11 April 2012

An Open Letter Concerning My Poem "New York, 1942"

Last month, I wrote a piece about God's relationship with the poor and desperate called "New York, 1942," after having read about Harlem and other parts of impoverished America during World War II. The piece was intended to be a satire, but I received some correspondence about it that I would like to respond to here, since otherwise this is a sleepy little blog, and I welcome dialogue.

Let me just say this upfront: I believe in God, and I consider myself a very spiritual person. But my relationship with Divinity is complicated, one that I engage with daily. Oddly, the more alienated I feel about dogma and its inconsistencies, its stern representatives and apologists, the closer I feel to God, or what/whomever one wants to call God. Because God exists outside of human-made constructs, I feel that religion doesn't do a good enough job of explaining God. It doesn't do a good enough job of reinforcing the spirit.

So, while I struggle to find an adequate identifier for my religious/spiritual stance -- "agnostic" isn't strong or complete enough, for instance -- I still grapple with my Lutheran upbringing, my education in an Anabaptist college, and my own role as a Christian apologist.

Throughout history, the wealthy have tried to claim ownership over Christianity in particular, despite what Christ teaches. During the course of the past thirty years, America has become increasingly conservative, with an Evangelical Christian bend. One of the factors that frustrates me most about the current climate and discourse, aside from the rampant hypocrisy and judgment, is the perspective that Jesus in particular takes political sides, namely that if Jesus came back and landed in the United States, He would identify as Republican. He would also, evidently, identify with the rich white Christian men whose ideology is and has been dominant.

I would beg to differ. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., and others before me, I think that God -- Jesus, Allah, Buddha, or any other "God" -- is with the oppressed. I do not think of God as Republican or Democrat. I do not think of God as CEO or mascot. I think of God as one who chooses to be among the most broken, the most suffering, the most in need of Divinity, for these are the creatures who possess the most grace.

While my poem has offended some readers, I hope that this letter has shed some light on the place I was coming from when I composed it. I wrote it out of frustration and anger. I'm angry at the people who think that God is only for the "clean" and "whole," the most fortunate among us, who use sin as a crutch and excuse instead of holding themselves accountable for their actions. I'm angry at the people who use their privileges -- their whiteness, their Christian upbringing, their wealth, their gender, their heterosexuality -- to judge those who are not like them. I'm angry at those who believe everyone should behave and think and look exactly like themselves -- and I'm angry that they do not recognize their desires as fascist.

The God I believe in loves the sex worker. The God I believe in loves the veteran peddling for change. The God I believe in loves the radical as well as the conformer. The God I believe in loves those who are struggling, who are broken, who are proud and dirty and empowered -- who do not see their brokenness as wrong but as potential, as human.

My blog has a disclaimer. I write poetry that is sometimes graphic and unsettling in nature. I believe that it is important to challenge oneself and to go beyond what feels familiar and comfortable. America in particular is very comfortable seeing itself as beautiful. Often, America is anything but. And, lo and behold, I believe that God loves us anyway. It isn't a radical thought, I know, but it still makes people uncomfortable.

Light should always cause at least a little discomfort, don't you think?

Thank you for reading.

Shannon McKeehen