a few weeks ago i was asked a question on twitter by a lovely blogger friend about a scripture that pointed to “a voice for the voiceless”, which is so often used in a lot of justice-y language. i wrote recently how there is no such thing as voiceless, just people whose voices have been silenced by life experiences, systemic oppression, generational poverty, and a myriad of other things that quelch God’s image.
there’s no passage in the Bible about being a voice for the voiceless. that is terminology we’ve somehow adopted. but when considering our responsibility to help advocate for those whose voices are silenced, i love these passages in isaiah: “seek justice, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (vs. 1:17) & “is not this the kind of fasting i have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (vs. 58:6-7).
and proverbs 31:8-9, “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
but my very favorite passage centered on advocating is an unlikely one, in john 8, when Jessus stands between the adulterous woman and those about to stone her to death and advocates on her behalf. he does it in his amazing-and-creative-Jesus-y-way, but the part i am always reminded of is this–had he not advocated for her in that moment, she would have died.
even if she would have been able to use her voice, it wouldn’t have mattered. no one would have listened. no one would have changed a single thing.
everything in the system around her was completely stacked against her.
she needed someone with power to stand and speak on her behalf.
the truth is that advocates aren’t “voice for the voiceless” because there is no such thing as voiceless.
what advocates do, though, is stand for those who for a wide variety of reasons can’t say yet (or sometimes ever) for themselves.
a virgin sold into a brothel in india can’t speak for herself. her only hope is an advocate who will fight for justice on her behalf.
a man with a mental disability can’t open certain doors in the system to get the resources he needs without an advocate’s help no matter how much we’d like to believe he could on his own.
a homeless person can’t cross certain practical bridges without someone moving some of the real-and-strong obstacles out of the way first.
an orphan in an orphanage can’t magically find their way into a family.
a kid being bullied can’t wake up one day and start defending themselves the way we hope.
a woman who deeply desires to break into leadership in a church that doesn’t actively honor her gift will never naturally be heard without someone with power actively advocating for her presence.
a person who has been sexually abused won’t magically have the confidence, strength, and security that they need to stand strong in tricky situations.
an illegal immigrant can’t show up in certain moments and defend themselves alone. the risk is just too great.
advocates stand up for those who for whatever-reason-in-the-moment can’t say it themselves. they also stand alongside for the long haul and help uncover the voice that is buried in there so it can hopefully emerge.
i would never be where i am today as a pastor had i not had a few men who actively and passionately advocated for me. i just couldn’t say it for myself in the systems i was in. i was not voiceless then, but my voice and passion was buried under all kinds of personal & systemic rubble. but just like the woman in john 8, even if i could have spoken up for myself, the churches i was part of wouldn’t have nodded in agreement and immediately flung the door wide open. the chasm was too wide.
but my advocates used their voice and built a bridge for me to eventually use mine.
it’s important to respect the realities of power & not-used-to-being-listened-to voices.
i know many awesome and brave people on the margins who show up all the time to try to get the help they need and are routinely dismissed, mistreated, and neglected. their lack of power and privilege makes their voices mute to many. my role as an advocate is not to speak for them but to get the attention of those who have ignored them, to build bridges of dignity, and break down barriers on their behalf.
the adulterous woman’s only hope was Jesus standing up for her, taking a hit from the powers-that-be, and saying what needed to be said to turn the tide.
that’s what advocates do, in all kinds of wild and creative and often-unorthodox ways (some refuge advocates definitely know what i mean by wild-creative-unorthodox)
and it’s why this world desperately needs an army of advocates. because there are an awful lot of people in every family, school, neighborhood, city, and nook & cranny on this planet who can’t say it for themselves (yet).
my dream is that as the body of Christ, we’d be deeply dedicated to making advocates not buildings. that we’d be known in our communities for actively advocating for systemic change to heal the core roots of injustice. and most of all, that we’d use our power and privilege on behalf of the vulnerable, not to replace their voices but to pave the way for theirs to be heard. to say what they cannot say (yet).