I don’t want fighting to be my default

From 2009 until 2018, I did a lot of work in what can best be described as the “Progressive Christian Influencer” arena. I wrote extensively, publishing articles in national publications and having chapters and essays published in books. I traveled a lot, speaking to audiences as small as seminary classrooms and as large as music festivals and youth conferences. It all seems surreal.

There is no such thing, really, as a “speaking circuit”. But, there is a small group of people who generally make a large portion of their living – directly or indirectly – from public speaking. They generally work in niches – like I was in the progressive Christian niche. And since there is a finite number of speaking opportunities in any given year, and since most events have multiple speakers, many of the folks who speak in a given niche know each other, if for no other reason than we share stages and events.

As I said, I pretty much quit that life in 2018. It wasn’t good for me – I actually think it isn’t good for anyone – and the healthiest thing for me to do was to walk away. But I still have a lot of friends I met on those stages. After all, when you are on the road, staying in a beige chain motel in a suburb of Toledo Ohio, having long conversations in the hotel bar (or, more likely, the motel doesn’t have a bar, so you end up in the Applebees in the parking lot) with other people who understand your life leads to lasting intimacies. Or, at least, it can.

So, a few weeks ago, someone I know well from that time was passing through Jackson. He lives on the other side of the country, and while we have stayed in touch, it had been years since we spent time together. So, we had lunch.

It was nice, catching up. Hearing the stories of his children, beyond what I had gleaned from Instagram. The work he is up to now, the new project he has started. His current interests and hobbies. Eventually, the conversation stalled a bit, and he looked at me. Like, really looked at me. Like he was actually seeing me, or rather, seeing inside me.

“Man, you’ve changed.”

“Oh? I have? How?”

“You’re… calmer? Less angry? Less intense? Something like that. That’s not quite it, but it’s close.”

I knew what he meant. I’ve felt it too. You can most tell it in my writing, I think. It’s not that I don’t have opinions – I assuredly do. And it’s not that I’m not passionate about the things that matter to me – I assuredly am. To be socially conscious and to live in a place like Mississippi is to be enraged nearly all the time.

But I’ve lost all stomach for fighting for the sake of fighting. And over the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of self-work.

A thing I find helpful when examining a belief I hold is to ask myself what the world would be like if everyone held that belief.

If the answer is that things would be worse than they are now, I work to change that belief, because it doesn’t move me closer to the world I want to live in.

(This does require that you be willing to examine your beliefs in the first place.)

And I don’t want to live in a world where the default response to things that are wrong is that we fight.

An Inconvenient Truth

I want to tell you a secret. Or maybe “secret” isn’t the right word since it’s pretty evident when you think about it. Either way, virtually nobody wants to talk about it.

And what’s worse, they plan movements and actions as if this secret doesn’t exist.

Are you ready? Here goes:

If we are going to win, we have to convert people to our side who currently disagree with us.

We want to think this is not true. We want to believe that because of social media, the strength of our ideas, and the rightness of our cause that we can find what Richard Nixon called “The Silent Majority” that agrees with us but just is not being talked about or listened to.

But the truth is, that silent majority doesn’t exist. Because we have had the internet widely available to the public for more than 2 decades now, and they haven’t shown up yet. Just because you can find someone who already agrees with you in Peoria, Illinois, doesn’t mean you have anything like critical mass to change the outcome of an election.

No, changing the world will require the cooperation of those who currently disagree with you.

Let’s do an exercise. In your mind, imagine the last time you went to a crowded place – an airport, a bus station, Walmart, wherever. If it helps, and you are in a place where it’s safe to do so, close your eyes.

There are people everywhere. All kinds of people – some fat and some thin, some white and some people of color. Some gay, some straight. Some men, some women, some are older and others are kids. Republicans, Democrats, Independents. All kinds of people.

Got it?


Most of those people don’t want the better world you are offering. They don’t share your dream. Because they have a lot of things going on in their lives, and their own self-interests, and so your dreams are not their highest priority. Most of them, even if they like your ideas, will just find it easier to go along with the Powers That Be, content to live their life on default.

If your stated goal is resistance, then almost by definition, the majority of the world disagrees with your goal. Because if they agreed with you, then you wouldn’t need to resist.

Back to our imagination: you are surrounded, in a large public place, with people who, by and large, disagree with you. So my question is this: Let’s say you win. You get the better world you are wanting. What do you do then with the people who disagree with you in the better world you are dreaming of?

What do we do with them in this new world we are building? Because if we succeed in building this better world – and I’m planning on it – then we either have to learn how to convert them to our side, or… I dunno – lock them in a cage? I mean, seriously, what will their place be in this new world you dream of?

More than a decade and a half of building intentional cross-class and cross-racial relationships has taught me that people only change if they have reasons to change.

It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are – we learn from others.

And if we are to have any influence in changing the minds of others, we have to learn what they want and find ways to show them how our goals align with their self-interest. Because people, by and large, are motivated by their own self-interest.

The world would be a much more fun place if we could just show up at marches and denounce the oppressor class and buy fair trade coffee and talk smack about corporate interests, but the reality is, to build this better world, we have to find a way to get others to buy into it. Because the better world we all dream is possible is only possible if we can all achieve liberation.


Earlier this week, I was sitting at a kitchen table in the North Mississippi Hill Country, sipping coffee and talking to someone who, on the one hand, was much like me: He was white, of my generation, married, had gone to the same sort of schools I had, and was baptized in the same sort of church I had been. 

But we absolutely voted for different people in the last Presidential election and have very different views on most social issues. If they saw the bumper stickers on his Ford Super Duty truck, some people would consider me a traitor to them by even talking with him. 

While we sat there, drinking good coffee and eating mediocre grocery store cookies, we talked of many things: People we had known who were now gone, lessons we learned from our ancestors, how the children in our lives were growing, and how proud we were of them. We also talked about politics, race, economics, and religion. Neither of us hid who we were, and neither of us got angry. When I had to leave to go to my next meeting, we both commented on how much we had enjoyed the conversation, and I have a standing invitation to come back and drink more coffee the next time I’m in town. 

* * *

How do people change? How do bad ideas die, and good ideas grow in their place?

In 2018, after nearly 30 years away, I returned home to Mississippi, the land of my childhood, of my father, and of his father before him. We lived with my grandmother before her death, and 5-year-old me ate breakfast in the kitchen my grandfather had built. I climbed in the same trees my ancestors had played in, and like them, I was raised in the same culture of white supremacy. 

The little country church in which I was baptized as a child, where we sang that Jesus loved all the children regardless of the color of their skin, where I learned about the love of God and the healing power of a potluck meal, had, two years before my birth, decided to leave its denomination rather than admit People of Color to membership. Or heck, for that matter, allow them to attend. 

In the late 1980s, my high school had separate yet equal prom kings and queens and homecoming courts, and we students voted on which Black person and which white person was most likely to succeed or that we thought most beautiful. 

A white farmer I knew had sent his daughter to Ole Miss, and she came home from school with a Black boyfriend. She was ten years older than me, and I remember that we were all excited she was coming home, and then we all hushed it up when the farmer disowned her, and she moved away. I never saw her again until after her father died decades later. 

So white supremacy is not some novel idea I am learning about after my book club read Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was “borned to it,” as Huck Finn liked to say about his sinful nature. It was the water in which I was raised and, to all appearances, the natural order of things. 

We did not think of ourselves as white supremacists. No, by all accounts, we believed we were good white people. We were not permitted to say the N-word. We had Black friends and co-workers. I went to a fully integrated high school. 

In retrospect, we made the mistake many white people make when we confused racism with antipathy and believed our proximity and relationships absolved us of guilt. In reality, racism is not about feelings or relationships – it is about structure and power. But it would take a lifetime for me to learn that.

And what changed me was listening. Like I was listening at the kitchen table earlier this week. 

* * * 

We seem to have lost the capacity to listen. I’m not trying to sound nostalgic there as if I am mourning for an idealized past where everything was rainbows and kittens. Rather, it is harder to listen to other people now than it once was – largely because we have so many alternatives. Our hyper-connected world has made it easier and easier for us to find like-minded people, but also easier to shut out those who differ from us. 

And because we do not listen to each other, we don’t truly know each other, and thus it is easier than ever for people in power to divide us. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Bill Moyers wrote about when Lyndon Johnson explained the tactic to him in the 1960s: 

“We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. ‘I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,’ he said. ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.’ ”

Years of listening have taught me one critical thing: We are not nearly as divided as we think we are. Or, more accurately, we are not as divided as those who profit from our separation want us to believe we are.

NB: I have talked about this work I do before, and I tend to get two reactions: 

The first is outrage because they believe I am discounting real injustices and injuries. I am not. There is a world of difference between saying that I agree with the ideology of a Klansman (which I don’t) and saying that a Klansman and I share some (but not all) of the same hopes and dreams and that if we made a list of our base motivations for how we move in the world, there would be an overwhelming amount of overlap. Rather than treating him like a strawman I can dehumanize, I am forcing myself to recognize he is a human with motivations, agency, and choice, who is also acted upon by outside forces, as am I. 

The second is something like, “Teach me how to do this!” There are good people out there doing this sort of work – I used to be one of them – and it’s not hard to find if you really want to learn, but I feel somewhat pulled to write a bit about this over the coming weeks. So, stay tuned.

The Banality of Good

I believe it was Kierkegaard who said that life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forward. I could go look it up, but even if it wasn’t him, you know what whoever it was is getting at – we never understand the present nearly as well as we understand the past, because the past can be examined.

And examine it we do. In the current mess we live in, it seems every journalist, thought leader, guru, and pundit has a different opinion about how we got here. If we took away all the posts that blame others for where we are, would Facebook even be a viable business?

The past is written in stone, however, and will not change. While the past is useful for teaching us what went wrong, the future is written in sand, is infinitely malleable, and is where we should put most of our efforts.

How do we get there from here? How do we build the world as it is into the world as it could be? How do we change the future?

Having been in movement work for well more than a decade now, organizing poor people in the South, I have had the privilege of knowing some of the best activists and organizers in the US – some of whom are famous, but most of whom you have never heard of.

A while back, one of them – a woman who creates a place of refuge and safety for people without homes in a Midwestern town – and I were talking about a group that had just come through to tour her facility. The group was from an out-of-town church, and they had heard of her work and wanted to come to see the “radical” work this woman was doing.

She told me the group seemed happy when they left, but that while leading them around, she had felt a bit like a fraud.

“It doesn’t feel radical. It just feels like my life”.

I told her she was in good company – that Dorothy Day had felt the same way. In the postscript of Dorothy Day’s memoir, the Catholic activist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement describes how the movement came about, or at least, how it felt.

“We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, ‘We need bread.’ We could not say, ‘Go, be thou filled.’ If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread. We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded. We were just sitting there talking and someone said, ‘Let’s all go live on a farm.’ It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”

It all just happened. We were just sitting there, talking when it happened.

Of course, the truth is, the Catholic Worker did not just happen by accident. But it wasn’t the result of a grand plan, either. The reality is that it was the result of countless decisions. Ordinary decisions.

In her writings on the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “The banality of evil”. We want to believe, she argued, that massive evil is caused by external forces. Hitler was a psychopath, say, or that Eichman was mentally ill. But that isn’t true.

The reason massive evil happens is because of countless small compromises, countless small decisions that, on their own, are relatively benign and ordinary. Big evil is the result of little evil, quiet evil, banal evil done again and again and again.

I have come to believe the opposite is true as well. Goodness, Peace, Love, Harmony – whatever you want to call it, isn’t the result of grand sweeping gestures, but tiny micro-actions, repeated often. And that the banality of goodness, to coin a phrase, is the sort of thing Dorothy Day is describing in her postscript. Somebody said “We need bread” and so, instead of saying back, “Well, that sucks,” they went and got them some bread. And then they did it again, and again.

So, the good news in all of this is that if Goodness is brought about not by Saints, but by small decisions, then we all get to be involved. We all get to play a part in turning the world as it is into the world as it should be. And every little bit – our little bit – counts.

The Decision

George was 57 – just 7 years and change older than I am now – but he looked 70. He smelled of urine, he slept outside, and hadn’t showered in months. He shuffled when he walked, and a naturally small man, he was a popular victim when it came to street violence. When we first met, he had been mugged three times in the previous four months.

It hadn’t always been that way. George had been the dairy manager at a grocery store in a Raleigh suburb. He lived in a middle class brick house, in a subdivision. His wife was a school teacher. He had one daughter, who had gone to a good state university.

The house was no longer his. Neither was the wife. And the daughter had a restraining order against him and he had been trespassed from the bank where she now worked.

George liked to drink. And for years, he made it work. He would have a hard day at work and come home and drink a few, to take the edge off. Eventually he had to drink in order to go to work, too. Then he started drinking during lunch.

He wasn’t a bad drunk. He just got silly, and then sleepy. He got fired when his boss found him passed out in the dairy cooler. His wife got a divorce shortly after that. He was too drunk to fight, or to show up for court. He lost everything.

He had been on the street for 5 years when I met him, drunk as a lord. We hit it off well, and eventually, he decided to quit after having a heart attack. He went into a rehab facility where he stayed sober for 100 days, and then he went into a halfway house facility, where he got another 100 days, and then he went into a private apartment where he got less than 10 days. He didn’t have the money to pay the rent the next month, having drank it, and was back on the street.

I saw variations of that story play out over and over for more than a decade. I watched people – good, hardworking people, lose everything they had because of alcohol.

I didn’t grow up around alcohol, but not for religious reasons – it was because once Dad began drinking, he didn’t have an off switch. So he drank his last drink when I was 4. His half-brother lost everything because of drinking – wife, kids, stole from his mother and my dad, and as a result was exiled from the family for years and years.

I later learned my mom’s side of the family had people with similar stories. People who drank to forget trauma, who drank to manage pain, who drank and drank until it cost them everything.

I drank my first beer when I was 15. We stole it from the store I was working at that summer, and drank it hot behind the carwash. It wasn’t very good, but the cheers, the social approval, the back slapping – that felt amazing.

In the Marines, I drank a lot, because it was a social lubricant. Cheers, the social approval, the back slapping. My girlfriend Heather was an alcoholic, trying to cover the pain of being Queer in a world not ready for that.

I drank when I was a Financial Advisor, because I hated my life, often having to down a pint of vodka in the parking garage in order to stomach going into the office.

And when I became a pastor, I learned some folks drank as a way to signify that they weren’t some hellfire and damnation fundamentalist. “Hey, I’m not like those conservative jerks that called you a sinner: I drink single malt scotch!”.

The 12 years or so that I worked with people experiencing homelessness was the time in my life I knew the most alcoholics, but honestly, a good portion of them were social workers, pastors, and medical folks who just didn’t have other tools for dealing with what they felt.

And because the only people in the world who did know what you felt were the people you worked with, you could grab a drink after work, and then you get the chemicals from drinking and the chemicals from the social interaction, and you didn’t have to feel what you felt anymore.

One day not long after George lost his apartment I noticed that was what I was doing, and so I quit drinking after work with my peers and started looking for healthier ways to deal with what I felt.

Because that’s the thing: Abusing chemicals (whatever the chemical it is) is a way to hit pause on what you are feeling. And then you hit pause the next time you feel it. And then one day, you hit pause earlier than you did last time. Until one day, you haven’t felt that thing in a long time.

As an aside, this is one of the things that makes sobriety for an addict so hard – because suddenly, you don’t have your coping tool any more, and the last time you had to feel what you are feeling was whatever age you began using.

I’m not some religious wacko that believes there is no such thing as responsible usage of alcohol. Honestly, I love a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but since Renee can’t drink because of her medications, I often would have a bottle go bad before I would finish it. Or else I would finish it all at one setting, which worried me more. So I quit drinking at home.

Eventually I went from being a person who was worried about drinking too much to being a person who just doesn’t drink.

I didn’t “need” to quit – it just made my life easier to quit. And it greatly reduces the number of ways I can screw up my life and financial future.

And because I don’t “need” to quit, but chose to, I can choose not to. Like last month a friend I was staying with offered me a glass of wine, and I had one while unwinding with them. It was maybe my second drink in two years.

I’m not telling you what you should do – Lord knows I am powerless over the pull of caffeine on my brain in the morning, but then again, I don’t know anyone who lost their house because they drank too much coffee. If your life is working for you and the people who love you, then rock on.

So, why AM I telling you all this? Partly because I’m big on admitting when something scares me, as a way of reducing its power over me. And honestly? Losing everything I own because of addiction scares the hell out of me.

But also, because I have lots of people in the so-called helping professions that read my stuff. And if that’s you, maybe you have noticed that the beer after work can easily become the six pack after work, or the glass of wine before dinner can become the bottle of wine every night. Maybe you tried “Dry January” and had a dry 4 days instead. Maybe you drunk text your friends at 3AM and then spend the next week apologizing for what you said.

Maybe you drink as a way of hitting pause. And maybe you’ve thought about not doing that any more.

I just wanted you to know that it’s OK to do that. To drink a Diet Coke at the bar instead of the mixed drink. To not have friends you can only tolerate when you are doing shots. To really feel the things you feel.

It’s OK to stop, if you want to.

So You Had A Relapse

Hey there.

Yes, you.

Can we talk?

I saw you with your New Year’s resolutions. You were going to quit drinking. Or start saving 10% of your paycheck. Or start meditating 30 10 minutes every day. Read to your kids every night. You joined the gym. You bought a new planner.

You had plans, friend! You had the best of intentions.

New Year, New You!

And yet, here we are. Ten days into the new year, and you already took that drink you had forsworn, have eaten things you didn’t plan to, have skipped a day at the gym, meditated twice, overdrawn your checking account.

Dammit! How did this happen, you ask? You had a plan!

But as Mike Tyson said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Plans happen in a vacuum, and life, sadly, does not. So the healthy food remains in the cupboard, you haven’t saved $10 yet, and you’ve already had your first hangover this year. When life happened, your plans went out the window.

And now you feel like you have let yourself down. And maybe you feel like a failure. Like you can’t change.

I have spent more than 15 years watching people dramatically change their lives despite horrific odds stacked against them. And in that same time, I have seen people with every advantage as their lives fell apart. I know a little bit about how people change.

People change when they are ready. It’s that simple. If you are truly ready to start meditating, to quit drinking, to start saving money, if you have reached what people who study these things call the “action” stage, you will make changes. And if you are not, you won’t.

The chart up there is from the “Trans-theoretical Model of Change”, and it changed my life. Literally. The idea is, as people change, they go through stages.

First, change isn’t even on your radar. Then you are considering it. Then you are determined, and maybe start researching. Then you take concrete action. And it’s easy to think you have changed. This was you on January 3rd.


But then.

It’s important to realize that relapse is also part of change. In the 12 Step Programs, the literature suggests that most people relapse on average 7 times before they quit the behavior they want to change.

So, you had a relapse. You went back to doing whatever it was you used to do. It’s OK. It happens. Most of us don’t get it right the first time. What matters is, if you are ready to change – like, really ready – that you start again. Because once you realize you have made a mistake, the most important thing to do is quit making it.

You don’t have to wait until tomorrow to go back on your vitamins. You don’t have to start exercising next week. You don’t have to wait until New Year’s Day to pick up a new habit. You don’t have to start being sober again tomorrow.

You can be sober from now on. You can eat the way you planned to starting now, at the next meal. You can start meditating today instead of tomorrow.

If you are ready, you can change. Even if you relapsed. Especially if you relapsed.

Because you already did the hard work of getting to the action stage.

Because you deserve the benefits of your change.

Because it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down.

Because it only matters how many times you get back up.

Hope is a choice.

I met a new friend today. At least, I think we will be friends.

It was one of those conversations where you just agree to meet up for coffee and before you know it, three hours have passed and you have talked about 5 or 6 different things, and the conversation flows easily from one thing to the next. Those are rare for me, but I love it when they happen.

And one of the things we talked about was how change happens. I have these conversations a lot these days. We look around us and feel like things are bleak and divided, and we wonder if there is any way out. If those who work to oppress others, those who would take rights from others, those who work for their own self-interest even when it hurts others, and we wonder how we get them to change.

My new friend was somewhat cynical. “I think I have given up on their changing,” she said. “I mean, I want to believe they can, but it doesn’t feel like a real possibility”.

I told her I didn’t have enough self-esteem to believe that people can’t change.

She was puzzled. So I explained that I once believed very different things than I do now about… almost everything. I used to be an Evangelical who wanted to save your soul from Hell, and now I’m not. I used to believe God did not love Gay people, and now I don’t believe that. I used to chase money, and now I chase relationships. I used to want to distance myself from the South, and now it’s a core part of my identity.

“But here’s the thing: In every one of those instances, I didn’t change because I accidentally had a change of heart, but because of a relationship I had that caused me to reconsider my position.  I changed because who I knew changed, and I changed because my ideology had to follow my relationships. My heart changed, and then waited for my head to catch up.

The Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel said that when it came to God, there were no proofs, but only witnesses. In other words, some things can’t be proven but only experienced. I believe people can change because I have changed. A lot.  I can’t prove that people can change, but I am a witness to the fact that they do.

And I don’t believe I’m special. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not. I’m pretty mundane, actually. And if I can change, as un-special as I am, then pretty much anyone can, given time and the right relationships. Or else I have to assume I’m so special that I think I can change, but they can’t. And I don’t have enough ego for that.

“That is… hopeful. Maybe more hope than I have right now,” she said.

“Oh yeah. It’s hopeful as hell. Because I want things to change. And I believe that the only way things will change is because people change. And if I thought people couldn’t change, then what choice would I have but despair? So I find myself having to choose between hope and despair.

“And I choose hope.”