An Anglican Priest once reflected, "Wherever the Apostle Paul went, there was either a revival or a riot. Wherever I go they serve tea." Are we, the church, a threat to anyone, especially the powers that be, other than to bore them to death? Should we be?
The church has often been told that it should stay out of political and social issues; its role is to deal strictly with spiritual matters. We are often all too content to do just that. Oh yes, we are also expected to care for the needy, give food to the hungry, and heal the sick. And often the powers that be invite us into the public realm to invoke God's blessing on a completely secular meeting, which then conducts itself without any sense that the Spirit of God is present! Of course, we are also expected to pronounce judgment on personal, often bedroom, behaviors.
But if that is who we are, why did our prophetic forebears in the Jewish faith rail against the injustice of how society and the state treated the vulnerable? Why did God dismantle the religious state because of its unjust treatment of the poor and the vulnerable? Why did Jesus call the poor and the peacemakers blessed? And why did he confront the dual systems of oppression in his day-the established religion and the Roman Empire?
This is the third in a series of Sundays where we are looking at three pillars of Plymouth's ministry: 1.Our ministry to one another of worship, education, fellowship, and care. 2. Last Sunday was focused on our mission of caring for the needs of others beyond our doors. 3. Today we look at our ministry of Social Justice and Advocacy.
What is the difference between Mission and Advocacy? To some extend it is an artificial separation and partly how we choose to define words and make delineation. But, most simply put, "Mission" is giving people material goods or life skills they need to survive and hopefully thrive. Put crassly, it is picking up victims, be they victims of social systems of injustice or personal mistakes or shortcomings, or the result of bad luck. "Advocacy," or Social Justice, is seeking to change systems that create, depend upon, or are built on inequity and injustice.
You all know the old, but illustrative story, told with many variations, but the gist of it goes like this: A community one day found a baby floating down the river along which the town was established. They hurriedly waded out and rescued the infant. They fed and cared for it. Soon another came along and they did the same thing, then another, and another. They enlisted the whole town to help in the effort. They built an orphanage to care for the ever-growing number of children they fished out of the river. That is Mission. And it is extremely important.
One day, one of the town's folk said, "Maybe it's time that we put together an expedition to go upstream and do something about what is creating all of these orphans!" That is advocacy.
We don't believe that evil and injustice are only acts that bad people do unto others. Injustice and evil are also embedded in systems that devalue, ignore, exploit, and oppress whole groups of people. Those systems have a life and power of their own. They are, I believe, the principalities and powers that Jesus referred to. And they can carry on, perpetuating their injustice, even when good and well-intentioned people are part of, or running the system! They keep on unless they are intentionally altered or dismantled.
There can be no doubt that the Just and Peaceable realm is what God intends for this world, not just the next. Plymouth's identity statement says that we believe all people are children of God, that we seek to realize this about ourselves and all others, and that society should reflect that truth. Oh, indeed, much of the Church yet, and certainly in the past, has seen this earthly realm simply as a preparation for the next, for the heavenly realm. That is the stated motivation behind the idea that the church should only be about "spiritual" things. (The real motivation is so that we do not interfere with the secular realm, the "real world!") That thinking says that this life is just to get over to the next, so one has to graciously, piously accept their lot, live humbly and obediently, suffering as Christ did. That was the theology of the Pharisee's in Jesus' day, and it is still prevalent in many forms in the Christian Church. But, if God is God of all things, certainly God is God of this world and seeks for this world to reflect God's intention. In fact, when Jesus talks of the Reign of God, he is not speaking only future tense, he is speaking of any and all times when life is lived in his presence, where the just and peaceable realm is present. And if we are whole people, we cannot dissect ourselves into "spiritual, psychological, and physical." I believe it was Gandhi who said, "There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."
Even if we believe that God intends this world to reflect God's intention, many seem to believe, or act like, ours is a waiting game-that ours is only to wait for God to make it happen. But we believe that we are called as partners, agents in God's bringing about the world God intends. That's what it means to be disciples of Christ, ambassadors of Good News. When we lament at some great scene of injustice or cruelty, "Where is God?" no doubt, God is lamenting, "Where are my people, my voice of outrage, my call for healing?"
Advocacy is an important area of ministry for Plymouth Church and we have been recognized for our work for peace and justice. Way back in the 80's, when nuclear proliferation was at its height, we declared ourselves a nuclear free zone. (And if things keep going the way they are, we may have to declare ourselves a gun free zone!) In 1991 we became a Just Peace Church, seeking in all that we do, to create and promote a Just Peace. In 1998 we became Open and Affirming, making a public stand in solidarity with our LGBT sisters and brothers (as well as those for whom that description is too limiting). This wasn't just to make a place, but to change church and society, not just so that LGBT persons would be tolerated and not harmed, but so that they could be affirmed as full and whole, seen as integral to the wholeness of church and society. And when the sabers were rattling for an unjust, reckless, and evil invasion of Iraq, we found our voice and helped scores of others do the same. Yes, we were in opposition to the invasion, but also we were, and are, seeking to change how our nation's resources and influence are used that they will support the things that make for peace.
Our Justice and Peace Task Force continues to actively work on and to provide avenues for all of us to influence policy makers in relation to a number of things: justice for Palestinians, healthcare for the poor, racist systems that devalue and disenfranchise people of color. Our particular focus this year are the exploitative values and systems that rape the environment as if we were the last generation that God intended to have occupy this precious and fragile Eden. Some of our benevolent giving as well supports advocacy efforts - some of what goes to our Church's Wider Mission, our support of Partners for a Racism Free Community, some of what goes to the Urban League, some of what goes to Gays In Faith Together, and to the National LGBT Coalition. And many of the community gatherings for which we open our building are for advocating changes in exploitative systems.
I hold this up, because I believe this is core to being a faithful people and a faithful church. I also hold it up by way of encouragement, for this can be difficult work. There are many compelling reasons, personally and corporately, to shy away.
One is that it can be controversial. Few will oppose feeding the hungry or helping innocent victims. That is clear and it feels good. But pointing the finger at injustice, systemic greed, callousness, and systems of privilege, from which most all of us here benefit, can ruffle feathers. You are probably familiar with the statement by Dom Helder Camara, late Archbishop of Recife, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."
It can be difficult because systems are complicated and it can be hard to know what to do. We can spend our time and energy wrestling with problems that seem intractable. And we may stop ourselves because we don't have a comprehensive alternative. But sometimes we forget that we do have a comprehensive understanding of justice, of mercy, of how people ought to be treated. We know that there is no real peace without justice. We know that violence begets violence, that the only thing that deescalates violence is love, care, and mercy. Jim Wallace of the Sojourners community spoke of the church's role, "...our prayer and clarion call is for the common good to prevail, and that all people of faith might rally together to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight."
Our advocacy can make us and others uncomfortable because it often puts us in opposition to our own government, like our opposition to the invasion in Iraq did. So, too, did our questions about the treatment of Palestinians, the Michigan Prison System, and school funding, to name just a few. That kind of advocacy challenges what is too often our first loyalty. Again, as Jim Wallace put it, "Many American Christians are simply more loyal to a version of American nationalism than they are to the body of Christ. I want to suggest that the two are now in conflict, and we must decide to whom to we ultimately belong."
Advocacy can be difficult because of our very positive virtue of wanting to make a difference. We at Plymouth Church want to make a difference, and indeed, we do. Even in some of these areas of advocacy, many things are changing. Look at how things are changing regarding LGBT rights and treatment. Yes, there is a ways to go, especially here in Michigan. Look at the change that has taken place in relation to Nuclear Weapons proliferation. But even before anything began to change, I remember reading a study about children in the 80's, in the worst of the nuclear proliferation days. Children of parents who were actively working to oppose nuclear proliferation were much more hopeful and less fearful about it than children of parents who were not working on the issue. (That somebody cared and was trying to do something about it gave them hope.)
But, systems are large, entrenched and it can be very difficult to see if, where, or how we make a difference. They change, indeed, but instant gratification is hard to come by. It is hard to claim that "we are making a difference." We can feel like we are jousting at windmills. But Christian motivation has never been simply for the self-gratification of seeing the fruits of our labor. The Christian community transcends time and space. We are the grandchildren of those who have gone before as well as the grandparents of future generations. Like the great pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it, "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love."
My friends, we follow a Lord and Savior who was all about changing systems. "You have heard it said, (that is, the old way, the old system) 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you do not resist the evil doer... turn the other cheek." "You have heard it said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you." In other words, break the cycle of violence.
When you think about it, God coming in Jesus, born to a young nobody woman, from an out of the way place, pregnant out of wedlock, is the clearest sign of all that this God is not playing into the humanly established systems of privilege and power. It was the humble Jesus who made Pilate tremble-Pilate the symbol of this world's power system. And Jesus' crucifixion disarmed the worst that the National Security State can do, torture and death. He proved that they do not have the last word.
Ultimately, our motivation must be the desire to be faithful, seeking to do what God calls us to do, following Christ, imitating Christ. Faithfulness must be its own reward. In one of his speeches in the last year of his life, no doubt answering his critics about his opposition to the Vietnam War, Dr. King said, "Cowardice asks the question: Is it safe? Expediency asks the question: Is it politic? Vanity asks the question: Is it popular? But conscience asks the question: Is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular-but one must take it simply because conscience says it is right."
We are led forth and emboldened by the vision of God's intention: a world "where the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid, the calf, the lion, and the fatling together." "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore, but they shall sit, each under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid."
May it be so. Amen.