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John Pavlovitz Interview: How Christians Got God Wrong

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Image attributed to John Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. A 25-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, he is committed to equality, diversity and justice – both inside and outside faith communities. Over the past few years, his blog, Stuff That Needs to Be Said, has become a virtual hub for millions of people from all over the world that choose to read and share his wisdom and insight.

Pavlovitz is the author of A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic and Hopeful Spiritual Community and Hope and Other Superpowers: A Life-Affirming, Love-Defending, Butt-Kicking, World-Saving Manifesto. His latest book, If God Is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk: Finding a Faith That Makes Us Better Humans, was recently released. If God Is Love explores how we can embody the kinder kind of spirituality where we humbly examine our belief system to understand how it might compel us to act in less-than-loving ways toward others.

"Right now, we have this Christian movement that is completely connected and intertwined with a political movement, and that’s obviously a very dangerous thing in and of itself."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: John, what’s the latest on your health?

John Pavlovitz: About a month ago, I was diagnosed with a likely benign tumor in my pituitary at the base of my brain that will require surgery. Things have moved rather quickly, and we’re having surgery on October 1. So we’re just getting ready for that and feeling rather good about it. I have a great team of doctors and a support team around me and family and friends. My virtual community has been wonderful. So I’m just looking forward to getting the surgery and then seeing what the recovery’s going to look like.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you been told what to expect after surgery?

John Pavlovitz: I think it really depends on how difficult it is to remove it and how my body responds. So it could be a few weeks where I’m going to be on some restrictions like not being able to exercise or drive. Then, if there are complications, which there are a couple of different things you could have, then you could be looking at a couple of months of really strict restrictions like not bending over and not picking stuff up. But we’re hoping for the former and that it’ll just be a few weeks of inconvenience. I’m going to wait to see what happens when I wake up.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you or your family had any lingering effects from having COVID this past summer?

John Pavlovitz: You know, we’ve been really fortunate that we haven’t. I lost taste and smell completely, and that came back. So that was wonderful because I’m the cook in the family, and I love food. It was really a strange thing while I was cooking without smell and taste. You’re going through the motions, but you have no idea if it’s working, so it was really an odd situation for a while.

That’s one of the possible side effects of the surgery complications, so I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen because that would be a bummer. But the whole family has been doing very well physically.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: That’s great news. What was the impetus behind writing If God Is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk: Finding a Faith That Makes Us Better Humans?

John Pavlovitz: I’ve been wanting to write a book that dealt with prescribing something for religious entities of the world who seemed to be producing something that was not out of compassion but something out of guilt and afflicts cruelty. So I was looking around and seeing that religion often, especially in America, seems to be the source of so much division and so much apathy, and that’s counter to what I’ve experienced as the teachings of Jesus.

I intended to write that book as sort of the diagnosis of that. Then what happened was, I started writing in the second week of March, 2020, and everything began to change. I was seeing what was happening with the pandemic, we had the Black Lives Matter protests and high-profile murders of people of color. The election was coming, and I was just seeing all this swirling storm, and it was basically being generated, it seemed to me, by white people claiming to be Christians. So I wanted to speak really explicitly to that. The book became more visceral, and it became much more personal, too, much more of an emotional response, which I was grateful for.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Trying to get everyone to love and be kind to one another certainly is a lofty goal, John.

John Pavlovitz: (laughs) Right. For me, that was part of the title, If God Is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk, because I think my aspirations for humanity had gotten really pedestrian. I didn’t want to write a book that said, “Hey, let’s love other people.” It was, “Let’s start by not doing harm.” That was really part of the genesis of the book, to find an elemental approaching of people and see their humanity. The other part of the book that was a surprise but that also was reflected in the title was realizing that I have a propensity to be a jerk as much as anyone. So I was addressing those inclinations in me and facing my own hypocrisy also.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The other point to make, of course, is that politics are intermingled with Christianity. I heard the term “fake” Christian being used to describe those who judged, condemned and were cruel to others for having different social and political views.

John Pavlovitz: Yeah. Right now, we have this Christian movement that is completely connected and intertwined with a political movement, and that’s obviously a very dangerous thing in and of itself. Then you’re right, as long as people profess Christianity, then those of us who are followers of Jesus or are part of the Christian tradition have an obligation, I think, to speak when we see people living in a way that is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. I always tell people that I’m always fighting with and for my faith tradition because these are people who are giving the world a message claiming it’s the Christian message, but it really has nothing to do with it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: But Donald Trump confessed he was a Christian.

John Pavlovitz: Yeah. I can say I’m rich, but it doesn’t make it so. That was a masterstroke of the deception that has gone on when Donald Trump went to many high-profile ministers, and they got together. He appeared at Liberty University, and they all announced the fact that he was a confessed Christian. That was all millions of white evangelicals needed to support him. So they were just, I think, waiting for a reason to get behind him even though two weeks before the election, they heard the horrible things he said about women in the Access Hollywood video. Even though they knew who he was, I think they were just looking for an excuse to stand behind him, and that’s what they stuck with.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Given the importance conservative Christians have placed on abortion, one may assume their opposition stems from biblical teachings. But I know of no such biblical law.

John Pavlovitz: There’s a chapter in the book devoted to this issue. I think what’s happened is that the abortion issue has been, for many conservative Christians, a really easy, clean form of activism so they can stand on the issue and feel the sense of moral superiority or self-righteousness. Embryos are really easy to advocate for because they don’t have any personality or characteristics ascribed to them. So they’re not yet Muslim or of color or gay. So a conservative Christian can say, “I’m standing for life,” when the reality is that when so many sentient human beings cross their paths, they face enmity from them. It’s pointing out in the book the hypocrisy to have an activism that confronts their own privilege and their own prejudices, something that would require effort from them or change. Those things aren’t in play when they are going against abortion. So they can have a stance, and that’s it. They don’t have to do anything differently in their lives.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The second part of the book title is Finding a Faith That Makes Us Better Humans. How can we do that?

John Pavlovitz: The seed of everything, I think, is empathy. You have to be understanding of our commonalities. So I’m always looking at the human experience and trying to get people to understand that even greater than their theological beliefs are the people across from them having the same experiences of the world, that we all carry grief, and we all have fear. Everything else could be different, but those fundamental pieces of it are there. If we can recognize them, then whether we are religious or not, we’re always going to treat people with more kindness, more generosity and more patience. I think that’s the heart of the book for me.

I don’t want anyone to change their religious beliefs or their political affiliations but to ask themselves if their lives are yielding more compassion or less, if the legislation they support is doing that or if the politicians they support are doing that. If your world view doesn’t lead to more empathy and greater diversity, then what’s the point of it?

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What actually stands in the way of people being more kind and loving toward others?

John Pavlovitz: I think a lot of it is simple business. I think we’re programmed to be moving so fast that we don’t have a lot of margins in our lives, not a lot of time to stop and grieve and actually enjoy the basic things like eating something you love or listening to music that moves you. I think that gets in the way a lot of times, that velocity of life and how busy our schedules are. I often don’t think it’s people not caring. It’s actually that they don’t actually have time to stop and consider what’s happening around them.

That’s constantly a theme in my writing, getting people to look at what’s happening and look at other people’s experiences and realize that as difficult as you have it and as challenging life is for you, it is equally that for others in very different ways. So the more you learn their stories, the more you’re aware of that pain, the better life is. That’s what I can’t comprehend of that religious/political/theocratic movement we were talking about earlier. I can’t understand why it’s so cool to people. It makes life so much more difficult for everyone, and that’s an instinct I can’t comprehend.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you still a Unitarian pastor?

John Pavlovitz: I speak in the Unitarian communities here in Raleigh. But I wouldn’t call myself a Unitarian minister. For the past five or six years, I see myself as sort of this pastor for this virtual congregation that sometimes takes me across the country to speak, sometimes I’m online giving speeches, and sometimes I’m in local communities. That’s been the beauty and joy of this work. I have a congregation but no building.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You were raised Catholic?

John Pavlovitz: I was. It’s kind of a tradition with Italians, Roman Catholic families. I would say that I was raised on gluten and guilt. That was my early God story.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You became disillusioned with the Catholic church and then struggled with your faith?

John Pavlovitz: Yeah, a little of both. Basically, I was slowly drifting from my childhood faith in my college years. In my early 20s, I would call myself a hopeful agnostic. I really got pulled back into the church when my wife and I got married, and I started volunteering in this small Methodist community. There, it reawakened my love for religious or spiritual community, and I started serving as a volunteer, then a paid minister, and that started my completely different road. So religion was rekindled later in life, and it was a surprise to me. Being a minister was completely unexpected.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: It is difficult for some Christians to leave a church where they feel safe in familiar surroundings yet they know that certain ideologies are effecting their mental well-being and may even be considered cultish.

John Pavlovitz: Yes. There are two powerful things at play there, you’re being immersed for decades or a long time often in a very tough reality of abuse, and there’s also the desire to stay in the community, and the church leverages that. Many people, I think, struggle with some of the things the church is doing or saying or some of the political affiliations, but they’re terrified to say anything because they want to remain in those communities where the people they love are. It’s a real difficult thing to get out of once you’re in it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m truly a fan of your blog, and I will admit that I have cried on occasion at some of the stories.

John Pavlovitz: (laughs) So have I.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I shouldn’t have read, “The Coffee You Won’t Get to Drink (A Reflection on Dying and Living)” right before our conversation. That was an extremely emotional one for me. You’re quite the wordsmith.

John Pavlovitz: Wow. I appreciate that. From the beginning, I never started writing about losing my father, and it felt a little bit invasive at the time. But I started to realize how deeply people were connecting with that honesty, and that’s where I approached what I do, to write people into the experience of life and all its fullness and try to be as honest as I can without exposing our family too much and giving away too much of my inner life. But certainly, writing about that grief is something that’s continually a part of me. It also shows me how those things transcend religion. So there are people who don’t agree with my politics, but they relate to the writing because they have that experience.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Clearly, another talent you have is art because you created a really cool print to celebrate the release of the book.

John Pavlovitz: Oh, thank you. The print is called “Unboxing God,” which was the original title of the book. I was an illustrator and graphic designer. That was what I originally wanted to do my whole life, what I went to college for, and I started a career doing that. As I went into ministry, I slowly left that part of me and stopped drawing altogether.

I thought, “Well, this would be a wonderful time to rekindle that.” So I started drawing again for the first time in maybe 15 years and created this print that we gave away to people who preordered the book. It was interesting to see the muscle memory come back when I was drawing. I said, “Okay. I’m not where I was. I can’t do it like I used to be able to. I can’t see quite as well. My hands are not quite as steady. But it’s me, and I can feel that energy again.” It was really exciting.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You are very active on social media and have a large following. Many people quit Facebook or Twitter because the constant barrage of bad news, attacks and trolls is simply overwhelming and impossible at times to filter out. Is that something you also struggle with?

John Pavlovitz: Oh, Melissa. Every day, it’s an hour-by-hour challenge. I tell people all the time, my space that I do the work that I love is often in the virtual world, but if I didn’t do this work, I may not be online at all. I tell people if you want to have to cultivate compassion in your life, one of the things you need to do is that you need to get on social media so you’re aware of what’s going on and so you can spread goodness into the world.

But then, I tell them, if you want to cultivate compassion, you need to get off social media. Make sure you know when it’s becoming toxic or dangerous for you because what social media tends to do is bring out the worst in us, and it also magnifies the bad news. So you can see a piece of legislation or some sort of event, and you like it or write about it or share it, and you get reminded of that with notifications, and other people share it. So you’ve seen the same piece of bad news 12 times in the course of a couple of hours. I think the net result of that is you begin to magnify the things you’re afraid of or worried about. So it can be really terrible.

But you know, having said that, to realize I’ve been fortunate enough to begin with eight or nine people reading my blog to having 100 million views, that’s exclusively the beauty of social media. It’s allowing that those words I’ve written to do the work, and they find the people who those words are meaningful to. So I could never tell you that social media is evil completely.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: John, what do you want readers to actually learn from If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk?

John Pavlovitz: I just want them to know that they’re not alone in their experiences of the cruel people world and to let them know they have the capacity to make a more compassionate planet. So whether they’re religious or not, to just ask the questions, “What is the fruit of my life? What are people experiencing when they run into me?”

Also I’d like them to seek to try to find an expression of their humanity that’s kinder and more gentle and more loving. If we all do that in small increments, then the world will look very differently over the coming years. That’s all you can do. Use the circle of influence you have to transform that place. So that’s what I hope people do. I hope they just seek a more sympathetic way of being.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And it wouldn’t be a bad thing to organize the “Church of Not Being Horrible,” as mentioned in the book.

John Pavlovitz: Yeah. The “Church of Not Being Horrible” was partly my little subversive sense of humor, but it was a way to say, “I don’t need to have a church where we save the world or do grand things.” We just begin by saying, “We want to remove obstacles from people’s lives and take away the barriers that do damage and bring joy and equity.” If we can do those things, that’s a huge step. If we can just not be adversarial toward one another, that would be a beautiful thing.

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