Sadly, if there was ever a phrase I loved in my social justice mission work, it was "being a voice for the voiceless." I loved it. When we went on our first trip out to Haiti from Kona, our team put together a compelling (at the time, at least) video where we said we'd use our voices to speak for those who did not have them. When we came back, I felt like I was using my voice to be a voice for those without a voice. I was sharing my stories and feeling vindicated in my fight for social justice.
As (western, American) Christians, we feel excited when we have the opportunity to work with those with whom the Bible lists as the most vulnerable: orphans, widows, the poor. We feel happy that we can finally use our lives to speak for those without the opportunity to speak for themselves. It's good, right?
Admittedly, it was way too late in the game for someone like me to realize that this saying was representing deeper things I believed about my own theology and life purpose. I was the first to cringe at words like "privilege" or "power," feeling like those things never meant much to me cognitively. I defended myself numerous times when I felt my motives were questioned. How could I have anything less than pure motives when I was "being a voice for the voiceless"?
But, really, what does employing this phrase indicate for us?
Being a voice for the voiceless means a few things. For one, it means you will be using your voice. You, likely as a foreigner or an outsider in some way, will be speaking/banging your drum/using your platform. It means you will be telling your own story, from your own perspective (none of us are completely unbiased, hello.)
The second thing this little nugget says is that the people you are hoping to speak for will remain voiceless. It is not only that you see them, in your own perspective, as without a voice, but you also (intentionally or not) intend to keep them that way. After all, their being "voiceless" is what allows you to be "the voice."
Here's why I propose we kick this phrase in the shins: Because it's demeaning, it's more padding for our already inflated egos...and, most importantly, it's NOT true. When we use our voice (mine included in this) to perpetuate someone else's story or point of view, we actually steal their story. We rob them of the opportunity to share their unique perspective; we do not allow them a place at the table.
When we say that we are a "voice for the voiceless" we are saying that people need us and our perspective on their lives. We are saying they who have experienced it need our voices to tell them what they have actually experienced. We are saying that without our blog posts and Instagram stories they are without representation. Bottom line: we are saying that without us, their stories don't matter.
Here's what I propose we do instead: We use our platform, we get everyone together, and we let them tell their stories. We do not correct them on their memories. We do not challenge them on what they feel if it offends us. We do not ask them to consider alternative options. We acknowledge we have a platform, and then we lay it down for them.
This is not to say we don't have a reason to share our own stories. We do! But, what I have come to realize is that my stories and understandings are from such a unique point of view. Even though I have spent the last few years living under the same roof as Haitians, I still have such a different story to tell than they do. It is my place to offer my own take, to own that, and to share it. It not my place to botch up anyone else's stories or to tell of their sufferings from my own perspective.
Let's kick that phrase in the shins. Let's actually look at what it means to "walk humbly, love mercy, and to act justly" (Micah 6:8). It is more than propping ourselves up for praise. It is actually listening to the stories of those who have been through it. It is laying ourselves and our presuppositions down. It is allowing God to teach us what true justice is: leveling the playing field.
When we allow everyone a place at the table, we allow our own stories to become more defined. We see our own shortcomings and successes. We are more open to hearing theirs, too.