Hearing the voiceless

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Jesus treated "losers"with respect. Do I? 

by Jan Johnson

The sleek businessman bolted across the street against the traffic signal. He barely made it, accidentally shoving my friend, Delsinore, and me as we stood at the curb. He looked at me and said, "I'm sorry—excuse me." He said nothing to Delsinore, probably because she's a bag lady.

After a minute, I tapped the man on the shoulder, smiled and said, "You bumped her too. Please apologize to her."

Eyebrows went up around me as the man mumbled an apology. I was thrilled to have requested a small token of courtesy for Dels, but I also winced at the snickers of those around me and imagined their thoughts: What's this white Lady Bountiful doing with a black woman pushing a shopping cart?

Knowing Delsinore is reinforcing what I already know. Every society has its hierarchy of worthiness, and people like Delsinore are among the lowest on the ladder. Seeing how people treat her reminds me of how all of us tend to withhold respect, concern and even justice from those lower on the ladder than ourselves. When we do this, we render these people voiceless.

The silence of voiceless people grows out of their power-down positions in society: residents of lower class neighborhoods, the poorly paid, the handicapped, the aging, the less intelligent, unskilled laborers and even children when they're routinely talked down to. We don't take them seriously because they don't have the status, money, age or know-how to command our respect. God regards them differently.

God: Guardian of the needy

Many of those who are voiceless match the biblical categories of the needy: the widow, the fatherless and the alien (or "sojourner" or "stranger"). God doesn't speak of giving them "equality" and "fair treatment." Instead, he recognizes the human tendency to treat them unequally and unfairly and declares himself their guardian: "’Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them’" (Ps. 12:5).

God mounted attacks against those who cheated the needy and commissioned Israel to become modern-day public defenders, so to speak, defending the causes of the needy and pleading their cases (Prov. 23:10-11; Ps. 82:3; Isa. 1:17).

Some of us respond by sponsoring children overseas and donating clothes to downtown street missions. Participating in these worthwhile efforts satisfies our uneasiness—until we walk past a homeless family living in their car or get frustrated trying to buy gum from someone who can't speak our language or watch the house or car next door become shabby when a father walks out on a family.

We battle within ourselves: Sure we need more homeless shelters, but not on my street. Let people immigrate, but don't let their limited English slow me down as I run errands. It's a shame couples break up, but it makes the neighborhood look bad when weeds take over their yard.

Suddenly the faces of the voiceless look more familiar. We find that giving away money and old clothing is much easier than becoming a guardian, rescuer and defender of people who may cramp our style.

So we experiment. We may make phone calls to find shelters for families and direct that family in the car to a shelter. We may expect to have to work to understand the broken English of the woman selling us gum. We may offer to mow the lawn for the family whose father just left.

Respect and solidarity

In the Gospels, Jesus treats the people his culture called "losers" with respect. Christ took women and children seriously in an age when they were unimportant. He singled out the sick, the demon-possessed and the poor in spirit and treated them with respect. He never talked down to such people.

My relationship with Delsinore is teaching me that kind of respect. When I first met her, I offered to take her to a shelter, but she told me she liked the streets better. I gave her bags of oranges whenever I saw her, but then I found out she gave them away because her teeth were too loose to eat them.

In many conversations with God, I offered these frustrations to him: I want to be effective; I want her to appreciate my help; I question how deserving she is. I'm finally realizing that my "charity" isn't about her, but is about my need to feel like "a good Christian."

One day sitting on the bench at a bus stop together, I asked her, "What is the most helpful thing I could do for you?"

"Sit here and talk to me," Delsinore said. "Nobody talks to me. People look right through me."

Her words were like a whack on the head. Of course! Christ sat and dined and talked. He operated his own divine medical clinic and food pantry (feeding 5,000 at a time). He respected people and asked them questions. To look into someone's eyes and ask them what they need instead of foisting our own blessings on them places the voiceless in the power-up position for once. They talk and we listen.

Christ also stayed out of that pious power-up position by identifying closely with voiceless people: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine [the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned], you did for me" (Matt. 25:40). He lived in solidarity with the voiceless so that their hunger became his hunger and their imprisonment became his imprisonment.

Giving a voice to the voiceless isn't always a tidy, neat little command easily obeyed. More often, it's messy and open-ended. We may cry over injustice one day and gloss over it the next. God doesn't ask us to reform the world, but to show respect and concern to each person he's put in our path, going the extra mile with those our society overlooks. It's a struggle, but in the best moments we see Christ's face on the faces of voiceless people, and we offer him respect and concern. In moments when we don't, we express our regret to a Father who never renders us voiceless and we find comfort there.

Jan Johnson is a speaker and the author of Growing Compassionate Kids and Living a Purpose-Full Life. For more information, see her website: www.janjohnson.org.

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