Tone Deaf Leadership: 3 reasons Christian leaders should especially listen to oppressed voices
Within the family of God, members of oppressed groups shouldn’t have to mount a social justice campaign in order to make their voices heard.
Tone deaf corporate leadership
What happened last week at Christianity Today/Leadership Journal, in which privileged Christian leaders failed to listen right away to oppressed voices, happens far too often in the Church. For several days, the privileged editors turned a tone deaf ear to the oppressed voices (e.g., women and/or abuse survivors) who spoke out about an unjust and abusive piece the magazine published in which an anonymous, male, former pastor discussed a crime he committed against an underage, female church member. After several days of intense protest, the piece was finally taken down and an apology was issued.
Tone deaf individual leadership
This happens all the time, even on an individual level. For example, last fall Pastor Rick Warren posted an offensive picture of a Red Army soldier on his Facebook page. Then, he failed to listen to the Asian-American leaders, like Kathy Khang who repeatedly asked him to take down the piece. Eventually, he did remove the piece and offer an apology, but not before the activists had expended a lot of physical and emotional energy proving to him that their voices and dignity do in fact matter.
Tone deaf local leadership
This also happens on a local level, in churches and Christian organizations. A black male student-athlete at a predominantly white Christian college recently told me that when he spoke to his privileged football coach about racial microaggressions he was experiencing from his teammates and coaches, the coach told him to buck up, saying, “Well, we all have challenging situations that we deal with. You need to learn to overcome such difficulties.” It wasn’t until multiple faculty and staff members intervened on the student’s behalf that the privileged coach apologized for the racist environment he presided over as the team’s leader.
I'll say it again: within the family of God, members of oppressed groups shouldn’t have to mount a social justice campaign in order to make their voices heard. In all of these cases, the privileged leaders eventually gave in, but not before initially resisting constructive criticism from oppressed voices and digging in their heels. When the PR storm increased, they reluctantly listened, and finally acquiesced. When the process of listening follows this pattern, the marginalized voices may "win" particular battles, but they remain dishonored and relegated to the foot of the table of the family of God.
This happens all the time. The examples I used simply represent the countless times privileged Christian leaders have not listened to critical feedback from oppressed voices. Leaders (myself included) fail when we make statements and commit acts that offend and dishonor marginalized groups. However, we fail a second time when we are slow to listen to critical feedback from these groups. Cross-cultural offenses are often unintentional, but our response to those who point them out should be intentionally humble, earnest, and prompt.
Here are three reasons why privileged Christian leaders should listen right away:
1. You're leading in an unequal world and Church, and you have a responsibility to fight against inequality. I’m amazed at how little the average Christian leader (e.g., Christian editor, professor, pastor, small group leader, etc.) has thought critically about our unequal world and how his or her social status differs from that of others. This is problematic because when you aren’t aware of your own privilege, you can’t honor members of oppressed groups, much less lead well.
If you are white, male, formally educated, middle class or higher, heterosexual, able bodied, physically attractive and/or a native English speaker (just to name a few), then you enjoy living in a unequal society that accommodates you while alienating people who do not possess these characteristics. Simply put, society treats you better than it treats other people. This means you are privileged. From this lens, it’s not difficult to see why society’s leadership/power positions are disproportionately filled by privileged people who’ve had an upper hand since the day they were conceived.
Unfortunately the Church is also marked by striking inequality; the vast majority of Christian editors, professors, authors, conference speakers, denominational leaders, prominent pastors, etc. are privileged folks. These are the folks who make the decisions, have the loudest voices and largest platforms, and to whom marginalized groups must appeal when they are concerned about injustices. The Church has distorted the round table of God into one with a clear head and foot.
What privileged Christian leaders need to remember is that in our unequal Church a) many of the people you are leading are members of marginalized groups in the Church and b) there are no privileged innocent bystanders. All privileged people participate in our unequal structure – some perpetuate it knowingly (actively), some perpetuate it unknowingly (passively), and others resist it as revolutionaries. As a leader, you’re either actively working to restore equality, equity, and dignity to all people, or you’re actively or passively oppressing others. How you respond to criticism from members of oppressed groups is one important way in which you can use your power to either further distort or help restore the round table of God.
2. Jesus prioritized feedback from marginalized voices over privileged voices. Leaders deal with a lot of criticism. I understand this all too well; the critical feedback I receive as a leader, writer, preacher/speaker is equal parts constructive, troll-y, and straight up hate mail-y. As a leader, I have to discern which voices to engage and which ones to ignore. And the more I understand inequality in the Church, the more I realize that not all feedback is created equal. In order to illuminate the enduring blind spots and subvert the unequal power structure in the church, feedback from members of under-represented/marginalized groups must be prioritized over feedback from members of over-represented/privileged groups. We must not treat feedback from marginalized groups like we would treat feedback from privileged groups.
As a leader in an unequal world and religious system, Jesus kept his ear to the ground, especially listening for the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. If he turned a tone deaf ear to anyone, it was to the privileged folks like the Pharisees. When it came to oppressed people, Jesus was all ears (e.g., the Samaritan woman and the SyroPhoenecian woman). In fact, he not only listened to marginalized voices, but he also gave them a platform by sharing his platform with them (e.g., the woman accused of adultery and the woman with the issue of bleeding). Jesus was all about listening to and giving voice to the marginalized. He even prioritized listening to them over the voices of the powerful (as was the case with the woman with the issue of bleeding and Jairus.)
Privileged Christian leaders who want to lead like Jesus did will also keep their ears to the ground, especially listening for the voices that have been marginalized for far too long in the Church. And when they hear these voices speaking up about injustices, they will resist the urge to ignore their perspective.
So if you’re a white male leader who receives critical feedback from a group of white males, take it seriously. But if you receive critical feedback from a group of women and/or people of color, stop everything you are doing (as Jesus did with the woman with the issue of bleeding) and take it even more seriously.
3. You desperately need the perspective of the oppressed. Resist the urge to discount the perspective of the oppressed simply because it is inconsistent with your own. Privileged people are often motivated to disregard oppressed voices because we are uncomfortable with the idea that we benefit from society’s inequality. As I’ve written elsewhere:
As an educated, upwardly-mobile privileged person, I benefit from the fact that politicians pay attention to my social class and fight for my vote. I also benefit from the fact that I can talk with my mouth full without people attributing my behavior to the "uncivilized" nature of my class. But I don't typically notice these benefits; I take them for granted and think that everyone else enjoys them as well. In fact, I'm motivated to ignore these unfair benefits because according to sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan, "Most Americans want to believe that the world is fundamentally fair, despite all of the injustices we see on the news and the awfulness we find in the paper."1
So if a socio-economically oppressed black woman complains to me that people are always attributing her behavior to her "uncivilized" social class, I'm tempted to respond by saying to her, "Are you sure you aren't overreacting?" or by thinking to myself "That hasn't happened to me, so I don't think it has really happened to her."
But to disregard this woman's perspective and experience is a mistake because it a) further oppresses her by communicating to her that her perspective isn't valid, b) prevents me from learning from a culturally-different viewpoint and addressing my own blind spots, and c) disables my ability to stand in solidarity with and understand the experience of my sister and fellow human being.
Am I saying that oppressed voices are unequivocally correct? No. I’m just saying that privileged people have blind spots that only oppressed people can point out. And I’m also saying that, in many ways, Jesus identified with the oppressed and intentionally took the perspective of the oppressed. If you want to see the world from Jesus’ full viewpoint, you need to see it from the perspective of the oppressed.
So listen up, privileged leaders! Within the family of God, members of oppressed groups shouldn’t have to mount a social justice campaign in order to make their voices heard.
For more of my thoughts on listening, check out my series on Listening Well as a Person of Privilege.
Hey oppressed folks, let’s help our leaders out. How they can listen better and faster?