Standing With, Not Speaking For

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.


Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

15 thoughts on “Standing With, Not Speaking For”

  1. I’ve often wondered the same thing when teaching that class. Should I teach it? One of the reasons I do, though, is because in our context the girls themselves need to be convinced that they don’t need men to speak for them.

    1. That’s an important point.

      I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that any encouragement that I might offer for women to speak up is not out of my ‘maleness’ (like they need my/men’s approval for what they say, or for permission to speak in the first place), but rather out of our shared humanity.

      I’m not sure if that makes sense, but it’s been helpful for me to clarify it in my head.

      And, by the way, it’s largely people like you, Shane, who have helped me see these things in the first place.

  2. I am a little lost. What do we do in the light of people who would not be heard? What do we do then? I feel that simply standing beside is a cop out, or at least can be construed to be one. Maybe I’m a little in the dark here but what do you suggesting “standing beside” involves?

    1. I guess what I’m arguing is that we need to be working *with* those whose voice is not being heard, rather than doing it for them. I think this is important because even having the best intention in trying to ‘speak for’ can effectively mean the person (or group) is still being silenced through our efforts.

      It’s probably my association with World Vision that has really brought this home to me.

      The model of development that World Vision ascribes to is very consultative, seeking to really hear the voice of the community and their goals and dreams and their own ‘solutions’. The end goal, of course, is empowered communities that have become self sufficient. We therefore partner with such communities to achieve these goals, rather than trying to do it for them (which can never produce self sufficiency – or true partnership, for that matter).

      (I’d love to see this level of serious consultation be primary for work in/with Indigenous Australian communities, by the way, instead of having so many people try to tell them what will be good for them. The real insult here is that so many communities are actively seeking such consultation, and are perfectly able to engage in the process and give the free, prior, and informed consent that needs to be central to any such partnership…but is so often ignored).

      The other thing that World Vision does really well is to have people we are partnering with speak for themselves, and to facilitate genuine relationship between our generous donors and those we partner with in other countries.

      And this, I think, is what it’s all about.

      Does that make sense?

      1. Yes it does,

        I am still curious however, if we take examples where the we seek to help an oppressed group like child slaves, who do not necessarily have the power to speak for themselves?

        I guess that is where I am coming from. Perhaps there are examples of people who have come out of those situations we can stand with but just much more hidden than others fighting against their own injustices.

        I like the idea, I think I’m just struggling with how that looks for me. At this point I feel less empowered to help.

        1. I’m really glad that you’ve brought up an example like this, and I guess I’d add two things.

          (I want to be careful how I say this, but I also want to be straight-up about it.)

          I think the exploitation of children holds within it a special ability to draw out of us the ‘saviour’ complex. Of course, much of this is very natural (wanting to protect the innocence of children and being outraged when people hurt such vulnerable little ones), but it also holds the potential for us as the ‘helpers’ to furnish the situation with our own stories.

          For example, sex trafficking is a massive problem, but it’s just a part of the truly extraordinary problem of forced labour and child labour. What I find interesting is that, in churches, it’s really the sex trafficking side of things that grabs all the attention, whereas there’s just nowhere near as much focus on the much broader issues. I find this weird because, where people are already being exploited and are in a vulnerable situation, sexual assault usually follows (along with other physical and psychological abuse), but the focus is definitely set on sex trafficking.

          There’s also a tendency to focus on the gung-ho approach of kicking in doors and rescuing kids and women from sex trafficking situations, rather than the larger story of both prevention and also extensive counselling and help in settling back into ‘regular’ life after such an experience (and often difficult issues of stigma that go along with such things).

          The same thing goes, by the way, in regards to the whole Kony thing and the LRA and the way people like the ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ approached the situation.

          I guess what I’m saying here is that there’s a tendency for us to write the script in our heads and situate ourselves as the saviours, whether or not it’s the whole truth of the story. Sometimes, this script that we have running, though based on some truth, can actually hold within it the potential for even more harm for those who are affected.

          Genuinely listening to those who are affected by these things means that maybe our story needs to be changed slightly to reflect reality more fully.

          Now, the problem is that there is definitely truth in the story that is so often told – lots of it, in fact – but that just makes it easier to fit in to the way we may unconsciously want the story to play out.

          And this brings me to the second point.

          I want to say that even exploited children have a voice! Have you seen the film ‘Girl Rising’, for example? It’s an absolutely brilliant way of allowing girls to tell their own stories. Sometimes those stories are harsh and raw, but they’re also empowering and beautiful. I heartily recommend it!

  3. Thank you for this narrative, a very interesting story. Just a couple of reflections. “There is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced.” These are insightful words which beg the question – why are some deliberately silenced? Is it because they are saying things that those in power simply do not or cannot hear? If they could be heard, deep changes would have to be made in current ideological systems. Power may have to be redistributed, truth may take on a different hue.

    In the context of that college, I wonder if it would be helpful take a step back and reflect upon the reasons for a distinct over-representation of western males in positions of authority there, before ‘standing alongside’ those who are being silenced? Unless the collegial and church structures of power that reinforce this traditional model of theological education are addressed, lectures about ‘renewed relationships’ are really just empty words.

    As for the remedy you have briefly outlined, I would appreciate your further reflections upon what this means. Creating inner (and external) spaces for listening and standing alongside also has its challenges. What if you don’t like what is being said or it makes you very uncomfortable or you are presented with ambiguity?

    Just to pick up the discussion on trafficking, there is quite a bit of research that challenges normative Evangelical ideas around sex trafficking … if only we could look and listen.
    For a start, it may be that the picture of the powerless girl being sexually exploited by pimps is hyperbole. These allusions are currently being used for funding purposes (usually by conservative Christian NGO’s) and to maintain sexist structures which pitch women and girls as victims. Anyway, here’s a couple of introductory links if you or your readers are interested in listening to other voices on sex trafficking.

    Reflections on research about underage domestic sex trafficking:

    On rescuing sex workers in the developing world. Great intro to the work of Laura Augustin:

    1. Thank you, labalienne, for taking the time to write what you have.

      In regards to your first paragraph, all I want to say is ‘yes and amen!’

      In regards to the particular college I was working for, I guess it should be said that it is at least moving towards better representation of people who are not white men. They have a[n outstanding] female Academic Dean, for example, and there was quite an even mix of women and men coming through the junior faculty ranks at the time I was. There is still, admittedly, a heavy weighting towards whiteness, though this too is slowly but surely changing.

      Having said that, the academy (and churches) is/are certainly dominated (and I use that word deliberately) by white men. I am currently seeing many photos of the latest SBL conference popping up in my social media feeds, and am shocked by the number of (mostly) white men in the audiences (and obviously as presenters). I guess I shouldn’t be shocked by it, but I am. White men are disproportionately represented in positions of authority in these institutions, as well as in publications in the field (and as ‘conference speakers’). I am currently participating in a Christian leadership course, and the reading list is saturated with titles by white men. As a side note, it is actually this that has helped me come to the decision that, once I have finished my commitment to the course, I will spend at least 12 months reading books only by people other than white men. I feel like it will be a kind of ‘detox’, like having only eaten McDonald’s for a number of months and then being able to finally consume something (anything!) else.

      I do agree with you, then, that such structures need to be addressed(!), but I think it might be a chicken/egg argument to say that, until this is the case, lectures on ‘renewed relationships’ are just empty words. If such lectures never see any of these structures of inequality addressed, then they are just empty words. If, however, they are part of the slow but (hopefully) steady move towards justice and equality, then I think they have their place. Having just written that, I think that might be what you are saying and maybe I should just listen more carefully : )

      At any rate, the church seems so far behind on these issues that there is need for substantial change, and we’ve no time to waste.

      As for the ‘remedy’ I am proposing, I certainly hope it is the case that I am presented with things that I don’t like and that make me uncomfortable, and even for ambiguity. I find it difficult to describe—and certainly impossible to defend(!)—the blindness that I have suffered (and I use that term loosely) from on these points. All I can say is that being challenged in these ways brings a certain liberation with it. Having two daughters has also helped. To be perfectly honest, I’m actually not sure as to exactly what it all looks like. I do know that it means, for me, at least a genuine attempt to ‘hear’ what is being said by people other than white men. I had the pleasure recently of accompanying Ruth Padilla DeBorst on her speaking tour around Australia, and it was wonderful to, as it were, sit at her feet and hear what she had to say. Some of it was definitely confronting, but it was at the same time fantastic. I’m still trying to work through what means in terms of actions. I would very much appreciate help with this!

      Finally, thanks for those links in regards to sex trafficking. I have no doubt both that it is a significant issue, and also that it is quite often presented in really warped ways (which fit more with the stories we want to hear than reality).

      1. I was wondering if the “insidious nature of patriarchy” and ideas against male headship run across cultures.

        For example, I’m currently living in a culture where (probably male) elders are the most respected. Amongst my colleagues, I am the most junior female. It would be rare for me to be called on to share my opinion.

        Sometimes, my natural Australian inclination is to feel “hey, I have a voice too, I should be listened to as an equal”. However, is this always appropriate?

        I think I’m also referring to scriptures that are often thrown about in debates about male headship etc. In my experience these same verses are used to either say “so women should submit and be quiet” or “that was only a cultural things for the people living during biblical times, so women should be free to teach lead etc as much as they want!”.

        I am really appreciating your insights into the many layers of empowering people to speak for themselves. But what if it’s culturally not so appropriate?

        Of course, this is just skimming the surface…

        1. Ah; I think I understand the question more now. Thanks for clarifying!

          I guess I would start by saying that it is my belief that the insidious nature of patriarchy is consistent no matter which culture we are talking about. I am convinced that each and every human being bears an inherent dignity, and any time or place where that dignity is being ignored or not respected there needs to be a challenge. This stands, by the way, for any other form of discrimination as well, not just the issue of sexism.

          Now, the very interesting question is in regards to how such challenges come.

          There are places, for example, where it is extraordinarily dangerous for women to challenge structures of patriarchy. This doesn’t mean that those structures shouldn’t be challenged, but that contextual sensitivities need to be well thought through. As an example of this, I note the recent stories of women in Saudi Arabia challenging oppressive structures by filming themselves driving and posting the footage to the internet (it is, apparently, illegal for women there to drive). I think this is an extraordinarily brave thing to do, but it is also a ‘high risk’ endeavour. As such, it wouldn’t be something that I (as a white, western male) would suggest for women in Saudi Arabia to do, as I can’t possibly understand the possible cost of such action. If it is something that particular women in the situation really want to do, however, then I have nothing much to offer except an admiration of such courage.

          The situation you talk about is another interesting example. I’m not sure what ethnic background you come from, but it sounds like you are coming from a modern Australian cultural context into a somewhat different situation. As an ‘outsider’, then, I feel that there is always a responsibility to be sensitive to different contexts and cultures and not to go in ‘guns blazing’. This does not mean that issues like patriarchy shouldn’t be challenged in such situations, but just that they need to be challenged quite gently by outsiders, if that makes sense. It’s hard to suggest any ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to such situations, except to say that genuine respect for the culture needs to be at the forefront of any challenges to what needs to be challenged (otherwise it can come across as a form of cultural imperialism).

          I’d also suggest that the notion of ‘elders’ having the strongest input on community decisions is not *necessarily* a form of discrimination. There are many cultures where age and wisdom are highly respected, and this is one area where I think Western cultures could probably learn a thing or two. I’m not saying here that such situations are always wonderful and free from oppressive structures, but it’s just something to keep in mind.

          I guess my basis for all of this is the extraordinarily liberating vision for human relationships I see in the Scriptures. The goal, as I see it, is is relationships of mutual submission (in terms of looking out for the interest of the other) and edification. This, as I see it, is the type of context that allows best for true human flourishing. This is the goal, then, but the road there is not direct or easy. The particular path taken will depend on the contextual details, and may be a longer or shorter path than another. The destination, however, remains the same.

          Does this make sense?

          I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the issue.

  4. Thanks so much for your comments!

    I’ve been thinking a lot more about it, and especially ‘what do the scriptures tell us about human relationships?’

    Perhaps one deeper question I’ve been pondering is ‘What is Jesus culture?’ For example, patriarchy in different contexts or discrimination, and cultural sensitivity..

    I would be interested to know if you have written much before about gender? If you have any links to older posts, for example?

    I keep thinking about minority groups (or “oppressed peoples”) in relation to your original post, such as ‘standing with people’ through empowering community development, rather than intervention solutions. Do you have any particular biblical stories that you think speak about this?

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