Justice: On Listening and Believing

RNS-HOMELESS-JESUS

This post is the third in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism
that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.

Emily and I know each other from the Deeper Story family. She and I click well – I admire her work and writing, her heart, she doesn’t hold anything back, and her writing also lights a fire for me. 

***

I was made to change the world.

I was born in the 1980s on the edge of the Evangelical Culture Wars, deep enough into them that there was already a plan of attack and a need for reinforcements. I heard the sermons, recited the verses, and raised money in the rallies downtown along the waterfront. I pulled up the boots I was handed, but with my own bootstraps, of course. I listened to what they told me to do, memorized the lines, and started to march.

I have never been without a cause.

I waved the conservative political signs and traveled across the country to pray and sing with other young activists. It would be a grand thing, this partisan and puritan revival we were bringing about. I worked my way up their ranks, speaking and leading the call to change. I was good at it.

We were a bunch of white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class high-schoolers, but we had a mission. We could see what was broken, and fix it. We could name what was wrong, and right it. We would champion the end of sexual promiscuity, abortion, liberalism, government hand-outs, and the anti-family agenda. We could win the nation back for our God.

My generation of Evangelical Culture Warriors was going to change the world.

I gave up at twenty-four.

When I entered the world of justice again, it was by accident. I didn’t set out with any answers this time; I didn’t have plans or ideas to fix anyone else’s life, because let’s be honest, I can barely handle my own.

But I did start doing something that has brought me closer to justice than anything else: I started believing what people said about their own lives.

I believe that listening and believing someone’s story is a radical action of justice.

In the past few years, I’ve learned about Privilege. I’ve got piles of it. I’m white, straight, cis, educated, employed, healthy, reasonably attractive, in a religious majority in my country, etc. Growing up, I thought those things meant that I was made to be a leader who could help change the world. I thought it meant that I had the responsibility to start the conversations about justice.

But now I realize that my privileged parts don’t make me a very good activist. In many ways, they make me a bad one.

This was hard to take, at first, because it unraveled everything I thought I was. I’m happy with my life, but my circumstances mean I will see most situations from the top down. It means my experience is not universal, and I don’t even know the problems, let alone the solutions. It means that my best intentions cannot make up for mishandling my social power.

I can easily skate by in many parts of life, dishing out suggestions and resolutions flippantly. I’ve seen much of that, in particular with people who are just like me. We print well-designed slogans for social justice awareness on cheaply made t-shirts, build expensive conferences around ending poverty, and stay in our nice, clean, homogenous spaces talking about rescuing the people out there. We’re really, really good at it.

But that no longer looks like justice for me.

My faith and activism drive me to listen to people talk about their lives, and let that change me. 

For those of us with Privilege, listening and believing can be challenging. Our ears are stopped up with the desire to fix the other instead of check ourselves. We have the ability to ask respond in ways that perpetuate the injustice that we are so intent on ridding from the rest of the world.

what were you wearing?

don’t gossip.

why are you so angry?

i’m not racist.

just find a different church.

have you tried not being a lesbian?

not all men are like that.

i’m not sexist.

don’t you think it’s time to forgive?

We can talk all day about problems like sex trafficking, genocide, or violence against women around the world, but it takes something different to shut up and listen when those stories are being told about us.

Justice looks like believing the truths people tell us about their lives and not jumping in to fix them.

I don’t think any of my former social justice activism helped stop sex trafficking around the world, but I know that when my friend told me about her sexual assault, it matters that I believe her.

I know it matters that I listen to the stories of LGBTQ Christians and not question them when they say they have found peace with themselves and God, in whatever way that looks for them.

I know that it is justice when I hear and acknowledge that my country, my resources, and even the idea that I can make the world a better place, is still being built on the backs of countless people who were enslaved and eliminated.

I know it matters when I follow #NotYourAsianSidekick and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen on Twitter and believe the stories of women of color instead of dismissing them as whiny or anti-women.

I don’t believe I have the power to change the world anymore. I don’t believe that’s my goal. But I am practicing a new kind of justice. I can seek out, listen and believe the stories people are telling me.

And I can stand up with those stories, not to take them or question them or label them or use them or fix them on my own, but to point to them and say: I believe this. I believe you.

And I am with you if you want me.

Maynard Emily Headshot ISFMEmily Maynard is an outgoing introvert from Portland, Oregon. She writes and speaks about being a twenty-something person navigating dating, friendship, faith, and culture. You can find her at: www.emilyisspeakingup.com or on Twitter: @emelina. She’s not the Emily Maynard from The Bachelorette. 

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