By Bill Mefford
As those of you who follow this blog know, I rarely recommend books, especially Christian books. In fact, I have written previously about the danger of trying to grow in our relationship with Christ through the fluff being put out regularly by the “Christian” book industry (more industry than Christian I am afraid). But I am happy to recommend a book that will help fill what is currently a wide gap that exists in a crucial area of church mission: political advocacy. The book is called, Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.
The book is written by a group of evangelicals, including the Chair of the School of Mission at Asbury Seminary (where I went to school!), and it is written for evangelicals. But believe me, progressives need to hear much in this book as well. Though one could arguably say that progressives have far more experience in faith-based political engagement our engagement has not always been biblically-based. Progressives often too easily adopt the vocabulary of community organizers and political strategists for what they want to change. There have also been far too many times in my experience when I hear progressives not be able to give biblically-based answers for why we engage in justice-oriented ministries.
So, with a few hesitations I will name later, I highly recommend Advocating for Justice. The authors spend a good deal of time – time well spent in my opinion, establishing what advocacy is and its biblical basis for normative Christian use. They remind those of us who have spent our lives in this work that advocacy is in the very essence and nature of who God is as a triune God. Advocacy is not just something God does; it is part of who God is. The relational nature of the Trinity enables us to see “the Trinity as a polis, a community of Beings who perfectly represent goodness, love and beauty…Such a Trinitarian polis reframes power as a power-for-the-other, as well as a power-for-the-world.” (p. 58)
And it is the authors’ treatment of the powers in Scripture and our call to advocate so that the social, political and economic structures are redeemed that this book makes its greatest contribution. The authors remind us that because God is the Creator, even the structures which currently oppress and destroy so many and work to benefit so few owe their allegiance to Christ and therefore can be redeemed. We are reminded that the powers are sinful because they “are bent on their own survival – as ends in themselves – and engaged in practices that create allegiance toward themselves so as to ensure that survival.” (p. 90) When we acknowledge that structural sin is based in its disposition to be power-for-itself rather than power-for-the-other – or as I would prefer, power-for-the-powerless – then this helps to determine what our public engagement will look like; reminding the powers/structures of their God-given purpose.
Another important emphasis is the authors urging readers that advocacy must become normalized in the Christian life. Advocacy must be a part of the discipleship for all who follow Christ. This means that advocacy should not be reserved for a few who are usually so far to the left (politically and theologically) that they are irrelevant to the life of the overall church. If we do not partition prayer out to a committee of specialists, then why do we do the same with such a God-centered activity as advocacy? “We believe that engagement in advocacy is an issue of spiritual maturity, and that most of our leaders are not equipping congregations to respond faithfully to God’s calling.” (p. 15) Amen and amen.
Moreover, the authors rightly put the responsibility of discipling followers of Jesus within the context of the local church. Far too often – as in almost all of the time – the work of mobilizing/discipling congregations into political advocacy is left for ministries outside the local church. We can be assured that the large infrastructure and bureaucracy of churches like the United Methodist Church have never done, and will never do the work of mobilization effectively. But local churches are the locus of God’s change and transformation on the earth and any attempt at discipleship that fails to include the practice of advocacy is a failure not only for that person’s individual spiritual maturity, it is a failure that hurts the church and all of creation.
So, yeah, I recommend Advocating for Justice. But hey, it wouldn’t be a blog post if I didn’t have something critical to say, right? So here it goes. There are two weaknesses in this book that I see.
One is that the authors make the mistake that far too many evangelicals make when they talk about Scripture. Though I share with the authors a love for Scripture and a high view of Scripture, I also have come to strongly believe that much – and I mean much – of our understanding of the Bible is shaped and formed by where we live and who we relate to. If we live isolated from the poor and vulnerable so that our experience of poverty and oppression is filtered through the media (particularly through such outlets as Fox “News”) or through other biased lenses, then chances are our reading of Scripture will be tremendously impaired. At the same time, if we are rooted in a community experiencing police brutality, ICE raids of our undocumented neighbors, and a lack of any kind of economic distribution because all of the stores are owned by people who live outside our community (and usually are based in communities isolated from the poor one we live in), then we will read and understand (and obey) Scripture in vastly different ways. I believe we will be more faithful.
And I ain’t talking just about location; it is our relational rootedness – or incarnation – among the poor that determines how deeply engaged in justice we will be and how biblically faithful we will live. Our proximity to the poor and vulnerable certainly opens doors for even the possibility of authentic relationships to occur, but it is incarnation among the poor – when their hurts become our hurts, their struggles our struggles, their fears our fears and their dreams our dreams – where the most effective advocacy occurs.
The importance of incarnation to the work of advocacy cannot be overstated. I believe that relationships are the primary way most people are mobilized to engage in political advocacy, even more so than Scripture. Thus the formative power of Scripture is certainly not lost, but it is not necessarily one to initialize engagement. Instead, the work of mobilization must primarily lie in creating spaces for people (evangelical or not) to have even the opportunity to enter into incarnational relationships with those directly impacted by injustice. The authors touch on this in several places, but I think the book would be strengthened through greater emphasis on this point.
Lastly, I am troubled by the fact that this book is so limited in its focus on evangelicals. I know focusing on evangelicals is sexy among funders and publishers these days, but this book would have lost nothing had it been more expansive in its audience. The challenges prohibiting evangelicals from greater engagement in political advocacy are many of the same obstacles progressives face. I am not saying that progressives and evangelicals are the same – we aren’t! But our differences are not so great as to demand entirely different approaches to engagement in such ministries as advocacy.
Let me give you an example. I led the organizing work around immigration, mass incarceration and ending gun violence for the United Methodist Church for ten years. On immigration, I saw United Methodists in local churches lead thousands of public witness events in support of immigrants and in the need for humane and just immigration reform. Many of those who led those events had never been engaged in political advocacy before. The tens of thousands of Methodists who engaged in this work came from all over the political and theological map. And yet, in the work of mobilizing folks I never developed separate messages based on which side of the theological or political spectrum they came from. I didn’t have time or patience to delineate between two separate groups of people in the same church. We didn’t have evangelical teams and progressives. We created and maintained teams of people with passion because they were incarnated among immigrants who were living under the state-sponsored terror of indefinite detention, lack of due process in our courts, and mass deportations. When you are faced with such a reality, nobody gives a damn if you are a Democrat or Republican.
So, when I have seen separate messages being used to mobilize progressives from religious conservatives, devastating results have been seen. Let me explain.
My office was part of a very powerful coalition, in fact, the largest faith coalition working on immigration in Washington DC called the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC). Instead of joining the IIC, several of the evangelical groups, led by a secular organization, received millions of dollars of funding and started the Evangelical Immigration Table, as discussed in the book’s Appendix. In the 6 years I was leading the work of the Methodists, though I reached out several times to coordinate our work as faith partners I met with EIT leaders exactly zero times. For whatever reason (and yes, there are a bunch), evangelicals work well with almost any faith group except for progressive Christians. And though I had experience mobilizing both evangelicals and conservatives together no one asked me my thoughts about the wisdom of creating two separate coalitions to work on one issue.
Thus, the resources and efforts for advocating for justice for immigrants were split – for no real reason. And in creating the principles for what these evangelical groups stood for – though I had shown there was no need to develop vastly different messages or principles – the EIT, for some unknown reason, decided to adopt principles that were not just conservative; they were adverse to moving forward real reform. I have written about this previously so I won’t go into depth here, but one mistaken policy the EIT called for was “guaranteed secure borders.” Why faith communities should be for guaranteeing the security of national borders is beyond my understanding and is without any kind of biblical justification that I have been able to find. The only thing that seems even partly sensible to me is that groups that make up the EIT hold to a Christendom model of relating to the state. But even more, advocating for this position actually guarantees that there won’t be movement towards immigration reform. In 2012 more than $18 billion was spent on securing the southern border – more than all federal expenditures on law enforcement put together. And still, that was not enough for conservative politicians who refused to budge. Their hunger for militarization of the border that feeds the bottomless pockets of defense contractors who fund their campaigns means that these elected politicians will never move towards reform especially while they can point to religious groups supposedly in favor of reform but who believe that secure border should be “guaranteed” first. Thus, we are stuck.
I would hope that the goal for immigration reform (as one of many issues we should all be working on) would be the same for evangelicals as it is for progressives: to build a movement among those who are directly impacted by the broken immigration system themselves or who are incarnated among those directly impacted. Evangelical, progressive, it doesn’t matter. The movement will only be built only through relationships with those directly impacted by a broken and unjust immigration system. When it isn’t about relationships, that is when you need special talking points, but that is also when you aren’t really engaged in authentic advocacy.
Wisely, the authors of this book end the book urging evangelicals to work with other groups. But that counsel is most likely to be drowned out by the fact that the book marginalizes other groups in its title and throughout the substance of the book. My wildest hope is that many evangelicals (and progressives) would read this book and things like the Evangelical Immigration Table would break up and we can all work together more effectively to achieve justice. But, I’m a realist and I know there is too much money from too many funders for that good idea to ever gain traction. So, for now, I will settle for local churches reading it, implementing its ideas, and seeing the Kingdom more evident in the lives of the people they love in their communities. That’s good enough for me.