Thursday, May 29, 2014

#YesAllWomen #YesAllBiblicalWomen #LiberatingVoices

I am haunted this week by something that feels like a call. Do you ever feel this way, that certain events converge or coalesce, and as difficult as they may be, they require thoughtful attention?

The call began when I started noticing the #YesAllWomen hashtag phenomenon. As an advocate for women’s rights, and a man concerned about the continuing gender inequalities and misogyny in our culture, I knew I needed to listen well. The horrific attacks and killings in Santa Barbara which precipitated the hashtags, this is the kind of news that typically sends me to my knees with an anguished, “Lord have mercy.” In the face of tragedy, supplicatory prayer is a good first step. But we can’t stop there.

What we all witnessed this week if we were paying attention to the hashtag #YesAllWomen was a grassroots, widespread, decentralized, authentic response to tragedy, energized by the shared experience, frustration, and empathy of millions of people.

As a man, I have to prayerfully think through how I should speak and act as I am appropriately reminded, once again, of the continuing gender inequalities in our culture. Anyone who inhabits a space of privilege or cultural dominance, anyone who is a member of the dominant race, gender, culture, language-group, economic group, etc. of a community has a responsibility to listen well to the voice of those who are experiencing oppression.

This is easier said than done, because those of us in positions of power are often blind to the power we have, and are often decidedly defensive because that is one of the best ways to protect our privilege and power.

As a pastor, I was especially interested in following the #YesAllBiblicalWomen hashtags that began to proliferate alongside the #YesAllWomen hashtags. Here are two that struck me most powerfully: “Bathsheba: Because I can’t bathe without being leered at. #YesAllWomen #YesAllBiblicalWomen.” “Hannah: because when I pray differently than you, you judge me and say I must be a drunk. #YesAllWomen #YesAllBiblicalWomen.”

Many of the tweets illustrate how endemic, violent, and sometimes how subtle misogyny is. It requires careful reflection to ensure we aren’t enacting the misogynist scripts our culture has trained us in. And although it is wonderful feminist movements like #YesAllWomen that draw our attention to such important matters, it is particularly incumbent on all of us, not just women, to root out and address misogynist trends in our culture.

This same week, we mourned the passing of Maya Angelou. My wife and I were saddened a few weeks ago when this great poet and author had to cancel her visit to the Fayetteville Public Library for a speaking engagement. Angelou’s first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recounts an event in her young life when she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Afterwards she withdrew into herself and went through a long period of not speaking.

The violence of men towards women includes the many ways men silence women. Imagine if we didn’t have the voice of Maya Angelou in our culture, if a woman in her town, Mrs. Flowers, hadn’t coaxed her out of her silence by reminding her that her love of poetry meant she needed to claim her voice. This was the voice that preached forth such amazing poetry as “Still I Rise”:

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

A parishioner and a member of our worship band recently sent me a recording of a new song, “Safe Love," he had written in honor of his daughter. She works in San Francisco with an organization that advocates to keep women safe from domestic violence. Clearly this theme is working its way into many hearts in many places.

The same day I was reading James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation with a book group at the Flying Burrito. Cone’s book is not an easy book to read for a white theologian who often takes for granted his whiteness, but it’s a necessary read. It’s necessary because sometimes it is the voices of the oppressed, the voices of liberation, who especially remind us of what the Christian faith, what the gospel is all about. Here’s one passage by way of example: 

"God has made the oppressed condition God's own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering...Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity." [pp. 63-64]

God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering. God is on the side of the women, on the side of the oppressed. One of the most important matters of faith in any age is whether or not we who are actively oppressing and humiliating others can recognize that when we do so, we are also oppressing God, the one at the receiving end of our oppressiveness. One of the best first steps is to simply listen to the voices, to really listen, rather than dismiss or condemn. Misogyny and racism and other forms of oppression will only be repaired through an intentional and ongoing conversation that includes active listening and intentional silence, as well as radical speech and faithfully giving voice. We all might start by reading the hashtags, and really hearing the pain expressed in them. That would be a good start.

--Forthcoming as the Faith Matters column for the Northwest Arkansas Times

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