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Faith and Advocacy

After attending a large university in Colorado for two years, I transferred to California Lutheran College, back when it was a college, not yet a university. While there, I became very involved in campus ministry, and attended a campus ministry retreat lead by George Johnson, the director of the hunger program of the former American Lutheran Church. It was at this retreat I learned that hunger exists throughout the world not because there is insufficient food produced to feed the world’s population, but because that food is not evenly distributed. I learned that certain nations, including our own, consume and even waste a significantly higher percentage of the earth’s resources than others. I realized that while the charity of giving food to hungry people was certainly part of our call as people of faith, much more was needed. We needed to address and change the unjust systems and structures that impacted people’s lives in such profoundly negative ways. In other words, I began to see the connection between faith and justice, between the gospel and advocacy.

Perhaps at some level I had already begun to realize that connection. When I decided to go to seminary and became a pastor, I also decided to transfer to California Lutheran as a political science major. At the time, I couldn’t have given you a good reason why I choose that major other than thinking, “well, I’ll get plenty of ‘religion’ courses when I go off to seminary. I want to take other classes that will help me understand the world we live in, and perhaps make an impact on this world.” I was beginning to understand that faith was not a private affair of simply believing the right things so an individual could go to heaven, but a call to participate in the world where God’s reign was active?

That understanding continued to grow through my years of seminary as I explored the Scripture, the role of the prophets, and the life and teachings of a radical peasant, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus challenged the status quo and power structures of his day which is why he ended up being crucified by the Roman occupation. My first call was in western Kansas. The congregation had a long tradition of hosting an annual “mission festival,” including a guest speaker and special offering. I was also a member of Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. So, I invited a speaker from this organization to come and instead an offering of money, we took up an offering of letters written to government representatives. I must admit it did not go over as well as I had planned because the role of advocacy within the church was not well understood nor always appreciated.

Over the years I have heard concerns expressed about preaching the “social gospel” or having sermons that were too “political.” That pastors ought to focus on “faith issues,” rather than “social justice.” Certainly, we need to hear the gospel, the good news of God’s love for us; to know that we are justified by grace through faith.[1] In our constitutions, it states that every minister of Word and Sacrament shall; preach the word, administer the sacraments, provide pastoral care and speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world. That is advocacy, and that is the calling not just of rostered ministers but of the whole church. One of the purposes of the church is to advocate for dignity and justice for all people, working for peace and reconciliation among the nations, and standing with the poor and powerless . . .

So how do we do this work of advocacy in and through the church when we have very political views? How do we do this work while still respecting the separation of ch