Here’s where this essay is going: I’m going to praise Rev. Ryan Kemp-Pappan and thank him for his time and leadership at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church and in Louisville, Kentucky. But, it’s going to take me a while to get there. Hang tight.
I have been writing and thinking a lot recently about my generation: the war being waged on it by the Boomers, the “quality of life” challenges it faces, it’s problems with student debt. One reader responded to my “Eat the Young” essay with a link to an article by Bruce Levine providing a survey of all the ways in which young people are kept complacent and submissive despite the massive injustices being perpetrated against it. In it, Bruce describes a broken educational system that places students deeply into debt, the psychopathologizing of resistence, and the normalization of surveillance.
But the element that scared me the most was the last one: fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist consumerism.
Wait, what? Consumerism? I mean, I get the fundamentalist religion, but what does my lust for a Mercedes have to do with my failure to fight?
The author, Bruce Levine, explains:
Fundamentalist consumerism pacifies young Americans in a variety of ways. Fundamentalist consumerism destroys self-reliance, creating people who feel completely dependent on others and who are thus more likely to turn over decision-making power to authorities, the precise mind-set that the ruling elite loves to see. A fundamentalist consumer culture legitimizes advertising, propaganda, and all kinds of manipulations, including lies; and when a society gives legitimacy to lies and manipulativeness, it destroys the capacity of people to trust one another and form democratic movements. Fundamentalist consumerism also promotes self-absorption, which makes it difficult for the solidarity necessary for democratic movements.
We have all grown up in this. We have all grown up being told that it is all about us: our needs are legitimate and our wants are our needs. I see this so clearly in my own life. As I recently said, “It’s not that I’m self-centered; it’s just that I’m always, always, always going to consider myself first”. I find myself standing in the Gap, holding up a button-down, asking myself, “Is this shirt me?” I came of age knowing, fundamentally, that the kind of car I drive defines me, at least partly. We fetishize style, believing desperately that “the clothes make the man”.
If only it were that simple.
My generation simultaneously believes the premise of advertising–you are right, always–and distrusts everyone because everyone is a salesperson. Surrounded by salespeople, my generation has become cool cynics. We are not going to fall for it, whatever “it” is.
This cool cynicism is why collective action, despite the widespread availability of the best tools we’ve ever had to coordinate collective action, is so difficult. We distrust. We have heard it all before.
And so we are individuals. Our answer to our role as a businessperson’s commodities, and advertiser’s “eyeballs”, and grifter’s marks is to retreat from each other. We are weary of the spin, the promises, the glitter, and shiny things. We retreat from each other because, chances are, we are probably just going to try to sell us something.
Personal relationships themselves have been commoditized with assholes instructing young people to “cultivate your personal brand”. When people have a brand, they’re not people: they’re cattle. But yet, there’s no shortage of career services offices and social networking gurus to instruct people how to build their personal brand.
I don’t want you to sell me on you. I don’t want you to be the product I’m consuming. I don’t want to consume you.[^network] Incidentally, I don’t want to “network” with you, either. I am not a computer. Nor, as far as I know, are you. We are not going to “network”. At best, I would like to get to know you. Understand who you are and what you’re about. Computers don’t have fears, ambitions, values. Let’s share that, not data.
These things matter. The words we use matter. If you begin to think of yourself as a product with a brand, you begin to think of others as consumable goods, as expendable as last year’s iPhone. You become a zombie: walking around, eating brains, moving on; trying not to have your brains eaten if you can help it. If you begin to think of yourself as a computer, “networking” with other computers, again, people become products not people. That’s when the atrocities happen.
We must fight against this. We must. Our generation’s call is to reclaim our humanity from marketers who sell us their brands and marketers who want us to cultivate ours.
That’s where Ryan Kemp-Pappan comes in.
Ryan is a minister at my church. Or was, until today. He’s leaving for OKC with his wife who is taking a job as a Presbyterian minister down there. When Erin and I came to Louisville three years ago, Ryan–straight out of seminary–had just begun his ministry at Douglass Boulevard.
Ryan’s ministry at Douglass has consisted of a quiet call to be vulnerable to one another. To be human with one another. He insists (in his humble, jovial, SoCal way) that Christianity requires that we reject a view of ourselves as products, as computers. We have guts. Hearts. Sinew. We get cut, burnt, broken. All of us. He encourages us to recognize our own wounds and the wounds we (individually and communally) have inflicted on each other.
This is not easy. In fact, it’s damn hard. It’s why Ryan has to work so hard, and will continue to have to work so hard. His ministry is contrary to our society’s overriding theses: “Everything is okay. And, if it’s not okay, I’ve got a cream for that.” His ministry is counter-productive, or more accurately, counter-product. His ministry calls us to do exactly what we don’t want to do: be human. It is so much easier to be consumers, zombies, computers.
For some people, Ryan’s call to examine our own wounds is the hard part. I find it much easier to reflect on the wounds I inflict on others than acknowledge my own brokenness. For others, recognizing personal wounds is much easier than recognizing communal wounds. Either way, Ryan is going to challenge you. Ryan practices what he preaches, both openly acknowledging when he feels scared, threatened, or vulnerable and actively working to mend the wounds of others.
Ryan struggles with his weight and, while at Douglass, was diagnosed with diabetes. He worries about money. About having a family. He will tell you about these things. He will tell you about these things not to complain, but to invite you to share your fears with him. To lighten your load by sharing it with someone else.
Because that’s what humans do. That’s the only way we survive: by sharing, by working together.
The beasts around us are faster than us. Their teeth are sharper. Their night vision is keener.
The only shot we’ve got is to huddle together, build a fire, and keep watch. Since coming to Kentucky, Ryan has worked day-and-night to build relationships with the LGBTQ community and advocate for their equal treatment. He recognizes the deep wounds organized religion has inflicted (and continues to inflict) upon the LGBTQ community and has consistently sought ways to begin mending those wounds. He’s hosted films and panels, he sat on the board of the Fairness Campaign, he’s marched in marches, and he committed to perform only the religious (rather than also the civil) aspect of marriage until he could also perform the civil aspect for gay and lesbian couples.
I will miss Ryan. His presence and ministry forced me into a deeper, more honest assessment of my brokenness and of my role in breaking other people. Humans are more fragile and more precious than I had previously realized.
What we are is naked.
I’ve been thinking about Steve Jobs recently. I love the Commencement Speech he gave to Stanford graduates in 2005:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Death reminds us that we are always, persistently, inevitably naked.
Ryan reminds us that that’s okay.
There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Ryan helps me feel it beat inside my chest, helps me see it beat inside yours.
We’ll make it.