The recent response to, and the fallout from, #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear on various social media platforms was disappointing but not surprising. I have been a Christian long enough to witness the challenges that women face in the church. There is little doubt that, broadly speaking, women continue to face sexism and double standards in our society, and our churches reflect that. Some denominations state that women cannot be pastors, elders or preachers. Some even stipulate that women can not hold any position of authority over a man. But in the same breath, they will claim that men and women are equal, they simply have different roles. Such a relationship is described as complementarianism. It is a dynamic that is dictated by men and in which women are unable to aspire to certain positions. Consequently, complementarianism is a polite word for patriarchy and inequality.
The #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear discourse highlighted that talk of gender equality or Christian feminism will be met with aggression and resistance. Reading through some of the conversation and diatribes reminded me of a poem by Wendy Cope.
He Tells Her
He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win.
He stands his ground.
The planet goes on being round.
In Luke chapter 14 we find Jesus, as we often do, sharing a meal in someone’s home. He observes people vying for the best seat at the table. But his response is, as Jesus’ responses often are, countercultural. He challenges people to take the place of the lowest and the least.
Then in verse 12, he says this to the host:
“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back, and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”
Jesus was no stranger to prejudice, oppression and injustice. He clearly understood who were the excluded people groups of his time. He had just witnessed the privileged and powerful vying for the best seat, and his confronting challenge is to take the least prominent position and to invite the poor and powerless to the table.
Who we invite to the table is important. Why? Because injustice will always exist when the people who are most affected by decisions and decision-making processes are excluded from the conversation. Traditionally, these people are women, the young, the old, the Indigenous, the culturally diverse, the queer, the poor, and the disabled.
Inclusion is important because we are less likely to talk on behalf of people when they are in the room. Less likely, but it can still happen. Because even though people may be in the room, at the table, and in our congregations, organisations or communities – they aren’t always handed the microphone. The marginalised aren’t often provided with a platform or an opportunity to speak.
And sometimes, even if there is an opportunity, it’s token or unsupported. When people have had such limited access to the microphone for so long, they feel ill-equipped, and the status quo remains.
If I’m honest, I like to talk on behalf of people because it makes me feel important. I feel justified in my privilege and power when I champion the cause of others. Being a voice for the voiceless gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and to fight the good fight. But I am reminded of this quote from Su’ad Abdul Khabeer:
“You don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless. Just pass the mic.”
We live in a society with so many open and accessible broadcasting platforms. Consequently, few people are actually voiceless or lack the capacity to be heard. It’s more the case that we don’t get out of the way and that we don’t pass them the microphone. Or, we don’t stop broadcasting enough ourselves and make time to listen. In the noise of everyone wanting to be heard, we give little or no space for the voices of the so-called voiceless.
Rather than being a voice for the voiceless, we should be giving voice TO the voiceless – we should be passing the microphone.
About 12 years ago, I was running a social enterprise whose positioning statement, and business model was, design by young people, for young people.
We worked with young people experiencing disadvantage due to homelessness, low levels of formal education and social exclusion; and we trained and employed young people as designers, facilitators, and community arts workers.
A government agency approached us to get involved in a national forum on foster care. They were aware that the system was failing young people and they were convening a national conference to try and consider what they might need to change.
We suggested that they might want to engage people who were in foster care, or who had recently exited the foster care system – to understand their views on how the system could be improved. Our suggestion was considered bold and revolutionary, and it drew a nervous response. What if young people said something that was controversial or triggered unhealthy responses, or they asked hard questions? It could get messy. They were right, it could. However, we convinced them to work with us on the idea.
We facilitated a two-day process with 60 young people in parallel to the national conference. We helped them to write songs, create digital stories and interview each other using sock puppets; and, then we supported them to present to the entire conference in the final session of the last day.
It was one of the most impacting and profound experiences of my life. Young people consistently said to us, “this is the first time in my life I feel heard, and I feel as though I can have a voice.” They were so thankful, but it was us who were grateful to them. What they shared changed people’s lives for the better. We didn’t do anything special. We simply gave the ‘voiceless’ an opportunity to be heard.
When the church operates at the margins, we are at our best, and we begin to understand our task. Jesus’ challenge to his host and us, is to give voice to the voiceless. Our role is to pass the mic.