At a conference recently, a poet performed several poems about sexual violence, acknowledging that as a man he would not speak on behalf of women, but would hold other men accountable. A member of the audience stood and responded:
“I am working class, a woman of color, and a political minority. I feel like I am constantly speaking up for one of my communities, and worry that I have become that girl who people roll their eyes at: ‘Here she goes again talking about how oppressed she is.’ It means so much to me when someone else thinks I am important enough to speak up for.”
It is one thing for my roommates and me to plaster our dorm wall with women leaders who inspire us—it serves our own needs by boosting our self-confidence. It is another thing for my roommate’s boyfriend to walk into the room and say, “That’s so cool. Have you put Margaret Thatcher on there yet?” It is one thing for me to intern at CBE, and another for my shy fifteen-year old brother to get into a debate with his classmate about women being pastors.
These men are speaking up for a group that is not their own. So often when I speak up on behalf of myself or my group, anger motivates me. I want the justice I deserve.
In Isaiah 1:17, when God tells Israel to “seek justice,” it is not justice for themselves: “Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” While it is important for me to speak up against injustices against my own group, God asks me to look beyond myself, to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9).
A fellow Christian leader on campus exemplifies this for me. Last semester, he cancelled small group so we could attend a talk about preventing rape culture, and frequently speaks up against sexist language in Christian circles. He spent the last month organizing for a 27 Stand for Freedom to raise awareness about sex trafficking, and stood for 10 of the 27 hours in freezing weather, praying and stopping passersby. When I tell him thank you, he shrugs his shoulders, “Why wouldn’t I? This is important and I care about this.”
It feels so good when others care about my issue. But I cannot be satisfied with justice only for myself. Because as Martin Niemoller, a German pastor and theologian, said during the Nazis’ rise to power, if I do not speak for others, when they come for me, there will be no one left to speak.
I too, have failed to speak out. Last year at a Christian camp, we sang a Swahili song that I used to sing in my Tanzanian church growing up! I was so excited I asked the worship leader if I could help lead it the rest of the week. A Jamaican friend of mine was happy to hear multicultural worship, but sad that I only seemed to care when they were speaking my language. She explained, “I continue to participate in our Christian group despite the difficulty in relating cross-culturally. I had hoped that you would use your experiences living overseas and your position as a leader in our Christian group to advocate for more multicultural worship.” I had made a few efforts in the previous year, but since I can function in both worlds, it was not my priority. After that conversation, I apologized for my selfishness, thanked her for speaking up for herself, and joined her in making our group more welcoming to international students.
Not everyone has been as vocal in calling me to action. While talking about racism with an African-American friend, she mentioned a suspicious off-hand comment I had made a year and a half earlier. Unbeknownst to me, she began paying attention to what I said. As we became closer, we started talking more about racial justice, and she decided to trust me. Often when I go out of my way to start dialogue about an issue, it is not until afterwards that I discover a friendship with someone testing the waters to see if they could trust me.
For Christians, relationships with other people are built on the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So speak up for yourself: repost blogs that you resonate with, take action when your rights are violated. But speak up for others too. Learn: take a class, read a book. Listen to your friends. Take responsibility for the way you’ve ignored or perpetrated injustice against another group, and apologize. And then go public: organize an event, sing a worship song, write a poem. You never know who’s in the audience. Maybe that girl will stand up to thank you.