We’re here with a very special guest — Meghan Tschanz, author of Women Rising: Learning to Listen, Reclaiming Our Voice, chatted with us about her book and about her experience as a missionary with World Race. Read our full interview below to learn about Meghan’s journey confronting her own white saviorism and combatting rampant gender inequality around the globe.
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Q: First, give us a brief synopsis of the book — why did you write it and what do you hope readers take away from it?
A: After working as a missionary with sexually exploited and oppressed women, I realized that I was complicit in their harm by subscribing to a system of patriarchy, which I was taught in the white evangelical church. I grew up in a context where women were supposed to be submissive to men and men were supposed to be dominant and in control. These gender scripts led to enormous power differentials that actually contribute to the harm and abuse of women.
When I was overseas working with sexually abused women in the Philippines, I had an encounter with a john (a man who bought women) who said that he came to get the respect that he deserved from women — that they were raised right and they knew how to respect women. In that moment it hit me that he sounded just like the evangelical preachers I had grown up with. I knew then that I was being complicit in a system of harm if I was adhering to these power dynamics and gender roles that were taught in the church. My hope is that when people read the book, they can see themselves in my story and realize that there are “powers and principalities” at play — destructive systems like white supremacy and patriarchy that are present in our church. It’s our job to see these systems and repent by making the systems better.
Q: “I was not yet aware of the problematic elements that came with the way the evangelical church often did missions, but over time I would learn” (p. 10). Tell us more about your perception of what you would be doing during missions, and how reality differed from that.
A: My perception going into the mission field was somewhat similar to what I got, but I had a problematic idea to begin with — one of the reasons I got into missions was because I was raised in a context where women weren’t really allowed to do much besides be a housewife. I felt like if I wanted to follow God, missions was an avenue where I could have some leadership and agency.
I also grew up with a script of wanting to save others, without realizing there’s problematic elements in that. I was really confronted with doing missions to be good and wanting to help others to be good — not necessarily out of a heart to help them. I had to confront things like white saviorism — in the book I talk about an interaction I had with a man who called out my white saviorism pretty hard, and that needed to happen. I talk a lot about unlearning white saviorism and white supremacy in missions. Reality differed from my expectations in that the things that I was taught were helpful were actually not helpful, and there were quite a few things I needed to unlearn in order to actually be helpful.
Q: “In the church there were two types of women: Jezebels and submissive housewives” (p. 15). How have you seen this same “theology” reflected in other cultures while you were on missions, even if the culture didn’t have much Christian influence?
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A: I think what happened is that patriarchy is actually the thing that is giving the script. This isn’t biblical, it’s patriarchal. Women are there to serve men and men must be in charge, so any woman that steps outside of that is called a Jezebel. So in other cultures, you might see women stepping out of their prescribed roles being met with violence. We need to understand that across the world there’s a system of patriarchy in play — not just in Western culture or the white evangelical church, but all over. What we really need to be fighting is patriarchy and patriarchal theology. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world — you can see those two powers at play, and we need to fight them wherever we are.
Q: At the beginning of Chapter 2, you talk about the entertainment industry’s misrepresentation of Africa. Can you tell us more about these stereotypes — why are they so prevalent, and why are they harmful when it comes to mission work?
A: Let’s talk about National Geographic for a second, which I grew up with. They actually made an apology recently for the way they misrepresented other cultures. What they’d do is go to these poverty-stricken areas and journalists would document what was happening there. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t poverty there, but it certainly was not the full story.
Oftentimes we neglect our role in these stories. When we’re talking about Africa, when the US and other nations participated in the slave trade and stole people from these countries, that’s incredibly destabilizing. You’re stealing doctors, children, lawyers, mothers, fathers. We have a recent example — we’ve seen how the pandemic has been affecting the stability of our society. Imagine a huge chunk of people suddenly being taken from society; it creates a lot of instability. So sometimes I think we see instability in other nations and think “oh, they’re just doing it wrong,” without considering ways we’ve contributed to the instability.
For example, my husband and I were in Chile during the 2019 protests. While we were there we were trying to get a good idea of why people were protesting. We found out they were protesting because they wanted a new Constitution — the one they had was written by military dictator Pinochet, and the reason he got into power as military dictator was because the US supported him and backed him to overthrow a democratically elected leader. There was a lot of bloodshed there.
Before we try to help other people or even build a perception of other nations, we need to consider a few things. First of all, is this the whole story? It often isn’t. From our media, National Geographic, and our movies and television, you’d think that everyone in Africa is living in mud huts or grass huts, but that’s not the case — there’s actually a lot of development and technology.
Q: You talk extensively throughout your book about the challenge of recognizing the white saviorism present in you. For our white readers, can you give us a “white savior” litmus test — something to help us realize when our thoughts and actions are problematic?
A: This is such a good question. I think as white folks we want really simple, black and white answers. But the more we dive into anti-racism work, we’ll find that there aren’t really any easy answers. There’s a lot of gray area and a lot of nuance. If we want something to help us realize when our thoughts and actions are problematic, one big thing comes to mind — they’re problematic if we haven’t taken the time to learn and educate ourselves in listening to those of that culture. That’s probably the quickest litmus test. I don’t think all aid is bad, I just think it takes a lot of time and research to figure out what is actually going to help people, and you need to listen to the people of that culture to be able to do that. If you want to learn more about white saviorism there’s a great resource called Me & White Supremacy by Layla F Saad.
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Q: How did you go about changing your mindset once your own white saviorism was revealed to you, and what was that process like?
A: Anytime someone is having something problematic pointed out to them that they’ve done, our immediate reaction is to be defensive. That’s just human nature. We should be prepared to expect that — so instead of leaning into that defensiveness, we need to examine those feelings. When someone is calling out injustice it’s not because they hate you, it’s because they love you and they believe in you, and they want the best for you in the world.
Unlearning white supremacy and other things I learned growing up in a white culture and the evangelical church is a lifelong process. What I’ve heard from so many anti racist educators is to first educate yourself — there are so many resources out there. Learning to listen is a really important step before we do anything to try to help. We have to really understand the issue first.
Once we know better we need to use our voice to do better. I think sometimes we can get stuck in the learning mode and forget the activism mode. If we’re going to make a difference in white supremacy, the ones of us who have benefited from that system have to be the ones to dismantle it. It means talking to your friends and family, changing the way you vote — there’s so many things you can do. But the first step is to educate, and the second step is to use your voice even when it costs you. And we all know that speaking up could cost us, but it’s very much worth it.
Q: Many of the stories you tell, such as the one about Diya and her mother, are hard to stomach. I want to forget I read it, and to even be able to have that desire shows my privilege. What do we do when we hear these stories of trafficking and simply being aware doesn’t seem to cut it?
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A: Such a good question. I write in the book about the story of Diya and her mother and how she was being trafficked. I just wanted to drop everything and save her, but I realized I wasn’t the best person for her because there were people in her community who were helping her. First, again, we need to examine our intent — are we trying to be the savior of the story or do we truly want to help? If we want to help, we need to educate ourselves. So when we do hear these stories, we need to pay attention. It’s good that you’re uncomfortable and upset when you read these stories. Understanding that there’s injustice and wanting to correct it is good, but I think so often in the church we want to spiritually bypass these emotions — we want to ignore them and shut them down. I think the answer is to dive into them and use them as a guide to educate yourself.
I learned that the way that I could be the most helpful was to confront my own faith community about the way they treated women, because these patriarchal beliefs about women is ultimately the same kind of patriarchal ideas that men who buy women have. They’re viewing women as objects to serve them and to give pleasure. So sit in the discomfort and let it bother you — these things are messed up! But don’t sit there forever. Use those emotions to propel you to educate yourself and use your voice.
We’re not necessarily meant to save individuals, but we can confront the harmful systems that come into play to make sure that there aren’t more stories like these. Confront the systems that tell men to buy trafficked women. Question what about our gender scripts makes them think this is okay, and what can we do to change how they think. Ultimately, until we address the demand, nothing is going to get better. Where there’s a demand people will try to find supply. We need to address on a cultural level why men need to exploit women to have this sexual release. And I think a lot of that has to do with these gender scripts.
Q: “Countries with strict conservative sexual ethics…are far more likely to have rampant sex trafficking” (p. 54). How has American culture contributed to this problem?
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A: All over the world, the more patriarchal a society is, the more likely it is you’ll see women exploited. America has contributed to this problem because we have very strict patriarchal teachings (especially in the church). When we study what causes sexual assault and sexual violence, there are many researchers who say it’s due to power differentials — rape and sexual assault is due to perpetrators’ need for dominance and control. So if we’re teaching our young boys that they need to be dominant and in control, we are contributing to the problem and need to address our gender scripts.
Even saying things like don’t run like a girl, don’t throw like a girl, you’re being a sissy — phrases like these say that even being a woman is looked down upon and frowned upon. The US actually ranks number 51 in gender parity, so we have a lot of work to do when it comes to reaching gender equality. One thing we really need to work on is having better representation in government — right now we rank 71st of all the countries surveyed on representation of women in government.
Q: How do we fight the power disparities that play into sexual assault?
A: Fighting patriarchy. Raising our sons to respect women regardless of how they dress — they’re not sexual objects. We need to teach them to have better conversations around sex and sexual health. Specifically in the conservative evangelical church, we’ve done a poor job of education about sex. We can do better by having conversations — okay, you’re attracted to a woman, her body makes you feel aroused, why is that? How can we respect women and the Imago Dei, the fact that she’s made in the image of God? How can we handle these natural sexual urges in a way that respects everyone involved? The same goes for women — we have natural sexual urges but somehow we’re not the ones who go around raping people, and that’s because we don’t have the power or need for dominance and control that young boys have been raised with.
Start young — teach young men to do better, have conversations with your friends and family, call out subtle sexism when you hear it by asking questions. Why do you think that? What do you think that means? Continue to fight for women, women’s equality and empowerment, and fight sexism where you see it.
We also need to change the way we vote — are we voting with women in mind? The church has taken on this mindset of “If you’re Christian, you have to be anti-abortion.” Yet when we look at what actually causes abortion, it’s a lack of access to birth control and adequate resources. The US is actually the only developed industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have paid parental leave by law. It’s okay for companies to fire their employees for having a child. If a mom needs to work we don’t subsidize daycare. We need to understand that a lot of women don’t have a way to provide and care for their children, and we need to address that.
We also need to address that women are only fertile for a very short time during their cycle. The only way a woman gets pregnant is if a man ejaculates in her. Yet we feel like it’s solely a woman’s responsibility to have safe sex, and we hear all these stories of men refusing to wear condoms or removing condoms during sex. We need to address men — if she wants you to wear a condom, why are you resisting that for slightly less pleasure? We need to talk to men and stop acting like it’s solely a women’s issue. Women’s reproduction also involves men and we need to get men involved.
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Q: It’s clear that many women are “lured”/forced into the sex trade. Do you think that willing, consensual entry into the sex worker business exists, and if so, how do we differentiate between the two?
A: Yes, I do believe that there is willing consensual entry. The problem is that it’s really hard to tell the difference between who is there willingly and who is being coerced. Something I heard a lot overseas is that, yes, women aren’t being held there by chains, but this is the only option she has available to make enough money to provide for her children. Maybe a woman says she entered of her own volition, but this also may have been her only option, which is problematic.
Why is it so hard for women to find the work necessary to provide for their families? My work is primarily in the Philippines, and these women often don’t really have another way. Often these women don’t know what they’re getting into. But this is a conversation you have to have on an individual basis — there’s not a litmus test of figuring out who has gone freely and who hasn’t.
This work is dangerous. I know a woman who was murdered by a client and I’ve heard many more stories of abuse. My problem isn’t with women choosing to sell their bodies — my problem is with the men choosing to buy them and objectify them. When we live in a society that treats women as full humans with dignity, we’ll see the demand for the sex trade decrease dramatically. Women are not objects to be consumed for sexual pleasure.
Another thing you’ll see is immigrant women who work in massage parlors — this may be the best resource available for them. These are stories of women with limited options who are trying to make the best out of the options available to them. We need to address the options and confront the patriarchal idea that women are objects for men’s pleasure.
Have you read Women Rising yet? What are your thoughts on our interview with Meghan Tschanz? Let us know in the comments below!
About Meghan Tschanz
Meghan Tschanz is a writer, speaker, and former missionary who is passionate about empowering women and reclaiming feminism for the Christian faith. She’s the author of Women Rising, host of the Faith and Feminism podcast, and an avid traveler. She and her husband, Dustin, live in northeast Georgia.
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