Girl Rising, a new documentary about girls around the world pushing for their place in school, had me alternately gaping and smiling during a recent screening at Wheaton College. The film moved me—darn near broke me—not because of the facts or figures it presented or the stories it told, but because of who told the stories: the rising girls themselves.
I already knew the horrifying statistics of the millions of girls in this world who don't—or can't—go to school. I understood the connection between lack of education and global poverty. I agreed that educating the girls of this world is key to reducing—or eliminating this poverty, among other societal evils.
But this time, I heard these girls' stories, written by their own hands, spoken in their own (well, translated, narrated) voices. Girl Rising confirmed something I've long suspected: When we Christians speak of "being a voice to the voiceless," we'd better be careful. We'd better think hard about what it means, what it does, what it communicates when we toss out this oft-used line. We better ask, Is being the voice of the oppressed, the poor, the maligned, and the hurting really what God wants from us?
When God tells us in Proverbs 31:8 to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute" and in Isaiah 1:17 to "learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow," God means it. No doubt. Good things happen—his Kingdom sparkles all over—when we pipe up and plead on behalf of others.
But when those of us who care about living lives of justice and mercy seek to become the "voice of," are we speaking up and pleading on behalf of? Or, are we speaking for or speaking over them? Certainly there are people in this world who depend on us to be their voices; those with no access to authority or difference-makers, those who live in terror, who stand to suffer greatly for raising a voice, need our voices to rise for them. But not everyone who suffers lacks a voice. Not everyone who is oppressed or maligned or terrorized or victimized is truly voiceless.
And even if they are—even the girls trapped in dungeons, those too terrorized to speak out—voicelessness shouldn't their permanent state. As Christians, instead of setting out to be someone else's voice, we can instead listen—and get them heard.
Even while seeking another's "best interest," being a voice for someone else smacks of colonialism, an I-know-best imperialism, since the voice gets to deem which parts of a story to tell, which elements stand out as most compelling.
Consider: In Girl Rising, each of the nine girl-written vignettes had a different flavor—they were shot differently and structured differently. Some were funny, some somber. Some first person, some third. Some stunning in beauty. Some stark in despair. Each shot from the girl's point of view, each featuring the girl's own "newsworthy" bits, each using the girl's voice.
As a journalist, I'd be remiss to say no one should ever tell another's story. The world is a better place because writers have interview, observe, sift and report. Their work has done wonders in carrying out justice missions big and small, in opening our eyes to the wrongs that need to be righted. But still: most Christians who care about justice are not also journalists (though the reverse may be true!), carefully crafting a story to capture essence and voice.
And without being a journalist of sorts, being a voice gets kind of nervy. And not in a good way. Because sometimes our voice wants to scream out an "injustice" that might not in fact be one. For instance, not long ago, a white woman rage-tweeted about the lack of African Americans at her local coffee shop. While I'm sure she saw herself as "being a voice," in reality, I wondered: Was this really an act of injustice or discrimination? What if black people just don't like your stupid coffee shop? Do they have to be there to make you feel better?
It seemed more likely that this woman was making an injustice mountain out of a preferential molehill. Our good intentions sometimes have us becoming the voice of something that didn't need voicing or the voice of people who have a voice already and would've used it if they saw a problem. Much like the Asian American community recently did in Next Gener-Asian's open letter to the Evangelical church after some terribly offensive remarks and behavior from the church toward the Asian American community.
In some cases, our being a voice can drown a voice. When I teach writing or talk to fledgling writers, I talk voice: the mysterious soul of great writing. Anyone can learn to write, can learn grammar and usage rules, the syntax of language, the quirks of spelling. But not anyone can be a great writer. To be great, a writer must not only "find" her voice, but use it. Voice is the tune by which we distinguish writers, by which we fall in love or shrink away, repelled. Voice is the writer behind it. Stripped of voice a writer is just plunking words, not creating art, not shaping her craft.
So it goes for the "voiceless" we seek to serve. When we become a voice for them, when we speak for instead of speaking up, we strip away their very essence, the humanity we seek to serve or save. To seek justice and mercy and love and peace for the oppressed in this world, we'd do better to stop being voices and start listening to and magnifying them.