To the World-Changers

I can think of no better way to celebrate Christmas than to raise a toast to the change-makers. While I in no way compare myself to Jesus Christ, I do look to his example for how to make the world a better place. In his teachings, justice and compassion are the same thing. For me, that is both a vexing paradox and a infinite source of inspiration.

There is a tendency among advocates to become a bit self-righteous. We see all this injustice, and we recognize that the path of least resistance ends in greater suffering by the powerless. We have to call attention to these violations without giving in to the idea that we live in a black-and-white world of pure guilt and innocence. It is never that simple, even in the case I wrote about on Saturday. It appears that the plaintiff legitimately wanted to save his marriage. We can sympathize with his struggle while still recognizing that this ruling is wrong.

This morning, a friend of mine who is traveling through Asia asked for advice on dealing with men there, who misinterpret her warm personality as a sign that she wants to have sex. Having been molested on a massage table in China and stalked by a Middle Eastern man in the U.S., I struggled to advise her. Should she smile and risk violation or stuff her personality and perpetuate their misconceptions?

I thought of an Afghan immigrant I knew a couple of years ago. He truly wanted to “Americanize,” and he rejected his own culture’s ideas about women. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not interpret a smile as just a smile. While I had to threaten his job for him to leave me alone, I honestly believe that he meant me no harm. He was raised to interpret women’s behaviors in a certain way, and even once he consciously recognized that he was wrong, he still struggled against his gut responses. Time and experience – not punishment – will help him change.

I learned an important lesson from that, which I took with me to Afghanistan shortly thereafter. Service in that country tested my limits in many ways. I saw so many things that were wrong, but I had to pick my battles. I accepted many things – like the headscarf – in order to concentrate on more critical issues – like fighting gender-based violence. At work, I still smiled and wore bright colors and claimed my authority, but I always covered my legs and arms so as not to distract my male colleagues. I had to recognize that for Afghan men, like for me, change is hard. I am still not sure I got it right.

I think of myself and the women in my binder as change-makers – hopefully world-changing ones. When an obstacle blocks our way, we are not content to find a way around it just for us. We either carve out a path that others can take or, if that proves impossible, we fight to move it. That takes a lot of moral courage, and it is hard to do it for long without beginning to feel self-righteous.

But none of us is perfect, and God knows that I’m not always right. My hope is not for women to “win” a cultural war. I want all of us to live in a more just and compassionate world. I believe that God loves us all equally, no matter who we are, and calls us to do the same.

Whatever your gender or beliefs, I wish you a day full of grace; may the knowledge that we are all deserving of love give us the courage to fight for justice.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believed in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

– John 3:16, as embedded in my memory

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