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Rahab the Survivor

One of the most important tools that advocates have up their sleeves is storytelling. Stories have the ability to inform, inspire, and incite action.

I’m always wrestling with the ethical questions around storytelling.

Whenever I speak or write about human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, I rely on stories that try to capture all three of these elements:

  • Do the stories I share accurately inform people of the realities of human trafficking across the world and in their own communities? Or do the stories perpetuate sensationalized myths for the purpose of “shock factor”?
  • Do the stories I share inspire people and leave them hopeful? Or do the stories immobilize people, leave them in a state of despair, or paralyze them with hopelessness?
  • Do the stories I share incite an actionable next step, something tangible that someone across ages and abilities can do to make a difference?

I’m always wrestling with the ethical questions around storytelling. Whose story am I sharing? How is someone’s confidentiality and privacy being protected when I share a story? Who is benefiting from this story being told?

Whose story am I sharing?

In an article about the ethics of storytelling and the storytelling phenomenon of “Humans of New York”, Emily Jenab asks, “Is there ever truly an ethical way of presenting someone’s suffering?” She raises some tough questions that I often ponder around storytelling.

This Advent season, I introduced the concept of the Jesse Tree to my five-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading stories about people in Jesus’s lineage and are about to learn about Rahab.

She does know that I am friends with a lot of women (some of whom she has met).

My daughter does not know a lot about the work I do with Restorations Second Stage Homes, a charity in southern Ontario working to provide safe, stable, and supportive housing for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation. She does know  that I am friends with a lot of women (some of whom she has met) and that I “help” women who have been hurt. The stories I share with her are limited and sensitive to her five-year-old mind and heart. I am excited to share with her about Rahab.

I am quite familiar with the story of Rahab, but I saw her with fresh eyes this week. A lot of stories shared about commercial sexual exploitation tend to dwell on the victimhood of the exploited. And while I think it’s important to share stories that help people truly understand the serious harms, hurts, and traumas of commercial sexual exploitation, our storytelling can’t stop there.

I am quite familiar with the story of Rahab, but I saw her with fresh eyes this week.

When I talk to people about commercial sexual exploitation, I get the sense that they tend to think of victims as meek, mild, damaged individuals in need of “rescuing” and “saving.” I love stories like Rahab’s, ones that are multifaceted, nuanced, and complex. Stories that reveal injustices and also magnify resilience and strength. These stories look more like the women I work with than the victim stories tend to.

Most of the Advent stories I’ve read about Rahab go something like this: “Rahab was a prostitute! Rahab was a liar! A harlot! But even someone as shameful and bad as Rahab is in Jesus’s lineage.”

And I understand this type of storytelling: we are meant to recognize that despite our own sinfulness, despite the wrongs we do, we are redeemable and we are loved by God. Other articles I read about the women listed in the lineage of Jesus included words like sordid and notorious.

These stories look more like the women I work with. 

Considering it as an Advent resource for my family, I had been perusing Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas earlier this month. The “thoughts to discuss” section for the day of Rahab’s story was the following: “Have you ever seen God turn someone’s life completely around, so that person went from choosing a bad path to following Jesus? How is Jesus doing just that miraculous thing in your life?”

Beyond the problematic insinuation that Rahab’s lifestyle was a “choice” (because often prostitution is a path travelled because of lack of choices), can we look beyond Rahab as the sinning prostitute or even as the prostituted victim? Can we tell the story of Rahab the Survivor?

Today I am choosing to see the resilience of Rahab the Survivor. She was proactive and went to the spies with a plan (see Joshua 2:8, 15-16). Rahab was confident and bold as she proclaimed what she knew (Joshua 2:9-11). She advocated not just for herself, but for her family (Joshua 2:12-13). She was faithful to what God was doing in her life. She is Rahab the strong. Rahab the leader.

She is Rahab the strong. Rahab the leader.

Storytelling is essential to advocacy. Sally Vis, a missionary colleague whose work includes sharing stories about Israel and Palestine, explained the concept of advocacy to me as “walking alongside others whose voices are not typically heard and using your voice to amplify theirs.” This has informed the way I share stories. They are not my stories, but I can amplify them.

Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Years ago, I had a blog where I first started channeling my writing about justice. At the time I picked what I thought was the perfect name for the work I was trying to do, yet now I find my ideas and practices around advocacy and storytelling have changed.

It’s our job to be microphones.

My blog was called “Speaking for Others.” And while I recognize that a large part of my work is sharing stories for those who may not physically be able to – children, those who have not yet found a way out of commercial sexual exploitation, those who do not wish to be in the spotlight or desire to maintain some sort of privacy – I don’t see my work as speaking for others any more. As I wrote once on Restorations’ website, it’s our job to be microphones, to amplify needs and voices.

I commit to amplifying more stories and voices of those like Rahab. Not Rahab the sinner or the victim, but Rahab the strong, brave, resilient, and mighty Survivor.

P.S. Here's another reflection on Rahab that's worth reading: The Women of Advent: Rahab


Restorations Second Stage Homes, the ministry Jennifer works with, announced last month that they have identified their first home in Burlington, Ontario and will be moving forward with renovations in 2019. You can make a year-end gift to Restorations through, or you can support Jennifer’s missionary fundraising efforts through the Reformed Church in America.

[Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash]

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