Minilogue #18: March 27, 2024

The indigenous Australian activist and artist, Lila Watson, is credited with the quote: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  She insists that the words — which she used in a speech at a United Nations Conference in 1985 – were the result of a collective creative process among aboriginal women, rather than the product of an individual. That sounds about right, given the emphasis on community solidarity in the language of the quote itself. 

I find Watson’s words both challenging and inspiring. Challenging because they cut right through any impulse to help from a place of presumed privilege or noblesse oblige; inspiring because they offer the opportunity to create genuine community in the act of working together for justice. Those of us who are relatively privileged often want to ‘help’ those who are oppressed and suffering by offering our resources, our know-how, our leadership, our solutions.  Watson’s words remind us of just how wrong-headed this approach can be.  It often serves to perpetuate the same kind of systemic and structural division between ‘us’ and ‘them.’  We may want to “do good” unto others, but throughout the process, “they” remain “others” and “we” stay in the driver’s seat, with a soothed moral conscience, perhaps, but still essentially cut off from genuine community.  

Sometimes liberation is presented as a heroic solo effort, as an individual soul freeing itself from a community that has become oppressive and life-denying. But such freedom is still incomplete. Watson’s challenging invitation is an important reminder that community and liberation belong together; there is no liberation without community, and there is no true community that does not also serve to liberate. 

Before we jump in with solutions to social problems, we who are privileged would do well to listen to the voices of those who have been marginalized, oppressed, and ignored.  There will still be plenty of opportunity to offer resources, insights, and yes, even leadership.  But the first move should always be ‘humble inquiry,’ learning to listen and listening to learn.  In the words of our well-known hymn, “Let It Be A Dance,” we must “learn to follow, learn to lead” …. and in that order, I would suggest.  

As we listen to others, and to our own heart’s deeper wisdom, we come to understand that we are not in the position of “savior,” and that we, too, stand in need of a certain kind of liberation.  Authentic and effective liberation is a process that requires us to see and to feel our radical interdependence with others, to realize it rather than just affirm it intellectually. We are all in this together. 

In liberating good faith,
Rev. Bruce