I struck up to live radically. I quit running track for SPU. I became a Student Ministry Coordinator. Since my Sophomore year of high school, I planned on being an English major, but I switched to Christian Theology. That summer, the summer of 2007, I moved back to Oregon. I returned to my job as a valet parking attendant (worst job in the world, by the way) in Portland. With my new found radicalism, I realized how much gas I would waste and how much money I would spend driving back and forth from my parents’ house in Salem to Portland (a forty minute trip, minimum). To prevent myself from such status quo living, I bought an old bike and a bigger backpack. I proceeded to call everyone I knew in Portland in order to find a place to sleep. For six days a week, I slept on couches, in parks, at the airport, on buses, and on the light-rail while I worked five days a week. Once a week, I returned to my folks’ place on the bus. Proud of my lifestyle, I grew increasingly alone. I tried to hang out with friends, but I always felt outside. At all times, I slept in someone else’s space. Free to go anywhere, I belonged nowhere, to no one. In these moments of alienation, I saw the need for community without hierarchy. I will talk more about that later.
Deep down, I wish I had a really static “before” and “after” comparison of me the Summer of 2006 and me Fall quarter of 2007. After high school, I tried dressing well. Admittedly, I was trying to impress the women of SPU even though I had a girlfriend. I never let myself get extravagant; to this day, I have never made a purchase at Abercrombie. Nevertheless, the following year took a dramatic shift. As a Sophomore in college, I wore about 3 shirts, one pair of shorts, a crappy green jacket, and one pair of pants for a year. I walked barefoot everywhere. Using cheap carabiners, I carried brown, leather flip-flops from my belt loops to wear when I went into coffee shops and restaurants (they will kick you out if you go in barefoot). I wore a “Sea World” hat my parents bought me when I was four that I decorated with political and religious buttons. Finding me in the shower was rare. I grew a pony-tail, and I never shut my mouth.
This time might be as good as any to sum up what I held to be truth at that time. Very strongly, I believed G-d worked through the state. More importantly, I thought Jesus cared about poor people immensely. A Christian’s purpose in life was to be on the side of those under oppression. Rich Christians who failed to live with extravagant generosity were fooling themselves. Ultimately, I rejected violence outright. When I first became a pacifist, I believed violence was still an option for those who believed in it. By the time I turned 20, I no longer subscribed to violence as an acceptable solution to any issue. I believed big businesses hurt the economy. By then, I stopped standing for the national anthem and pledge of allegiance. I wanted everyone to have equal access to resources (I still do). Christians in the military were fooling themselves. The homeless were G-d’s chosen people. The Democrats were G-d’s chosen party. Conservative Christians were fooling themselves. Simple living. I became a vegetarian. I argued for socialized healthcare. The environment mattered; cars were the problem. I read the Bible every day. I began reading books about the Bible. The words of the Prophets flowed from my lips. Nightly, I ranted about Christians who prohibited women from being pastors, who stayed silent on politics, and went to concert-style churches with charismatic leaders and rock bands. Christians in these churches were fooling themselves. I proposed very few solutions to the mass of problems. No longer would I call myself a patriot, but good government still mattered to me. They did, after all, hold immense power, and the U.S. needed someone to clean up after the mess Bush made. I strongly supported Barack Obama.
In my Foundations for Educational Ministry class, I boldly claimed Communism as my political affiliation. Someone gave me one of those trendy black and white Barack Obama posters, and I hung it prominently in my tiny dorm room. November 2008 could not come fast enough. The debates began heating up, and I eagerly soaked them in. Keep in mind, at this time two things mattered more to me than anything else: G-d and pacifism. The November 2008 elections were to be the first available Presidential election following my 18th birthday. I wanted to be very well-informed. In those days, everything came down to Bush. How would the next President be different than Bush? With Obama, the most obvious difference came in his demeanor. Barack Obama may be one of the greatest speakers I ever see in my life. Bush’s legacy was one of a fumbling buffoon while giving speeches. I determined to not be fooled by Obama’s pretty words. What were his policies? I listened carefully. Bush promised to cut taxes while continuing two wars, increasing access to healthcare, creating a better school system, paying off the debt, and maintaining U.S. economic dominance abroad. What did Obama promise? He promised an increase in defense spending, increased access to healthcare, an end to the Iraq War, a balanced budget, economic stimulation, government transparency, and a bunch of other sparkly things. “Perfect. He’s perfect,” I thought. “He is…wait, did he just say he would increase defense spending?” Yes. “Did he say not everyone would get healthcare?” Yes. “Did he say a bunch of other ridiculous, useless garbage?” Absolutely.
Listen, I am no economist; I never took a class in political science; and I did not go to West Point. I like to think I am not a complete idiot, however. In the midst of drowning under double-digit trillions of dollars in debt after a disastrous presidency that included a defense budget larger than the next biggest defense budget by almost 10 times, Obama planned to increase spending? I have been told that insanity is doing something repeatedly yet expecting a different result every time. This seemed to constitute just that. These arguments failed to persuade me. At the time, I was wary to really throw my weight behind any politician, yet despite all the Bush-like things he promised, his words sounded so pretty. I decided to attend a rally for his campaign at Mac Court on the U of O campus with my friend Rick during Spring Break in 2008.
For those of you who come from an evangelical Christian background, have you ever attended one of those giant revivalist rallies? Have you stood in line fervently awaiting the band and the speaker who gets you to rededicate your life to Jesus? You feel so awesome. It must elicit a spike in dopamine or something. You leave feeling refreshed and exhausted. You suddenly feel like you are a part of something really big and really important. The Obama rally in Eugene was one of those experiences.
I remember standing in line with the attitude that I “came to see” what was being offered. Was Obama really going to deliver? I planned on listening to his words in order to judge for myself. The line to the door was huge. We waited for at least an hour, maybe longer. We chatted with people around us and read signs being held up. Someone came up to us with a hand full of little pieces of white paper. She handed me one. Printed on it was Obama’s iconic red, white, and blue head. A serious yet not angry expression spread across his face. One word stood directly beneath the picture in all capitals. “HOPE” it read. The simple pictorial meme slapped me in the face.
Early in church history up until things like the printing press made literacy more widely available, most people could not read. As a result, artists depicted icons and paintings showing different biblical and faith stories. While I see very little difference between icons and idols, the moderate disjuncture between the two makes all the difference. An idol is something a person worships; an icon points to what a person worships. That piece of paper was an icon.
Seem strange to you? Which one will you choose?
We entered the arena. An extensive time of crowd foreplay occurred before the man himself came out to speak. When he did, the fervor hit its zenith. The whole charade felt just like a Christian revival meeting. Even the language emulated it. Obama talked about recommitting ourselves to the cause of making America (sic) better. He used key words and phrases to elate the already explosive crowd. People proudly and joyfully looked at each other with hope. Hope for the U.S. and hope for the future. The spectacle revealed the problem we found ourselves in. The U.S., in its imperial impetus, had engaged itself in perpetual wars, drowned itself in insurmountable debt to maintain these wars, profited immensely off the cultural and environmental destruction of foreign lands, deposed numerous democratically elected leaders internationally, committed genocide against the original inhabitants of the middle North American continent, created an unmatched disparity between the rich and the poor, dropped two nuclear bombs on a defeated Japanese island, polluted its own waterways, enslaved millions of people from Africa, utilized free market economics to profit a few using oppressed labor by the many, instituted numerous policing organizations to spy on and repress its own citizens, fool all its citizens into believing it is a democracy, and worst of all, it did this all in the name of freedom. Watching the spectacle before me in which everyone cheered for this man who promised to protect and redeem this legacy, I opened my eyes. Being a pacifist, this looked absolutely ridiculous. Being a Christian, the whole event seemed blasphemous.
The parallels are easy enough to draw. The U.S. (not the people but the ideology that makes up the U.S.) is G-d. Obama called us to recommit ourselves to this deity. Each presidential hopeful represents the U.S.’s messiah. The people are Israel. They decide who they will support as the next messiah. The messiah’s purpose looks more like King David than it does Jesus. It involves politics and war. In the end, when the U.S. wins the battle and brings peace to the world, the president will be commended for redeeming the brutal violence in the U.S. history books. The world, completely rid of evil, will look to this leader as their savior. If you do not believe me, then how can we explain the religious fervor, the defense of “American democracy”, the sign I saw a young woman holding that read, “Obama SAVE U.S.”, the salvific rhetoric used, and the fanatical devotion to an empire that has crushed anyone who stands in its way? When I finally left that rally, I realized that being patriotic is to be religious. We can center our religion around the merits of the U.S. empire, or we can center it on following the Way of Jesus. I chose Jesus. I could not bear to support the hideous activity of the self-righteous empire anymore.
I came to the conclusion that I could not support the U.S. in any way, shape, or form. It would only be a short step for me to become an anarchist.