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?