And they’ve tied their supposed faith to a political party, and that’s NOT what we’re called to do as Christians. American Christians — maybe not all of us, but a whole lot — would make fine Pharisees and Saducees. We’re great at telling people to obey rules that we feel entitled to ignore, and we pray on street corners (sometimes literally) and are satisfied and fattened from the attention we get. But Christ told his disciples MULTIPLE TIMES that his kingdom wasn’t of this world. We — meaning mainstream/conservative Christians — don’t listen to that. We think we have a right to bend government of all people to government that suits US. That everyone should live by the faith and principles we share. And that’s wrong.
So I’ve already had my “Jesus moment.” And that moment tells me that we live in a broken country, deeply in need of change. Police are killing black men — and women — with impunity. The middle class is disappearing faster than we can talk about it. People are graduating high school without knowing how to read or write, much less do ‘rithmatic. We advocate for “pro-life” when what we mean is “pro-birth,” because we allow children and parents to live in extreme poverty, because apparently what happens after birth is not our business. We deny the racism that still exists on a primitive level in this country. We’re okay with fomenting hate and calling it heritage. There have been more than 300 hate crimes reported in the week since Trump won. He’s enabled white supremacists, bigots, and misogynists. And Christians by and large seem okay with that. We’re okay defining people by their race or their color or thier social status, and letting the least of these simply burn.
We walk past hurt and needy people. Instead of helping them, we say “Oh, if only they would help themselves.” or “If only they would …” We want to offer hope and help on our terms, and I think we are expressly, grossly, horribly wrong when we think/say that.
That’s my faith. Those are my politics. THAT is my Jesus moment. THAT is why I am the unlikeliest of political activists.
*TPOP = Talking Pile of Pigshit, which is about the nicest thing I have to say about the president-elect.