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Most of my memories from the house I grew up in are set in our 70s ranch style kitchen with its hexagonal breakfast area and windows out to the backyard. I remember looking out those windows at our big oaks in the middle of summer, leaves waving, arms swaying back and forth, back and forth, like music. 

Once, I broke a mercury thermometer in that kitchen. All of a sudden—smash!—and lots of gray balls of liquid broke loose. Like a game of pinball, tiny silver balls catapulted into a world of tile and grout, bouncing off edges and sliding across surfaces at random. Stepping between them on tip toes, I was mesmerized. These spheres were unlike the liquid I had observed behind the glass of the thermometer. And they seemed to hate each other, scrambling away from each other like that. It was as if they had existed behind glass just waiting for the breaking moment to escape, to assert themselves apart from that which was once all of them, together.

I think about that in the wake of the past two months. 

Bathroom Boycotts to Gun Rights and Back Again

Photo credit: francisco_osorio via / CC BY

Photo credit: francisco_osorio via / CC BY

Eight weeks ago, in the midst of the bathroom debate, I wrote a list I titled “When you get the itch to write an open letter,”  it was funny I thought and timely and, ironically, an open letter for open letter writers. But days later, a stream of events began that caused a steady increase of these letters. First, Harambe the Gorilla pushed the bathroom debate off the table—and letter after letter encouraging, demonizing, or calling for legal action ensued. Then, a courageous young woman vulnerably shared the story of her assault. When a judge sentenced her rapist to 6 months in prison, it picked up speed. When the rapist’s father sent out his own “20 minutes of action” open letter, open letters in response rushed in like a hot, angry storm. The following week, a mass shooting took 49 lives at a LGBTQIA club in Orlando, FL. And, perhaps before many of the victim’s families, friends, and loved ones had time to exhale—letter after letter after letter. Gun rights this, war on terror that, you name it, there’s a letter out there that will distill this event into one perspective for you. Two weeks ago, the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were added to the long list of lives taken by police shootings on the streets of our nation. And then a shooting in Dallas claimed the lives of five police officers. And yesterday, another in Baton Rouge claimed three more. The open letter cycle commences. 

My list seems lacking now. 

I see these letters and I understand. I, too, feel the need to write and send out my say into the internet abyss. 

But as I scroll down my newsfeed and see post after post of open letters, I remember mercury on tile—scrambling off in different directions after a breaking moment. 

Open Letter Activism and the Savior Complex 

savior conference crowd advocacyI went to a victim rights conference in April. A presenter on stage said something I have said on stages before, “We must be a voice for the voiceless.” And the woman next to me whispered under her breath, “…But they already have a voice.” 

I was shocked by this statement, received it as an affront to my desire to help people. Now, I see that I was wrong to do so. When I started raising awareness about human trafficking in Kansas, my idea of justice was simplified by flow charts and action steps handed out on 1/4 sheet card stock during passionate speeches. Now, I look back and can see that certain aspects of my approach were rooted in a savior complex. 

We forget that there are stories out there encased in flesh and bone and desperately needing someone to love them, listen to them, advocate for them, or watch Netflix with them while their brains and bodies heal to the point that they can actually process what has happened to them. 

My savior complex came from a desire to do something to change the world for the better. I saw my love for words as a way to move others to action. This can be a good thing; however, I sometimes did so while avoiding the stories I didn’t yet understand, the stories that weren’t ready to be told, or those that never will be told. I avoided the mess of process. And, in my quest to figure out what a just society would look like for systems and individuals— avoided working with others I didn’t already agree with. I avoided these things because they require more than just hard work—they require facing fears of being wrong, messing up but not giving up, admitting I don’t know everything, and letting go of control.

My #savior complex came from a desire to do something to change the world for the better. Click To Tweet

The savior complex speaks on behalf of those who are hurting because they “need” us to do it for them and “they can’t right now” and “people need to know just what’s going on here.” And people respond to these stories. But now I see a degree of marketing clean versions of what’s going on, avoiding the complexities of social change, and ignoring the humility and the grit required to enact it.

savior computerMany open letters have become outlets for the savior complex. There is a fine line between advocating for people and looking past them while advocating for our tightly held ideas of justice instead. There is a danger to thinking that our online lives somehow possess the power to distill into reality with just the click of a button.  There is more hurt to impose on others if we talk for them in order to advance our own opinions about what happened to them.

I get it. We do so because we want to help, we want to see the world changed, and we believe that lives are worth fighting for and the more people we can get on our side the easier the victory will come. 

That may be how to get names on petitions. That may be how to get people revved up to protest. That may be how to get people thinking. It may be how to get a lot of shares and likes. It may even help show people that not all Christians are bigots and not all Muslims are terrorists and not all white people are racist. It may accomplish a great many necessary things. 

But it won’t heal the hurting, bind the wounded, or set right what’s been skewed.  

It will make it about you and your feelings. 

What does it mean? What do we do? 

Today, it’s necessary that social issues are branded and marketed via social media outlets. But, when the thermometer breaks and tragic events happen, the temptation to use these events as a promotion tool to “strike while the iron is hot” gets downright competitive. And the people affected by these tragedies get lost in our narratives expertly spun to get more people on our side.

At the end of this road stands disillusionment and bitterness and division. For every open letter sent out into the masses, there is someone who is already halfway finished with their rebuttal. For every rebuttal, there is anger that yours didn’t get more air time. For every “I’m here with you” promised in an open letter for an entire people group, there’s a question of your absence when the media spotlight has moved on. 

I am conflicted in writing this because I do not want to minimize the need for systemic change in our nation. I do not wish for you to take these words as an excuse to not care or to avoid considering these very serious issues or to halt actively promoting change in your community. 

But my savior-complex-tinged version of justice was simplified into a marketing campaign, when I was presented with another opportunity—

to enact it daily in the context of relationship that empowers the voices that aren’t being heard and, in so doing, works to enact change in this small circle of the world I live in.

So, what am I going to do today

I will read your letter. I will consider your perspective. 

And then I will go hang out with one of my friends who has been sexually assaulted, because I have more than one. We may eat. We may drink. We may talk about summer vacations. We may not mention the pain today, but today, she’ll know she’s loved and she’s safe at this table with this friend. 

I will endeavor to better love my friends in the LGBTQIA community. I will thank God that He has brought me from a place of finding security inside my flow chart of whys and hows and ifs and thens about you and me to finding it in the midst of relationship with Him. I didn’t know then that I can hold two seemingly conflicting truths together and trust that in the tension between them, God heals and covers and loves and that he’s not finished with us yet.

I will let myself feel anger for the lives ended by acts of hate and religious radicalism and racism. I will call these things out when they are overtly or covertly communicated in my conversations with others. 

I will let myself feel compassion for those whose lives are forever changed due to the loss of a loved one. Not the comfortable kind of sympathy that washes its hands by posting a Facebook status, but the real kind of compassion that will take me outside of my comfort zone into battle. I will not back down from the reality of the things we face right now and the factors that perpetuate them, but I will refrain from publicly using tragedy to blame or excuse anyone or anything or any agenda. 

And I will continue to do so when the media has moved on, when my “chance” of having all my social media followers know my stance on {insert issue here} has gone.

So, what am I going to do today? #faith #action #love Click To Tweet

I will mourn over pain and brokenness and discord around the globe, this nation, and my city. 

And then I will log off social media, close my computer, 

and forgive those who have wronged me.

I will take this fatigue over evil in the world and I will heap it back on God. I will dismount from my white stallion I have ridden to “save” people, and I will give him the reigns again. I will continue to do this in order to move forward in love, to speak in love, and to admit that I’ve been wrong before and I can be wrong again. 

I will walk through life holding what I do know closely and deep, holding what I think I know with open hands, trusting the Holy Spirit will help me figure it out when the time comes. 

savior girl vine head wrapToday, I’ll make myself available for you.  

I can listen if you need me to.

Or I can tell you that in times of extreme want, of incredible pain, of seemingly insufferable evil in the world, 

things like hope and wholeness still exist. 

That’s about all I can say today. 

I will offer grace. Buckets of it, heaped upon the doubt and fear and anger and numbness, giving time and space where they are needed, and respecting the boundaries of relationship. 

When I don’t know, I will say so. When you don’t know, I won’t tell you what you “should” know or how you “should” feel. 

And I will speak truth in actions with open arms for hugs if you want them. Or, I will make us tea and we can sit and look out open windows at big trees that sway like music far, far away from the buzz of social media activism, open letter opinion, and the fire hydrant of stories about you that you may not have told.  

When everyone else talks for you, I will endeavor to see you. 

Because that’s what people are doing for me, it would be an honor to do it for you. 

That’s about all I can do today. 


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