Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It is the first of a three-part series.
As we rumble along the potholed 21st century mission road, and when we look at the expansive landscape of God’s worldwide community and smell and inhale the overwhelming love of Jesus Christ for the whole of God’s creation, one resounding message the hurting world expects to hear from the church is this: “We see you; we truly care about you. We will not normalize destitution; we will not substitute Christian charity as a response to violence, oppression, inequality, and injustice.”
The overwhelming need of the hour is not being more religious but being more humane to listen to the cry of the victims of abuse and exploitation both in our own backyard and beyond; not to be more dogmatic in our belief but to demonstrate our commitment to Jesus Christ through active intervention for the weak and standing in solidarity with the exploited in hours of their greatest susceptibility. By doing so, we indeed join the throngs of biblical advocates like Joseph, Moses, Nathan, Nehemiah, Daniel, Esther, Paul, Apollos, and numerous others for humane and compassionate treatment of the strangers and neo-neighbors among us.
Accordingly, as a denomination we work for the healing of the nations, raise awareness, initiate changes, and organize group actions to alleviate human suffering for a long haul starting from the local church. Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscape, a WCC document, affirms, “Advocacy for justice is no longer the sole prerogative of national assemblies and central offices but a form of witness which calls for the engagement of local churches…churches must help in identifying the everyday choices that can abuse and promote human rights, gender justice, climate justice, unity and peace. Local churches’ grounding in everyday life gives them both legitimacy and motivation in the struggle for justice and peace.”
This process would carry Christians from being mere gratified charitable relief workers to ardent agents of advocacy mission to cause societal changes and assist all those who are negatively affected by oppressive institutional systems or exploitative political structures.
Such an advocacy work will not limit us in running a food pantry or providing an after-school program. It will take us to a place where we will be active and engaged and enable us to influence laws, public policy, and resource allocation within political, economic, and social systems and institutions—more importantly, structures that directly and powerfully affect the lives of the people. This advocacy mission process will move the church from “what is” as a community to coming one closer to “what ought to be,” residents of the kingdom of God.
Normalizing charity or advocacy?
There is a fundamental difference between charity and advocacy. The former is the translator of the gospel; the latter is the interpreter of the Gospel. In Sweet Charity, Janet Poppendieck writes that charity acts as “a sort of a ‘moral safety valve.’” It reduces the discomfort evoked by visible destitution in our midst by creating the illusion of effective action and offering us myriad ways of participating in it. It creates a culture of charity that normalizes destitution and legitimates personal generosity as a response to [inequity and injustice].” Essentially, charity robs one’s identity and fosters a dependent, paternalistic, donor-donee paradigm.
Charity injures human dignity as it fosters and perpetuates inequality. Most importantly, charity does little to change the unjust social and political systems that breed and foster injustice. Unlike advocacy that stands for justice, charity offends no one, including the perpetrator. William Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church in NY City, had aptly said, "Charity must not be allowed to go bail for justice.” Vatican II fittingly depicted, “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.”
Advocacy has been a key ingredient in migrant mission concerns both yesterday and today. It is never more important than in today’s worldwide diasporic context where the victims are impelled by forces within themselves, their families and their communities that feel so furtive, even unspeakable.
An eye on the forest and another on the tree
The ministry of advocacy is less direct. One may not find immediate emotional, spiritual or missional gratification. It is a slow process and laborious mission. It takes time to get results. At times, it may not even lead the workers to have contact with people or communities in need to see the transformative change or end result first hand. Yet it addresses the root causes of the problem and generates a lasting result which embraces all involved.
Advocacy is goal-oriented and calls for a plan and preparation to correct an unfair or harmful situation that negatively affect individuals or a community. Acts of advocacy usually challenge large institutions or unfair power structure or legislation to correct their unfair or harmful behavior. Hence advocacy employs persuasion through political or legal action which some deem and detest as un-Christian or deeply political. The truth is that this is a truly biblical act just as the prophets of old such as Elijah, Samuel, and Nathan have done.
The outcome of advocacy ministry is totally unpredictable and is riddled with trials and challenges. Unlike charity work, advocacy mission is not for novices and the ill-prepared. Not everyone can thrive in this mission and ministry. It needs specialized skills and deep commitment to remain steadfast until after everyone else leaves. Novices need not apply.
Advocacy keeps an eye on the forest while working on the trees one at a time. Hence, one needs to develop a detailed blue-print based on the knowledge of who the opponents and who the alliances are.
Charity mission work can be carried out with a smaller budget, fewer volunteers and limited donation or resources. Over the long run, charity cloys. Advocacy needs multiple partners and warrants specialized skills. The challengers of advocacy mission are well-prepared waiting in the tall grass; there is a great deal of risk involved. Many persist in advocacy work because they believe they can make a difference and together they can bring transformation.
Whether it’s ending homelessness or working to protect global-level human rights, each of us is driven by our commitment to mission and call to take a take a stand. Advocacy, I submit, affirms there is another way as it enables us to stand for what we know to be true and just.