Advocating for justice in the name of Christ

by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach and Anna Vogt

For more than 50 years, policy advocacy and public engagement in Canada and the United States have been integral ways MCC has carried out its mission of relief, development and peace in the name of Christ. MCC uses advocacy as a tool to address systemic causes of poverty, oppression and injustice.

The advocacy network is comprised of the Washington, D.C., Office (started
in 1968), the Ottawa Office (1974) and the United Nations Office in New York (1990). Building on MCC’s unique relationships with churches and community-based organizations around the world, the network is tasked with engaging decisionmakers on both national and international levels to address policies that contribute to poverty and injustice, as well as with offering proposals and affirming policies that can lessen suffering and promote justice, peace and human dignity.

Staff members of the three advocacy offices met in Ottawa in 2018 for annual network meetings. (MCC Photo)

This work has not been without controversy, including some Anabaptists raising concerns about how advocacy conforms to the proper role of Christians in relating to government authorities. In the years leading up to the opening of the Washington Office, MCC staff, board members and Anabaptist church leaders had hearty debates on the subject. Some preferred a “quiet in the land” approach, maintaining a strict two-kingdom theology that drew stark divisions between the church and the world. Others saw a less clear distinction between the “sacred” and the “secular” and argued that the church should instead set an example for the broader society.

An MCC church-state study conference in 1965 concluded that “Where the church’s concern for human welfare overlaps with the state, in such areas as civil rights, the church will urge (1) an emphasis on just laws, which protect and uphold the human
dignity of all citizens and (2) the fair and just administration of all such laws.” This approach helped lay the foundation for MCC’s future advocacy work.

Advocacy has also given MCC legitimacy on a local level, as MCC’s work in advocacy demonstrates a commitment to righting relationships distorted by war and legacies of colonialism and responding to partner realities. During the Vietnam War, recipients of MCC’s relief efforts urged MCC to advocate to the U.S. government to end the war. More recently, some partners in Palestine and Israel have expressed concern about only receiving humanitarian aid and upport, stressing the importance of MCC being willing to speak publicly about Canadian and U.S. policies that perpetuate systemic injustice in the region.

MCC’s advocacy work is based on partner knowledge and experience and builds on grassroots peacebuilding and advocacy work already taking place in a variety of local contexts. Advocacy network staff meet regularly with MCC staff from around the world, who serve as a communications channel between partners and the network. Advocacy staff then pass on those communications to policy decisionmakers and to MCC constituent churches and supporters in Canada and the U.S. In some cases, the offices may speak on behalf of those who are not able to do so directly, but they function primarily as a megaphone to amplify partner concerns. These relationships give legitimacy to MCC’s voice in Canada and the U.S. An Anabaptist faith witness also informs and guides the work of advocacy, as MCC’s commitment to nonviolence and to grassroots peacebuilding form the foundation through which MCC understands and speaks into policies.

MCC Advocacy staff with staff at Casa Migrante, a migrant shelter in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. MCC staff visited Casa Migrante in August 2017 as part of a migration and advocacy learning tour in Mexico. (MCC photo/Anna Vogt)

In Ottawa, the connection between MCC’s program partners and its constituent churches is a pillar of the office’s work, with this connection fueling advocacy that strives to be relational. Education to encourage advocacy is a way to share stories and lived experiences, often between churches in the global south and the global north. Through awareness raising activities like the Mining Justice Campaign and A Cry for Home (MCC Canada’s campaign on Palestine and Israel), the Ottawa Office has connected people from around the world with Anabaptists in Canada, with the goal of learning that will lead to political action.

For political change to take place, Canadians must understand global connections and the impacts of Canadian policies and then take action to encourage change. The Ottawa Office provides spaces for reflection and learning, including ways of communicating with elected officials. These acts of relationship building often take place through educational resources, such as fact sheets, blog posts, student seminars and social media. However, the Ottawa Office has also facilitated direct bridges between people, such as strategic learning tours to Palestine and Israel or encouraging Mennonite Brethren (MB) churches in Canada to visit MB churches in Colombia to learn
about how the churches in Colombia respond to conflict in their country, a conflict exacerbated by the presence of Canadian extractive industries.

The Washington Office functions similarly. From its humble beginning in space rented from the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the office has long recognized that it brings a small but distinctive voice to “the empire.” Congressional foreign policy staff generally welcome the opportunity to hear from MCC staff and partners, with many saying that it gives them more insight into what is happening on the ground in various countries than what they can get from news sources or the U.S. diplomatic corps. The Washington Office works closely with and values ecumenical and interfaith advocacy
colleagues. But on occasion, the perspective provided by MCC’s partners has led to a different emphasis than what our D.C. colleagues are supporting.

Faith leaders from Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church USA churches and MCC Washington Office staff advocated for better immigration policies and a “clean” Dream Act with U.S. legislative staff in Washington D.C. on Feb. 28, 2018. (MCC photo/Cherelle Dessus)

A recent example is the advocacy carried out by some colleagues in Washington to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Syria for the purposes of civilian protection. While understanding that perspective, MCC continues to advocate for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria, following the lead of our partner organizations within the country. As is the case in Ottawa, the Washington Office also devotes significant time to ensuring that church members in the U.S. are informed about U.S. policies and have the tools they need to take action.

As Christians, if we believe that Christ is indeed Lord of all, that includes the powers and principalities described in the first chapter of the letter to the Colossians. Our faith cannot be confined to the private sphere. It spills out into the public sphere as we call on our governments to implement more just and peaceful policies. This work for systemic justice, following in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, is often less obvious than sharing a cup of cold water (Matthew 10:42). But as MCC’s partners in the U.S., Canada and around the world have made clear, it is no less important.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach was director of MCC U.S.’s office in Washington,
D.C., from 2007 to 2020. Anna Vogt is MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office director.

Banner image caption: The sun sets over the Tucson Mountains at Gates Pass in Tucson, Arizona. From October 3-8, 2018, MCC Borderlands Learning Tour participants embraced the opportunity to learn, reflect and pray about the many complexities of human migration in the U.S. and Mexico borderlands in Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. (MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas)

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