The church must learn to have a healthy dialogue around social activism.
In Part 1 of our interview with Mae Elise Cannon, the author, pastor, and social justice advocate talked about the catalyst for writing her latest book, Beyond Hashtag Activism: Comprehensive Justice in a Complicated Age (IVP), and her heart to see the American church united despite a culture of division. In part two, Cannon, who is also executive director of the Washington, D.C., based-organization Churches for Middle East Peace, talks about political engagement in the American church and the need for churches to incorporate social justice into their ministry models.
Political advocacy is tricky. Christians really should be following Jesus, not party lines, but sometimes it’s necessary to get involved. What role should politics play in church communities, if any?
I would start with the church communities that say politics shouldn’t be in the church. Those are often the most unilaterally political. Many of the churches that say the church really needs to focus just on spirituality are the church communities that vote on two issues: abortion and the death penalty. The very definition of politics is about the way people engage and live together, so all of us are engaged in politics whether we call it politics or not. I think it’s a false presupposition that we can go to church on Sunday morning and learn about the fruits of the spirit, and then between Monday and Saturday not actually consider what that means in terms of the way we’re engaging with our neighbor. Which, by the way, is one of the greatest commandments.
It goes back to that very division of what the gospel is about. Is it a gospel of personal salvation? Well, yes! And it’s also a gospel about the entirety of creation being redeemed, which has to do with how people interact and how communities thrive and flourish and can one day reflect the full glory of God. I think in general, when I talk about the binary that’s happening within civil society in the U.S., that happens within the church as well. The church should be a place where we can ask what the Bible teaches us about the way we respond to kids who are hungry or about the way we should engage. The church should be a place where we can really learn, and where we can learn to hold in tension the different viewpoints and perspectives.
I would point to something I’ve just learned in the last few years from a Jewish rabbi who is a friend of mine. We were talking about Christianity and Judaism, and he said to me, “Do you know what one of the fundamental differences is?” Initially I didn’t know what he was referring to. He said, “When you study in yeshiva, as a Jewish scholar, until you’re able to look at a passage and read that passage one way and make 49 arguments in favor of one interpretation, and then read that passage again with 49 completely different perspectives, you will not be able to understand the Jewish teachers and you’ve not mastered that passage.”
As American evangelicals, we look at a Scripture and we read it completely differently. We read it and we say, “Unless you see that passage and that verse the way I do, then you must not be honoring God.” So when it comes to the question of politics, what role should the church play? Let’s just start with the church becoming a place where Democrats and Republicans can love one another, have fellowship, and actually talk about why they support that political agenda or not. We don’t even have that kind of environment where we can talk about it within the context of the church. And if we can’t talk about it with brothers and sisters in Christ, how are we actually going to be able to witness and engage politically with the broader society in constructive ways?
Parachurch organizations do a great job of addressing many of the social justice issues in the world. Has the church become too dependent on them to do the bulk of the social justice work? What should the relationship look like between the church and these organizations?
Some of the most beautiful models I’ve ever seen are churches that function as a space for worship and a space for community. They have youth groups, opportunities to study the Bible, and parallel CCD (Christian Community Development) organizations that actually seek to explore that church’s unique role in being a light to that community. That looks different wherever you are geographically. That model integrates everything. I do think there’s a critical role for organizations that have expertise at addressing international development, but the more integrated it is, the more effective the integration between our spirituality and our activism.
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to reflecting on the way our churches engage with one another and with the world. Where’s the best place to begin?
We need to just be able to listen to each other. I would also recommend going full circle and doing something constructive, like take action. I often pray the prayer we learned at World Vision: Break my heart for the things that break the heart of God. And as we allow our hearts to be broken, go spend the day serving in your community and take action. We need to listen to one another and be engaged and introduced to communities that think differently than we do.
Even when we take the smallest step forward, we really can make a difference. I fundamentally believe that to be true. So might we not be discouraged so that we become immobilized. May we be encouraged that love, kindness, the fruits of the spirit, and taking action toward justice can make the world a better place.