John Pavlovitz Interview: “What Kind of Person Does the World Need?”
Image attributed to Helen Hill
John Pavlovitz is a pastor and blogger from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past two years, his blog, Stuff That Needs To Be Said, has reached a diverse audience of millions of people throughout the world with an average monthly readership of over a million people. His home church, North Raleigh Community Church, is a growing, nontraditional Christian community dedicated to radical hospitality, mutual respect and diversity of doctrine.
Pavlovitz is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Relevant Magazine, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project and ChurchLeaders.com. He has authored the books A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community (October 6, 2017) and Hope and Other Superpowers: A Life-Affirming, Love-Defending, Butt-Kicking, World-Saving Manifesto, released November 6, 2018.
"The funny thing about the question 'What does the world need?' is there would be a lot of commonality in our answers regardless of our religious affiliation and our political beliefs. Honesty would be right up there at the top of the list. But what we have with this president is a complete manipulation of the idea of truth because what he tapped into is our desire to be around people who are honest with us. So he leverages that fear of being lied to by telling a group of people that they’re being lied to. It’s really funny because once they believe that lie, then facts and data no longer matter to them."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): John, if there was ever a time when the world needed Spiderman and Wonder woman, it has to be now. What are the main points you want readers to takeaway from Hope and Other Superpowers?
John Pavlovitz: The question at the heart of the book is, “What kind of person does the world need?” You begin to really ask that question to look at what you see on the news and who you run across in everyday life. Answer that question and really seek to be that kind of person. If you think the world lacks compassion, then try to figure out acts of compassion. If you believe it lacks generosity, then go out into the world and be a generous human being.
It sounds very elemental, but it’s one of those things that when we’re so wrapped up in a non-stop bad cycle of bad news, we can forget really the simplest acts of being human. So that’s really the heart of the book. The heart of the book is to look around and say, “Where’s my opportunity to be what the world needs?”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How important is the “superpower” of honesty today when there’s an administration unabashedly making false or misleading claims and certain news agencies propagating conspiracy theories?
John Pavlovitz: Yeah. That’s the thing we would all say. The funny thing about the question “What does the world need?” is there would be a lot of commonality in our answers regardless of our religious affiliation and our political beliefs. Honesty would be right up there at the top of the list. But what we have with this president is a complete manipulation of the idea of truth because what he tapped into is our desire to be around people who are honest with us. So he leverages that fear of being lied to by telling a group of people that they’re being lied to. It’s really funny because once they believe that lie, then facts and data no longer matter to them. So part of that ordinary superpower of honesty is for us to really cultivate that, to be relentless about the people that we allow near us and really demand accountability from our leaders. So it’s huge right now because when honesty or truth is a subjective thing, that’s just a really dangerous place.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe that Donald Trump’s attacks on mainstream media have worked as far as placing doubts in people’s minds which news outlets are “fake” and which are credible sources?
John Pavlovitz: His political ascension has come at a time when we have this great influx of social media and sort of alternative news outlets which don’t always have the strength or voracity that a news agency may have had before, so you’ll see stories that can get a lot of exposure that maybe haven’t been vetted. Part of that is there is a reality that we have to deal with in general. I think what Trump has done is say, “I’m going to inject a sense of indecision in people’s minds. I’m going to feed into that chaotic feeling of, ‘Where’s the truth in my life? Where is the real story there?’” So I think he’s been effective at just exposing some things that are already at play.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re a strong leader of the resistance on social media. In your opinion, has the resistance slowed any or changed since the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20, 2017?
John Pavlovitz: I’ve been traveling almost every weekend for the past six or seven months, and what I’ve seen is a general sense of fatigue. It’s really a compassion fatigue. It’s a sense of, “How can I ramp up again to fight this daily barrage of bad news?” I talk about the election being really a moment of grief for many of us, and it was a timeless grieving of the ideas of family, this country and of church, but we’ve also grieved relationships that were fractured.
The problem is that with normal grief someone dies one time, and you spend the rest of the time processing that. In this case, there’s a recurring grief. Every day there’s either a real or a figurative sort of funeral that’s played out on social media and on the news, and you have to respond to that. So to keep coming back with that relentless urgency is not a natural place for us to live. As a result, I think that’s the effect for the people who are resisting this. There’s just a sense of how tired everyone is, and that’s by design partially by the administration, I think. For us, it’s important to engage and withdraw, to be out there and to work in activism and to fight legislation and to be a part of movements and protests but also to pull back and to get those times of silence and solitude, and then to really just live to keep those relationships with our families and do all the things that give us life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve said this president is a monster maker. So how much guilt and responsibility should be placed on him for the recent pipe bomb assassination attempts and murders in a synagogue, and does it rise to the level of criminality?
John Pavlovitz: I think it’s just a complete recklessness. There have been obviously people filled with hatred, bitterness, racism and homophobia. But I think when you have a person with that kind of power giving it credence and many reiterating those things and stoking those fears, that’s really an irresponsible act. So criminality is really hard to access. People tell me, “Well, in the case of the bombing suspect, he has a record of all these hateful things over the past few decades.”
But it isn’t until now that people like that have really acted out because I think there’s a sense that they have free rein, that they have someone in power who finds those things acceptable. There’s a lack of inhibition now brought on by just the way this president speaks and the way he tweets.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You dedicated this book to your mom. Tell me about her and how she has influenced your life.
John Pavlovitz: Fortunately, my mom is still living. My dad passed away five years ago really suddenly. You don’t realize when you’re younger necessarily just how hard your parents are working just on a basic level, like how sleep deprived they are, how much they’ve sacrificed for you and how much they emotionally give to you.
But after my father passed away, I saw my mother have to enter into a new time in her life with so many challenges. For me, watching her walk through those things was a real exercise in seeing someone draw from a well that they didn’t realize they had and be an incredible superhero in my eyes. I just watched her for a second time sort of teaching me how to be a really great human being.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you always want to be a pastor?
John Pavlovitz: No. The ministry came as a second career. I would say I was sort of drafted into it. I was working as an art director for many years and started volunteering in the church and kind of went down this path slowly to leaving my career and entered into the ministry. That was about 23 years ago. Then now, this is a new revolution of my work to having sort of a global congregation, if you will, with a group of disparate people who find the writings to be a hub. All of it has been just a surprise to me in wonderful ways.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You are known as a liberal pastor, so what are your beliefs?
John Pavlovitz: It depends on who’s calling you the name or who’s using the name. For me, the heart of my faith tradition, which is Christianity, which is the faith tradition I was raised in, the heart of that was always a deep sense of compassion that Jesus had, really being a status quo changer and making really sure the power was not wielded improperly. Jesus was always there with the poor, with the marginalized, with the overlooked and invisible, and I think that’s what any decent person want to do, and that’s what I want to be.
In a time like this with this administration, what you see is that group of people who are the most vulnerable, which Jesus called the least of these, is the most threatened right now. So progressive Christianity for me is really making sure that you stay true to the heart of the Jesus of the gospels and not to nationalized, white Christian theocracy that we have building in America with the evangelical church.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of that, I often hear the resistance calling Trump’s evangelical base “fake” Christians because they support the president. What are your comments about that?
John Pavlovitz: What I think is that most of the people who follow Trump who claim Christianity generally are confused, and I don’t say that to disparage them, but many of the people in the evangelical, white Southern Baptist or Bible Belt religion have been raised with an image of Christianity that is really distorted. It’s all filtered through the lens of whiteness, misogyny and homophobia. So their idea of just who God is is really incongruous with the Jesus you see in the gospel writings.
They’re not fake Christians because they generally believe they’re following Jesus. It’s just that the people who have raised them and the teaching that they have been given given is such an odd version of Christianity, but they don’t see it because that’s all they’ve known. So my goal with many Christians is to keep reminding them that this is what Jesus said. This is what Jesus did in the stories of the gospels. Hold those up to a mirror of this administration, and tell me where you see similarities. That is hopefully where it beings to break down, or you can make some sort of inroads with them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you explain the divisiveness in the country to your two children?
John Pavlovitz: What’s happening in America is, in some ways, unprecedented. But, historically, as you look at the world, all sorts of cultures have gone through these times when this sort of division, this sort of barrier building and leveraging of fear and dehumanizing of people has happened. So it’s really not new historically.
I have to remind my children that, at this place and time in our country, yes, these things are happening. But there’s also always this courage and goodness. There’s always this other movement of love, justice and equality, and it’s still happening. So we get to travel around the country, and I get to be with a new group of people almost every week. My children get to see, when they travel with me, that this is happening. There’s a lot of bad news and realities that we’re dealing with, but there’s just so much beauty still happening, and I just have to remind them of that and try to create that for them as their parent.
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