advocate: standing up for those who can't say it themselves (yet)

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).

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life and online. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

19 Comments

  • That’s great, powerful, loving and compassionate Kathy. I see Jesus in what you write – love it!

    I hear what you say as a woman being grateful for those men who were advocates for you when you were not heard because of your gender.

    At school, dyslexia wasn’t considered. Rather, I was thought of as lazy
    and careless. A head teacher wrongly put in his report about me that
    there was something that had plagued my time at school, that I had
    needed to work harder if I was to achieve my full potential. One of the biggest advocates I had was an educational psychologist who diagnosed me with dyslexia 4 years ago. She wrote that allowance ought to be made of my dyslexia and combining my intuitive ability with academic work needed to be done if I was going to achieve my full potential.

    Another advocate has been the disability office in the college. She has argued for me against some of the prejudices about disability among staff members, saying that is was “time a few home truths were told”. It would not have had the same effect if I had argued similarly.

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  • You’ve summed up the heart of Yeshua beautifully Kathy. Less of the business model and more standing between the scapegoater and the scapegoat, a dangerous but more Divine place than any new flashy sanctuary!

    Irish blessings

    Dylan

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  • Beautifully said, Kathy. I write about antebellum slavery, and while the people about whom I write about can no longer speak for themselves, I hope to just make their voices heard down the centuries. (Okay, that sounded all mystical and stuff . . . but I hope you know what I mean.) Thanks for this.

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    • i love mystical and stuff…changing history and shifting the story changes things for generations to come. thank you for reading and taking time to share.

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  • Advocate.
    What you have written resonates within me. I know my voice isn’t heard because I am not respected. But to think I need an advocate. What a different thought.
    And to think that we should be advocates for others. That is a hard concept when I don’t feel like I am heard now. How could I ever be an advocate for another.

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    • thanks for taking time to share honestly what it’s like for you right now. not sure of the circumstances but hoping that somehow, someway something shifts for you over time so that you do not continue to feel disrespected. advocating in spirit for you from afar…

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  • So so good. For the longest time, I have felt pretty good about different areas of advocacy for others. It is at my very core that I am passionate about being a voice for children and adolescents who need it. It makes me nutty to watch/hear about kiddos who have their voices squashed. It feels natural to me to stand up, speak up, be the advocate. To admit, however, that there are still areas where one is blind and needs guidance, takes courage, too, imho. The paradox of needing advocates in some areas of blindness/healing/growth and also being able to speak up/be strong/fight injustice is so clear to me in this topic. Hooray for not falling into an all-or-nothing thinking pit as an advocate.

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    • yeah, it does always seem to be that crazy paradox of both. being one & needing one. holding strong in some areas and desperately needing help in others.

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  • Hi, Kathy,

    Love this idea! Being a voice for others, or at least bringing others’ voices out into the open—-standing in behalf of sisters and brothers—-is vitally important.

    However, it’s not really relevant to use the word “virgin” in this phrase: “a virgin sold into a brothel in india”… It’s not helping to change the perception that virgins are somehow worth more than non-virgins.

    Phil

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    • thanks for your feedback, i appreciate it. i was just coming off of a story from a friend who does sex trafficking work in india and told a specific story. point taken.

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  • I loved this post. Recently, I found myself involved in a case where a mom abandoned her large family. I got angry more than once at the passivity and fatalism of some of those involved. Thank God I had courage to be an advocate. I see good coming to these children. They had been silenced by years of desperate poverty, and then, abandoned by their sole caretaker. Thank God we can be a voice for those cannot speak.

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  • Something very strange about advocacy for another, and human nature, that I’ve observed, experienced, time and again. The consistency of it baffles me.
    This is that when someone advocates for another with need, takes their difficulties, and needs, before others, seeking the doors through which the needed assistance is to be obtained, people listen, and accept, and believe. Life events have pressed me into an advocacy role a good many times now, people being poorly treated, even abused, people suffering poverty and unmet needs, sick and elderly unable to continue keeping their homes livable as they once did, and those facing daunting barriers to getting medical care they needed. I’ve encountered the closed doors, the apathy, the need to research and research again, make calls to the people in positions of authority again and again, all that it took to find the way through the mazes, break down the doors, get the ‘yeses’ needed.
    And yet, if one tries to do that themselves, they are more often ignored, even insulted, turned away, dismissed. Often rudely, with shaming, they are just trying to get attention, trying to get something for nothing out of someone, whining, annoying. They are not taken seriously, or their plight considered, toward moving others to compassion, as might happen if someone else is acting in their behalf as advocate.
    And I do not understand why. Many of those I’ve helped have tried themselves, before I and or others stepped in to help. Several have actually been flabbergasted to hear another present their case, their need, exactly as they had done themselves before, and the same doors that slammed in their faces before, open in welcome when another is advocating for them. The same people that would not even talk to time about their difficulty, smile and invite them in, when there is an advocate.
    The woman caught in adultery could have used exactly the same words, same arguments, as Jesus, and they’d have still stoned her. In a court in our legal system, someone could say exactly the same things to the judge and jury, and have not the same effect of being taken seriously as if those words were spoken by an attorney.
    I have seen this in cases of others, I have experienced it myself in times of need. Anything I said telling others of my need seemed to be heard only as whining, complaining, maybe I’d be admonished to work harder to resolve my problem, or worse, accept and live with it. Yet another might step in to advocate for me, tell the same things, and there would be compassion.
    This I do not understand. And yet have observed it so often, must conclude is something very basic in human nature at work.

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  • I agree with most of your statement except for the illegal. I am a advocate for a mentally ill women who was raped by you guessed it an illegal. Yet he seems to have more rights then her.

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  • I disagree. There is a such thing as being voiceless.
    The unborn are voiceless. They cannot plead their case.

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  • The farm animals that we use for food and clothing are completely voiceless and these animals are many times tortured by sadistic people and their methods are often barbaric, horrific and totally unnecessary . Then there are pets such as dogs that end up tortured n tied to the back of cars, spray painted and shot in the head. I’m sure they all had plenty to say; now that is voiceless. Then there are just stray dogs, that never had homes, abused, neglected , unloved…some set on fire or their paws cut off with a sword cause they were digging in a garbage can trying to get food because they were starving..or the ones that are skinned or stabbed in the eye for no reason..or the puppies that are give “free” to good home and people take them , remove their teeth so they can’t defend themselves and throw them in as bait for fighting dogs. Are you aware of the YULIN festival, where they boil dogs in a pot alive like they are crawfish? YEP. A dog eating celebration. What is going on in this world. I am so sickened. The stories I have read have made me beyond disgusted with much of mankind. These poor creatures must be the voiceless but i’m sure if they wished they had a voice to tell of the injustice; so their stories would be more known, so they could stop the hurt. It is up to us to speak out for them to try and change the wickedness that occurs. People in the light must do this as only light can conquer darkness. We must not look away; we must stand up for them and speak out on their behalf; be their voice. . The animals are the voiceless, no doubt.

    Reply

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