Old rule: you defend those who could use the help

This morning I received an email from a Christian asking why I write what I do about the issue of LGBTQ people and Christianity. I popped off my pretty standard response: “Because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the Christian thing to do.” Then I went out to my garage to clean it a little.

While there I came across an old box in which I found buried a photocopy of a Letter to the Editor that I’d written in May 1992 to The Bakersfield Californian, the big daily newspaper of the city in which my wife and I were then living. (As you can see, my missive was named Letter o’ the Month—which scored me a most excellent Cross pen and pencil!)

A month before writing that letter riots had broken out in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers accused in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. Young people might not remember the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, but they were extremely serious business. To quote from the Wikipedia entry on Rodney King: “By the time the police, the U.S. Army, the Marines and the National Guard restored order, the [riot's] casualties included 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damages to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses. Smaller riots occurred in other cities such as San Francisco, Las Vegas in neighboring Nevada and as far east as Atlanta, Georgia.”

It made for live, 24-hour television viewing that was sickening to watch.

Anyway, the letter I wrote to the Californian went like this:

Whenever anything terrible happens, we must at some point try to see what good might come out of it. Both the Rodney King verdict and its aftermath were terrible beyond words. What we can pray comes of these events is that we—white people—start to think with renewed integrity about the living, breathing, everyday horror that is racism. We must think about racism until we feel it with the entirety of our beings, until—if only for a moment—we grasp what it is to be of color and living in white America.

To begin to apprehend what it is to suffer racism, we have only to remember those times in our own lives when we have been summarily rejected, when we were right and were shunned anyway, when we were told that we were one sort of person, and yet knew ourselves to be another. We must go back into the catacombs of our own consciousness, find one such memory lurking behind its closed door, open that door, coax the monster out, and then hold tight while it tears through our heart again.

And that—that fear, that impotence, that rage we feel when we are either callously thrown overboard or purposely jammed into a box too small to hold us—is exactly what it feels like to have a store owner drop your change on the counter rather than hand it to you, or to see the face of the person behind the front desk turn cold you when you enter their domain, looking for employment.

It’s a nightmarish feeling that we wouldn’t wish on anybody. And yet we do wish it, on lots and lots of people, every day. And we do it for a reason so inane we’d be embarrassed to hear our own children say it: because some people don’t look exactly like we do.

The internal, individualized mechanics of racism are simple enough to delineate. Whites have the power in this country, and we’re not about to give up one iota of that power to people who look any different than we do. Because if people look different than us, then we think they must be different than us, meaning that there must exist something fundamental to their natures that will forever remain unknown to us. And because what is unknown is potentially threatening, that which we cannot understand, we hate (or fear, hate’s sibling).

And there is racism, in all of its stupidity: They look different, so we hate them.

We, white America, had better wake up. The only thing different about African-Americans or Latinos or Asians or Arabs is that their skin is a different shade than ours. This is something to celebrate, not fear. A man is a man, a woman a woman, a child a child. We all live together on this one big ball spinning its way through space. And if we hope to survive this journey, if we hope to wind up with a world that is safe and clean and inspiring to be in, then we’d all better throw open our doors and our windows, and start making ourselves some new friends—some friends we’ve never had before.

Twenty years later, and the thing’s almost quaint, isn’t it?

Around that same time in Bakersfield I also started a little group called Whites Against Racism—or WAR, for short. I plastered some twelve hundred WAR flyers all over town.

It took the KKK about half a day to figure out where I lived.

Anyhooo (and no, I didn’t get hurt or anything: the KKK are exactly the same weak, dumbass bullies you’d expect them to be), a year or so before that, I was a (31-year-old) student at California State University at Bakersfield. In the school’s weekly newspaper I wrote a column called Small Change.

There was a lot of racial tension at that college. So at one point in my column (a copy of which I also found in the garage this morning) I wrote a piece about that, parts of which read:

… Naturally, I feel compelled to offer my brilliant insights into the nature of our discomfort. … Of course, talking about stuff like [race and race relations] is almost necessarily offensive, demanding, as the whole topic does, that you speak in broad and grossly inappropriate generalities.

But what the heck. Who better to be grossly inappropriate than me? So let’s do it. ….

I think that by and large the strife between blacks and whites—which on this campus is manifested in that awful, really cold kind of polarization—is the fault of (drum roll, please . . . maximum anticipation . . .  unbearable tension  . . . ) white people.

Oh, sit down! I’m not done!

It’s white people’s fault because this is America, and in America white people call all the shots. It’s the nature of the game, and anyone who says any different is either extremely dense, or, more usually, extremely white. . . .

And what does the black youth of this country hear when they turn on the television, when they listen to white America talking to them?

The hear: “The Pride is Back.”

They hear they are living in “a kinder, gentler America.”

And they’re not even almost buying it. To these young people the pride is black, and this “kinder, gentler America” crap is just more of whites patting whites on the back. These kids are claiming their own identity. If white America won’t grant them the dignity and respect a people must have in order to simply go about their business in as fulfilling a manner as possible, then they are going to react in the way people invariably will: they’ll retract, they’ll gather together, and they’ll get their own thing going.

And guess who won’t be invited to their party?

And so on.

Ah, good times.

Sort of.

Anyway, my point is this: if you have a moral conscience (which I hope we can all agree Christians can hardly brag proprietary ownership of), then the simple fact of your life is that you are obliged to defend life’s underdogs. You don’t (or at least not if you know what’s good for you) have a choice in that. I’m not proud of whatever teenie bit of work I’ve ever done in that regard, any more than I’m ever proud of taking out the garbage or doing my laundry. Like any normal person, I’m just . . .  stuck doing those sorts of things.

I don’t like bitching at gay-bashing pastors. I don’t do it because I think it makes me seem cool, or whatever. I do it because … what else can I do?

What should I do with the letters I get? Not respond to them?

No thanks. I rather hedge my bets, in case I’m wrong and hell does exist. (Kidding. That was a joke. Hell doesn’t exist. And if it does, you better get busy making sure you don’t wind up there, crying as you realize that, after all, ten percent of what you made wouldn’t have been that much to give to charity.)

Victims of domestic violence. Gay teens being told the world would be a better place if they weren’t in it. Maligned and oppressed racial minorities. The physically and mentally challenged. Old people hidden away and suffering in bullshit state-run “facilities.”

If you’re capable, sane, alert, and have any resources whatsoever, all those sorts of fights are your fights. Those struggles are your own. Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews  . . .  anyone capable of doing so is morally obliged to defend those who can’t defend themselves. That’s the good, old rule.

You don’t have to surrender your whole life to serving others—though God (in any of his or her manifestations) bless you if you do. But you can do something. In my case, every once in a while I write a letter to an editor, or pen a column or two—or, these days, post something on my blog. It’s not much, God knows. But every little bit helps.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rebecca-Johnson-Lucas/1681387880 Rebecca Johnson Lucas via Facebook

    just go ahead and put me down for a thousand…no, a MILLION (insert evil laugh) likes. Thanks again John

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      thank you, RJLvF.

  • Mindy

    Yes, it does. Yesterday, I wrote a letter to our state legislature, at large, because there a few dozen white guys who are putting forth a bill that would forbid any LGBT topic to be mentioned in public schools. Not in health class, not in social studies, and (drumroll, as you mentioned above), NOT IN REFERENCE TO ANY BULLYING SITUATION.

    So, if Johnny Q. Idiot taunts Bobby T. Gaykid, or pushes him, or tortures him in any way, the fact that Bobby is gay cannot be discussed in the handling of the situation or the consequences (if any) doled out to Johnny. WTF????

    I am incensed. I signed a petition, I shared the petition, and I wrote a letter explaining, in no uncertain terms, how completely STOOPID they would be to actually give this a second of floor time in our Congress, or waste one penny of taxpayer money debating any tiny word of it. How dare they?!?

    I swear, I live in a pretty cool city, which sits in a really back-asswards, hillybilly-moron state. It’s just embarrassing.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      awesome.

    • otter

      Mindy, you GO girl!

      Now check out this little bit of cultural imperialism masquerading as religious freedom in Tennessee….is that by any chance the hillbilly moron state you live in? This bill gives thugs the RIGHT to bully and taunt as long as it’s based on their religion.

      http://www.wnd.com/2012/01/protecting-free-speech-condemned-as-bullying/

      I bet they’d hemorrhage if a Muslim kid taunted a Christian kid as an Infidel tho!

    • Lymis

      Just so people are clear, two states have this kind of law up for passage – and in both cases, it’s not just discussion of the mechanics of homosexual sex acts that is forbidden – it is any reference to any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality. Even teachers and students who are themselves gay will be forbidden by law from saying so, and children of same sex couples won’t be able to discuss their own parents at school.

  • Mindy Brown Carney via Facebook

    John, if Cat weren’t the love of your life, I’d propose right here and now.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Well, I DID recently have someone on my blog make their case for the viability of polyamorous relationships. That girl raised some great points, don’t you think? Me, too. So, tell you what. Send me your resume, and maybe a photo or two of you. Then I’ll talk to Cat, make sure she’s read the poly-post, and we’ll see what we can do before she pretends she wants to kiss me and then stabs me with a letter opener.

    • DR

      I have a huge straight girl crush on Cat. She’s a bad ass.

      • erika

        @DR. ME TOO! i puffy heart her.

  • Kirsten A.S. Mebust via Facebook

    Good point made crystal clear.

  • Dianne Rizzo via Facebook

    Gosh, all I have in my garage is sports equipment, garbage, recycling and occasionally cars! You speak (write) the truth.

  • Matt

    “And that—that fear, that impotence, that rage we feel when we are either callously thrown overboard or purposely jammed into a box too small to hold us…”

    Yes, that’s why I want to fight racism in myself and others. Thanks, John.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Thanks, Matt.

  • http://facebook Gail Clark

    As a Christian lesbian, I try hard to listen to all sides of the argument(s). I for one think that perhaps I should listen to more of the opposition, so as to understand what they are talking about. Anyway, your letter all those years ago resonates and is quaint. The world is still scarier and more dangerous than it was then, isn’t it? I really think that most people are just people who want to live their lives and who do not really care what others do, absent any type of intrusion upon themselves; it is, as we all know, the 10% at either end of the spectrum who holler (I live in AR, sorry) the loudest and therefore speak for the people who trend to one side or the other. I am relatively new to reading you, but I like the humility in your banner, that you have been trying God’s patience…. Thanks.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com sdgalloway

    It looks like you’ve been doing this “fighting for the little guy” gig for quite awhile. I remember the LA riots and I was deeply saddened by the violence, and that people felt compelled to use riots and destruction to vent their outrage, but at the same time I knew that I couldn’t exactly understand the why the outrage was there, not being a person who had experience overt racism.

    The sad thing is, is that, for the most part, little has been learned by many from such events. What happened is that the focus switched to someone else. In fact the bigotry has splintered into many heinous facets. Today its aimed towards the girl in the Hajib, the man in a welfare line, the woman needing gynecological services, the young kid who is more a fan of books and art then football and girls, the young men doing menial labor and who speak with strong accents…

    All that tells is, is that our job is far from complete. To be people of peace, people of love, purveyors of mercy and justice, we need people like you and many others who hope for that peace that surpasses understanding, but so is needed.

  • Valerie

    You are so totally awesome!!

  • Wendy Young Callaway via Facebook

    Once again you nailed it. Thanks John :-)

  • Susan in NY

    Oh John!

    You are right again, and you say it so well. Thanks for being you.

  • Susan in NY

    Today, I was driving past a house that has a particular type of tree. I love that tree and I’ve been hoping to see the homeowners outside so I could stop the car while driving by and ask them about the tree.

    Today, on a whim, I pulled in the driveway and knocked on the front door to ask about the tree.

    I’m a completely non-threatening looking American white woman. The woman who came to the door was of Pakistani descent. She eyed me suspiciously, looking all around to see if I was with someone. She looked me up and down. She asked me why I was at her house. I smile and go into my story about wanting to ask about the beautiful tree. The woman never smiled, never opened the door, and said that she knew nothing about the tree. I said thank you and apologized for disturbing her and left.

    Only later did I think that I might have been judged as a potential threat to the woman. I could not reconcile in my head that anyone would judge me negatively on how I looked. Additionally, she still did not trust me after I started talking to her, in my nice, white-woman way.

    And I thought, this is how (fill in ethnicity of your choice) must feel ALL THE TIME. And let me tell you, it felt really bad. I had a hard time shaking off the uncomfortable feeling.

    I assume (correctly), that I will be treated pleasantly pretty much anywhere I go. This incident was an excellent reminder to me of just how ridiculously privileged (most) white people are by virtue their race.

    I hope I can increase my efforts as an agent for change in the years ahead.

    Thanks again, John.

    Susan in NY

    • Allie

      Gosh. How fortunate you are to have gotten that glimpse through someone else’s eyes.

      It reminds me of something that happened to me years ago when I was trail-riding on our property. My horse and I were on a trail in thick woods. She’s a good old girl and she lives there so I didn’t really have to pay attention to what I was doing or anything but looking around me. I glanced up and there above my head, sitting on a branch, so close I could have touched it, was a juvenile bald eagle. It was watching us too. We very rarely get eagles in this area and it took me a split second to process what I was seeing. Then I gasped, looking into the bird’s eyes from three feet away. And when I made a noise, you could see the bird suddenly realize, “That’s not some sort of weird horse, that’s a HUMAN sitting on that horse!” I swear you could practically see the eagle think “OH SHIT.” It launched itself into the air and quickly vanished, leaving me feeling very low, as a member of the species that every other species on earth fears on sight. It’s humbling to be well-intentioned and wind up being judged negatively, even by a bird. But I never made the connection between that feeling and how minorities must feel – thanks for the insight.

      By the way, did you happen to pick up a leaf of your tree? Maybe you could find it on the internet. There’s a site for everything – I had a weird bug in my house the other day and posted about it on a forum and they got right back to me. (It was a spiny assassin bug.) I’m sure there are helpful tree fanciers out there somewhere.

  • http://cindiegeddes.com cindie geddes

    All I can say is thanks. I have spent the last year or so really questioning my faith. How could I be part of a group that discounts … well, just about everyone these days. I felt there was no place for me in that group and maybe it was time to simply turn my back — maybe even on god if he/she were telling all these other people all this shit. Maybe I was the one who didn’t get it. Maybe I was the one who didn’t understand the nature of god despite decades of study. Since finding you and your commenters (and it’s only been a week!), I’ve realized there is a tribe for me. There is a faction of Christianity that thrums to the same vibrations I feel in the universe. I can’t tell you what it means to me to hear voices saying god’s name in words I understand, words that speak the truth as I know it. I tell you what, it feels like a great big old gift. Thank you — to all of you.

    • vj

      Welcome to the tribe!

    • Jennifer Edwards

      Yay, Team Jesus!

  • vj

    Wow, John – your Rodney King letter made me cry. You truly have such a gift – to be able to see to the heart of a situation, to be able to write so articulately about it. Thank you for all the work you put into doing what you do, your words are a blessing.

    [You've been writing like this since before you became a Christian - I think God saw what you were doing, and thought 'we could really use a guy like this on our side'... ;-) ]

    • Lymis

      I know what you meant, vj, but I would phrase it as “being on our team” rather than “on our side.”

      It’s pretty clear that John was already on God’s side, and has been for a long time!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Thanks very much for this, vj.

  • Lee Marshall

    Oh, John, you’ve made me cry again. What you’ve said is so true. When I have been in the minority, I have tried to think, “Well, this is how people in minorities feel every day.” A lot of people, though, use their feelings of discomfort in that situation to fuel their own bigotry, thinking, “These people have made me feel bad. I am right to dislike them.” Thank you for pointing out how important empathy. is.

  • Michelle P.

    Thank you, Mr. Shore. Thank you, so much, for your part in keeping my heart tender. You write so powerfully, and God shines through your work in ways that convict my heart in the best possible way. You, and all your commentors, give me so much hope, because I get to experience people who think and feel the way I do, and so often write that in such wonderful prose, much better than I could ever put into words.

  • http://@Le_Paien_Roux Richard Shaw

    Absolutely right John, as always.

    Keep it up, don’t ever change.

    Still your heathen servant.

    Richard.

  • charles m

    this worthless soul says one thing.

    Im all in.

    • Jill

      powerful

  • Jill

    The disenfranchised have voices not always heard, but it doesn’t mean we don’t speak, it doesn’t mean we have nothing to say.

    As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I’ve just figured out the breadth and magnitude of this particular webspace as a technically ex-Christian that linked up here rather randomly in early June this year. Of course linking through the gay rights issue and this was the first openly supportive Christian site I found. Wow. Big deal for this hardened heart. From my experience I thought all Christians were meant to take ancient texts as justification for hatred and bigotry disguised as the love of Christ, which made me unable to be Christian anymore. I genuinely thought for many years that line was drawn in dark, bold, and immovable.

    My point here is I’m not alone. There are more of us out there, quietly finding our way through the dark forest of disinformation about real Christians. No I don’t think it happens in droves or instantaneously, but to the people that see light where there was once a shroud of bitterness (me)—it changes the conversation and everything else. That I can point to a place, a moment (a podcast) in which I gave up my overarching anger on this topic is a job well done to put it mildly.


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