Perhaps it is because we are in the season of Lent… Or perhaps it is because I was recently trying to explain how the work of our Ottawa Office differs from self-interested lobbying… Or perhaps it is the findings of a 2014 research project that challenged us as staff of the Ottawa Office to be more explicit about how our work is grounded in our faith…
Whatever the reasons, my thoughts have turned to articulating the spirituality that shapes the way we speak to government about issues of concern to MCC. What are the components of a spirituality of advocacy? How do we seek to faithfully express and embody this spirituality? I offer the following as preliminary thoughts.
Solidarity. MCC’s advocacy work arises out of program work – more specifically, from the call of partners that we work with in Canada and around the world. We seek to respond to the longing of real people for justice, for peace and for human dignity, and to call for government actions and policies which will fulfill those longings. We are inspired by the biblical call to “speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). But more than speaking for, we seek to speak with those who demand justice. In other words, we try to be about solidarity. In the words of Samantha Baker Evens, “We are not ‘a voice for the voiceless’; we lend our privilege as a megaphone.”
Integrity. We know that words and deeds go together; deeds in fact give integrity to words (James 1:14-17). Thus, MCC has learned that the words we speak and write to government have weight when they are grounded in the practices of MCC’s supporting congregations and communities as they do God’s work in the world. We can urge our government to welcome refugees because the communities that support us are willing and ready to sponsor refugees. We can call on the government to implement restorative justice approaches within the Corrections system because ordinary MCC supporters are involved in programs like prison visitation, victim assistance, or Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA). We depend on the practical service and witness of our supporting communities to give our work integrity.
Respect. In our advocacy work, we try to be respectful of all people in the political system – to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12) — whether we agree with them or not. We try not to be drawn into partisan debates, though we admit this can be very difficult. Sometimes our commitment to truth-telling makes us want to loudly denounce particular people or policies (and perhaps there is a time for that). We remind ourselves that no one political party has a monopoly on the truth and that each person in “the system” is a child of God, worthy of our respect and consideration.
Humility. We seek to be humble in our witness to government, remembering Paul’s words to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Although we try to listen carefully to our partners, do our research, and get our facts right, we recognize there are times when we don’t have all the information. Sometimes we simply don’t have ready alternatives to suggest. In October 2014 MCC sent a letter to the federal government urging it to reconsider its involvement in a military campaign against the group which calls itself ISIS. Our letter acknowledged that some of our partners in Syria and Iraq actually appreciated those airstrikes. For MCC, as a pacifist organization, it was a difficult thing to do. A commitment to humility meant we needed to do it.
Lament. Sometimes, when we as MCC workers listen well and are really honest with ourselves, we glimpse the insight that we – as individuals, as an organization, as a church – are part of the problem, rather than the solution. Even though we as staff may consider ourselves advocates for social justice, at times our partners remind us otherwise. Our Indigenous partners, for example, remind us of the ways that Mennonites have participated in and benefited from the colonial history of Turtle Island, and the ways that MCC continues to perpetuate unequal relationships with Indigenous people. In the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they demand to know whether MCC is prepared for true reconciliation. At times, in the spirit of Psalm 51, we can only confess, weep and lament in response.
Hope. Our advocacy is inspired by a big hope – an eschatological hope. There are many disappointments in advocacy work. As much as we hope for the success of a change in policy, or an amendment to a bill, or some helpful new regulations, the results often fall short of our goals. And yet, if we depended on this kind of “success” to carry on, we probably would abandon the task. Indeed, a longtime civil servant once said to one of us, “The people who hang on a long time in government are either alcoholics or Christians.” As people of faith, we are assured that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. We remember the promise that God’s reign of justice and peace will surely come (Isaiah 2:1-5, Luke 4:18-19). And so we carry on, believing that God blesses our meager efforts and makes them bear fruit in ways we may not see.
By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.