Are we really called to be a "voice for the voiceless"?
I've been driving my crappy little motorbike around Phnom Penh's broken streets for the last few years. And it's done me well. The whole family: me, my wife and two teenaged kids can still squeeze on, and wobble our way down to the local shops.
Lately though, as piece by piece falls off or stops working, the horn has finally joined the exodus and quit functioning. It's as though, one by one, the parts have quit in protest at their employment conditions and stormed off the job.
So now, when a big-ass black Hummer or Lexus cuts me off, I can no longer honk furiously to signal my irritation. I'm reduced to muttering under my helmet, or waving a fist half-heartedly as they speed away.
It got me to thinking how "voiceless" I feel on the roads now. I'm forced to remain silent in the face of injustice. And it sux.
So this week, while I'm in India, meeting with senior leaders in the Alongsiders movement, I got to thinking about this quote by one of my favourite Indian activists - Arundhati Roy:
Being a "voice for the voiceless" is one of those things that we've solidly embraced as Christians. But the phrase no longer sits so well with me.
Sometimes, being a "voice for the voiceless" is another excuse to place ourselves at the centre of the story. It can become a subtle way of being a white savior, pushing ourselves to the forefront and taking the place of honour (Lk 14:8).
And when we do that, we marginalize poor people all over again. By attempting to be their voice, when they already have a voice.
When we speak for people who may prefer to speak for themselves, we reinforce their "voicelessness".
We confuse not being heard, with having nothing to say.
Did you ever notice how often Jesus encouraged someone to use their voice? He asked beggars and lepers what they wanted him to do, when it must have seemed obvious that the guy was covered in sores or blind and needed healing.
So, I'd like to suggest 3 alternatives that may be more appropriate than being a "voice for the voiceless":
1. Listen and learn first
Sometimes, I'm so pissed off by a situation of injustice that I've just read about on the Book of Face, that I'm tempted to leap to being a "voice for the voiceless" before I've even listened properly to those who are being oppressed. With social media, this temptation is racheted right up.
The trick isn't to NEVER speak or post, but to remember the significance of listening properly to the stories of others first so that you can deepen your understanding of the issue. As Sarah Bessey says, "The problem isn’t their “voicelessness,” it is that we are not listening."
Jesus himself, who knew everything, asked people questions and listened carefully to the answers, instead of lecturing the poor or talking about them ignorantly. He spent 30 years living among the people, before he ever opened his mouth publically.
2. Amplify their voice
After listening to people in unjust situations, what if instead of speaking for them, we looked for ways to amplify THEIR voices?
One of the practices I personally have tried to use, is bringing "co-speaker" with me, usually a young Cambodian, when I am invited as a keynote speaker at events and conferences. I usually find, they will be the star of the show and their testimony is deeply impactful.
What if we used our influence to help lift up others and spread the stories of those who are oppressed or overlooked, allowing them to take centre stage, while we serve and encourage?
3. Speak of both the tragedy and the resilience
The way we "speak up and defend the rights of the needy" (Prov 31:9) says a lot about our understanding of justice and transformation.
When we speak only of the tragedy, and nothing of the resilience of the people involved, we paint them as helpless victims. Calling them voiceless when they are not voiceless reinforces the narrative that they are pathetic and can do nothing.
On the flipside, when we speak only of their resilience and nothing of the tragedy, we ignore the reality of their suffering.
We need to learn to do both - speak of the tragedy AND the resilience - as in this post. Arundhati Roy reminds us to "never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple."
There are certainly times to speak up. We should not remain silent in the face of injustice. (Sarah Bessey crucially reminds us that the unborn are truly voiceless). As a writer and speaker, I'm conscious that I share other people's stories all the time.
But as I wobble down the road on my old motorbike, I'm acutely aware that I would much rather have my horn restored, so I can honk, honk, HONK for myself - than to have someone else honk for me.