Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It is the second of a three-part series.
Physicist Richard Feynman once asked, “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?” He answered it himself saying, “I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”
If a similar question can be asked about Christian mission today, “What single sentence or statement that would encapsulate Christian mission engagement in 21st century?” my response would be: Mission-Advocacy.
Unlike charity, which has been widely practiced and decorously promoted, advocacy does not get much fanfare or accolade today. It is not often preached about from the pulpits. Not much has been written about theology of advocacy. Confusion between the missional function of charity and missional task of advocacy abound. Hence, I would like to outline the importance of the creation of a theology of advocacy and the preclusion of charity and advocacy as binary division.
When I say theology of advocacy, I mean a theology of engagement, a communal activity, and a mobilized movement; a theology that would define advocacy from a biblical and theological perspective by seeking its place in the world which is a God’s intended entity not yet consummated; a theology that would help us faithfully engage in the public square, just like Moses, Joseph, Esther, and others did during Old Testament time; a theology that would help us actively witness to the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world, just like Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, and others did during the New Testament time.
Advocacy theology versus theology of advocacy
Theology of advocacy is different from advocacy theology, which is highly accommodationist. Its terms of agenda are often set by those outside of the faith community and from there it works its way back into the church community.
Theology of advocacy, on the other hand, is deeply embedded in the very fabric of our biblical heritage. It is not just a bit of software in its operational function but a vital part of our ecclesial habitus and an integral component of our church’s mission. It cannot be easily uprooted or exchanged for a hydroponic version.
Christian advocacy, as mission principle, is habitually misunderstood primarily because of the absence of a theological rationale or biblical underpinning. The failure to articulate advocacy’s foundational characteristic that is rooted in the Bible and its lack of cohesive theological articulation is the root cause of its current predicament.
Proponents of advocacy work must make sure that charitable acts could never be set against the vital role of advocacy work. The focus of charitable activities is to address the immediate needs, which is undeniably important in all crises situations. But relief work should not be used as a substitute from remedying long term suffering often caused by unfair structural policies and practices. Finding and working toward a permanent solution to end needless human pain, exploitation and travail should be the aim and goal of mission, not just a band-aid ministry.
Advocacy is not anti-Charity. Much like the poor, the rich and powerful have always been with us. Violence, injustice, all forms of oppression should make everyone at least a teensy bit nervous just as poverty and homelessness does. Both the victim and perpetrator should be given an opportunity to respond to the Gospel.
Advocacy is not antigovernment. Rather, it invites and revives major structures of power, including governments, as dynamic agents of change. It may move with glacial pace, but it is deep, effective and long-lasting.
Many in our time are ready and willing to donate a large amount of money, time and resources to alleviate hunger and eradicate killer diseases. They are doing this at a much younger age and take a much more hands-on approach. They want to save the world right now. But they are more into charity than change, more alleviation than transformation; more lineal and amalgamation than vertical and assimilation.
Our core mission, therefore, ought to be to sound the alarm about how even the best intentioned among us are engaged in only band-aid ministry, and fail to address the root causes of unnecessary human desolation.