A number of years ago, when I was just starting out in a career in theological education (a career path which I have, subsequently, abandoned), I was asked to deliver a lecture for an introductory theology class. The lecture was entitled ‘Redemptive Human Relationships’, and I was quite excited about delivering it due to the fact that it had been formative in my own thinking when I sat through a similar class under Dr Shane Clifton a few years earlier.
The class was basically about the new possibilities for human relationships that arise out of the life and ministry (and death and resurrection) of Jesus of Nazareth: relationships free from oppression or exploitation of the other; relationships defined by mutual submission and sacrificial love and which aim for full human flourishing.
I spent quite a bit of time preparing for the lecture, and couldn’t wait to get into it. I was especially interested in challenging what I (still) believe to be harmful notions of ‘male headship’ that float around certain areas of the Church.
The time came for me to deliver the lecture, and I gave it everything I had. I did my best to shine a light especially on the insidious nature of patriarchy and the possibility for relationships free from domination of the other. I’d expected some opposition (especially from a group of young men present who had displayed some fairly conservative tendencies to that point), but I’d also been hoping that it could be helpful for at least some of the women in the room.
All my efforts, however, did little to provoke any response whatsoever from those in attendance. A number of the young men sat stony-faced as I spoke (some visibly uncomfortable), others engaged here and there. Many of the women showed no response at all.
After the lecture, I approached a couple of the young women from the class and asked them about what had just happened. Indicating that they found the lecture reasonably helpful, I enquired as to why, therefore, they didn’t respond in any way to the lecture content.
They then proceeded to tell me about how arguments regarding male headship had been raging in the dorms for weeks prior, and how it had come to the point where anything the women said was rejected out of hand (and how even questioning the legitimacy of female subordination was to invite the label of being a ‘Jezebel’ onto oneself). Women who challenged such disgusting behaviour from the young men in the group were called ‘feminazis’, mocked and insulted.
It was horrible!
The young women in the group decided, therefore, that they would largely stay quite throughout this particular lecture, allowing space for these young men to hear from someone in a position of relative authority just how out-of-order their behaviour was. It had come to such a point that they felt their best strategy was to refrain from throwing any more fuel on the fire for this three hour’s worth of lectures and that, just maybe, it would open up new possibilities (and, either way, they’d pick up the fight again after the lecture).
I didn’t quite know how to reply. I felt sick that the young men had been acting this way. I felt even more sick that the women were being actively and aggressively denied their voice. And I felt thoroughly confused about my role in it all.
I couldn’t work out for the life of me if I’d made things worse or if it had been helpful.
I thought I knew that women didn’t need men to speak for them, but I was newly conflicted. Were there times when to do so was—dare I ponder the thought—a necessary evil? Were there times when it just wasn’t possible for a woman’s voice to be heard, and where, in the heat of those situations, a man needed to speak for women, at least initially; at least to create a bit of space for women to be able to speak for themselves?
After wrestling with this concept for some time (I’m ashamed to say it took longer than it should have), I was finally able to see the whole thing as the perverse temptation that it truly is. Though it’s an inherently alluring concept to the fallen male mind (to think that there is need to ride to the rescue, to valiantly protect the interests of ‘weaker’ others), to think this way is to fan the flames of patriarchy.
In the words of Admiral Ackbar (in Return of the Jedi), “It’s a trap!”
As a man, I began to see just how vulnerable I am to such a condescending notion. Then, like Alice, I began to see how deep the rabbit hole went.
As a rich (by world standards), white, Western male, I came to see just how vulnerable I was to this same insidious idea in so many areas: feeling a paternalistic ‘burden’ to speak for the poor, for the marginalised, for all those poor souls who just can’t speak for themselves(?!?!).
My inherent privilege on so many levels has the potential to run riot in every one of these areas and, left unchecked, that’s precisely what it will do (and does do). Fighting against—even being aware of(!)—this temptation is a constant battle, because I know that I can get my voice heard in most situations. I stand on a multi-layered, interconnected platform of privilege. To feel this [not so] noble calling to be ‘the voice of the voiceless’ carries with it, then, an almost magnetic attraction (as long as it’s wrapped in enough faux humility in regards to the ‘necessity’ of it all).
But there is one thing I am convinced of. In the words of Arundhati Roy:
There is really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.
To fall into the trap of trying to speak for those who are perfectly able to speak for themselves is nothing more than a sinister invitation to lend support to walls of alienation which must surely be brought down.
My task is firstly, and most importantly, to listen. If you share any or all of my layers of privilege, I invite you to do so too.
Then, when I have truly been able to hear the voices of those that people just like me—people such as me—go to such great lengths to silence, my task is simply to stand alongside them.
Returning to the story with which this post started, my task was, in retrospect, really quite simple. The women in the class did not need me to speak for them; my responsibility was to listen to them and stand with them. And, together, our task was (and is) to model the sorts of redeemed human relationships that I was supposed to be talking about in the first place.