Shortly before being murdered, Archbishop Romero said, “Those who have voice must speak for the voiceless.” This is what it means to raise consciousness, raise awareness.
But raising awareness within the safety of privacy is never enough. Communities, in order to remain healthy, must make every effort to bring difficult topics out into the open. This way, more people can have a chance to listen, examine, probe and make up their own minds. This difficult exercise requires open ears and careful listening, least the point of the message becomes lost.
The voiceless are used to living in two worlds simultaneously. The privileged world has power, calls the shots, sets the rules and gives and takes away at whim. The powerless world suffers daily at the hand of those in power. Some of the voiceless are aware of how privilege operates within the norms of the middle class and higher, while other voiceless people just try to function in spite of it.
Most of the voiceless seldom admit their true feelings when asked, because we are conditioned not to, for survival reasons. Some in power don’t want to hear about the injustice they are inadvertently inflicting. And most are shocked and offended when the powerless dare to hold them accountable for using the Bible to protect and preserve their privileged space.
Any town thinking about developing and retaining a creative class must allow conversation and ideas to flow freely, particularly those expressed by the voiceless (which might not always sound too pretty, considering their circumstances).
But is it really surprising that folks who have been hurt and oppressed might appear angry and will want those who benefit from their repression to understand this on a gut-level, i.e., “I feel your pain?”
Even modern customer-service training requires validating the distress of the dissatisfied customer.
But sometimes public discussion of certain topics, persons, icons or situations is simply not allowed. Or, the conversation is dominated within tightly controlled circumstances, where one may not deviate from the party line. And the voice of powerless may only be expressed as a token squeak, in deference to those in control.
Imagine this graphic example: Although someone’s foot is on a person’s neck, the oppressed person must meekly state, “Good afternoon, Sir, sorry to bother you Sir. May I kindly bring it to your attention that our group is not advancing due to the foot you unintentionally placed upon our neck? Do you have a moment to discuss what we perceive to be an unfortunate situation? We would appreciate the opportunity to discuss your foot in a positive and uplifting manner. If not, then perhaps we could schedule an appointment at your earliest convenience.”
See, folks, it’s not set up to be a fair fight, is it? Are we saying that it’s really better to ignore or silence conversation about the hard stuff, like how the Bible has been used (and continues to be used) to persecute gays, subordinate women, justify riches or foster racism?
Don’t the marginalized have a right to express how they are feeling, and in their own way? And can those feelings be expressed as spoof, satire, candor, tongue-in-cheek, whimsy and other such formats other than straight-jacket literalism?
Are we going to pretend that the pain of the voiceless doesn’t really exist, that it will just go away if we don’t talk about it? Is this what educated people really want?
And yet, one of my mentors, Katie Cannon, a brilliant African American scholar, has often reminded me that when you live with your head in the mouth of a lion, you should hold it there gingerly.
Christ provoked the ire of the Pharisees and religious leaders when he ate at the same table with those who were oppressed, outcast and downtrodden. Today, we can expect the same treatment toward those who stand in solidarity with the persecuted.
So why strive to avoid controversy? Do we really think that if we do not wrestle with these issues and instead maintain a “Michigan-friendly” facade we become better Christians? Or that the prevailing injustices will simply go away?
The wisest among us realizes that she or he can learn much from the person who totally disagrees with their position. Only when (like Jacob) we wrestle with God’s truth do we receive God’s blessing, even if at times, we walk away limping (Gen. 32:24-30).
Wrestling and conflict are not fun, but even if some of us limp away, like Jacob, we hope to have seen God’s face!
Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban American, is professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Baptist pastor in Kentucky. His column also appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.