“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A year ago today, I jumped into the Zambezi River and swam to the edge of Victoria Falls.
This time last year, I was living in a 3-room house in Zambia with 12 other people and sharing a twin mattress with a teammate. I stood in a dirt-floored church and prayed for people who lived in a slum with only one water spigot. I stood in a church that met in a classroom and cried as a woman named Juliet sang with the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard, a voice that filled me up, that is still echoing somewhere inside my heart.
I’m telling you this because I want you to know where I come from.
This year, I called my senators about Betsy DeVos’s nomination for Secretary of Education. I got a nasty virus and didn’t get out of bed for a week. I watched my roommate and my youth and my friends and family march in Women’s Marches across the nation, and I was so freaking proud. They posted pictures of their signs and the thousands of people marching around them.
Some of my other friends posted pictures of women, too. The women in these pictures were not marching. Sometimes they had faces, but mostly their backs were turned. They were doing laundry, cooking, turned away from the camera, immersed in the vital work of everyday life.
I don’t know the names of the women in the pictures, nor their stories or hometowns. They live in developing countries around the world- somewhere vaguely South Asian, somewhere vaguely South American. Their house and clothes, you are supposed to understand from the picture, means they are not rich, not privileged, actually oppressed.
It’s the words that went along with the pictures that made me cry. Stop whining, they said. Stop marching for equality when someone else has it so much worse off than you. We are so blessed in America. You’re forgetting the women in other countries who have problems that actually matter. Don’t forget about real oppression.
An American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. 1 out of 6 American women have been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Native American women are assaulted or raped at even higher rates- 1 out of 3 Native women will be assaulted in their lifetime. Out of every 1,000 rapes, 6 rapists will be incarcerated.
But, America is the ideal to strive for.
White women earn 79 cents on the dollar of what white men earn. African-American women earn 60 cents on every white man’s dollar, Latina women 55 cents. That means for every $5 earned by a white man, at best a woman can earn less than $4 for the exact same work.
But, we’re not oppressed, we’re blessed.
In 2015, 13.5% of Americans were in poverty according the U.S. Census Bureau. 14.5 million of those in poverty were children under the age of 18. That’s 19.7% of American children, or 1 of out of every 5.
But, we have nothing to march for.
When Christians go on mission trips, they do it because they are trying to heal a deep brokenness they see in the world. But these same Christians who claim to be for women, who want to make disciples of all nations, will post pictures of women without even asking their permission, and use them to prove a political point.
Stop doing this.
Stop using poor women as political capital to silence other women.
The women who marched on Washington did it for the women in those photos- the ones who don’t get the dignity of names or stories or being more than a stereotypically impoverished background to some crappy theology. The feminist movement is not perfect, but it is for equality, even if the struggle for equality looks wildly different in every country, in every race, in every class, in every life.
Our liberation is bound up together.
While we may need a new theology of missions to go along with it, we can improve both America and the world, if we are willing to do the slow work of excavating our privilege and listening to the voiceless we so often like to speak for. We, as in: white feminists. We, as in: white evangelical Christians. We, as in: those ready to spit in the face of empire, and weed out the colonial tendencies in our own hearts.
But we can’t do it divided. We can’t do it while we are colonizing certain women’s narratives, and using them to shut down the stories of others. We can’t do it while we are only using poor women in developing nations as props, and imposing a single, convenient, impoverished story onto countries with thousands of years of history and hundreds of years of colonialism running deep in the soil.
We can speak truth to power. We can give a platform to the voices of the powerless. But we, the powerful, the white, have to get out of the way.
This time last year, I was trying to tell a good story about the women I met. I don’t know if I ever did a good enough job. I’m telling you this because I want you to know I am part of the problem.
But Juliet’s voice is still echoing inside my heart, singing a hymn of praise in Bemba, and somewhere in God’s expansive universe I am still at the edge of the world with one hand stretched out into the open sky, the current rushing around me, and I am praying.