The Tension of Advocacy

The work of advocacy is fraught with tensions; concerns are voiced, issues are debated, and tough decisions must be made. “Tension” is the word that best describes my own feelings towards advocacy. On the one hand, I know that the political transformation Christian advocates seek is necessary for the more just, shalom oriented world that God is bringing to life. On the other hand, the primary means by which I see advocacy practiced in popular American culture hardly seem to align with this end. The kind of advocacy with which I am most familiar is practiced online using clicks, “likes,” “shares,” and emails – all of which can be done from the comfort and security of one’s home with little to no personal cost or investment. Cheap advocacy abounds and justice is never cheap. Any Christian sense of justice is ordered by love; particularly the self-emptying love of Christ who comes close to the pain and suffering of injustice in order to bear it with us. While I know there must be those who practice a very costly form of advocacy, I have yet to hear their stories. I hope this class will present an opportunity for me to discover, explore and develop a more robust, risky, and compassionate practice of advocacy that is aligned with the justice-love of God’s coming reign.

This cheap-costly advocacy tension I feel relates to the tension between doing and being. Too often, it seems advocacy only calls us to do certain actions – petitions, protests, speeches, and more – without calling us to be anything in particular. I do not mean to say that all “doing” of advocacy is cheap because too many people who have protested, marched, and made their voices heard have paid for these actions with their lives. Still, most practice of advocacy is not life threatening and can be performed regardless of who you are – your being. However, any Christian sense of advocacy must call us to be a certain kind of advocate who has a personal stake in the matter being advocated. A book I read a few years ago by an environmental activist and advocate opened my eyes to this tension. One day while rallying against a coal power plant, she wondered how she and all the other protestors would survive if the rally were actually successful. Could she live her life without coal power? This question was the catalyst to a major life-change in which she and her family moved to a farm and began living the change she was formerly advocating. Instead of just doing advocacy, she became an advocate by re-orienting her way of life towards a future without coal power. Her doing of advocacy was inseparable from her being an advocate. This kind of advocacy, which is costly, full of integrity, and oriented towards a new future, is what I hope to learn more about.

I sense these tensions in the Bible as well. When I think of advocacy, I immediately think of Moses, the original prophet, speaking God’s truth to the world’s power. He boldly proclaimed the God-given freedom of the enslaved Israelite people to pharaoh, and God eventually set the people free from their slavery. But were they actually free? They were freed from slavery, but not even forty years of wandering in the wilderness and centuries of other fiery prophets could secure Israel’s freedom for God’s justice and righteousness. The doing of advocacy was successful, but the being which that advocacy was seeking was never truly embodied.

Jesus shows us this tension very clearly as he stands accused before Pilate. The gospel of John records a dramatic dialogue between Jesus and Pilate just before Jesus is crucified. When asked by Pilate if he was a king, Jesus says that he is, but then states that his kingdom is not of this world. “If it were,” Jesus said, “my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders” (John 18:36, New International Version). Jesus had certain political means available to him, but he refused to use them because doing those things did not align with the kind of person he is and the kind of people he was trying to shape. The work of advocacy is inherently political and several means are available for achieving political goals. For Christian advocates, the witness of Jesus asks us to align our advocacy efforts with the reign of God and, remembering Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8, to become a people whose being is a witness to the world God is bringing to life.

I did not feel that either the Monsma or the Beckmann texts adequately addressed these tensions. While Monsma did successfully highlight and discuss in-depth the tensions inherent to several very relevant political issues, the premise of the book seemed to be that a sufficient amount of thought, intellect, and reason is all that’s needed to be an advocate for God’s kingdom. All the topics Monsma discussed, especially on creation, justice, and solidarity, and all the questions he raised are necessary and good, but advocacy must be more than an intellectual exercise. The Beckmann text was very inspiring and hopeful. Being an Alabama native and resident, I was touched by the story of the women from Birmingham who advocated on behalf of the jubilee debt cancellation campaign in the late 1990s. However, Beckmann failed to offer the vision for a new way of being – a way of life within a community in which everyone has enough to eat. The strategies he offered for doing advocacy on behalf of the hungry were useful, but strategies are not enough.

Even with these tensions, I recognize that advocacy is essential to my work with Alabama Rural Ministry. Our vision is to end substandard housing in rural Alabama. However, we currently operate in only 3 of Alabama’s 66 counties. If we are serious about our vision, we must be ready to advocate on local, state, and national levels for the kinds of structural changes that could benefit all of Alabama’s rural residents, especially those beyond our reach. Unfortunately, our organization has struggled to devote the time and resources necessary for effective advocacy. However, we do belong to a statewide advocacy organization called Alabama Arise, which speaks up on behalf of low-income families across the state.

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Linthicum: Shalom is Our Mission

In the final analysis, we are not called to build bigger or better churches, to prepare disciples or even to win people to Jesus Christ, though these are all important and strategic elements. We as the church are to focus on working for the realization of the shalom community in our political, economic, and religious life together. That mission of proclaiming the vision and doing whatever we can to move this world toward “becoming the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ” is the essence of what we Christians are to be about.

Robert Linthicum, Transforming Power, p. 40

While I agree with most everything Linthicum writes about shalom, I think he’s at risk of breaking the eschatological tension of shalom when he calls it an “achievable” society. He doesn’t define “achievable” but he needs to. Shalom is achievable only as an eschatological reality that we experience as a gift of the Spirit in brief fits and spurts, foretastes that leave us wanting more, until the day of the Lord comes and brings all things to their fulfillment, when God will be all in all. The language of “achievement” also contradicts Linthicum’s previous statement about shalom being a gift of grace. Gifts are not achieved. Yes, we have much work to do, but all our work towards shalom is meaningless apart from the power of the Spirit who is leading all creation on the reconciling way of Christ to be at home in the boundless love of God.

Just Call Me Friend

This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:12-15

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At the Last Supper, Christ was telling the disciples those things of greatest importance. It was His final opportunity to communicate the central values of the faith. “No longer do I call you servants,” He said, “for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Finally, Christ said you are not servants. You know the Father’s heart. You know the inside story. You are friends. Perhaps beyond the revolutionary Christian mandate of service is that final revolution, the possibility of being friends. Friends are people who know each other, who care, respect, struggle and are committed through time. Christ’s mandate o~be friends is a revolutionary idea in our serving society. Why friends rather than servants? Perhaps it is because He knew that servants could always become lords but that friends could not. Professional servants may operate on the assumption that “you will be better because I know better,” but friends believe that “we will be better because we share in each others’ lives.” Servants are people who know the mysteries that can control those to whom they give “help.” Friends, on the other hand, are free to give and receive help from each other.

Robert Lupton, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor, p. 67

Church in the Image of the Cross

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Because Jesus is fully human, the church is called to affirm humanity, reaching out in attentive, vulnerable love to the whole human family, but especially to those who are poor and hurting. In Christ’s identification with suffering humanity – with a humanity ground under the wheels of the powers and principalities – the church receives its own orientation as those who are called to be with and for the victims of this present age. Bonhoeffer writes, “Christians can and ought to act like Christ: they ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor… It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way as Christ was afflicted by our sin.” That this bearing of burdens is not simply “religious talk” but refers to concrete action is made clear when Bonhoeffer notes: “The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need.” The bearing of the sins and burdens of others to which Jesus calls the church is nothing less than a concrete imitation of Jesus’s own life, a cruciform life, one that was fundamentally disruptive and that cannot be contained in the categories of religion.

…The church’s identification with those who suffer unveils the fact that the current age, in which the few are on top while the many suffer below, has met its end in Jesus Christ… Christians solidarity with the suffering is a search for Jesus who is hidden in their midst.

…Bonhoeffer is not merely interested in the church being in solidarity with the suffering, but calls the church to actively seek to eliminate the suffering of the poor through an ethics of responsibility with two practices of prophetic ministry: unceasing prayer and action for justice.

…The practices of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution are constitutive of [John] Perkins’s vision of the church. The church is that community marked by witness to the gospel, the whole gospel. The church’s most appropriate social location then is among the poor in the abandoned places of empire, a location that places the body of Christ in the ideal situation to witness to the whole gospel, which meets the whole needs of the whole person. The prophetic church, as Perkins’s envisions it, is a space in which all people, black and white, poor and rich, can gather and grow from an economy of grace.

Peter Goodwin Heltzel and Christian T. Collins Winn, “Religionless Ecclesiology and the Missional Church,” in Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, 108-122.

Amy Sherman on Why (Some) American Evangelicals are So Prosperous

churches need to take vocation much more seriously. Proverbs 11:10 tells us what our prosperity is for. Most middle- and upper-middle-class American evangelicals can be labeled “the prospering.” True, we’re not Bill Gates or Donald Trump. But compared with many of our neighbors and with the billions of poor all over the world, we are indeed privileged and wealthy.

A vital part of that prosperity is our vocational power. Unlike so many in the world, we have choices about what work to do. We are well educated and skilled. We have networks to draw on, platforms to use, knowledge to share. Many of us are working in institutions-schools, media, government agencies, corporations-that significantly influence the quality of life in our nation. God has lavished all this on us for a reason: that we would use it for the common good, not for individual gain.

Clearly, learning how to steward our vocational power is a major component of growing as the tsaddiqim [the righteous ones] who rejoice our cities. By vocational stewardship, I mean the intentional and strategic deployment of our vocational power-knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills and reputation-to advance foretastes of God’s kingdom. For missional congregations that desire to rejoice their cities, vocational stewardship is an essential strategy. To accomplish their big vision, they need to capitalize intentionally on the vocational power of their members.

Amy L. Sherman. Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good

SUPER excited about reading this book over the Christmas break.

Will Campbell on Hope and Discipleship

[Jesus] never demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever.

He talked of such things as a cup of cold water. Ah, but we must build a global sprinkler system. And while we are appointing committees and electing boards and creating giant agencies to build the global sprinkler system the one near at hand perishes from dehydration as we pass by on the other side.

The inherent danger in creed, in belief over faith, Edith Hamilton said, is that belief is passive. Faith is active and leads to discipleship. Creed, or belief, simply requires recitation. What’s the point in believing a whale swallowed a man unless we understand that it is a story about justice?

The problem with biblical literalism is that it is biblical illiteracy. The words are known but not the tune. The Bible is a book. A book about who God is. It is not a scientific dissertation to be required in Caesar’s academy. But again I wander.

Where, then, is there hope? If not in institutions, in bigness, in belief, certitude or creed, where is it? In freelance acts of discipleship, I believe. Certainly grace abounds and there is hope.

…There is hope, for there the star of Christmas shines again and there the Star of David glows anew. For there is Immanuel: God with us.

Will Campbell, in remarks given to the Associated Baptist Press in 1994.

A tough word for a seminarian to hear, but a good word nonetheless.

Discipleship is Imitation

I’ve been blogging regularly now over at the 6:8 Community Church blog for the past few weeks, so I thought I would re-post some thoughts from this week. I was thinking about leadership and discipleship in light of Hebrews 13:7

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.

Here’s my conclusion on the matter:

In summary, let’s identify the leaders in our lives. If we can’t, we need to think about who that could be and seek that person out. Let’s remember our leaders by taking the time to be with them so we can get to know the “outcome of their way of life.” Let’s get to know what drives them and consider what it would mean for us to be driven by those same things. Leaders, what is your vision? Take some time to reflect on that this week. How are you living out of that vision? Further, who can you begin sharing this vision with on a deeper level?

I think the words of Jesus in Matthew 6, verse 33, are appropriate as we all consider what it means to be disciples and leaders: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Our vision is God’s vision: the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. What is your role in that vision? How are you growing into the person God has called you to be in the Kingdom? How are you leading others to seek the Kingdom above all else?

If you wanna hear more, just click here to head on over to the complete post on the 6:8 blog.