Last month I had an opportunity to speak with a variety of MCC’s supporters in Ontario. Included in my itinerary were presentations to the Mennonite Centre Heritage Club in Toronto, classes at Redeemer University College in Ancaster and Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, and a gathering of church conference leaders in Kitchener. This was a full two days!
What caught me off guard was how often I was asked to reflect on what it’s like to work in this kind of environment. How do I avoid becoming jaded or cynical when trying to respond to the partisan talking points that are served up as political arguments? What motivates me to carry on when positive change is slow in coming and minuscule when it finally arrives?
An obvious response is to point to the inspiration provided by MCC’s partners, and the importance of speaking to the ways they are impacted for good or ill by the policies of the Canadian government. I hope this was clear in the stories I shared from places like Syria and Laos.
I wonder, however, if I missed the point of these questions. Upon reflection, it seems to me that some people are not only interested in knowing why or how MCC pursues advocacy, but in knowing more about the nature of the actual experience of advocacy. I have become accustomed to painting a picture of what advocacy looks like; I haven’t often reflected on what it feels like.
One metaphor for the work of advocacy that helps communicate what it often feels like to me is improvisational theatre—perhaps an uncomfortably easy connection to make, given the nature of contemporary politics! In any case, it’s a metaphor that I first discovered in the writing of Samuel Wells, a Christian ethicist and priest in the Church of England. In short, I have found that advocacy is not about acting out or performing a script that has already been written, as much as it is, to use the words of Wells, “faithfully improvising on the Christian tradition.”
Thus my faith convictions and experiences of walking with partners in the pursuit of justice and peace are best thought of as a “training school” that teaches me how I can face the unknown, rather than providing predetermined answers to every possible question. Every day can feel like a new adventure—the forces of good and evil are not always as obvious as they first seem, and neither are the answers to the questions that really matter in policy debates.
Wells fills out this metaphor with a helpful technical discussion of how improvisation works in drama, stressing the importance of being committed to accepting rather than blocking anything offered by a fellow actor. Every word, gesture, or action must be treated as an invitation to respond if the drama is to move forward. In a similar way, Christians must make choices in the drama of life, and, Wells argues, must never block the offers of the world.
This does not mean, of course, that everything the world offers should be accepted in a straightforward fashion. Instead, Wells insists that we should “overaccept” all offers by refusing to see the future as a clash of givens. We have more options than simply saying “yes” or “no,” more options than simply accepting or blocking an offer; we can also receive what is being offered in an active way, retaining the initiative to transform it.
Seen in the light of Easter, the challenges and demands that Christians encounter are “gifts rather than givens.”
I admit that this isn’t always how I view the challenges and demands that cross my desk in the Ottawa Office. Often I wish I could have the lead, playing a more proactive rather than a reactive role. And I must hasten to add that, as any skilled actor will attest, good improvisation requires preparation—exhaustive preparation, in fact. Advocacy does not feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants!
Nonetheless, I think this approach helps explain why advocacy actually doesn’t seem like aggressive work to me, even when I find myself embroiled in a contentious political drama. And it helps explain why having no hope is simply not an option.
In my experience advocacy feels less like the ‘cut and thrust’ of Question Period, or the ‘push or be pushed’ world of high-priced lobbyists, and more like being squeezed and released as energy is absorbed and redirected. The risk with overaccepting is that I turn into something like a rubber ball, bouncing around aimlessly and without effect. On good days though, it can feel as though I am in the midst of a scene that is unfolding in a way that no one expected when the curtain was first raised.
By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director