A Few Words for Ryan Kemp-Pappan

by Ben Carter


Ryan and Fairness Campaign's Chris Hartman 

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.

All true.

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.


Thanks, Ryan.

A New Quality of Life

by Ben Carter in

People in the chattering class are finally starting to realize what my generation has known for a few years now: young people today will not have the same quality of life as older Americans enjoyed and are enjoying.

When people fret over some future quality of life benchmark we are supposed to achieve, it is clear that what they envision is “more of what we’ve got.” They want my generation to enjoy more of what they’ve enjoyed. A “better quality of life” for these hand-wringers just means jamming down the accelerator.


People in my generation, understanding that we aren’t going to go where our parents have been, are beginning to ask each other, “What if we didn’t want to go there anyway?” What if we’re better than what our parents had planned for us? What if our parents’ “quality of life” is a pig in a poke?

Here is what our parents’ generation has enjoyed and overseen during its heyday:

  • Obesity and an explosion of first-world health problems (diabetes, heart disease, cancer).

  • They’ve fallen into the two-income trap —their “quality of life” based on the inherently tenuous proposition of both partner’s incomes being necessary to making the family’s nut each month. Many in the financial services sector have profited from pushing (or at least covering up) the two-income trap. Beyond that, their “quality of life” has been based on the availability of cheap debt and fanciful home values.

  • They’ve allowed many in their generation to be bankrupted by medical debt by failing to build an affordable health insurance infrastructure in this country.

  • They’ve watched America’s infrastructure crumble and allowed our education system to become second-class, even while building up massive amounts of government debt for their children to pay off.

  • They’ve participated in an erosion of community organizations and civic spirit; their cynicism erodes our politics.

Upon examination, it appears that pundits have been eulogizing a “quality of life” that never was alive to begin with. They might as well eulogize Huck Finn or John Galt.

Fewer and fewer people in their own generation enjoy the “quality of life” advertised on Cialis and retirement commercials (sailboats, surfing, vineyards, bicycling, granite countertops). Growing income inequality in their own ranks means that “quality of life” more often includes payday loan sharks, putting $10 in the tank, and using the Emergency Room as a first (and last) resort.

Their “quality of life” is a fifty year-old man swinging a sign along a busy road that screams, “We Buy Gold and Silver!” The string on the sign rests on his neck like a guillotine’s blade.

Their “quality of life” is a passing driver desperate enough to consider selling.

Indeed, much of the hand-wringing going on about diminishing prospects at achieving the same “quality of life” as our parents arises not from declining American greatness, but of an awakening from the older upper class from their fantasy. Having invested heavily into the idea that selfishness is a virtue, the Baby Boomers are beginning to recognize that the products of selfishness are not worth producing.

They have chosen enormous debt (both personal and communal), ecological devastation, growing inequality. They have demonstrated an inability to solve (or even confront) big problems (opting instead to grab what they could for themselves), and have overseen the growing power and influence of big money business interests in search of a sanitized, atomized, commoditized, isolated existence.

My generation has watched our parents grow up. We have watched their generation believe the advertisements that told them that if they were just a little less bald, had a little more money, had a little smoother ride, had a little less bacteria on the countertop… then…. then they would be be secure, be safe, be admired, be loved.

Our parents have mistaken comfort for security.

That fantasy has played out.

The generation coming of age now, graduating from college now, the ones who are looking for jobs in the worst economy in living memory, they know that a comfortable security is a myth, that love and admiration cannot be bought. They have witnessed the emptiness of materialism and turned away. Young people today understand that something fundamental has shifted in America, that the old paradigms have crumbled before new paradigms have been built.

They know it is up to them to build those paradigms. Young people want desperately to do something that matters. They want to give gifts to the world, even as they have less money in their pockets, fewer health benefits, and no pension plans.

Young people today understand that security comes from living in the world, not trying to rise above it, defy it, insulate yourself from it. It is an uncomfortable security because it accepts the limitations of human existence, it confronts the pain of life and attends to it.

In the face of titanic economic failures, young people have developed a kind of stoic faith that if they just keep doing the right things, the universe will take care of them. Though they will not express it this way, they have the kind of faith Jesus urges in Matthew 6:24–34:

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. …But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Young people have learned (beyond all odds) that people matter, community matters, communities matter. They know that love comes from loving, not buying. They know that if we are to reach some gentle, golden promised land, we will all get there together.

We will not enjoy the same quality of life as our parents’ generation did.

Thank God.