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Livia Grossenbacher


I met Ashley about 11 years ago while I was on a student exchange in the US. She was 22 at the time, and I spent many an afternoon at her house because I was good friends with her younger sister Hannah, who was in the same grade as me. They were the first to expose me to the TV series «Friends» and took me to Youth Group at their church, something I was wholly unfamiliar with. After my return to Switzerland, we loosely kept in touch by following each other on social media and sometimes commenting on each other’s pictures. Even though it became visible to both of us that we belonged to vastly different political camps (with me posting about queer rights and intersectional feminism and her very recently posting in favor of the overturning of Roe v. Wade), we never unfollowed each other.

For this edition of Zollfreilager, I was interested in approaching the topic of «Andere Augen» quite literally: I wanted to find out what the world looked like through a wholly different pair of eyes, preferably belonging to someone who truly offered another perspective. I wanted to talk to someone who would be willing to help me understand where their opinions stemmed from, and I needed it to be someone who wouldn’t judge me for my own thoughts. Ashley agreed immediately to have this sensitive conversation with me. We sat down on zoom together with the idea that if it should be an interview, then from both sides. Exposing yourself to someone who doesn’t share your opinions comes easier when you’re not the only one doing it.

The following is a condensed transcript of the long conversation we had about our upbringings, religion, politics and education. There isn’t a clear end as it wasn’t an argument – neither one of us tried to convince the other of something. The script you have before you is therefore to be read as an unfinished exploration, while we are looking to set a date for the next zoom call.

LIVIA: Let’s start by describing our living situations – How and where do you live?

ASHLEY: We live in a large home in Pennsylvania in the USA. It’s a beautiful large stone house, where we live in the upstairs and my in-laws in the downstairs. We moved here in December of 2020. The house is situated on 2.4 acres, and we live beside a very busy road, so it’s noisy outside which is a bit problematic, but it’s a beautiful place to live.

Do you own or do you rent?

We own. Well, we mortgage (laughs). And even after we pay off the mortgage we pay taxes on the land, and if we don’t pay the taxes, the state gets to come and take our house. So I think we never really own our land.

Who do you live with?

I live with my husband, Kevin, and our two little boys, Finn and Rowan. They’re ages six and four. My husband’s parents, Mike and Jackie, moved in with us last June.

Why do you choose to live with them?

Well, first of all we love them and we want to take care of them when the time comes. Right now they’re taking care of us, helping with the kids. And we love the idea of multi-generational living, it’s a very rich environment. My in-laws differ from Kevin and me: We go to church, they don’t. I don’t want to call us conservative, but they have a democrat point of view and we don’t. But believe it or not, these were not difficult things to wade through.

So, tell me about how you live.

I live in a house in the capital of Switzerland, in Bern. The house is owned by my dad’s family, they’ve had it since the 1950ies. It’s in a part of town that used to be really industrial but lately they’ve started building a lot of living space. We are four parties that know each other but all have our own apartments in the house. The real life «Friends», if you will. My girlfriend and I live in our own apartment, then next door our two best friends have an apartment, and downstairs my brother and his best friend each have their apartments as well. Living with a sibling as a grown-up has surprisingly worked out nicely! What’s your relationship with your family like?

We were and are a close family. I love my siblings and get to see them most times on a weekly basis. My homelife as a child was pretty good. As I get older my view on my homelife shifts, but over all I know that my parents loved me and my siblings and that I felt safe.

Do you remember what ideals were especially important to your family when you were a child?

My parents instilled in us that family is very important. Whatever happens, you should always seek to reconcile and be there for each other. We were raised on Christian ideals. We went to church every Sunday: We started out in a Mennonite church, and then later we moved to Evangelical free.

Can you talk about what those different churches are like? I have no idea!

Yeah! I don’t know a whole lot about the Mennonite church. The beliefs they teach are pretty broad, but a basic character trait is Arminianism, in the sense that they believed that you could lose your salvation. And they were also characterized by the way they dressed: In most Mennonite churches I went to, you had to either wear a certain type of dress, or you were only allowed to wear skirts. The church I grew up in was more relaxed, I could wear pants. I remember when I was little my dad taught me «anything worth doing is worth doing for the Lord.» He said it while spraying the back of our camper bumper! He was painting it white, and I said to him: «Dad, you’re being so meticulous right now!» And he replied with: «Anything worth doing is worth doing for the Lord.» (laughs)

What was the switch from Mennonite Church to Evangelical free like for you?

It was exciting, because I thought the church we were going to before was boring. I was baptized there when I was 11, and then when I was 12 I remember hearing the term «a relationship with God», and really wondering what that meant. It sounded great, I wanted that! At the new church, I got to be taught what that meant. It felt like a happier, more joyful place to be.

Are you still in attending the same church now?

No. I left that church when I was 22 or 23. I went looking for deeper teaching and wanted to get a more theological understanding of the bible. The church I started attending was St. John’s reform church. I met Kevin there and we got married and moved to Maryland for six years. It’s very much like family. From the first Sunday we visited we were made to feel right at home, also with our kids. There are churches where they don’t want you to bring your children to the service with you, so that others can concentrate on the sermon, but the congregation has been so welcoming and supportive.

So, tell me about what you believe. Is your belief a significant part of your life?

I would say so. I call myself a witch (laughs). I come from a family where we never went to church, not even at Christmas. If you grow up in a Protestant Canton like I did, it’s standard that you have religion class at school when you’re around 14. Then you have your confirmation when you’re 15. And I did all that, because it was the thing to do. But it didn’t really mean anything to me. I’m not sure when exactly I got interested in Paganism and spirituality, except that my mom was always interested in that sort of thing. When I was 13, I tried out a pendulum for the first time. It was just always one of my interests, but when I started my Master’s I met one of my now really close friends for the first time, and she was also interested in Paganism and Witchery – Witchery meaning knowing which herbs are good for which illness, being connected to nature, things like that. So now the two of us and another friend have this little mini-coven. For me it’s about connecting to things that happened before my lifetime. I like to connect to nature and do spells, which is essentially just focusing your energy to bring something forward that you wish for. I also like doing ancestral work. At its core, Switzerland is a Celtic and therefore pagan country. In the area where I grew up there’s lots of Celtic ruins and artifacts being found, so for me that is way more present than Christianity.

Does your faith affect your everyday life?

I think so, in really subtle ways. I also want you to answer that question after! I cook a lot, I love cooking. And when I cook, I make sure that I stir some good intentions into the food I’m making. When I’m out for a walk with my dog I look at what is around me, when we’re in the forest I like to see if I can recognize the plants around me and remember what I could use them for. It’s a lot about appreciating what is around me, being aware.

I don’t stir my pot a certain way (laughs). But I would say that my relationship with God infuses every moment of my day, even moments when I don’t recognize it. I like to do a similar thing to yours: The other day I was feeling so anxious, and it was a beautiful day, so I went outside and just lay on the grass and looked up at the blue sky. I guess they call that «grounding». What’s important about that for me is how beautiful it is that God gives us these things: He gives us the grass to lay on, he gives us a blue sky to look up at and consider. He gives us stars – I’m not really into astrology, but we do plant by the moon’s phases.

I do that as well! Before, you said that you want to connect and have a relationship with God. I want the same thing, except for me it’s wanting to have a relationship with multiple Gods. But we are both looking for a connection with something other and bigger.

I’m also very interested in herbs and apothecaries! And I’m wondering if crystals could really be beneficial for the body. As I explore these things, I’m always careful to bring it under the authority of God’s word. If it goes against something the bible says, I reject it: I believe that His word is the final authority over all of my life. But there are many things, like herbs and their uses, that fundamental Christianity has cast aside out of fear.

My faith has undergone a lot of reconstruction in the last six years or so.

How did you come to know what you now know?

I’m still growing in this, but I’ve come to this point because this is how God has led me. I’m also a theonomist, and so an ideal world for me would be a theocracy. It’s where the most justice and grace takes place. I remember that I was reading through 1st John a few years ago, and there’s a passage that says: «If you love me, you obey my commandments.» I remember chewing on that and thinking that I had learned a lot about God’s love and His grace, but I didn’t know a lot about God’s law. I was taught that that was for the nation of Israel in the past, and I didn’t know what God thought about a lot of things. Then I was given the opportunity to be part of a study that went through the laws of the Old Testament. It took us three years! And I came out of that study realizing that even His law was so full of grace. So where I am spiritually I am also politically. The two are intertwined.

So as a theonomist, what do you think about the American government?

Boy, where do I start! The government is only as good as the people who are in it. What I find really terrible is that it’s really hard to accurately judge a person’s motive. It doesn’t matter if they’re Republican, Democrat or a third party – I don’t trust government because I don’t think people should ever fully trust their government. I think they should know their rights and govern their government. Ultimately, authority comes from God, and I think any government that seeks to make itself God is overreaching its boundaries.

What does overreaching the boundaries mean?

God sets clear boundaries for government. The bible talks about a couple of types of governments: Civil government, family government, church government, and rather implicitly self-government. In Romans 13, it says: «Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. » In the next two verses, God sort of lays down the boundary line for governments. It says: «For rules are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.» A lot of pastors read that passage and take it to mean that you need to submit to the authorities: Whatever the president and the government say – you gotta do it and look peaceably on them, because God says you need to obey. What they’re missing in verses 3 and 4 is that God has put them there, but the authorities are responsible to carry out God’s law. And that means that they are accountable to the law of God, not the law of the land. If the law of the land says one thing and the law of God says another, their duties as magistrates is to execute the law of God.

Maybe this is a prejudice, but I’m under the impression that many people who are government critics are homeschooling their children. Do you see this connection as well?

I can certainly see that connection – just like many liberal children are coming out of the public school system. I think schooling is very important: whoever controls the education of a child controls the generation.

Are you planning to send your kids to public school?

No, I am planning to homeschool. I could send them to a Christian school, there’s a couple in the area. But I found a curriculum that I am super excited about with a focus on classic literature. It’s an education I wish I would have had. My education was textbook-heavy. I don’t want that for our children, because when I learned with textbooks I held on to the information for as long as I needed it for a test, and then I disposed of it. I’m not trying to knock the education I’ve had –it was a Christian education. And I love Christians, so much, but there’s a lot lacking when it comes to Christian education in America.

What do you find to be lacking?

I think the ability to engage with culture, with people, has been severely lacking. That comes from education. It’s not just socialization, it’s knowing how to bring the word of God into everyday life in an engaging way, so it’s not trite and overworked. It almost seems irrelevant. The bible is for all things and all times, and much of it has been reduced to surface-level bible study. It’s a book that is chockful of beautiful literature, but I was never taught to read it as a literary book, and to see that there’s so many different parts to it. Society is like the report card of the church, and if you look at it like that, we’re in a sorry state.

That to me isn’t country- or religion-specific at all. For me, we are clearly in the end-stages of Capitalism, and we are seeing a huge increase in mental illness, we’re seeing so many people who don’t get enough money out of this system, we are seeing unequally distributed resources. I don’t have a solution for the problem but to me the whole system is no longer working.

So you take issue with capitalism because you feel that people have jobs where they’re being treated unfairly?

It goes way beyond that. There’s a power imbalance that goes through everything. Employer and employee, well-educated and not well educated, it goes through whether you own or rent a house. We live in a system where people are at the mercy of other people. It creates unequal changes and situations for people that they can’t get out of. Don’t you agree that there are some basic rights that should be met for everyone?

I think that basic human rights come from God. He’s the ultimate authority, He is very generous. The fact that we live and move and breathe, that comes from him. The experiences that we have come from Him. Anything that the bible doesn’t prohibit is a right for all mankind.

This is not all that Ashley and I talked about during our interview. We talked about health care, both of our ADHD-diagnoses and our dogs. After our conversation, we kept in touch on Facebook Messenger, an App that I hardly ever open on my phone, and Ashley sent me videos about ADHD between my updates regarding the interview draft. The casual and understanding tone between us two stayed, even when we both posted on different sides of the social media war a couple of weeks later when Roe v. Wade was overturned. Whether I want to discuss this issue in our next talk, whether I will be able to face such a huge difference in our ideals without tripping up our balancing up of seeking to understand each other, I’m not sure. Exposing yourself to other core beliefs is, most of all, an uncomfortable and delicate matter.