My family isn’t from America. We’re Scotch-Irish. Family crests tattooed on flesh, bagpipes at weddings, hot tempers, strong drinks, and my older brother wore a kilt to his wedding: that kind of Scotch-Irish. I expect my ancestors were the sort coppers in the 19th century had their eyes on. We had the sort of Scotch-Irish lore that birthed a quiet pride in us all. We are Ferguson-Bradys, through and through.
I grew up outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, though, where we watched reenactments of Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas, toured Valley Forge more times than I can remember, and the Liberty Bell was a familiar sight. We were Americana Americans. But as much as I felt like an American, I also knew I wasn’t this kind of American.
I am not of the colonial Americans; I am of the immigrant kind.
When this realization came upon me, I began to feel a somewhat deeper kinship with places like Ellis Island than I did with the statue of William Penn peeking above the rooftops in downtown Philly. Whether my ancestors came through Ellis Island didn’t matter to me, the reality was that I was of another place. William Penn was not mine in the same way those bedraggled masses filing through ports in New York City were mine.
Whenever I read the words of Emma Lazarus in her poem, The New Colossus, affixed to the Statue of Liberty, a small sob catches in my throat and an overwhelming gratitude fills my heart.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I am more of Lady Liberty than I will ever be of William Penn. I am a sojourner in a country that is not my home. But even more than that, I am a spiritual sojourner in a land not my own, I am tired and poor, yearning to breath free, tempest-tossed, and more. My haven is secure and the same invitation is to everyone.
Right now we have thousands of children crossing into our borders. Escaping poverty, violence, corruption, and danger in their homeland. They are six and seven years old, some are sixteen and seventeen. They seek a haven and we all want to pull out our constitution, talk about borders and control, and how many of us have read the book of Exodus recently? Or Hebrews? Or, goodness gracious, Revelation?
Brothers and sisters, we cannot look too far behind us before we come against a father or mother in our lineage who came to America looking for a better life. Did they get one right away? I don’t know. They might have been Irish immigrants, like mine, angry and drunkards. But those immigrants fathered me and they might have fathered you. Even if you can trace your lineage to colonial America, think of what they escaped and why the Declaration of Independence and Constitution was written?
Think, then, of looking toward your heavenly country, the better kingdom. This world, this new world, America, land of opportunity and middle class and welfare and democracy, it isn’t home, so do not treat it as such. Not for you immigrant, son of Heaven.
The thing about caricatures is you always know who it is just by looking at it:
And yet, you know you can’t trust the likeness.
A caricaturist zeros in on several points on a person’s face. Maybe it’s a slightly larger nose, or a bit of a crooked smile, or maybe something as pedestrian as deeply blue eyes or a natural blush. The caricaturist’s aim is to exaggerate and minimize what sets the face apart. His aim is not to make ugly, but often times a caricature looks ugly. If you’ve ever had one done you know the righteous indignation that accompanies first sight,
“I don’t really look like that!” you say, and of course you don’t.
But you kind of do. Not really. But sort of. Enough that you’re recognizable, not enough that anyone who knows your face well would say it’s an exact likeness.
Within culture at large, and Church culture especially, caricaturists abound. In some ways, they’re the comedians of the inner circle; the Jon Acuff and Jen Hatmakers. They zone in on the ridiculous and ludicrous parts of the Christian life and family and help us all laugh at ourselves. They satire, and they’re good at it, and we laugh at them because they’re helping us laugh at ourselves.
When Caricature goes badly is when a sly artist studies a theology or movement solely to find the weak or shallow parts. Then they pound out a blog post heard round the world for a split second and then life goes on as normal. A moment of fame while everyone points and laughs at the funny man in the picture, asks how could he be so silly and stupid and ugly, and how could he not know he’s so silly and stupid and ugly.
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Here’s the other thing about caricatures: we know the elongated nose or tiny eyes or stout neck are true about us; in fact, nobody sees our face in the mirror, under such a microscope as we do.
But when the caricature is passed around as truth for long enough, everyone starts to believe that’s our real face. That’s who we really are. But it’s not.
That’s not the person who wakes up in the morning, drinks their coffee while they read the bible, who packs lunch for her kids or drops the shampoo in the shower, who can’t find their keys where they left them, who buys coffee for the person behind them in line, who killed it at the meeting with his coworkers, who meets weekly with a guy who just needs prayer and a friend, who forgot to put gas in the car, who falls into bed every night exhausted and confident that they are doing exactly what God designed them to do and be and look like.
Who cares about a caricature when there are real people to be seen?
If you are tempted to zero in on a particular face of a movement and draw for the world a caricature they won’t forget, what you need to remember is at the end of the day we throw those caricatures in the garbage. Nobody really wants to look at them, and especially not the subject of the drawing. Why? Because it’s not true. It’s partially true, which makes it not true.
If you want people to listen to what you have to say, really listen, not just rally around you, or press like on your Facebook post, you have to sit with them and be true with them, and be truthful about them.
I asked an artist one time, a man who paints likenesses that almost breathe with life, how he made the paintings.
“Do you take a photo and paint from that?” I asked him.
“Oh, no,” he said, “I make the subject sit in front of me, hours and hours and hours. How could I paint them life-like if I did not see them living?”
I was small, small enough that my parents were still zipping my coat and tying my shoes. The signs were bigger than me and we stood out on the sidewalk in the cold in front of a hospital in southeastern Pennsylvania. I remember my father lifting me up to put money in the parking meter. Sometimes we ate hotdogs afterward with our fellow marchers and house church members. I remember complaining sometimes about our weekly march.
I didn’t know what abortion was, but I knew what babies were because we always had babies in our house. We loved babies, ours and others.
We loved them so much, I thought, we were willing to stand on the street corners and sidewalks around the hospital holding grotesque and provacative signs in front of shocked patients.
Holding signs in silent protest of abortion isn’t cool. It stopped being cool around the same time fundamentalism took a steep decline and social justice, ironically, took a steep climb.
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This week I read a tweet from RC Sproul Jr., “I believe in a baby’s right to choose.”
Maybe our signs said some variation of that, but mostly our tactics were intimidation, either through guilt or manipulation. Get dirty if you have to, the lives of the most innocent are at stake. Our intentions were good.
But the simplicity of Sproul’s tweet sticks to me this week in particular.
He has taken the pro-choicer’s entire argument and given it to them in decadent fullness.
Of course we believe in the right to choose, we believe it in all the way back to the beginning, the conception, the fusing together of cells and formation of the brain, the movement of the heart, the limbs, and the lungs.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No one is arguing for the abortion of three and four year olds, but three and four year olds have similar decision making abilities as infants. Of course there is a small gap of maturity, but a child who cannot zip her coat or tie her shoes, whose father has to lift her to put his money in a meter to park a car she can’t drive—how limited is her ability to choose?
We cannot know how any child’s life will turn out, but shouldn’t we give them the basic right to choose? Or, less even, the ability to learn to make choices?
Every choice—for better or worse—my parents made for me as a young child resulted in growth and maturity, raising me into a responsible adult who makes wise choices of her own now.
One choice I make is to not hold signs in front of hospitals. I think there is a better way. But if I have children someday I hope they find an even better way. I hope my children will look back to my generation and my parent’s generation and see the Holocaust of abortion will have lasted 40 years longer than it could have.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my generation, the one who has lost 55 Million of our brothers and sisters, will be a holistically pro-choice generation.
Whenever tragedy strikes, for the young boy who has lost his dog or the recent Connecticut shooting, it’s in these hollow places our theology makes itself known. We may say we are not theological, but Tozer once said that “what a man thinks about when he thinks about God is the most important thing about a man,” and so we are all theological.
It is in these dark moments that we think about God the most. His existence or His absence, the strong tower or the hollow void—we shout our questions out and wait for an answer, or don’t. We think about God and so reveal ourselves.
It seems that when tragedy strikes we all find ourselves pulling at the familiar spiritual things, bringing forth faith in an agony akin to childbirth with none of the beautiful reward.
But sometimes our hallelujahs are empty because we don’t know the God with whom we’re pleading.
After my brother was killed, I can’t remember whether it was days or weeks or months after, a family friend erected a cross, painted it white with his name on it clear: Andrew David Ferguson. My father put that cross in the ground less than a mile from where we lived. I was there when my brother died, misshapen on the wet highway, and the cross is nearly forty feet away.
I passed that cross for years and it’s still there, I’m sure, overgrown with weeds and tall grass—and every time it is not a reminder of my brother, but instead my father. My father, though he tried to get there quickly from seven hours away, was not there with us on that rainy April morning. The cross is a reminder of the void—not of my brother and the tragic way he died, but of my father, the one I wanted to take care of us, explain this, clean this mess up, make sense of it.
And so in moments like these, when we are all seeking sense, building towers of thought and politics, I understand the fumbling words people say and don’t mean, the beautiful heretical tributes, the plastic crosses and empty prayers, the haunting hallelujah song and the comfort we find in trite verses. I understand we are all trying to make sense of it all—using whatever we understand to make our way there.
We are all looking for a Savior in the hollow places. We are all betraying our theology of belief or unbelief. We are looking for someone to make a way, make sense, make whole.
So be gracious in days like these, hold the gospel near if you believe it is truth, and if you don’t, come near, come and drink. God is not a God who promises answers, even to His children, but He does bind up the brokenhearted and set free the captive.
He was once a Father who set up a cross in a moment of unspeakable tragedy too.
“He shouts, breaking in, throwing his grand cloak over our unrighteousness, our unworthiness, our most tender parts and our weakest shames. She’s mine! He says. He’s mine! He says. I’m claiming this weary soul. I’m calling its worth.
A few weeks ago I tweeted the following quote from You’ve Got Mail, “In the last mayoral election when Rudy Giuliani was running against Ruth Messenger, I went to get a manicure and I forgot to vote.”
The response was overwhelming. People love that movie—and there’s no reason not to. Email love? Golden retrievers? Shops around the corner? Bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils? I mean, really? People love that movie. I love that movie. But the point of the tweet was missed I’m afraid.
Two years ago I moved to Texas. New York was the most recent place I’d lived, so I still had my NY drivers license, and was in no rush to plant my roots here, so I kept it. Plus I was having a good hair day when the photo was taken and good drivers license photos are like good men—they’re hard to find, so when you have one, keep him.
The thing is, I still have my NY license. Which means, technically, I’m still a resident of NY. Which means, literally, if I voted in this election, I’d have to vote as absentee New Yorker. Fine and good except I forgot and then it was too late and I think technically I’m not even registered anymore and even I was, I wouldn’t be voting my party, etc. So in this presidential election, while Barack Obama is running against Mitt Romney, I live in Texas and forgot to vote.
When people tell me it is my “God-given right as an American to vote,” I want to offer them a slice of pie, one made from earthworms and one made from mice innards. Not because I’m a mean person, but because it’s their right to vote and it’s also their right to say “No, thank you.” Having the right to choose something does not necessarily mean the options are something your gut will agree with.
Before you take offense at me comparing the incumbent or his adversary to earthworms and mice innards, the allegory works best if you realize that neither pie looks very appetizing from this point of view.
When people assume that because I will not be voting in this election it is because I don’t understand, nor appreciate the men and women who have fought wars to give us this right, I will remind them I have two brothers recently back from Iraq and Afganistan and I know full well what is at stake here.
When people talk about lesser of two evils, I ask if they had a choice to jump off the Brooklyn bridge or jump off a five story building which would they choose? Well, I’d rather not jump at all, they would say, and I rest my case. If I am adamantly opposed to more than 60% of each candidates’ position (and I am), why would I punch that ballot?
When some well meaning soul brings up their single issue voting platform (on either side), I look them deeply in the eye and listen to them, and laud their passion, appreciate why they hold their position, and then ask them if they’ve listened to the people who care deeply about the other side’s position. Most times they have not, and more importantly, they would not be willing to.
Here’s why I won’t be voting as a Republican or Democrat in this presidential election:
I am proud to be an American. I have seen the world, been in several third world countries, and in countries where democracy is a thing of dreams; I have seen poverty; I have friends who have had abortions and gay friends who want to marry their partners; I have friends who have declared bankruptcy and I have friends who work in Washington; I have friends who bleed blue and some who bleed red (literally and figuratively); I come from a state where a Republican vote simply didn’t seem to matter, and now I live in a state where a vote for a Democrat simply doesn’t seem to matter.
I am proud to be an American. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to vote, and when my conscience allows for it, I flip that lever gladly, even passionately, with a deep belief that my vote will say something.
But my vision for America is a little more simple than the two parties have made it at this point. I want to see liberty for all, and justice for all, and frankly, I don’t see much of that in either candidate’s plan or past. I want to see less marketing, less hype, less promises. I want to see more George Washingtons, men who get down off their dapple grey and serve the people. I want to see men who promise to serve the people, instead of trying to pull us onto their mighty steed of greed.
I won’t be voting because I have a deep conviction and hope for America and I think the tide is turning. I’m convinced of that, more than I ever have been before. I’m convinced that young people are understanding more and more that local matters, and not just local business or local food, but local government. I think the more we feel let down by Washington, the more we will care about what happens in our own sphere because we’ll see that it matters. It matters to somebody.
I’m not voting because I see two parties facing off but inching closer and closer to one another on every issue and my hope is that they crash into one another soon.
So I’m voting by not voting and I’m voting for something different, new and old, progressive and historical, liberty for the marginalized and the upper echelon, and justice for babies and criminals—and I don’t think the two candidates on the ballot offer any of that.
I’ll probably get a manicure instead.
PS. If I hadn’t forgotten and was registered, I’d have written in my vote anyway and he doesn’t have a chance at winning right now, so don’t give me your “You’re throwing your vote away!” mantra. My vote wouldn’t matter for your candidate anyway.
PPS. Wanna go get a manicure with me?
(If you’re wondering why there are no comments on this, it’s not because I’m a scaredy cat, promise. Here’s why.)
I’d like to sit down, share a cup of coffee, chat with you. I’d like to look at your face, see you eye to eye, know the way you shift in your chair and the way you brush your hair back from your face. I want to know the sound of your laugh and the things that make you feel insecure about yourself.
I want to know you.
When I set out to write in this space it was 2001. My life as I had known it had fallen apart or was being ripped apart. I didn’t know the first thing about blogging. Certainly never thought a stranger would read what I wrote and never had any illusions of grandeur. As the poet Adrienne Rich said, “I came to explore the wreck, the words are purpose, the words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done, and the treasures that prevail.” That was the first tagline on my blog and it remains an important one to me.
Diving into the wreck, using words to find purpose, to find my way, to see the damage and the treasure—this is why I write. This is why I have always written.
But the past two years more and more people read here. Strangers. People from all over the world are reading these maps, these purposes. And the deeper the numbers go, the more I want to swim in the shallow waters. It feels safer to not come out and say how I really feel about some things. To keep quiet on matters about which I feel strongly. To omit needless words, as E.B. White said, but sometimes to omit needed words. Because I am afraid of the wreckage—not the one that has already been made, but the one I might make with my words.
I have never wanted to be a confrontational writer and I still don’t want to be. But I had a conversation recently with someone and his words sit heavy on me: your faithfulness to the craft of writing, the poetry you spin with your words, must never come before your faithfulness to the truth of what you write.
In other words, pick a seat or get off the ride.
So I’m going to do something a bit scary: I’m going to come clean about some things in the coming weeks. I’m going to tackle some subjects that never make me squirm to talk about in real life, but make me all sorts of uncomfortable talking about online.
Because the truth is that I have picked seats on these rides, but I just didn’t want anyone to know where those seats were.
But here’s what I want you to know: I want you to know that I wish I could sit down across from you, so I could know you and you could know me and we could be real people with real thoughts and real stories and real lives. It’s really easy to write things on the internet and cast people in pale shallow lights. It’s easy to create a monster from a man and to polarize politics. It’s easy to assume we’re right because these days it seems less and less about authorial intent and more about how that piece made the reader feel.
So here’s what I want you to know, and I’ll restate this many times in the coming weeks: this is not about making you or me or anybody else feel anything, it is about the intentions of my heart—and so too the intentions of your hearts.
You can’t know mine and I can’t know yours, so come play, but play nicely, because we’re all walking out of a wreck and we’re all walking into one—let’s find the purpose, the map, and the treasures in them all.
It seems that in the middle of every feud, be it theological, political, who left the toilet seat up or the toothpaste cap off, there are those who will staunchly dissect and throw their fist in the air, tout truth and justice. Rightness is the aim. And then there are those who will seek peace, restoration, claim mercy and love as the higher standard. Progress is the aim.
What is interesting here, though, is that those of the justice persuasion will rarely come over to the side of mercy, but those of the mercy persuasion will come over to the side of justice only when their acts of love are being infringed upon.
Who ends up looking like the bad guy here?
The just of course. The less progressive one.
Nobody likes a bully. And the world, and the Church, is full of bullies. Those who throw big words and the Bible around with little regard for the people it affects.
But I would like to propose, if I may, the fact that the sneakier of the two is the merciful turned just.
We ought to be wary of sneaky people. The world, and the Church, is full of sneaky people. Those who have agendas in every direction and woo us in with good-feeling words.
And someone wants to talk about feelings here, I know (because you are the merciful ones). But when I begin to infringe on yours, you bring out the big guns and talk about how I ought to be just and not be too mean because someone’s feelings might be hurt. (Let the record stand that I am by nature a Mercy, and by nurture, Just.)
Instead of taking our cues from culture, from just judges or merciful peacekeepers, from liberals or conservatives, from caps on or seats up, maybe we should take our cues from God who is perfect judge and perfect mercy.
He is perfect judge, so sin is not tolerated, holiness is the only acceptable state, watered down faith isn’t helpful, and nothing but the best will do.
But He is also perfect mercy, so He gave a Substitute, laid on Him the sins of us all, but still, nothing but the best will do.
In our pursuit of mercy and love and all the good feeling parts of our faith, let’s not forget that sin entered the world and our heroes of the faith still fall miserably short of anything good—and that sin (false teaching, acts of unrighteousness, mockery of God, poor leadership) ought to be exposed for God’s glory and our good.
And in our pursuit of justice and truth and all the certain parts of our faith, let’s not forget that the same righteousness that covers us, covers our sisters and brothers too—and that the call on all of us is glory to glory, faith to faith, further in, further on, nearer to God, nearer to glory.
Full disclosure: I work for the media department of non-profit so I am properly subjective, absolutely biased, and in no way can my appeal to your emotions be trusted. I need you to understand that this is not about my particular non-profit gaining ground or having great financial success. God has immensely blessed the work of the hands that work here and He has sustained the work on the field for 20+ years. I am not jealous of those who have better media, better websites, better social media platforms, etc. My job is to tend my plot well, and one of the plots He’s given me to tend is this blog and the message that goes out from it. This is something I’m personally passionate about—what I’m writing here is not necessarily endorsed by my employers.
We cross into a culture of celebrity when we assume that merit in one field or one discipline necessarily carries that merit to other fields or disciplines. More particularly, it comes when we transfer theauthority of one field into another, so that we assume the guy with the popular blog must be a great expositor of the Bible (thus transferring the authority of his success in social media into authority the pulpit). Christian celebrity comes when we assume that the songwriter must be a noteworthy teacher, that the YouTube phenom is worthy of our pulpit, and that the guy who sells so many books must be able to craft a sermon on any topic or any text. Merit in one isolated field convinces us that this person has earned the right to every other platform. When we do this we have elevated not on the basis of merit, but of celebrity.
Read that again if you need to.
America is the land of opportunity and one of the opportunities we have is free speech. Free speech means we can say pretty much anything we want and evolution means that the ones who say what they want the best win. This has resulted in many voices saying powerful, enlightening, and inspiring things. This is why we had Martin Luther King, Jr. and Langston Hughes and Flannery O’Connor and even Joel Osteen. Men and women who say winning things in winning ways—everybody wins, right?
Not right though.
Message aside (I’m in no way endorsing Osteen, for example.), the one who says it best still wins. Presidents are elected on this merit and pastors are procured on it, men are married and professors are picked on it. Merit on the basis of winsome words wins peoples affections, allegiances, and votes.
There’s no way around that. It’s beautiful if you think about it. Really beautiful how words and images resonated within us. I love that. It’s why I’ve committed my life to using words and images to tell the stories of people everywhere.
In the non-profit world, or more specifically the charity world, however, this beautiful gift of telling a story can be very deceptive.
A Name by Any Other Name
I told you at the beginning of this that I was going to use the logical fallacy of appeal to emotions which is interesting because that is what the non-profit sector in many ways spends their energy doing best. I do it too. I want to tell our story in compelling and interesting ways, I want you to cry, I want you to feel deeply what the people we’re helping feel. Then I want you to give. I do. I want you to give me two pennies or two thousand pennies. I want to show you that there’s a need across the globe and you can meet that need. But I use the fact that you’re a human with a predictable emotional response to get to that place. And I don’t think that’s wrong. The bible says that there’sa relationship betweenour emotions and our finances and that’s a good thing, I think it is.
Where it begins to go poorly, and where I am actually going with this post, is when you have someone with celebrity status or someone who rises to celebrity status on the platform of a social issue—but they are standing on nothing but the shoulders of financial backers. What I mean is that they have no numbers, no people, no proof that their passionate plea is actually resulting in lives being affected and changed—at least results equal to the amount of financial backing they get.
Because they have made a name for themselves, they become the authority on activity that might not actually be producing the results you think you’re supporting.
And I know, I’m know I’m biased, but I also know that I have an insider’s view on some of these non-profits and I’m not going to tell you who they are.
Because that’s your job.
It’s Your Job
It is your job to ask about financial decisions charities make—what percentage goes to the field?
It is your job to ask for numbers of lives changed? Sometimes it’s hard to nail down exact numbers, but we can at least give you an estimate.
It is your job to ask whether the cost of paying for a pair of shoes, glasses, a tshirt, a bracelet, a watch, etc. is creating a sustainable and substantial difference in the places you’re being told it is.
It is your job to look at the crowd a charismatic speaker draws and ask whether there is celebrity happening here or charity.
It is not impossible to have charity with celebrity at the helm, and some great, great work is happening when the headliner is a great marketer.
But do not be deceived by masterful campaigns and flashy marketing:
Sometimes it is the least of these giving cups of cold water to the least of these.
I used to be a peacekeeper. I hoarded peace like a child with his Christmas stocking full of Andes Mints and Pez candy dispensers. I kept peace to myself, sure that if I could pet it, and feed it, and care for it, it would stick around. I kept it like a kept girl, made it work for me, paid its wages at the altar of hiding in groups and keeping relationships at arms length. I kept peace by repeating after myself that I was not at fault for the grenades flying over my head or the words flung across wooden tables or down long hallways.
Romans 12:18 says to live peaceably with all and, well, I have tried to do that. No one can accuse me of bringing wrecking balls into life’s infrastructures in the past decade. No sir.
Tonight I think about the rest of that verse, though, or rather, the beginning of it: If possible. So long as it depends on you. Then live peaceably with all.
If possible. Meaning: when all other outlets have been explored, when I have sorted through the cans and wills and dos and don’ts of possibility. When I have exhausted improbability and taken no thought for the bullets colliding through my unchinkable armor. When I have braced myself for the fall that will inevitably come when I am most certainly misunderstood and when I am blacklisted from here til kingdom come. When it is possible, do it.
Stop writing the rebuttal. Don’t blog the discourse. Don’t preach to the choir or to the vagrant in the back row on whom you have your [plank-filled] eye.
Why? Because it’s possible. It’s possible for you to shut up, pursue peace.
So long as it depends on you. Meaning, and don’t miss this: the world will spin madly on.
Eliza Doolittle sung a bit of theology for us all when she sang to Prof Higgins, “And without much ado we can all muddle through without you.” So as long as we hold the beautiful ability to pursue peace with all men, we ought to. So long as it depends on us, we should trust that our meddling in affairs that bring an end to peace, well, people die on hills like that and we wade through the carnage for centuries.
Tonight I sat in a room with some beautiful people and we shared some broken things, some carnage, places where we didn’t pursue peace or where someone didn’t pursue peace and we were the wreckage left behind.
But here is the beautiful part of that: wreckage will be left while we wander this earth, but what’s ultimately left, when the All Consuming Fire has come and burned away everything but what shines brightest, what shines brightest will be the Prince of Peace and we add nothing to that beauty with our earthly bickering.
Imagine with me a kingdom. A palace set on a hill with a town below littered with small homes of people—and a Troubadour making his way from Palace to People, back and forth.
In the palace there are servants, kings, footmen, princes, cooks, and taste-testers; there are seamstresses, children, queens, and teachers. In the town there are servants, fathers, children, mothers, cooks, teachers, sellers, and tailors. And there is a troubadour making his way from Palace to People.
In the Palace everyone has a role and no one without a role is allowed in the door. There is a code of conduct within the castle walls and any outsiders are known, and all the insiders have things to say about them when their backs are turned.
Among the People outsiders are common and welcome, travelers pass through, sick people rest for a while, everyone earns his own way and they get there by the sweat of their brow. There is no protection out here and it is every man for himself. No one dares cross the threshold of the Palace.
And there is a Troubadour who goes from Palace to People to Palace to People.
From the People to the Palace he brings his stories, his lore, his songs, making melody from their harmony. He represents the town-people to the palace-people and they all clap their hands, their cheeks red with laughter and strong drink, they point and beg for more, more, more!
From the Palace to the People, he brings his secrets because who doesn’t trust the ears of nearby troubadour? Plans and propositions fly mightily across the tables in the great hall when the wine flows freely and the kings toast in the presence of a mere entertainer.
The Troubadour never belongs in either place and carries with him the residue of both places, the People and the Palace. But kingdoms will rise and fall on the shoulders of this Troubadour, this ambassador, he who is never at home wherever he is, he who is just another person to the People and just another participant at the Palace.
Are you from the Palace or the People? Or are you a Troubadour, easily slipping in and out of both places effortlessly? There’s no right or wrong answer here. I’ve just been thinking about cliques and culture and the people we trust to let in and the people we don’t trust and, most of all, the people who purposefully don’t fit anywhere.
There is never any shortage of new marketing tactics to help get the word out about the grand ways in which the world can be changed. And I suppose that is found wherever there is commerce, but it is often found more emotionally wrenching within the non-profit sector. I get that. You know? I understand that.
Unfortunately, though, sometimes we confuse the having of those feelings with the acting on those feelings and within the non-profit circle there is no shortage of passionate pleas, cries, and shouts directed toward those feelings.
I work in the communications department of a non-profit that many would categorize as a social-justice vehicle. And this is true, we are passionate about justice. This means that we are passionate about the message and the act of justice, and committed to follow-through.
I’ll confess something to you, though, I frustrate myself sometimes because I am an artist and I want the medium to touch the deepest parts of a person and affect them at a heart level—but to evoke real change, it has to end with action. I’m also frustrated because I see non-profits who are less concerned with maximizing the actual effect a world over, and more concerned with marketing their message here.
But this frustration reigns me in, holds me back, gives me insight, and slows my reaction time and so I continue to let that frustration build and grow in me, teaching me to be circumspect.
DOING SOMETHING ISN’T DOING ANYTHING
When Invisible Children first came on the scene several years ago, I was in college and we, as college students are wont to do, rallied along that cause with the passion of an army of our own. We spent the night in cardboard boxes, we wore t-shirts and bracelets, we hung posters. We were doing something.
Or were we?
A few weeks ago I posted an article highlighting some social justice causes that on the front seem to be rocking the world. You’ve heard of all of them, I’m sure, because their marketing tactics are clearly working. You probably own a pair of TOMS (I do) or Warby Parkers (I might). Maybe you have a t-shirt emblazoned with the cause. You may or may not have donated money. What the article said so brilliantly, though, is that none of these causes are even coming close to solving the problem. The thing they are doing well is marketing to feelings, and feelings, if manipulated properly, can lie.
And that’s what marketing is, really. We want to chose the perfect palette of colors, pick the perfect photo, tug on your heartstrings enough so that you’ll take $60 out of your pocket and provide a pair of cheap canvas shoes that will last about four weeks for a street urchin in the slums of India.
I’m not judging. I do it too. Every single day I open up my Adobe Creative Suite and I manipulate sizes, shapes, and colors, wording and phrasing, photos and illustrations. I want to get you to give us $150 so that we can rescue one girl from the Red Light District. One girl. One girl who has been yanked from her home in rural Nepal, drugged, beaten, and who is now raped an average of 20 times a day. Can you afford to give me $150 to get her out of that life?
See what I did there?
We need to think very carefully about the difference between feeling something and acting on it. And, furthermore, we need to think very carefully about what ‘acting’ on it means. It doesn’t mean a simple retweet or Facebook share. It does not mean hanging a poster or wearing a bracelet. And it most certainly doesn’t mean that we’ve accomplished anything by doing any of the above.
KONY 2012 AND ME
I watched Kony 2012 (video at bottom of post, shared 57 Million times so far) the moment it came across my desk, that’s what I do, I watch marketing tactics of other non-profits. And I won’t lie, my heartstrings were pulled, my feelings were stirred, my righteousness sprang into action and I retweeted that video as soon as those 27 minutes were over. But after a few hours and a little thinking, I pulled that tweet down for multiple reasons.
1. CLEANING UP CLEAN MESSES
I’m not a fan of the US going around cleaning up messes in other countries. That makes me sound cold and heartless, I’m sure, but it’s much more deeply thought-out than that simple sentence makes it sound. The most vocal supporters I know of Social Justice movements are the ones who are also most vocally anti-war (anti-Bush, anti-Republican). That’s a huge red-flag in my mind in situations like this. We are all about cleaning up messes until the mess is ten years old and costing us billions of dollars. We want clean messes and wars never are. 2. THE ART OF POLITICS
I voted neither Republican nor Democrat in the last election and I have no plans of voting either in this election. However, the marketing strategy of the Obama campaign was brilliant. And the marketing campaign of Kony 2012 is equally brilliant, specifically in an election year. Did anyone else notice the interview of Shepard Fairey in Kony 2012? Do you even know who he is? Did anyone else notice the gorgeous design of the Kony 2012 Kit? Iconic and so familiar?
Shep Fairey is the designer responsible for the iconic HOPE poster used voraciously in 2008 during Obama’s election campaign. The design of the Kony campaign is strikingly similar (though I don’t believe Fairey designed it).
I don’t mention that because I’m against Obama being re-elected, my politics have nothing to do with this. I mention it because what IC is doing, by inciting 57 Million young people to political revolution, has repercussions that 57 Million young people are not thinking about. My friend Tony wrote a brilliant post on young people rocking a vote that they know nothing about, so I won’t rehash it here, but putting a hammer in the hands of someone does not mean they know how to use it correctly.
By using iconic design, interviewing a pop-culture design guru, IC was not only inciting 57 Million people to stopping Kony, but also saying “If we can get the Obama Administration to pay attention to us, send troops to inner-Africa, we’re proving that history can repeat itself.” And that is a possible 57 Million uneducated votes for Obama.
But what about in ten years when the US troops are tired and haggard from a war in Africa? Do we vote for our new iconic savior and bash Obama for the next ten years?
What are all of our social-justice cries gonna be then?
3. ENDURING ACTION
Paul said if we don’t have love we’re like a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal, and I’ll be honest, folks, it’s really, really easy to be both of those things these days. Social media spreads messages faster than ever before, and probably with less foresight and thought.
Real love, the kind Paul wrote about, is patient, it waits a moment or two and thinks. It is kind, it does what is long-term the best solution. It doesn’t envy or boast in its brilliant marketing tactics. It isn’t arrogant, thinking it can solve a 20 year issue by the end of April. It’s not irritable or resentful, reactionary and disgruntled when people fuss at its motives. It doesn’t rejoice at wrong-doing, but pursues truth (to its very end). It bears all things, even when it’s unpopular within the non-profit sector, the social media sector, and the political sector. It believes all things, without manipulation. It hopes all things, even in the face of disappointment after disappointment. And it endures.
It endures beyond viral videos and passionate pleas. It endures when nothing seems to be changing. It endures when posters and bracelets and t-shirts don’t seem to be working, when the money isn’t there, and when the world isn’t cheering from the sidelines.
So pass on that video if you like, by all means, get the word out about the monster that Joseph Kony is and the unspeakable acts of horror he’s inflicted in inner-Africa. Educate your grandmothers and kids and shop-clerks in your small town. But think about what your action is doing. And then find some way to actually act.
To truly act might mean you have to do unpopular, sacrificial, or heart-breaking things. You may have to spend some time educating yourself politically, and directing your energy where it will really make a difference. These are things that will actually change the state of the world, and not give you the impression that you’ve done something heroic by retweeting a cool video.
Please make sure that you read the two articles that I linked to, as I think they both add valuable content to this post and are worth your time. Again:
If you’re looking for action points, here are a few:
1. Partner with local aid groups in Africa. The stronger and more independent we can help people in the Congo, Southern Sudan, Uganda, etc. be, the more they are equipped to defend themselves against people like Kony. If you need a list of groups, I can get you one. (By the way, Invisible Children itself does a fair bit of on the ground aid in Africa, so if you’re already supporting their aid work, keep on with it. But one thing to keep in mind is that we want to, whenever possible, support Africans doing aid in Africa—equipping them personally, instead of being an American crutch.)
2. Educate yourself and others here on what ramifications your “benevolent” actions have in other countries. Western tactics are not always the best tactics and it’s very ethnocentric of us to act like they are.
3. PRAY! Kony is just a man. He’s a monster. But he’s just a man. He’s done horrible, horrible things, but so did the Apostle Paul. He’s not beyond the reach of God and so we pray for that!
My name is Lore (Lor-ee) Ferguson. In every particle of life we're hearing messages, people are saying words at us, shouting them over the noise of the day. My hope is that Sayable is a place where the message is quiet, encouraging, and somewhat simple. Here's my story, I'd love to hear yours.