If you’ve been my friend or a reader of this blog for very long, you’re probably aware that I am greatly concerned about social issues. I feel personally convicted about the poverty, racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination and inequality that I see around me. These issues take up a great deal of my time and mental energy, and I’ve even written on some of these topics before.
But I struggle with my place in all of this. As someone who’s been blessed with a great deal of privilege, I sometimes wonder if I should have a voice in these areas at all. To be honest, I’ve never been personally affected by the inequalities that I feel led to speak out against. I’ve probably even benefitted from them at some point in my life, inadvertent as it may have been. So who am I to insert myself into a situation that seemingly doesn’t concern me and speak on behalf of people I don’t represent? Who do I think I am?
And yet, I still feel led to speak. Over time and through much discernment, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t help but say something in the face of the inequality that surrounds me. And that puts me in a bit of a tricky position. I feel convicted to say something while still recognizing that I’m not speaking from a place of personal experience. And so I often wonder how to respect the experiences of those who are oppressed while also advocating for them.
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve come up with a system that I think works well for me and what I’m called to do. This may not be the perfect system for everyone, but for those of us who feel led to speak out for those we may not necessarily identify with, it’s at least a starting point for thinking through how we can helpful without overstepping.
The first step to solving any problem is understanding it, and when that problem impacts human beings, understanding means listening to those who are affected. Without first listening, there’s no way that we can accurately address the issue at hand. And while it may sound simple, listening actually may be the hardest step in this process. It involves some difficult actions on our part.
Listening involves getting out of our comfort zone. As I said above, we’re talking about problems that don’t directly affect us and those we tend to associate with, so learning about them must include reaching out to those we don’t know. This is uncomfortable. It’s probably going to be misunderstood. And it might even receive some pushback from the very people we’re trying to connect with. But it is necessary, and I can say from personal experience that it is worthwhile.
When I was in seminary, I became involved with Mission Waco, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of the underprivileged in the community. I worked nights at Mission Waco’s homeless shelter and taught job training classes to teenagers from nearby schools. Every week, as I drove to the wrong side of town and spent time with people I’d never even fathomed speaking to before, I learned about the experiences of homelessness, of mental illness, of abandonment, of poverty, and so much more. These conversations were difficult for me, but they opened my eyes to a whole new world of people just like me who were suffering from things I could never comprehend on my own. And it helped me understand their plight in a way that literally changed my life.
But that’s not all. Listening also involves trusting the people we listen to. Unfortunately, public discourse around oppression has afforded far too little trust to those who find themselves victimized. We default to disbelieving those who say they have been treated unfairly when we should actually be doing the opposite. Is it possible that a few may lie and take advantage of us? Yes. But it’s not our place to decide who needs help and who doesn’t.
We don’t get to look someone who’s been oppressed in the eyes and say, “I don’t believe you,” because when we do, we are responsible for traumatizing them all over again. It’s not our job to judge between those who deserve to be heard and those who don’t. It’s simply our job to listen and to take seriously what we are told.
Finally, listening involves silence. We cannot hear what another person is saying if we’re too busy talking ourselves. And when it comes to instances of injustice, it is particularly important that we practice silence in the midst those who have been mistreated. At most, we can say, “I’m sorry,” or respectfully ask questions in order to gain a better understanding. But at no point are we to criticize or call into question the experiences of the oppressed. To do so would be to undermine the entire endeavor.
Nor are we to swoop in and tell those we are trying to serve what they need, as we are far too often tempted to do. It’s not our job to tell them how to fix their problems. They know better than we ever could what they need. It’s our job to listen to their experiences, their desires, and their ideas for how best to move forward. Only then can we even start to know what it is to walk in their shoes, and only then can we move on the next step in the advocacy process.
Listening—and especially listening well—is an important first step, but we can’t stop there if we want to affect real change. Listening and understanding are admirable, but they don’t mean a thing if we don’t actually care. That’s where sympathy comes in.
I’m a knowledge person. I love to learn new things. I want to learn every fact there is to know about every thing that’s out there. And when I get interested in something, there is no limit to how far I’ll go to understand it as fully as I possibly can. That includes social issues. Before I ever found them important, I first found them interesting. So I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to learn about them, to gain as much knowledge as I possibly could.
This is great, and I would encourage anyone who’s interested in such topics to do the same. Read books. Watch videos. Take classes. Discuss these things with experts and with your friends. We should always be seeking to learn as much as we can about the things that matter to us. But if we stop there, if we seek knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge (as I’m often tempted to do), then it’s all for nothing because it’s never going to actually help anyone.
We have to take the next step. We have to go from knowledge to compassion. For some, that step may be small or even non-existent. But for others, it might be a big step indeed. It may even involve intentional effort. There’s a reason I’ve included sympathy as one of the three steps to advocacy. Without it, advocacy cannot happen, so we must do what it takes to develop it.
Fortunately, if we listen well, we won’t find ourselves too far from sympathy. How could we truly understand the suffering of those who are oppressed and not care? How could we truly understand their pain and not feel it ourselves? The only thing left to do is to allow ourselves to feel something, to become emotionally vulnerable to the stories that we hear and to the people who tell them. I’m not saying that this will be easy, but it is necessary. And if anyone deserves our sympathy, it’s those who have found themselves mistreated by society due to no fault of their own.
Facts don’t change people. Real stories told by real people change people. And when we take the time to listen to those stories, to relate to them, to feel the depths of them, we cannot help but be changed ourselves. We cannot help but develop sympathy and solidarity with those we feel led to serve. And when knowledge and sympathy come together, we suddenly find ourselves in the perfect position to do something that will make a lasting change.
So we’ve ventured out and listened to the voices of the oppressed. We’ve opened ourselves up to their stories and become sympathetic to their cause. What now?
We go back.
We return to our comfort zones, to our in-groups, but we return different than when we left. No longer able to remain complacent as others suffer, we are now motivated to take action. We can’t help but do something to combat the injustice that we see in the world. And one of the most important steps we can take is to speak out.
Whereas we are called to remain silent as we listen to those who are suffering, we are called to become vocal when we go back home. In this place, to be silent would be to deny the change that has taken place within us. Advocacy is ultimately about speaking out for those who do not have a voice. It’s not that they cannot speak, but that they will not be heard among the privileged. But there’s a chance that we will, and we have a duty to take that chance.
This is how we use our privilege for something more than just ourselves. It’s the only way that I’ve found to avoid playing into the system of oppression and exploitation that gave me a head start in the first place. I don’t deserve the blessings I’ve been given, but I can use those blessings to help bring justice to those who do not have it. And in that way, maybe I can make the world a better place.
Speaking out isn’t about spreading my opinions and beliefs. It isn’t about making a name for myself. It’s about sharing the experiences and concerns of those I’ve listened to so that maybe others like me will become concerned as well. If I’ve been changed by these stories, surely others will be, too. And maybe, by sharing the changes that these stories have caused in me, I can invite others to listen and to allow themselves to be changed as well.
That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway. That’s the point of this blog post, and it’s the point of a great deal of the conversations I have on a daily basis: taking what I’ve learned and felt through my experiences with the underprivileged and sharing it with others who, like me, have never experienced systemic injustice firsthand. It is my hope and prayer that we will collectively become more aware of and more concerned for these social issues and those who are affected by them so that together we can have the hard conversations and make the hard choices necessary to remove these inequalities for good.
And I believe it all starts with us being willing to listen, to sympathize, and to speak out. Will you be an advocate?