To advance God’s kingdom on earth, we need to engage in public advocacy on a variety of justice issues. And also on peace issues.
In the scriptures, we discover many passages that show strong advocacy for social justice and freedom, spoken by many voices.
In the signature event of Hebrew history, retold many times, Moses and his brother Aaron appeared before Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1). It took ten plagues to convince Pharaoh, who finally relented (Exodus 7:1-12:32).
The Hebrew prophets were strong advocates in the public arena. Typical is Isaiah who proclaimed:
Doom! Sinful nation,
people weighed down with crimes,
evildoing offspring, corrupt children!
They have abandoned the LORD,
Despised the holy one of Israel;
they turned their back on God.
Jesus himself was a strong advocate for justice as he offered the good news of God’s kingdom. In his inaugural sermon in Nazareth he chose a text expressing concern for the poor, prisoners, and the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21). Underlying his quarrels with Pharisees and legal experts was his insistence that love of God and love of neighbor are more important than strict observance of law and tradition. He told them, “You give God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith” (Matthew 23:23).
When Jesus took his message about God’s kingdom to Jerusalem and proclaimed that he was the Messiah, he made a triumphal entrance on the back of a colt. He proceeded to the temple where he “threw out all those who were selling and buying there.” He said to them, “It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer [Isaiah 56:7]. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks” (Matthew 21:12-13).
Jesus spent the week teaching and disputing with Pharisees and legal experts on matters of law and justice. After his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus appeared before the chief priests, Pilate, and Herod and with relatively few words spoke truth to power regardless of the consequence.
ENGAGING IN ADVOCACY
As Jesus and the prophets spoke out for justice, so too are we called to engage in advocacy as we seek to achieve God’s kingdom here and now.
As we become advocates for social justice in promoting God’s kingdom on earth, we can realize that it complements our engagement in acts of mercy. While mercy offers compassion for persons in need, justice looks at underlying causes and seeks remedies.
Many congregations are strong on acts of mercy. Yet they are weak on justice. It is worthy to feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, tutor children and youth, visit prisoners, send clothing and bedding to refugees, and support wounded warriors. But in addition there is need to deal with basic causes of hunger and homelessness, to improve educational systems that are failing to educate children from poor families, to undertake crime prevention, to open opportunities for employment, to deal with causes of war.
In modern society many programs designed to deal with these problems are run by government, others by nonprofit organizations, and some by profit-making enterprises. Moreover, government is responsible for tax and regulatory policies that affect the distribution of wealth and income.
Therefore, the pursuit of justice requires us to engage policy makers and administrators of these programs. In the case of public programs this means dealing with the chief executive and with legislators who authorize and provide oversight. Our concern should include public policies that effect the conduct of business corporations. In short, to lobby and engage in other public advocacy activities.
To undergird these efforts local congregations can draw upon denominational policy statements on social issues: Catholic encyclicals, resolutions of the World Council of Churches and Protestant churches, statements from other religious bodies. To put words into action denominational agencies can deal with legislators, chief executives, and department administrators. Local congregations can add their voices through public forums, writing letters, sending delegations to make direct contact, circulating petitions, questioning candidates during election campaigns. Those who feel a calling can take their advocacy into the system by running for public office and taking administrative positions.
Sometimes it is necessary to go beyond measures of ordinary lobbying and public advocacy by exercising what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution calls “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Often this occurs by gathering at the seat of government for public rallies and visits with legislators.
On occasion rallies can be preceded by long marches. Thus, Jesus dramatic entrance into Jerusalem came at the end of a 100 mile journey from Capernaum. In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi led a 240 mile Salt March to the sea in protest of the British salt tax. The 1965 civil rights march in Alabama went 51 miles from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.
Demand for justice and freedom can take the form of nonviolent protest.
For instance, in 1838 William Lloyd Garrison, the American abolitionist brought up on the King James Version which translates Jesus instruction as “resist not evil” (Matthew 5:38), helped organize the New England Non-Resistance Society to oppose slavery without resort to violence. Leo Tolstoy quoted extensively from that Society’s Declaration in advocating nonresistance in his The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893).
Tolstoy’s book influenced the young Mohandas K. Gandhi, who already knew the Sermon on the Mount, as he was formulating “nonresistance” techniques in South Africa in the first decade of the 20th century. Later Gandhi decided that “passive resistance” was too narrowly construed and so coined the Gujarati term satyagraha, often translated as “soul force.” Martin Luther King, Jr. continued in this tradition in the American civil rights movement.
Today in a reversal of terms we commonly describe such action as nonviolent resistance or protest. It can take the form of sit-ins, encampments, boycotts, political noncooperation, and expressions of civil disobedience. The latter recalls the experience of the apostles when the high priests demanded that they not teach in Jesus’ name. Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than humans!” (Acts 5:27-30).
These various methods of social action are legitimate activities for promoting justice as we seek to live in God’s kingdom on earth. They are modern day expressions of prophetic voices that appear throughout the Bible.
However, acting in this manner we must exercise caution in claiming that we alone speak for God in a particular formulation. We are trying to carry out what we understand to be practical application of love for neighbor, but we should do so with humility. We should also seek to understand and respect others who hold contrary opinions, our adversaries. That is the way of living in God’s kingdom.