Looking Back on Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2017

On the weekend of April 22nd, I had the opportunity to attend the 2017 Ecumenical Advocacy Days. This event brings together Christians from many different denominations to advocate for peace and justice around the world. This year’s theme, based on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, was “Confronting Chaos, Forging Community.” This focus revolved around countering racism, materialism and militarism in our society- very fitting, considering that the venue was just minutes from the Pentagon. The political “ask” of the conference, to be presented to legislators during Hill visits on Monday, was for the U.S. budget to reflect our values, and to be a “moral document” that actively countered racism, materialism and militarism.

Friday night began with a keynote address from Tamika Mallory. She spoke powerfully about the need for communities to rally around the oppressed, and to recognize the structural injustice present in society. Silence and passivity in the face of injustice allow it to continue, and we must be intentional about speaking out against racism. In one of the most memorable moments, she noted that if you are fighting for social justice and your stomach isn’t in knots all the time, you aren’t doing it right.

Saturday’s speaker, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, explored the often uncomfortable topic of white privilege. There are many implicit benefits to being white in our society, and it is important that we are intentional about recognizing the ways in which we each benefit from unjust societal structures. His advice for white job-seekers truly interested in employment equality was brilliant- before accepting any position, ask the interviewer how many people of color they have interviewed for the post. If the answer is none, decline the position.

On Sunday, a panel of global activists explored the impact of American militarization on people around the world. Panelist Amal Nassar, a farmer and peace advocate from the West Bank, saddened and inspired the crowd with the story of her family’s orchard, which has been destroyed repeatedly by Israeli settlers. Her family has had to fight unending, ridiculous legal battles, and yet her optimism and hope for the future remains strong. No matter what obstacles the farm faces, she said, her plan is always to plant more trees.

The workshops that I attended revolved around the U.S. drone program, the role of the International Criminal Court in Africa, and the work being done in Nigeria to build stability amidst insecurity and violence. It was great to see the presence of the Church of the Brethren’s work in many of these issue areas

On Monday, after an information-packed weekend, we were energized and felt ready to advocate for a moral budget! Conference-goers descended on the Hill for meetings with their legislators. Our PA delegation visited with staff from Senator Toomey’s and Senator Casey’s offices in the morning, and in the afternoon, a group of us from the 8th Congressional District visited with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. In these meetings, we told our legislators that our budget should reflect our values. Funding should be given to robust programs to help the poor both domestically and internationally, and should NOT be given to increase the already enormous military budget.

We were all acutely aware, however, that meetings with legislators can only accomplish so much. If we are to truly fight for social justice within our communities, it is essential that we build meaningful relationships, have honest, loving conversations, and commit to standing up for the rights of our neighbor even when it is uncomfortable for us to do so.

These reflections have been brought to you by Tori Bateman. Tori will be serving in Brethren Volunteer Service through the Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness beginning June 2017.

 

Too Much Armor, Too Little Brain: The Risks of Political Advocacy & the Hope Our God Offers

Working for peace in Washington often feels like a losing battle, but perhaps the problem is that we often view the work of peace through a combative lens. Whether the issue is gun violence, drones, or any other issue of militarism, we often talk of “fighting back” against these issues and eventually building up enough support to “defeat our opposition”. But what if this paradigm is limiting our imagination and holding us back from working for and embodying Christ’s transformative kingdom?

I reflected on this tension after attending a conference held at the United States Institute of Peace that covered the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. There were speakers from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist backgrounds, and their testimonies and stories of the religious community’s advocacy were very compelling and in stark contrast to the message of perhaps the most anticipated speaker at the event, Anita Friedt, who works for the State Department on US Nuclear Policy.

Mrs. Friedt’s speech was a fairly typical DC speech that was short on concrete ideas or promises and chock full of vague legalese that boiled down to an appreciation of the work the religious community does to make the world safe from nuclear weapons, while simultaneously patting us on the head to let us know that the political reality was much more complicated. She even tried to reassure us that the United States would never consider using these weapons except in the most extreme circumstances, but neglected to enlighten us as to what those circumstances might look like.

My friend and colleague, Rev. Michael Neuroth summed up many of our reactions to Mrs. Friedt’s remarks by ending his subsequent presentation with a quote from longtime peace activist Rev. William Sloane Coffin who once said, “We are beginning to resemble extinct dinosaurs who suffered from too much armor and too little brain”.

We all approvingly applauded the succinct remark, but if we are not careful, the Church’s political advocacy and activism can become confined by this same armor employed by Mrs. Friedt. When the real life problems of our communities and world become “issues” we talk about abstractly, we can speak and act on them divorced from their context and the people actually affected. To do this betrays not only the people affected but also our vocation as the Church.

When we engage in this manner, we’ve allowed our own armor to shroud and influence our vision to the point that we cannot even begin to imagine a world that is wildly different and more restorative than the reality we currently inhabit. Scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann speaks about this tension at length in his book the Prophetic Imagination. In our line of work, we often like to talk about hope and peace in our world, but Brueggemann rightly reminds us that these words mean nothing out of their context:

“Hope expressed only in the present tense will no doubt be co-opted by the managers of this age…Therefore the symbols of hope cannot be general and universal but must be those that have been known concretely in this particular history…The memory of this community begins in God’s promissory address to the darkness of chaos, to barren Sarah, and to oppressed Egyptian slaves. The speech of God is first about an alternative future. (The Prophetic Imagination, pg. 64)

We are not a people without a history and we are not a people without a God. We know and believe that the status quo is not the best we can hope for because we have this unique story of God’s freedom and liberation working in the world. The same spirit in the “Cloud by Day/Fire by Night” that guided the Israelites out of the wilderness continues to pull us forward today into new possibilities of liberation and reconciliation.

Francisco de Goya's "Fire By Night"

Francisco de Goya’s “Fire By Night”

To speak of such things in our society makes us sound strange and unfamiliar, but speaking about them also gives us a clinging hope that feels unwarranted and yet incredibly necessary

Especially necessary when we’re confronted with inexplicable madness like the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls in Chibok. To respond with disembodied calls for peace and hope in Nigeria from a cozy office in Washington feels inadequate at best and totally disingenuous at worst. But when we ground our work in communion and solidarity with our Nigerian sisters and brothers, we can once again plug back into our story and remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are.

Only when grounded in this context can we faithfully speak an energizing word of hope, advocate for a just policy, or pray a prayer for peace. Only when we tap into the imagination and creativity of the Spirit can we begin to embody the reality of God that is here waiting to be shared and lived into.

This is our hope as an office. To witness to the story we’ve been given and grafted into by Christ. To recognize the areas of our country and world where this witness and promise of God’s alternative reality can make a difference, and pray that our work is not in vain.

May we learn to strip off the armor that limits our hope and shrouds our vision. And may we remember that we are clothed in Christ, the one who renews our mind and spirit to be courageous disciples who have no need of any armor but the Spirit of the Lord that goes with us.

Amen.

-Bryan Hanger