Mae Elise Cannon: Beyond Hashtag Activism—Part 1

Online conversations are just a starting point in creating change.

Mae Elise Cannon has long been known for her advocacy on behalf of the marginalized, poor and oppressed. Her work as a writer, academic and ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church puts her on the front lines of social justice.

Cannon, who has authored or edited five books, recently released Beyond Hashtag Activism: Comprehensive Justice in a Complicated Age (IVP), an acknowledgement that our world is broken and that the church and American culture are divided. And it’s a call to action—for every Christian, of every denomination and political persuasion—to set aside differences, move beyond social media advocacy and unite in a shared vision to restore the earth to the glory of God.

In Part 1 of our interview with Cannon, who also is executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace based in Washington, D.C., she discusses her new book, shares her desire to see the church become one, and offers ideas for how Christians really can begin to turn the church into an effective change agent in the name of Christ.

Beyond Hashtag Activism is an important book at a time when there is so much division in the church. What spurred you to write it?

Last year was the 10-year anniversary of my first book, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World. That was really kind of the story of my own learning and growing into a better understanding of what biblical social justice is all about.

Heading into 2019, I was looking around our country, at the divisions within our broader civil society, but specifically divisions within the church. Are you on the left or are you conservative? Are you a fundamentalist or are you a liberal? There’s such significant division, especially around this particular president, that I felt like my soul was crying out and that this book was kind of an answer to some of the grief I was experiencing.

My work very much gets miscategorized as a progressive agenda because it’s focused on social justice, and social justice is viewed as a progressive issue. But when we look at the Bible, every prophet and every disciple and every person in the New Testament who chooses to follow Jesus responds to the widows and the orphans and those who are in need.

Where does your care and compassion for the oppressed come from?

So much of my ministry and learning has been in the context of communities of color, of prison, of global poverty, of working with agencies that are seeking to alleviate it. I once told someone I feel the closest to God when I am with communities that have experienced oppression. That’s kind of been a heartbeat of mine for most of my life.

Now, I am an incredibly privileged individual in terms of education and access to resources. Certainly I come from a place of white privilege. But I grew up in rural southern Maryland in a community that was incredibly divided among black people and white people. By God’s grace, some of my most significant mentors from the time I was in elementary school were African American leaders.

When I went back and looked at my history, I realized I was exposed to racism when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. My best friend was a little African American boy. His father gave me a little locket with my name on it, kind of to commemorate our friendship, and I kissed this little boy on the forehead. This was so innocent, but I had a cousin chase me around the house and call me names after that.

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Later on, black leaders were my teachers or professors, or the vice principal of my school, and I learned about some of the racial differences and injustices they experienced. It became internalized and very moving and important to me. And that progressed throughout college and other parts of life.

Hashtagging on social media has become a popular way to show our support for causes and express our opinions on trending issues, but it’s not the most effective way to bring about change. Was that part of the reason you felt you needed to say something?

I think it’s awesome that we have so much information at our fingertips. The world is so much more connected through social media, so I don’t mean to diminish people who engage in conversations online. That’s a great starting point. The problem is, we sometimes engage in conversations about issues related to justice, and then we feel we’ve done our part and we’re done. So this whole idea that if we like something on Facebook or if we share it or comment on it, then we’re really actively responding to provoke systemic change, is quite an overstatement.

If we really want to end homelessness, let’s use #EndHomelessness and then partner with leaders who actually respond to homelessness. Or let’s engage in job programs so the homeless can actually find work and earn a living wage. It’s great that we care about so many issues that we like to chat about them on social media, but let’s have that be a starting point to digging more deeply.

The church is divided on social issues and its role in social justice. How can we reconcile those differences considering how polarized the current climate is?

Part of what we need to reconcile is that it’s OK for us to disagree. There can be different strategies or different methodologies. There are people who believe, for example, as I do, that abortion is not according to God’s plan. I fundamentally believe that the embryo has the inherent right to life. You can be a Democrat and vote differently than I do, yet have that same belief. It’s when we get so dogmatic and say, “You have to believe and think and act and vote like I do in order to honor Christ” that it becomes quite problematic. In the Evangelical Covenant Church, we have a saying: “Walking hand in hand without seeing eye to eye.”

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I think at this moment in American history, the church has almost never been more divided. We have become so dogmatic and have such a lack of humility in thinking that our own perspective about things is the answer. What does it mean for us to be united in Christ and to say, “Hey, we can care about the poor but have different beliefs about the role the government should play in alleviating domestic poverty”? That’s a starting point—to be able to learn to disagree constructively.

If we can enter into conversation with people with whom we disagree, I think that’s where we’re going to come up with creative solutions to real problems. Sometimes we’re going to have different methodologies, but our goals are going to be in alignment. I think that’s part of walking hand in hand without seeing eye to eye. I do fundamentally believe in right and wrong, in truth and light and justice. But we often think we’re the only one who knows what that is, and that’s the fundamental definition of hubris. God is so much bigger than we are; we need to have a bit more humility in the way we address problems.

Many Christians have been doing good advocacy work for years, yet it often feels like we are treading water. What is a healthy, biblical response for the local church to take, understanding that only God can transform the world, but he does call us to take part?

Some of that is a very appropriate grieving and longing for the kingdom, right? Christ’s kingdom is not yet fully manifested, so some of that angst we feel we won’t get rid of until Christ comes again and the glory of God is fully revealed on this earth. But I think of the verses that say don’t give up in doing good (Gal. 6:9); persevere, because perseverance builds character (Rom. 5:3–4), and in that regard, one of my breath prayers is that despair is a luxury of the privileged. Communities that are often suffering oppression or living in poverty are some of the most joyful communities and individuals you will ever meet.

I do a lot of work on peace building in the Middle East—talk about treading water! I think sometimes we’re doing a lot worse than just treading water because at least treading water is an accomplishment. I look at the Palestinian children and Israeli children I know—the next generation—and I think we can’t give up hope and work and effort, because people we love and future generations depend on our faithfulness.

In Part 2 of the interview, Mae Elise Cannon talks about political engagement in the U.S. church and the need for churches to incorporate social justice into their ministry models. Part 3 tackles how we can respond to six specific areas related to social justice. Read more at OutreachMagazine.com/Mae-Elise-Cannon.