It’s one of my favorite times of the summer; I’m packing to head to our national youth conference. A whole slew of evangelical teenagers coming together for a week of worship, sermons, service projects, and more. My favorite parts are the worship (I love to sing), participating at the national level for drama and music, and seeing all of the friends that I only get to see once (or maybe twice) a year. As I get ready to go, the all important packing happens. I approach this with the utmost care. I want to show off all of my favorite t-shirts throughout the week. Most of them are Christian bands or artists, but others are emblazoned with slogans. A t-shirt with a giant cross on it that has a post it note nailed to the beam that says “I’ll see you soon. Jesus”. Or the shirt that says “I am NOT ASHAMED of the Gospel”. Or “Only a fool says in his heart “there is no God.” I liked my Christian t-shirts. I had a ton of them. I wore them all the time. I thought they were conversation starters; that people would see them and ask about them and I would have the opportunity to tell them about my faith. I thought they were bold, declaring exactly who I was and what I believed to the entire world. I thought they were proof of my devotion. Proof of my seriousness. Proof of how unashamed I really was.
And I genuinely did think that wearing shirts like this would do something in the world. The same way that I thought pithy bumper stickers or a fish on my car would. Or the billboards on the highways that said “It’s a child, not a choice.” Because I believed in those slogans, I thought that declaring my belief would shift the balance of the world.
I was reminded of this the other night as we were driving home from a weekend away and I saw one of those billboards on the side of the road. I was immediately angry and frustrated. I thought to myself, “God, there is just no nuance there. There is no room for grace. There is no room for anything, really.” And yet, I am sure the people who shelled out the money to buy that billboard thought they were doing something amazing. They thought they were making some kind of a difference.
I am now more convinced than ever that the world will not be saved by bumper sticker slogans (from either side). Because the solutions to the problems of our world are more complex than what can fit on a bumper sticker or a t-shirt. And as much as I’d like to say that, for instance, a sticker declaring “no more war” will make a difference in the world, the fact is that it won’t. That ending war is not simply a matter of us being more peaceful but that it involves lots and lots of other things like food distribution, power, wealth distribution, access to resources, and much much more.
Now, mind you, bumper stickers and lawn signs and t-shirts can make a difference. Because symbols do matter. They can let people in your neighborhood know whether you are safe or not. When I see someone with a “Black Lives Matter” lawn sign or flying a rainbow flag those symbols let me know something about their politics. Likewise, when I see someone with a “Blue Lives Matter” sign or a bumper sticker that says something about what marriage equals, I also know something: These are not safe people for me to be around and I need to keep my distance. These are the type of people that will vote to take away my rights and that, frankly, could get violent if provoked and do me physical harm.
Marginalized folks have learned to look out for symbols that tell us whether we are safe or not. It’s how we survive in the world. It’s how we know the places where we can let our guard down, even if it’s only for five minutes, and find some respite. These symbols let us know which towns we need to be hyper aware in or which ones that we need to avoid entirely (if possible). So keep putting up your signs and flags and wearing your shirts because it takes some of the guesswork out of the equation for us.
But know that those signs or shirts aren’t going to convince anyone of anything. I have never seen a lawn sign and been like, “You know what, I had never considered that before. I’m going to change my mind.” But I have seen signs and been like, “Oh, the person who lives there is someone who it might be safe for me to get to know.”
Those t-shirts that I used to wear (and it is not lost on me all of these years later that, here I was, packing to go to a Christian conference, and I planned on wearing all of these shirts.) weren’t really about convincing anyone of anything. They were more about identifying me as belonging to a certain group and connecting with other people who were also from that group. When I was out and about and saw someone else with one of those Christian shirts, I thought, “Yes! There is someone like me.”
What I didn’t realize is that all of my bumper slogans probably kept me from having the actual conversations I wanted to be having with people. Conversations about the depth of the spiritual life, conversations about what Jesus meant to me. I’m sure what I was signaling with those shirts is that I was someone to avoid. Someone who couldn’t handle nuance. Someone who might throw out a judgment before the conversation even got started.
Those shirts also (and probably rightly at the time) identified me as someone who wasn’t a safe person to be around for a lot of people. They told the people I was connecting with that they probably shouldn’t come out to me, or tell me about areas in their life where they were struggling. Those shirts told people that I was likely to judge. Or to respond with a cliche that lacked real depth.
But that’s the thing: back then I thought with the depth of a bumper sticker. I believed that praying a prayer to Jesus would make everything better. That if we just got enough people to get saved then the world would change for the better. But if my shift away from evangelicalism has taught me anything it’s that we are not saved through a prayer. We are saved through actual, real, deep down, life change. And that life change means orienting our lives around those who are most marginalized. That’s where salvation is. And it’s complicated and complex and messy. And the more privilege you have the more it will cost you. And none of this can fit into a compelling slogan that you can slap on a t-shirt or a sticker for your car. What we need is deeper conversations about how things are interconnected. What we need are conversations with room for nuance. With room for complexity. We need to have hard conversations about real solutions that aren’t just putting a bandaid on things but that will change the world and move us toward a future that is filled with justice.
I’m still a fan of t-shirts. These days I wear mostly Uprising shirts. Our slogans, I hope, really are conversation starters. I hope they aren’t just about connecting with an already “in” group, but are about expanding conversations. Slogans like “Every body has a story” and “Your story is safe with me” are about starting conversations, not shutting them down.
The world won’t be saved by a bumper sticker. But it will be saved by stories. And conversations. And real work done with empathy and with hope.