Many Christians have responded to a call to address brokenness in their community. From human trafficking to food security to the education gap, they feel a burden to make a difference, to see healing and reconciliation happen. Sometimes work in these areas leads to an awareness that there are systemic issues that contribute to the problem. Many realize that no matter how many direct services they provide, lasting impact will not occur without unless a structural/legal change. Speaking from his experience leading a national immigration reform effort, Matthew Soerens, author of Welcoming the Stranger and Field Director for the Evangelical Immigration Table, shares two reasons why we should do advocacy and two pieces of advice on doing it well.
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Advocacy is a scary word for a lot of evangelical Christians. Some will ask, "Doesn’t that just mean meddling in politics?"
Advocacy simply means joining our voices to those of the marginalized. These voices are often not heard or not heeded by those in power, and in our society those in power are often elected officials. We cannot fully seek justice—as God requires of us (Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 21:12, Zechariah 7:9)—without engaging in advocacy. Let me offer two reasons why you should consider engaging in advocacy work followed by two pieces of advice for the journey.
TWO REASONS TO DO ADVOCACY WORK
1. Because Some Issues Require a Systemic Change
Many of our churches and ministries are pretty good at helping individuals in very tangible ways. We tutor kids. We provide access to affordable food. We train people in job skills. And, in the process of this relationship, we hope for the opportunity to point them to Jesus. This sort of compassionate response is vital. But, sometimes, it’s not enough. For example, the kid you’ve tutored since middle school graduates at the top of her class but can’t go on to college because her lack of legal status makes her ineligible for financial aid. Or the same family comes to the food pantry week after week because a third of their income goes to a “payday loan” store with usurious interest rates. And what about the young man who's been through your job training ministry can’t get hired because he has to check the box indicating he’s been convicted of a felony.
These are examples of running into a system that doesn’t work. Individual acts of kindness cannot solve a larger structural problem. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Advocacy is the spoke.
2. Because You’ve Been Entrusted with Influence
I used to lead discussions on advocacy by citing Proverbs 31:8: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, the rights of all who are destitute.” Too often, though, we presume to speak on behalf of those who very much can speak for themselves, but to whom we’ve chosen not to listen. Our job in these situations is to lift up and join our voices to the voices of those on the margins. American Christians—merely on account of being an eligible voter in an exceptionally powerful country—has more influence than the average person in this world. And some American Christians have even greater influence in a particular sector: pastors, for example, to whom dozens or hundreds or thousands of people voluntarily come to listen to on a weekly basis, or a business leader who has her Member of Congress’ cellphone number. I’m increasingly convinced that God’s command to be stewards means not just to tithe to our churches, but also to use the influence that he has entrusted to us to seek justice for those on the margins whose voices are not often heard or heeded.
That advocacy really does make a difference.
I spend a fair amount of time in Washington, D.C., and I regularly hear from Members of Congress and their staff members that the Member generally agrees with our position, but that the telephone calls coming in from the home district are largely against... so they are not likely to do anything. Something as simple as a call to your Member of Congress’ office, a Letter to the Editor of a local newspaper, or even a tweet or Facebook message really can make a difference. Beyond just reaching out to Elected Officials directly, you can also steward your influence to help shape the opinions of others, perhaps by leading a Sunday School class or small group discussion on the particular topic that concerns you.
TWO PIECES OF ADVICE
1. Lead with a theologically and factually-informed case
You don’t need to be an expert on any particular issue to advocate, but you do need to be informed. I’d start with thinking through any particular issue from a biblical framework: why, as a follower of Jesus, does this issue matter? (And if you can’t think of a reason that it matters that’s backed up by Scripture, maybe you should move on to one of dozens of other issues). Secondly, make sure you have your facts right. Using as unbiased of sources as possible, find the statistics and policy issues that impact the vulnerable people whom you want to advocate with and for. Find out who is already answering the questions you’re asking, and, when it makes sense, join them.
2. Stay out of the partisan fray
As Christians, I think that we sometimes have to be political. But I’d caution against being partisan. Scripture can give us key principles that may point us in a clear policy direction, and we should actively seek to persuade elected officials on both sides of the aisle to do what is right. By sticking with principles and avoiding endorsing parties and candidates, we also can assure others that they don’t need to change their political ideology to advocate.
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Matthew Soerens serves as the Field Director for the Evangelical Immigration Table and is the co-author of "Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate."