While I’ve often supported advocacy in principle and even admired some people for taking strong stances, I’ve not really embraced it as a proper church activity. Too many examples of brazen partisanship by a few have made me shy of taking up the practice. To be sure, those who know me, know I can have very well-defined opinions that sometimes feel like partisanship. But I’ve studiously tried not to let them be the focus of ministry.
I doubt this will change because my ministry focus will always be Word and Sacrament. That’s the Gospel of our Lord Jesus and I have every confidence in it. Nonetheless, I’ve discovered a new found necessity for advocacy to be part of the church’s practice and work in the world. Let me explain.
I was fortunate to sit with congressional staff from both sides of the aisle and from both houses of Congress. Their message was consistent – the staffers even agreed on issues I was addressing. It was this: fax letters, make phone calls, send emails – constituent voices shape legislator votes.
We’ve all read about lobbying scandals and big money interests. I’ve suffered from a cynicism that my little voice doesn’t count. I couldn’t be further from the facts.
When people of faith speak out on basic issues that address the well-being of others without seeking favors of their own, legislators do listen. If anything, it’s the voice of compassion and common sense that is missing in the way our government works.
This is what I heard and saw in Washington, on both sides of the aisles, in both houses. The dominant party sets up a mechanism to enact its political philosophy. This machine is very powerful. It frustrates the opposite party members and disciplines its own kind. This governing machine is as much interested in maintaining its own power as it is in doing what it thinks is best for itself and the country. The one force that is able to reckon with this machine (besides the ballot box) is constituent communication.
A member of Congress may sincerely desire to vote counter to what the governing machine says, but short of constituent advocacy upon which to base such a vote, that member really has no basis on which to justify voting differently. Mere conscience is not usually enough because conscience doesn’t get one elected – its voters and the party that do that. So the lines of accountability are clearly drawn to constituents and the affiliated party. When these two are in conflict, there is consensus that the voice of constituents has priority.
What I learned in Washington is that our elected officials expect us to do advocacy. They especially want people of faith and conscience to speak up for compassion and people first policies because it empowers them to vote for what they also believe is the right thing. When we are silent, we let the powers of self-interest and greed rule.
In the end, if we are disappointed in our government because it seems uncaring or corrupt – or whatever – then we would be right to feel disappointed in ourselves as well – especially if we’ve never taken the time to tell our legislators about the issues that move our faith and conscience.
Therefore, my Lenten journey has become one of learning how to give public witness to my faith. It’s a walk I take in the shadow of Jesus’ journey to Calvary. It is my good fortune to know that such a walk in this country will lead not to death but life for so many others – in the name of Christ.