Should Christians engage in advocacy?

October 14th, 2014

Churches are continually engaging in ministries of mercy and compassion with people who are vulnerable. Whether it’s starting a food pantry to respond to neighbors who are hungry or offering tutoring at the nearby elementary school, countless people of faith are ready to become involved.

What happens when a problem is so large or complicated that it can’t be solved through charitable efforts alone? How are we to understand the prophet Micah’s call “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)?

Struggling with questions like these prompts some Christians to advocate for more just laws at the local, state, or federal level. Yet, the political realm can be difficult to understand, a bit messy, and even demoralizing at times. Why should the church engage in advocacy?

The story of Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:14-30 makes it clear that justice for the poor and oppressed is at the heart of his ministry. The political and economic systems of Jesus’ time and our own are vastly different. But both then and today, political decisions have an enormous impact on people who have few resources or little recognized power. People of faith can amplify the cries for justice made by people who are suffering so that others can hear and respond to them.

As Christians, we know that God calls us to use all of our gifts and graces in service to God and our neighbor. What if one of the gifts that we can use is our citizenship? As Paul used the influence of his Roman citizenship (Acts 22), Christians can use the democratic process to call on government to protect and provide for all of its people.

Scripture shows us that the work of advocacy can be difficult. The widow who is seeking justice from her opponent in Luke 18:1-8 has to wear down the judge who has been refusing to act on her case. She persists because she knows that this political leader is the only one who can ensure a fair outcome, and perhaps even her survival. The same kind of persistence is required of today’s advocates who speak up with those who need justice.

Speaking up with the vulnerable

Sometimes people of faith become advocates because they see the action of government affecting the people with whom they minister. For example, the Reverend Mike Langer, pastor of Glen Ellyn Evangelical Covenant Church in Illinois, says that his experience as a pastor motivates him to advocate for humane immigration reform. “I have walked an undocumented congregant through the moral, the spiritual, the emotional processes of what his deportation would mean. . . . That’s one of the things that drive me to speak out and give a voice to the voiceless on this issue,” Langer said.

Churches who are part of the community organizing group FAITH (Fighting Against Injustice Toward Harmony) in Volusia County, Florida, recently directed their advocacy toward decriminalizing homelessness. Recognizing that many homeless people are arrested for minor offenses simply because they have no place to go, FAITH members lobbied for a county-provided homeless shelter. With nearly 5,000 homeless residents, the county only had 21 shelter beds. FAITH’s advocacy convinced the county to donate land for a shelter that can house 250 people. Numerous other services will also be provided to shelter guests.

Sometimes advocacy efforts can quickly multiply when an idea catches fire. A United Methodist Men’s group at St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, began brainstorming ways they could reach out to local youth. They considered becoming a General Education Development (GED) testing center. They also began thinking about encouraging other United Methodist churches throughout the state to become testing centers. Planning for these efforts soon resulted in advocacy for a bill in the South Carolina legislature to allow the GED test to be administered by pencil and paper rather than only by computer. Advocates recognized that poor communities with little access to technology were being restricted from earning their GEDs. Lobbying of state legislators by United Methodists was key to getting the bill passed, which requires the state to offer a paper-based test by January 1, 2015.

Combining “serpent power” with “dove power”

How can people of faith engage in advocacy that is both faithful and has a practical effect? In a speech to the Salvation Army, Dani Shaw, a former political advisor to the Canadian prime minister and a Christian social justice advocate, stated that she sees three main approaches the church uses in public policy dialogue. The first she describes as an “attempt to exercise power over . . . the political” by being prophetic, without any real understanding of how the political realm works. The second she calls “being co-opted by the political” by completely merging political and religious values. The third is “being salt and light, in the world of politics but not of it.” This approach involves ongoing dialogue that is rooted in Christian faith without using explicitly Christian language. It is practical in both its understanding of the problems real people face and in acknowledging that compromise must be part of any political process.

The Reverend Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran minister and community organizer, encourages people of faith to advocate in a way that uses both “serpent power” and “dove power.” This refers to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10:16 that he is “sending you as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as snakes and innocent as doves.” Serpent power includes traditional and necessary political tactics such as lobbying, getting opinion pieces published in newspapers, and organizing people who are affected by an issue.

Salvatierra believes that when Christians think that serpent power is the only type of power we have in the political realm, we develop “spiritual indigestion.” By also using dove power, people of faith can better incorporate the prophetic and spiritual into their advocacy. Dove power includes things such as pastoral support, prayer, exposing and fighting against lies, and visiting with elected officials to encourage them to make just decisions on critical social issues. Dove power also inspires people to awaken to the dreams and visions that God has for their communities, as well as to discern how government can be a part of making these dreams become reality.

Becoming an advocate

It’s not uncommon for Christians to be cautious about engaging in advocacy. Sometimes the biggest barrier is figuring out what we can do with limited time and the seemingly unlimited problems facing our communities and our world. By joining with others, even small efforts can lead to much greater results than we might have imagined. Here are a few suggestions about how to incorporate advocacy into your discipleship:

• For most people, spending more time on just one issue will provide greater meaning than spending a little time on several different issues. If you’re uncertain which issue to choose, ask yourself these questions posed by Alexia Salvatierra: “What breaks God’s heart that breaks your heart? What makes your heart sing and brings you joy?”

• Seek out others who are advocating on this issue and take part in actions with them, such as letter writing, calling legislators, or attending a city council meeting where an issue will be voted on.

• Find ways to bring quick action opportunities to your church. If you’re concerned about hunger, for example, the organization Bread for the World can help you put together a letter-writing campaign after a worship service.

• Incorporate the issue you care about into your times of prayer and Bible study. Resist the temptation to think about the issue only based on your own political leanings.

• Don’t be discouraged if you’re limited in what you can do. As Gandhi once said, “Almost anything you do will seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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