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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 church and state and at the same time recognizing that God reigns not just in the church but in the world?

We do this by first and foremost remembering that it is grace that saves us, all of us! It is grace that binds us to one another in the community of God’s people. Regardless of our political views, we are one in Christ. I heard a great story once about a congregation having a passionate and heated debate about a social justice issue during their adult forum. It was clear that members did not all agree with one another as they expressed their differing views quite forcefully with one another. When it came time for worship, they ended their debate, went into the worship space, shared the peace with one another, and gathered around the communion table with one another. There was no indication of lingering animosity or even prior disagreements. At the table they were one.

We face many complex and complicated issues; health care, immigration, climate change, and more. Is it better to raise taxes for corporations or to cut taxes? How do we address climate change? What laws should be enacted? What is the best way to fix our broken immigration system in a way that cares for people looking for a better life for their families and honors the need for laws and good order? How do we respect free speech but protect the dignity of all individuals regardless of their gender, orientation, etc.?

We need all the voices around the table to discuss, debate, examine, and explore solutions that address the real issues. We need to do it in a way that enables us to actually hear one another. Can we listen to one another instead of simply shouting across the aisle, growing louder and louder to try and prove our point? When shouting so loudly, is it possible the voice we drown out is the voice of God? That is why the ELCA signed on with many other Christian denominations to support the Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Dignity and Respect in Politics. We do advocacy by listening respectfully to others, recognizing the dignity of all.

Years ago, the same George Johnson who lead that campus ministry retreat for me so many years ago, edited a short book entitled Beyond Guilt and Powerlessness: A Christian Response for Human Suffering. It is a collection of Scripture passages as well as short writings from several authors. One quote from Rev. Walter S. Taylor has always stuck with me. He wrote: Politics determines the kind of world you will be born in; the kind of education, health care, and job you eventually get; how you will spend your old age and even how you die. The church must address itself to, and be involved in, anything that affects life as greatly as this.

That is why advocacy is so important. That is why it is a faith issue. Jesus was political. He cared deeply about the world into which people were born. As his followers we are called to care, to speak up, to take action and affect changes that will promote justice and dignity for all. For the gospel tells us that God so loved the world. That’s why we participate in the world, in politics, in advocacy. This is God’s world and we are God’s people.

[1] I understand this to be the faith of Jesus; it is what he has done that saves, not our own actions - but that is a subject for another time.

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