My son once complained that in effort to build Christian discipleship someone’s always saying what to do but hardly ever suggesting how to do it. In these times when not speaking up and into the culture is becoming less and less of an option for God’s people, a balanced guide, not simply a motivational speaker, for raising our voices for gospel justice is so needed.
From Assimilation to Activist
At first blush, Kathy Khang seems an unlikely candidate to be the guide for raising your voice. Khang is an immigrant woman from South Korea who has spent her whole life in Midwestern suburbs but wasn’t always ready to speak up. As a young girl, she asked her mom for permission to perm her hair and resented the requirement to maintain her Korean language skills for the sake of assimilation. When her burgeoning involvement in college student protests in Korea began to blossom, it was cut short by the passive aggressive maneuvering of her uncle. Then, as a mom, she found herself short on courage to oppose an elementary school play loaded with offensive Native American stereotypes and messages until after her children no longer attended the school.
But Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up shows us what can happen when God lays hold of an unlikely candidate. Like Esther, whose story figures prominently in the book, Khang’s story doesn’t explicitly put God’s work in her life front and center, but many readers will recognize his presence. The transformation is clear. The same woman who wanted to fit in with the prevailing culture now writes with conviction to withstand cultural tradition and defy the limitations of her own experiences.
Undoubtedly many early fans of this book will be those who have already taken its message to heart: People like Belinda Bauman, Founder of One Million Thumbprints, and Lisa Sharon Harper of Freedom Road, who together organized the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual campaign as a “call to action to the church to stop standing by and start standing up for women and girls who experience violence.” Or Ally Henny and the Black students at Fuller Theological Seminary who started the #ToxicFuller, #SeminaryWhileBlack, and #BlackExodus social media protest against what they describe as an “environment of racial exclusion” and “ignoring racial misconduct.”
But one of the greatest benefits of this book is that it will prove useful not only to those experienced in speaking truth and advocacy but also to those who are hesitant and unsure of how, when, and why their voices are needed. There are already signs that the Raise Your Voice call to forsake silence and apathy on critical issues resonates with evangelicals, especially women who resemble the earlier version of Khang. Khang provides the confidence boost they may need to wade into the waters of public advocacy or even conflicts among friends and family.
Understanding Your Silence
Khang’s narrative flows seamlessly between the reflections of a memoirist and the passionate wisdom of a justice movement veteran passing on hard-won advice. Khang knows how to make a voice heard and make it count, and she knows how to help you use yours. This approach is especially suited to the subject matter. Many Christians might know that God calls us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed” and to “speak up for the poor and helpless and see that they get justice” (Psalm 31:8–9). But we also live intimately acquainted with our own fears. We find it easy to justify not raising our voice in the midst of situations that clearly need the justice mandate we carry. Khang doesn’t back away from the conflict of mandate and misplaced fear; in fact, she goes right at it.
In Part I of the book, “Why We Stay Silent,” she discusses several aspects of her own experience with fear and justification. As I read how Khang was called “chink” or was teased because of the slanted contours of her eyes, I considered how being called “chocolate chip” or “black dot” as a child stigmatized the deep brown hue of my skin and robbed me of the sense of personal agency needed to feel worthy of speaking for myself or others. Her description of the reverence given to elders in the Asian culture mirrors a similar dynamic in the African American community. Being subject to an almost absolute expectation tends to embed silence into the psyche, and those so socialized learn to use silence as a way to honor others but also to protect themselves from criticism, shame, and suffering.
Drawing on the sociological construct of social location, Khang demonstrates that all the contours of identity—gender, age, ethnicity, education, socioeconomic background—can create a perspective that being vocal is dangerous and ultimately not worth the cost. With that understanding, she offers numerous strategies and suggestions for how to change our perspective and learn how to speak up.
In Khang’s approach, asking questions is key. She advises us to know who we are and to know how that identity has shaped our spiritual and cognitive development. What are the cares, concerns, priorities, and sources of anger that drive you? Have you considered honestly whether you are willing to fail or be judged? Can you humbly name your unique gifts, talents, and skills?
You’ll also find encouragement to diversify your inputs and sources of information. Men should #readwomen, and we all should cross literary, ideological, and social divides to learn and broaden our knowledge and strengthen our skill.
Using Your Voice
The second part of Raise Your Voice could easily stand alone as a handbook on engaging for the public good. She lays out the possible audiences and offers universal considerations that create an approach motivated by love, empowered by prayer, preparation, and commitment to a justice ethic, all undergirded by humility. She counsels careful, intentional, and thoughtful writing and speaking, all sorely needed to penetrate the bombastic social and political environments of today’s culture. She offers advice such as this:
If speaking off the top of your head isn’t your forte, you might want to be cautious about joining comment threads because conversations and exchanges are happening at lightning speed. . . . Be willing to ask for clarification, and to be offended and be the offender. Be ready to listen, to assume incorrectly, to be called out, to admit to making a mistake, and to ask for or extend forgiveness. After all, you and the people you’re interacting with are only human.
I am often surprised by the comments that pop up on my Twitter feed. I regularly disagree with or even find deplorable what ends up on my screen. The tips offered by Khang as rules of engagement serve as a beginning point for developing a personal code of conduct of when and how to engage those comments.
The time is right for Raise Your Voice. In our real lives and our digital ones we need to identify our voice and raise it for the sake of justice. Kathy Khang’s contribution will almost surely be a powerful and lasting catalyst for change.
Cover image by Kiana Bosman.
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