Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It is the third of a three-part series.
Our perplexities with advocacy arise primarily because we are offered either charity or advocacy as a missional choice. These two are perceived as mutually exclusive. Since many of our United Methodist constituents are preoccupied with this duality, dichotomy, and double with their favored mission principles and practices, it is imperative to scrap this unfair duality between advocacy and charity, and replace it with missional reality, scriptural faithfulness, and life-enhancing practicality. It can be achieved by creating and practicing a theology of advocacy.
Practicing advocacy takes into consideration the agency of the victims of injustices themselves as they engage in resisting and addressing the barriers and systems that deny abundant life to them.
Charity engages participants in a ministry of care and it facilitates space and means for providing their needs. Advocacy, on the other hand, addresses the root causes of the problem of victimization, and stands in solidarity with the victims in their resistance and struggle towards wholeness.
Charity and advocacy may complement each other in their common goal and caring engagement of the weak and voiceless, but one should keep in mind that charity serves as anodyne alleviating the pain. Advocacy’s goal is to eradicate the root causes that continue to create the pain.
Advocacy is far reaching and all encompassing. It gives hope to the victims for a long haul. It is time consuming and a slow process, but it will not cease until the cause of its engagement is fully addressed.
We live in a world that is all too familiar with the template for the treatment of "the other." It is a grievous offence to refuse to comply with or show any form resistance in the face of oppressive and capricious institutions and decrees. All too often, it is a capital offence in some parts of the world. Charity plays a maimed role in such a context. Ministering with those victims and taking measures to address the root causes of the problems alone would give victims hope, as such an endeavor that would lead to transformation to recreate their future.
Hope is a thing with feathers
Emily Dickinson defines hope in concise dexterity: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Many well-meaning Christians don’t hesitate to identify with victims of abuse by journeying with them and sharing meals and means. Yet the root causes of the problems go unaddressed. Survivors of oppression get stuck in a limbo due to the lack of a sponsor to advocate for them. To be honest, in so many cases victims don’t need our tears but outrage and response against injustice, loss of dignity, and oppressive human or institutional cruelty.
It is simple and plain that when people are homeless or hungry or forcefully displaced, they lack more than shelter from the elements. Being a migrant is not a metaphor, or not always. What they are lacking is a stable life, a secure place, and a recognizable identity among others which charity cannot provide.
Public witness to the Gospel through advocacy work and active partnership with allies who share our values would be the way to effectively engage in mission today. Vatican II, a historic Roman Catholic mission conference, urged Christians everywhere to collaborate with secular partners in ways to improve the lot of humanity by building bridges even with those who question our beliefs. It said, "The church sincerely professes that all people, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live."
The United Methodist Church, through its mission boards and agencies is undoubtedly involved in such a ministry. But many of our constituents are bowling alone. They belong to fewer community-oriented organizations and are increasingly atomized, anomic, and apathetic subjects of the community rather than active participants within it. Our voice in public leverage and how to shape humans into transformative agents should never be limited or accrued to just a few tiers of our denomination. It should be picked up from annual conference to local church level.
In the final analysis, advocacy is not only our ecclesial modus operandi, but a timeless missional practice as well.