on women marching and advocating for women

In honor of this weekend’s record-breaking women’s marches, I am posting an essay I wrote last year, after marching in Nashville.  Remembering the varied reactions to the marches and their causes made me wonder—then and now—how to advocate for human flourishing in this particular American moment.  I think we all lose if we buy the lie that advocating for humans and advocating for fetuses are mutually exclusive commitments…

Last Saturday I piled into a car with a couple of 30 year olds, a new teenager, and two women my age (40ish J), and we drove downtown for our Nashville Women’s March.  Some of us had marched before, and some were nervous about their first time.  Some of us were conservative, and some of us were progressive.  Some of us knew immigrants, and some of us did not.  Some of us were prolife, and some of us were prochoice.  Some of us had nothing to hold except a hand, while others held signs attesting to the combined strength of women.  All of us were hopeful, and believed in the power of love and collaboration to spur each other to advocate for all of our civil rights.

We gathered at Cumberland Park and rubbed elbows, hugged, chanted, disagreed, listened, cried, sang and marched together.  I was brought to tears by many of the speakers.  A beautiful black woman with a powerful voice reclaimed the words of Dr. King as she reminded us that progressive white Christian voices are the greatest hindrance to protecting the civil rights of all.  I realized I am responsible for her continued diminished thriving when I tell her to be patient, to wait for equality to come, to lower her voice and trust that things will improve with time.  King’s words, uttered with her own plea, convicted me.  As a follower of Christ I should stand with those whose very presence is treated with skepticism and disdain, just as Christ stood with the broken, came and lived among them, challenging those powers that treated them as untouchable.

An elderly Mexican American, crying through broken English, proudly claimed: “I am America.  I am part of you.  I want to stand with you as your friend and mother.  Will you take my hand?  Will you stand with me?”   She was just a woman, standing in front of thousands of people in a country that sometimes sees people from Mexico as thieves robbing us of our American dream.  She simply asked us to hear her, to see her as a woman, a mom and a grandmother.  She is an American who wants to be seen as a part of our wonderful whole, not as a brown outsider who threatens our unity.   She reminded me that when I place people in groups, when I assume the worst of others, I am ignoring the call of God to move toward outsiders, just as Christ moved toward me and called me, “daughter.”

I was stunned by a Muslim American who reminded me that powerful women provide space for those around them to be.  When I assume an oppressed woman hides under a hijab, I am helping to erase her, stripping her of agency.  This beautiful Muslim woman reminded me that she has her own voice, and asked me to stand with her, not speak for or about her in ignorance. 

If we do not acknowledge the fear, frustration and pain of vulnerable people, are we not dismissing them?  We cannot overlook divisive and demonizing rhetoric that isolates millions in an effort to advocate for ‘life.’

There was another voice that troubled me.  A woman advocating for a woman’s right to choose to abort her baby argued there was nothing to regret or mourn about her past abortion.  Some in the crowd cheered.  Some remained silent.  I said, “I wish she hadn’t said that.  Abortion is always awful.” As a person who believes God creates life, I am broken by abortion, and hope no woman ever has to have one.  I know that many other Christians feel so strongly about protecting fetal life that they vote solely on this issue.  They rejected the national Women’s March because it was decidedly pro-choice in its partnerships.  However, being prolife should encourage advocacy for every life diminished or threatened by societal systems.  If I had stayed home because I was afraid of being misunderstood, I would have missed the chance to support women who want to worship freely, or women who want to be physically safe from groping men, or women who want to make their own healthcare choices, or women of color who desire respect, or women who want to provide for their families when they work fulltime, or women who want to keep their children safe and their families together.  If I had stayed home because I wanted to advocate for life, I would have missed the chance to advocate for life in person, in the crowd.  I respect the agency some prolife friends exhibit in participating in this debate, in speaking up for abortion alternatives, in caring for single moms who, despite working full time, cannot support their kids because we don’t have a minimum living wage in our country.  I respect the consistency many friends exhibit when they come alongside women (before and after delivery) who cannot care for a child but carry one to term anyway.  I respect the sacrificial action these women exhibit when they foster and adopt children whose parents chose not to abort, but whose realities remain desperate. 

However, I struggle to understand my prolife friends who describe chronically poor people as lazy, irresponsible parents, while voting into office those who restrict access to birth control, defund affordable housing initiatives, reduce support for agencies who stand in the gap for poor kids, prevent access to insurance subsidies and reject the notion that a person who works full time should also live above the poverty line in our country.  If we do not acknowledge the fear, frustration and pain of these others, are we not dismissing them?  We cannot overlook divisive and demonizing rhetoric that isolates millions in an effort to advocate for “life.”  Christians should advocate for life, but I am afraid the current position defines life in the narrowest of terms.

Might we be better advocates of life if we marched (for instance) with vulnerable people, hearing their stories and affirming they belong?  Might we be better advocates of life if we fought hard to support alternatives for abortion, taking on the challenge to make sure no child is destined to grow up in a community whose opportunities have been aborted?  Might we be better advocates of life if we worked hard to prevent a situation in which a woman feels her only responsible option is to abort a child whom she has no hope of raising to flourish? 

Powerful women provide space for those around them to be.  Remember that every woman has her own voice, and asks us to stand with her, not speak for or about her in ignorance. 

It is messy and hard and complicated.  I get it.  But I am appalled at the way many of us (on every side) so easily dismiss hurting people we are called to love because we don’t agree with one position.  Americans worship every weekend in congregations who get things wrong.  And we stay.  And we talk. And we call each other to a better path.  Can we not try to do the same in this current arena?  If the sleeping giant of the church would wake up and enter the public sphere with curiosity and compassion instead of judgment and dismissiveness, we could help restore dignity to every life.  We could take in strangers, care for widows, protect orphans, stop abortions, and seek the peace and flourishing of our cities.  Sounds familiar, right?

resolving with others in mind

The ringing in of the New Year traditionally brings with it a natural time to reflect on the year behind and to think about how to approach the year ahead.  While this can be a time for excessive navel gazing, I think it also offers us a chance to think about the way we interact with each other.  As 2018 begins, we would do well to think beyond how each of us can personally resolve to improve our physical, spiritual or mental health; I am challenging us to also think about our collective health as communities.

What could be possible if we, as a people, moved from postures against, to advocacy for?

The weeks surrounding the New Year are fascinating to me because we acknowledge for a moment that our intentions and resolutions are worth paying attention to.  We understand that these lives we live are fleeting, and that we can do better.  That the way we treat ourselves, our families, and our communities powerfully influences the meaning we make in this life.  Changing that number on the calendar causes almost all of us to recognize that time is moving on, that each of us are aging, changing, surviving, one year at a time.  The loss of control we feel at the relentless progression of time creates a moment where we think about the things we feel we can control.  Thus, we resolve.  We resolve to care more, to create space, to be courageous, to be patient, to be present.  We resolve to actively produce good in ourselves and in our environments. 

The way we treat ourselves, our families, and our communities powerfully influences the meaning we make in this life. 

As we resolve to advocate for ourselves and our families in our thinking and practices, I want to suggest we take advantage of this same moment to observe the way we take stances for or against the people and policies in our greater communities.   In this season of obsessive reflecting and resolving, why not also think about the way we think about our place in society?  Do you have issues you care about?  Is the stance you take primarily negative or positive?  The New Year provides us with a built-in opportunity to resolve to be people who “advocate for” rather than people who “rail against” or, even worse, than people who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders about the lives of others.

While many of us are committed to advocating for ourselves in our pursuits of emotional, physical and spiritual health, our default perspective in the public sphere is primarily negative.  When I reflect on the year behind, I observe that in small conversations and large interactions, many people approach others primarily through a stance-taking rubric.  I am against X.  The problem with my school/neighborhood/legislative body is the presence of Y.  These negative stances are the result of a paradigm of lack, of fear, and of blame, and they prevent possibilities of collaboration, destroying chances to improve through advocacy and cooperation. 

Many of us engage in the public sphere by being passively against things we don’t like, rather than being engagingly for things we find life-giving and good.  Allow me to be practical for a moment.  If you identify as a pro-life person, do you actually take action to advocate for life or do you demonstrate your stance FOR life mostly by being AGAINST abortion?  A person who resolves to be pro-life could advocate for life by educating themselves about rates of childhood poverty and food insecurity in their city, and then joining with the best non-profits to help lower those numbers.  They could find the best agencies in town who support and care for women navigating unplanned pregnancies, and walk with them as they try to care for their children after they are born and for the years that follow.  They could educate themselves about access to birth control, and work to make sure every woman capable of bearing children can prevent unwanted pregnancy.  They could educate themselves about the best organizations and government programs helping with early intervention and education for babies and young kids whose lives and opportunities are being slowly aborted with each benchmark they miss.  They could evaluate the other stances they take, and commit to align all of them with a perspective that values and affirms the dignity of every created being.  They could decide to be actively, productively, effectively for life.

The New Year provides us with a built-in opportunity to resolve to be people who “advocate for” rather than people who “rail against” or, even worse, than people who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders about the lives of others.

In these days of the New Year, what if we began to notice the way we resolve to improve the health of the communities in which we live?  Are our resolutions focused on advocating for ourselves alone?  Do we primarily engage with our greater communities through rejection and negative stance-taking?  As 2018 dawns, I want to listen to the way I think about myself, my family, and my city.  It is worth knowing if the ways we think about others is negative and critical.  Those thoughts are not only toxic for our own psyches, they are eventually destructive to the people around us.

In this first week of 2018, as you resolve to create environments where your best self can flourish, join me also in resolving to think about the stances we take in the public sphere.  What could be possible if we, as a people, moved from postures against, to advocacy for? What could be possible if we rejected the idea that being anti-anything creates a positive trajectory? What if we resolved to be people who advocate for the things that engage our compassion and passion?  If we approach society with affirmative perspectives on the resolutions we make, we can move through the world on a foundation of possibility, abundance and hope.