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.

Abolitionist Sunday

This past Sunday was ‘Abolitionist Sunday’. If that name is totally foreign to you, you might do well to start here: Abolitionist Sunday (World Vision Australia).

Basically, it’s all about challenging the Church to take seriously the issues involved with modern-day slavery and, very importantly, to do something about it. Now, although these issues are becoming more well-known, many people are surprised to find out that slavery still exists in the world today – genuine, bona fide, proper slavery.

Unfortunately, it’s true.

There are a number of forms that this slavery can take, like child labour, forced labour, or sexual exploitation to name but a few, and it’s usually the poor and the socially vulnerable who are most affected.

And the effects are obscene.

Innocent children are exploited. Generations are kept in shocking poverty. Human beings are ‘traded’ like any other commodity.

And some people are getting filthy rich off it all.

The figures are astounding: something like 28 million people are caught in this vicious cycle, and those responsible are making billions, and billions, and billions of dollars.

But it’s not just them. It’s us too.

We are profiting from the exploitation and oppression of other human beings. We are able to buy cheap food and clothes and electrical goods, and so often the supply chains for these products are stained with exploitation at some level.

So, Abolitionist Sunday, as I said at the beginning, aims to raise these issues and to put out the call to action.

In the rest of this post, then, I want to outline two very simple points that I believe are quite helpful to remember in all of this.

Firstly, the idea behind it all is the hope that we can help build a strong movement. These issues cannot be challenged strongly enough or systems changed deeply enough by just one or two of us.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was younger I thought I was going to change the world. Single handedly.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that it’s probably not actually going to be the case. In fact, I know that it’s definitely not going to be the case. Of this I am 100% sure.

It’s not that I suddenly have really poor self-esteem. It’s more that I’ve come to realise that, beyond my immediate family, I’ll be, for all intents and purposes, all but forgotten not more than a couple of years after I die – if I’m lucky. Hopefully I can make a little bit more of an impact on my immediate family, but it seems to me to be the case that most people are promptly forgotten by the general population well before the worms even get time to do their thing.

And this is ok.

I really don’t care if my name is forgotten when I die (…I don’t particularly like it anyway, and can’t even work out what to call myself while I’m alive…). What I really want to do, though, is to be part of something good while I’m alive that will live on well after I’m dead and buried (or cremated, or whatever).

I think I can be part of something like that with the ‘Abolitionist’ movement.

My name might not be remembered, but perhaps I can play a small part in something much larger than myself. Perhaps I can make some choices that, combined with all the millions of other choices made by like-minded people, starts to put pressure on companies or governments to change business practices or legislation.

Of course, sometimes in these sorts of movements there are the ‘great ones’. There are William Wilberforces, after all. What I’ve come to realise, though, is that for every William Wilberforce there are thousands, probably millions of people who are never really recognised for their hard work.

That’s ok too.

If I can be part of a movement that accomplishes what Wilberforce and his many friends and helpers achieved, I will die a very happy man. The goal is what is important, not whether they make a movie about my life.

This is a movement. This is something bigger than any one of us, but something that only works when we each decide to work together. And the amazing thing is that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not exactly sure how it works, but I do know that a movement that is focused enough and disciplined enough can easily change a nation, and can quite possibly achieve that goal of worldwide influence.

Secondly, then, the focus is on the Church spearheading this amazing movement.

Why the Church?

With all this talk about Royal Commissions into institutional abuse of children, isn’t brand ‘Church’ way too tarnished to be of any use in all this?

I actually don’t think so.

In fact, I think it’s precisely this sort of thing that should be part of the Church’s core business. Rather than focusing on short-sighted power plays or lusting after poorly defined ‘influence’ or proclaiming a quasi-gnostic theology that focuses only on the ‘spiritual’ things, I think that the Church should be standing firmly on the side of the exploited and the marginalised and the oppressed – where Jesus was and where his Church should have been all along – and advocating for and embodying new possibilities.

But this is about far more than trying to help the Church’s image in the context of the painful yet very necessary Royal Commission; it’s an assertion that rises out of the belief that the Church is the perfect, and indeed only organisation capable of really taking up this challenge powerfully.

I make this (no doubt, to some, extraordinary) statement due to a) my belief that it’s not really in the interests of powerful people and powerful nations to disturb the status quo on these issues (on account of the ludicrous profits that can be made – and the ‘standard of living’ that can be achieved – through such activities), and b) because my (perhaps naive) understanding is that the Church is supposed to look like Jesus and embody the hope of new, more fully human, possibilities.

In regards to the first point, the question must be asked: who else is going to do this?

It’s most likely true that seeking to break down these structures of oppression will have wider impacts than just seeing people have better working conditions or children having childhoods or people not being forced into sexual exploitation (basically people being free to be more fully human). It might mean, for example, that some things become, perish the thought(!), more expensive. It might cost more than $5 to buy a t-shirt if the person making it is paid a living wage. Coffee or chocolate prices might rise if farms aren’t allowed (or practically forced) to rely on child labour.

Why would anyone want this? Why would I want to inconvenience myself in this way? It doesn’t make any real sense to do so. Individuals in nations not directly affected by it all wouldn’t really be directly ‘benefitting’ by doing anything about it (based on dodgy, but nevertheless very common, understandings of how that word might be interpreted), but possibly inconvenienced. The people and companies making massive profits out of the exploitation certainly don’t want to deal with declining profits, and politicians pretty much don’t care unless it’s an issue that will affect votes.

The only people who really should want to do something about it all are Christians, and this is because it’s part of the very DNA of what Christianity is all about.

And this brings me to the second point.

It is my belief that the group of people who are best equipped, or at least most called, to do something about all this is the Church. This is because, as I have already noted above, I believe strongly that the Church is supposed to look like Jesus – to continue on his mission in the world. This was the Jesus who, in his own words, defined his mission as, among other things, ‘setting at liberty the oppressed’. This was the Jesus who, due to his firm belief that all people were created in the image of God, treated people with the dignity they deserve. This was the Jesus who loved in a way that didn’t focus on what he got out of it; it was a perfectly self-sacrificial love that was displayed in full on the cross.

And this is why Christians are not only the best candidates to do something about these issues, but are compelled to act. In fact, I’m not sure that one can truly call themselves ‘Christian’ unless they are doing the sorts of things Jesus did. This includes working towards true freedom, and this true freedom should be for all. After all, where the image of God is denied in one, the whole of humanity suffers.

Voices for Justice: Finishing the Race

Peter Garrett speaking to Micah Challenge supporters at a ‘Voices for Justice’ event on the front lawns of Parliament House.

Well, the Micah Challenge’s Voices for Justice conference is over for another a year, and I thought I might offer just a few reflections on what we did while we were in Canberra for the four incredible days.

Though the quality of the teaching sessions, the general reality of our diversity in unity, and the important meetings with (over 100!) MPs are obviously very important to note (and great to take part in), I thought I’d take a step back and look at some of the larger themes. The conference this year centred, basically, around two main points:

1) Firstly, it was noted very clearly that we need to celebrate the progress that has already been made towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

For me, this was such an incredibly important part of the whole conference. Though it is true that we still have a long way to go in some instances (and I’ll get to that below), I believe that it’s essential to celebrate the progress that has been achieved. When dealing with issues of poverty and social justice, it’s easy to become somewhat depressed by the massive challenges that we face. In fact, it can feel totally overwhelming at times, and it’s easy to question whether we are actually making any difference.

It is good to note, then, that progress has been made. The number of children dying each year before they reach their fifth birthday has fallen significantly from 1990 levels – almost half – and this is seriously great news by any standard! A huge majority of the world’s population have access to clean water, and the rates of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth have fallen significantly.

It is seriously hard not to feel happy about these things, and I think that it’s only right to celebrate these achievements. Of course their is still much work to be done, but we do need to keep that remaining work in tension with the joy of seeing such progress. This is real people’s lives we are talking about, and it’s important to stop and think about that fact. More children are living to see their fifth birthday. More women are able to experience the joy of childbirth without experiencing serious injury for themselves or their babies.

This is good news.

But, of course, there is still along way to go. Just as sure as we need to celebrate the progress that has been made, we need to make sure we remain focused on the remaining work that needs to be done, and this brings me to the second point.

2) So, secondly, it was noted that we need to stay focused in order to ‘Finish the Race’

There is still a long way to go for some of the MDGs to be achieved, and we will need to stay focused if we are to finish well.

Noting this, we structured our ‘asks’ around three essential points:

  1. We are still asking for more aid. At the moment, Australia only gives 0.35% of GNI to the aid budget. It had previously been promised by both major parties that this figure would rise to 0.5% GNI by 2015, though this has now been delayed by one year.* We want both of the major parties to stand by the 0.5% commitment, and also to outline a clear timeframe for the figure to increase to 0.7% GNI (which some U.N. member nations have already reached) by 2020. Though we acknowledge that we are operating in tough economic conditions, we must also acknowledge that Australia’s economic situation is significantly stronger than most other nations at this point in time, and we do need to commit to our fair share of the work that still needs to be done. We are buoyed by the fact that some nations, who are operating in an even tougher economic context than Australia, have ‘ring-fenced’ their aid budgets from any possible cuts that might need to be made. We are asking our politicians to do the same.
  2. We are still asking for better aid. We need to make sure that our aid budget is spent well, by targeting it towards the most effective areas. It is well-known that money targeted towards things like sanitation and hygiene has incredible ‘bang for buck’, and the reason for this is quite simple. If children are sick, they can’t go to school and learn. Thus, money spent on education, though vital, is dependant upon children being well enough to attend school. If adults are sick (or looking after sick children), they are unable to work. Thus, money spent on developing local economies, though, once again, a good thing, is dependant upon people being able to go to work in the first place. It has been noted by the World Health Organisation that for each $1 spent on sanitation and hygiene, $8 is generated for local economies. This is amazing! We are therefore asking for our aid budget to reflect the reality that sanitation and hygiene issues effect almost every other area of the MDGs, by increasing the overall percentage of the aid budget spent on these areas.
  3. Finally, we are seeking to raise awareness of the fact that there is currently a ‘brake’ on development that needs to be acknowledged, and released, in order for us to see progress accelerated. Coming out of the desire to see better aid, it has been noted that there are structures in place that seriously undermine the effectiveness of aid. Though it is a common belief that aid is often undermined through the corruption of crazy dictators and the like, and though this is a real issue, it is surprising for many to realise that something like two-thirds of the money siphoned out of developing nations is at the hands of multi-national corporations. Though some of this is due to loopholes and ‘creative accounting’, a significant proportion of it is due to deliberate obfuscation of the data by large corporations and the use of tax havens. As part of the ‘Shine the Light’ campaign, we are asking for our politicians to join the growing conversation around these issues, and to consider legislation that seeks to bring more transparency into the way such corporations report their profits and tax liabilities. Of course, this is a massive issue(!), and it is not something that is going to be tackled overnight, or by Australia alone. But it is encouraging to see that the conversation is starting to take place, and we are seeking to take some very small steps in the right direction rather than throwing our hands up in despair.

All in all, it was a great conference, but it is really clear that we need to be more focused now than ever before if we are to see the MDGs achieved. A huge amount of progress has been made, and it’s right to celebrate it, but there is still much work to be done.

From the meetings I was able to take part in with MPs, one thing was made more clear than anything else: these issues need to be taken on by whole communities if we are going to see our politicians act on them. Our system of government is great, because it is based on our elected representatives listening to the people they represent and taking those concerns to parliament (at least, that’s the idea). As such, we need to get these conversations happening in our electorates if our politicians are going to listen to us(!).

So, let’s ‘Finish the Race’ well. Let us not get distracted with the sometimes shallow public discourse that distracts us from the important issues. Let us, rather, stay focused. Spurned on by the amazing progress that has already been made, let us finish strongly, giving it everything we’ve got, realising that this race is one that truly counts.

__________

* It should be noted here that this reality could have been much worse. The last federal budget saw the promised increase (in order to reach 0.5% by 2015) reduced, and now it will be at least one extra year before we reach the 0.5% goal. This is extremely serious, because it means that less lives will be saved. In line with the first point above, however, we do need to recognise that there was still a small increase in the overall aid budget this year (though less than what had been initially promised). It has been made known that, apparently, the situation could have been much worse. When news of the possible cut was leaked, there was a groundswell of people getting behind the #Don’tCutAid campaign. Without this campaign, the reality could have actually been an overall cut to the aid budget, not just a smaller increase than was expected. We need to celebrate this achievement too!

Voices for Justice 2012

Every year, hundreds of Australian Christians who are concerned with issues of poverty and justice head to Canberra to meet with our elected political representatives as part of the Micah Challenge’s Voices for Justice conference. We meet with them to discuss the Millennium Development Goals, and to remind them of the commitment our nation made to these goals by 2015.

With just 3 days to go until Voices for Justice 2012(!), I wanted to reflect for a moment on what it is that we are actually doing when we descend on Canberra every year, from my perspective, and why we do (and should do) it.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed it too but, inevitably, whenever the discussion about Christians and politics arises, the temptation for ‘sides’ to form that fall along the usual political divides is never far behind. Will we as Christians support the ‘conservative’ agenda, or will we bind ourselves to the ‘progressives’?

It seems to me that this sort of thinking has the situation pretty much exactly the wrong way around.

As far as I can tell, the reduction of the glorious Good News to the level of party politics is just about the biggest mistake us Christians can make in our thinking, but it’s also one of the easiest mistakes we continue to make. I want to spend a few moments, therefore, outlining just a few points that are part of this overall discussion, so that we might begin to think through together exactly what it is that we are doing at Voices, and what it is not. Of course, the discussion here in the space available will be woefully inadequate as a comprehensive analysis of the situation, but I do hope that it may be a start for some and a contribution to others who might like to reflect more deeply on these things.

Firstly, then, I guess we should start by noting that the message of the Gospel most certainly is ‘political’. The idea that one could separate the ‘political’ from the ‘religious’ is, in the scheme of things, a very recent phenomenon indeed, and was practically unknown for most of human history before the last few hundred years. It was just a matter of course that ‘politics’ was, in some sense, ‘religious’, and that ‘religion’ was certainly ‘political’.

For the Apostle Paul, one of the central elements of his teaching was that “Jesus is Lord”—a statement that directly subverted the imperial propaganda! Early Christians (who proclaimed loyalty to an alternate king to whom every knee would eventually bow) would come to be seen as a seditious sect that jeopardised the very security of Rome under the favour of her gods, and therefore needed to be dealt with most harshly.

It is reasonably safe to conclude, then, that this Good News we proclaim is not just ‘theological’ (it is that, of course, but not just that). To believe that our understanding of the work of God in Jesus of Nazareth and continued by the Spirit is somehow divorced from ‘political’ ideas is a gross distortion of what God has accomplished in history, and this is very important because our understanding of this affects how we act.

And this brings me to the second point.

Our ‘religion’ is certainly a personal thing, but it is most certainly not merely private. This idea that has floated into Christian discussions about politics over the past half-century-or-so is like a noxious weed; it seems to be self-promulgating and chokes the life out of rest of the garden of our understanding.

Let me state it simply: if one can relegate one’s faith to only the ‘private’ sphere of their life, then it is not true faith at all. Our faith does, and should, effect every area of our lives—if it is genuine. A faith that does not influence my decisions and actions, flavouring my life at every point, is not genuine faith, but is rather more like a winter jacket that sits in my wardrobe until I pull it out a few times a year when it is cold enough. “Private’ faith, then, is only ‘partial’ faith.

For example, as Christians we believe that all humans are made ‘in the image of God’. If I am to truly believe this, then I can’t simply apply it to my understanding of myself alone, but am forced to let the concept season my understanding of all other humans on the planet. If I am to truly take the idea seriously, then I must stand against anything I see that seeks to deny the full humanity[-in-the-image-of God] of anyone else. It simply must influence my actions, because it means that I mustn’t partake of actions myself that treat another as something less than fully human. This, then, is a very public faith.

However, and this is possibly the most important point (and brings us back to where we started): this political, public faith overwhelmingly transcends our usual political categories.

This Good News that we believe—that we seek to live out in every area of our lives—is something far more impressive than party politics…and thank God for that!

Sometimes it is so terribly frustrating to watch the political parties go at it hammer-and-tong, acting in ways that can cause us to shake our heads in disbelief. Sometimes the level of political discourse in this country quite honestly makes me want to weep.

But the [G]ood [N]ews is that our faith is not in party politics. Our faith does not rest with Labor or Liberal, Nationals or Greens. Our faith does not rest even with the ‘Christian’ political parties.[1] Our faith rests with God’s work in Jesus of Nazareth, and the work of the Spirit through the Church Universal in beginning to enact the coming kingdom in the now—a partial, but nevertheless powerful taste of what will come in full one day.

And with this in mind, then, we might consider more appropriately how we, as Christians, interact with the political process.

We approach our MPs at Voices because, as Christians who happen to find ourselves in Australia, we have a pretty decent political system that allows us this incredible direct access to our elected representatives. It is certainly not a perfect system, but as far as political systems go it happens to be much better than some alternatives around the world. So we go, and we ask, and as we do we remember that our ultimate hope does not rest with this process. As good as it is, our system is still affected by the machinations of factions and personal ambition.

Our ultimate hope does not even lie with our government finally coming through with 0.5% of GNI going to the Aid budget (or even 0.7%!).

Please don’t get me wrong: these things are great! The difference that such funding can make is simply mind-blowing, and therefore pushing for these goals to be realised is a fantastic thing to do. The opportunities that we have are way too good to waste!

But our hope does not lie with policy alone.

We can, and should(!), seek to lobby our government to increase Aid. We should stand united in the face of obscene rates of death so easily prevented. We should continue to pester our elected representatives to show them that these issues are so important.

But we do it because it is a prophetic way to demonstrate the coming kingdom, not because such policy could ever be enough on its own.

And so, if you’re heading to Canberra too, I encourage you to think on these things, and to pray on these things, as we prepare for Voices for Justice this year. We can accomplish such great things, but we must always remember exactly where our ultimate hope lies. As we join together at Voices, such a beautifully diverse range of people (young and old, women and men, from every sphere of society), we catch a glimpse of the potential of the kingdom. We stand together as a demonstration of what is to come, when we won’t have to sit in MPs’ offices (as lovely as these visits may be) in order to see every human being flourishing and realising their potential as someone created in the image of God.


[1] I should note here that I do admire those Christians who are able to enter into the cut-and-thrust of political life while nevertheless maintaining their ultimate hope that transcends their party’s policy platform. I am not at all disparaging such a vocation, but am rather simply pointing out that a given party’s stance can never embody the fullness of the Kingdom of God.