Who Can Speak of Justice?

Half the SkyIn my Social Justice in the Bible class a few weeks ago we spent some time on an interesting question. The context was talking about gender equality issues and the book/documentary Half the Sky. I have neither seen the movie nor read the book, but our professor shared thoughts along with reading some criticisms. Half the Sky is about gender inequality in the world, covering a variety of more specific topics I think. The problem, many critics claimed, was that the main person researching and writing was a white man. His wife was co-author but she is apparently featured significantly less in the interviews and even appears second and in smaller font on the book cover.

The criticisms essentially claim that a white man cannot help oppressed women. It didn’t matter that a variety of women’s voices are featured telling their stories. The fact that he was ultimately in charge and getting a lot of the credit incurred the wrath of many. This is the part where I get at least as frustrated with fundamentalist liberals as I do with fundamentalist conservatives.

I’m not saying we don’t need to be cautious of the white saviour complex. We really need to watch out for that. I know it. I’m a North American middle-class, straight, married, white, male. It takes a lot of effort to make sure I am not universalizing my experiences and ignoring the experiences of others. There is a lot of truth to the general critique of those in power to make sure they are listening to those who do not have power.

But I do get very annoyed when people start to say that therefore I just shouldn’t do anything to try to help others. This is effectively what is being said and this is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea. What if William Wilberforce, as a wealthy white man, didn’t devote his life to abolishing the slave trade because he believed this idea that he had better just keep his dominant voice out of the way? The status quo would have remained, at least for quite a while. When those in power who do want to help those without power simply stay out of the way because they are too afraid, those in power continue to use it to harm others, usually successfully for a long time. It is typically only when some in power start to use their power to help those who aren’t that we see real change.

On a very practical note, I’ve also encountered many who would deny the label of feminist because they do not want to be associated with the fundamentalists. Feminists, they conclude, are angry. They just want to deconstruct everything that is wrong. Most even think that feminists are right on many things, but they just aren’t offering anything new and better in its place. Of course many who bear the label of feminist act and speak otherwise, but just like with fundamentalist conservatives, the attitude of judgement does huge harm to their own cause.

Maybe a better question would be what would have happened if Jesus didn’t use his privilege to help those without power? What if God just sat back in Heaven, hoping things changed but being too nervous that maybe he should just shut up? I am definitely thankful for the incarnation. Yes, God came as a poor helpless baby, but a male, and after 30 years or so, he did become a Rabbi – a hugely respected and influential position – and stood up to oppression in radical ways. Paul used his privilege in similar ways, even leveraging his Roman citizenship to keep himself alive while he preached radically anti-Roman messages along with his other radical messages. John the Baptist used his influence to preach a radical message contrary to the religious oppression of the day and then to point people to the ultimate liberation in Jesus. We could name many others from the Bible. I am not convinced that having influence is the problem, not when that influence is used to raise up the influence of those who may not otherwise have any.

So I say: if you have a voice, use it well. If you have money, use it well. If you have health, use it well. If you have political or social or ecclesial power, use it well. Don’t use it stupidly in ways that hurt others, of course. Take the time to listen and learn what it looks like to love those who are lower on the social ladder than you. Wrestle with the criticisms like those levelled against the white saviour complex. Make sure you are not approaching it in an attitude of absolute certainty that you are right. But after and while you do these things, do something about injustice! Get out there and acknowledge your power precisely to be able to give up that power to others.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.