Mae Elise Cannon: 6 Social Justice Issues and How the Church Can Respond

A pastor, author, academic and social justice advocate discusses six pressing social issues

Pastor, author, academic and social justice advocate Mae Elise Cannon is known among Christians for her work helping to uplift and empower the oppressed, marginalized and poor. She’s been directly involved with organizations such as World Vision, Compassion International and Christians for Middle East Peace (she’s currently the executive director of that last one). Because she’s also an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, Cannon is acutely aware of the reality of the American church’s involvement in some of the most divisive, polarizing and pressing social issues of our time.

Below, Cannon shares her thoughts on the church’s current role in six major justice issues, and explains how she thinks the church could do better at taking action on those issues and understanding them through the eyes of Christ.

Poverty

One of the things I think is encouraging is a new field of study called epigenetics. Epigenetics looks at the way trauma is internalized and can change our genetic makeup for generations. It’s devastating news in terms of what this information reveals, but it’s encouraging that we’re learning about it.

Let’s talk about slavery. People say all the time, “Slavery was so many years ago, more than a century ago, why is it relevant to today?” And science is actually showing us it’s relevant today because the very genetic makeup of our being when we experience trauma is carried over genetically, through generations. To understand that should allow us to be more empathetic to communities that have suffered trauma, be it the Jewish community coming out of the Holocaust or the African American community that experienced generations and centuries of slavery.

If we have a framework of empathy, that’s a good start, but that’s not even asking the question of how capital has been invested in the African American community. I’ve heard people ask why an individual African American who’s raised or brought up in inner-city poverty isn’t able to be successful. For generations before them, capital has been invested in the white community in a unique way. African American communities, communities of color and immigrant communities have not had those same opportunities. Then you think about the way capital has the capacity to grow generationally, so we see economic repercussions for generations. Then you see there are repercussions of psychological trauma. Then we look at inner-city children, whose schools are so under-resourced, and you have this compounding effect that contributes to domestic poverty. We have to understand that we’ll need creative solutions to address it.

One of the things that kind of blows my mind is, why do we care about children around the world who are suffering from poverty, but we ignore those in our very own community? I think that’s a really important question for the church to wrestle with. Because it’s a lot easier to raise money for kids around the world than it is to raise money for kids that are here in the United States who have legitimate needs. They’re experiencing malnourishment, lack of education, lack of opportunities to experience constructive recreation. Things that we pay attention to in global development. Why don’t we seem to care as much about domestic poverty?

I think some of it is that the U.S. is such a privileged place, so we think those communities or families should be able to fix it themselves. I think it’s also because we get a lot of self-worth from our benevolence, so we feel good about ourselves when we can say, “Look, we’re caring for kids who are in Thailand.” Sometimes that’s “sexier” than caring for children here in the United States. I’d ask the same question about women. Why, for literally decades, can white women be missionaries? They can preach the gospel to brown people around the world as missionaries but not to our white brothers and sisters. Christian denominations that don’t affirm that women can be leaders in ministry have sent women as missionaries for decades, but we won’t let them preach in our own churches.

Women’s Rights

I fundamentally believe the #MeToo movement has brought about some change. I think that’s because the hashtag movement was bolstered and supported by women who had the courage to pursue justice and be bold in the legal system. The hashtag movement opened up the conversation, which then became material because of lawsuits. It took a lot of courageous women to tell their stories.

In the church, if we’re really going to address gender justice, and I would say, the mistreatment of any people, be it the abuse of power, or spiritual abuse, or gender discrimination, or gender violence, we’ll have to do things a little differently than the #MeToo movement, where justice is manifested in the legal system. In the church, we have to address the spiritual issue as well.

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I would use the analogy of a dandelion. In the church, we’re picking off the top of the dandelion, or we may even be picking off the stem and leaves, but unless we get to the root of the issue, then we won’t be able to have constructive transformation. And what is the root? I think some of that goes back to Genesis, and the whole idea that power was abused when sin was present in the garden of Eden, so even the whole curse on Eve, I guess you would call it. Some of what we’re seeking is a type of redemption of our brokenness as men and women. We have to address the legal aspects and the emotional aspects, yes. But as we seek transformation to be more like Christ, unless we address the spiritual struggle of power, I don’t think we’ll ever see true transformation.

I had an experience at Willow Creek where one of my male leaders had authority over me, and there were definitely power dynamics that were very, very damaging. But then when it became the solicitation to have a relationship, the church’s way of handling that was what I would call spiritual abuse. We had to sign nondisclosure statements that we would never tell our story. And I think if we think that’s a biblical response when injustice has occurred, that’s really a problem.

Racial Justice

I had the privilege of writing a book with an African American woman, a Korean American man and a white gentleman, called Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith. I think understanding the history and the way the church was complicit is a starting point, because until we understand that, how are we going to be restored to full community? We have to acknowledge first how the community has been broken.

Certainly racial injustice has occurred to many different immigrant groups and many different communities of color: the treatment toward Native Americans, toward African Americans as slaves, toward Asian Americans with the Chinese Exclusion Act. There’s kind of this stream of history, and a starting point is to learn that history and to repent of it. Not only did we annihilate the Native American people, but people who self-identified as Christian would remove Indians from their land and into prayer towns with the supposed goal of converting them so that they could take their land. So repentance and lament are absolutely a starting point toward racial justice.

We also need to be in authentic relationship with communities of color. We’ve had some movements that have been focused on reconciliation, but they don’t address any systemic issues or economic or power differentials. So racial justice needs to look much more holistically at history and how that history affects the current realities.

Immigration

There are actually laws, at least proposed laws (and I think there are actually some states that have these laws, but I’m not an expert on whether they’re being applied) that would make it illegal to give water to someone who is coming across the border illegally. I think as Christians, we can absolutely submit and adhere to the laws of the state, but when it comes down to responding to fundamental human need, I think we have to ask what Matthew 25 says about giving water to people who are thirsty. Some of those laws, in my perspective, are quite draconian.

I did a deep dive on different perspectives on immigration, and one of the things that concerns me the most about this administration’s perspective is that often the rhetoric coming out of the White House or Washington D.C. is this idea that some people are good and some people are bad. You know, President Trump saying, “Mexican rapists,” and the language that’s often used on the Middle East, where it’s such a binary language of good and bad. For those of us who believe in the Bible, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It is not that Americans are good and Mexicans and Latinos or others are bad. I think that’s really important.

For those who have a more conservative viewpoint on the politics of immigration, I think it’s fine to say we want people to obey the laws of the land before they immigrate to our country. Now, I just spent some time at the border at the beginning of this year, down in Tijuana and San Diego, and my understanding is that many of those who are waiting to come into this country are seeking legal asylum. So to be clear, the question of immigration is not just about being legal or not legal, because many of the groups who are following the law have still had their children removed from them at the border and held in cages. My understanding is that policy has shifted some since then, but there is a lot of alignment between Christians who are conservative and liberal that children should not be separated from their families, regardless. I think that’s at least a place where we have some commonality, where people can look at that and say, that breaks our hearts.

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Middle East Relations

What I’m about to say is terribly unfortunate, but I think with a lot of government officials, be they U.S., Israeli, or Arab, the vast majority seek to utilize religious leaders to accomplish their political goals. I think the church is often used as a pawn. I’m not trying to paint a broad brush. It’s not monolithic. It’s not like every politician is evil. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

The U.S. historically has sought to play a constructive role in the negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and President Trump recently made an announcement for his proposal for Middle East peace. The Palestinian community was interviewed, but they were not invited to the table. Regardless of what you think about the specifics of the plan, that’s a problem. You can’t have peace with two people if one of the people groups isn’t even represented.

One of the things President Trump did during his announcement is acknowledge the pastors in the room. He insinuated that the church and American Christians are standing behind him. I think the church in the United States is at a moral crossroads where there are things that are being done in our name that are going to cause devastation and suffering and maybe even death. I think we’re obligated to say, “I love Jesus, I believe in the gospel, I happen to be a white evangelical, and I do not support the repercussions of what’s being said in my name.”

LGBTQ Issues

One of the pastors who really has helped me the most around this issue is Amanda Olson. She’s one of my closest friends, and she’s an Evangelical Covenant pastor. She actually did her doctoral work at Duke about this very question. We can’t even disagree about this in the context of the church. It’s so all or nothing that there’s no conversation.

I recently co-edited a book called Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice. We were criticized that it doesn’t talk about the LGBTQ community and justice issues. And it’s like you said, if you have questions, or if you maintain a conservative viewpoint in terms of the interpretation of the Scriptures, depending on what side you’re coming on, it’s so binary that there’s not even a conversation.

The reason I point to Amanda is her doctoral work completely focused on what it means to be able to create space for us to disagree and talk about this while also loving people who are a part of that community. And I’m not talking about loving cursorily. I’m talking about showing respect. I think one thing we all should be able to agree on is the church’s response to the LGBT community in terms of the way we’ve treated many people who self-identify that way has really been abhorrent, regardless of your viewpoint on what the scriptures teach.

The other program I would point people to is Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), founded by Ron Sider. They’ve got a great program. It’s actually a constructive place for conversation between people who have different viewpoints. Its premise is, you come and are a part of the conversation and part of the community. You have full permission to come with whatever your perspective is and to be respected and honored in that space. We’ve got to have that as a starting point, because otherwise we end up becoming more deeply entrenched in these binaries.

I’ll be honest, when I researched this, it was the first time I delved really deeply into the scriptural teachings and the exegesis. What struck me and broke my heart were some of the determinations of Robert A. J. Gagnon’s perspective. He went so far as to say that people who are a part of the LGBTQ community are more vulnerable to being child abusers, which is scientifically, fundamentally, not true. This is an example of how we treat and respond to that community. I think that needs to be a starting point. When we have such deeply entrenched beliefs like that, that’s bigotry toward another people group, even if we disagree with some of their choices in terms of lifestyle or what the Bible teaches, and I think that’s really disconcerting.

Mae Elise Cannon has released her latest book, Beyond Hashtag Activism: Comprehensive Justice in a Complicated Age (IVP), in which she talks more deeply about each of these issues and more. She also examines the church’s response to them historically and offers suggestions for how the church might more effectively and biblically respond to them going forward. Read more at OutreachMagazine.com/Mae-Elise-Cannon.