Keynote Address by Rev. Sandra L. Strauss
“The Voice of the Church in Public Policy Advocacy”
January 29, 2012 • 3:00-5:00 PM
Highland Presbyterian Church • 500 E Roseville Rd • Lancaster
Strauss is Director of Public Advocacy Pennsylvania Council of Churches, Harrisburg.
I begin today with words from the prophet Jeremiah, describing God’s call to him:
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, “I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
So now, I have a big question to pose for you here today: What does God’s call to Jeremiah have to do with what we, as people of faith, are called to do as citizens of this nation and of the world—especially in an election year?
I guess it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that my question is loaded—and that I probably wouldn’t pose it without being prepared to offer some kind of answer. You might also be thinking that it has a lot to do with the work I’m doing with the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. You would be right on both accounts. But this isn’t merely a commercial for my work, for what I’m going to share with you today is steeped in scripture and throughout the theology and policy of our many denominations.
Let’s have a brief history lesson here. Jeremiah was born into a very difficult period in the kingdom of Judah—the southern kingdom, where Jerusalem was located. The first chapter of Jeremiah tells us that his call came in the 13th year of King Josiah’s reign, estimated to have been around 627 BCE. He claimed to have been a boy at the time of his call, though we cannot know his exact age. With his call coming as a boy, however, this meant that he would have plenty of time to grow into his calling, and to attempt to prepare his audience for what was to come—the destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent exile to Babylon in 587 BCE—40 years later.
Despite all of Jeremiah’s warnings—an effort to shake up the masses and draw them out of their complacency—his audience didn’t hear until it was too late. By that time, complacency was no longer the problem, for complacency had turned to despair. The situation seemed hopeless, and at that point all Jeremiah could really do was to bring words of hope—hope that a new people of Israel could rise like a phoenix from the ashes, again becoming heir to the covenant God had made with them.
Jeremiah complained bitterly to God at times. He never wanted to be the bearer of bad news, but God had other plans for him. In fact, God’s words to Jeremiah suggest that his call to prophecy had been God’s intent long before Jeremiah was even born! God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah’s protest that he was only a boy would not work, because Jeremiah was destined by God, and God would put the words he needed into his mouth.
The story of Jeremiah and the stories of other prophets might suggest that God calls and equips only a select few to be God’s mouthpiece in the world. However, I propose a very different premise: as Christians, we are ALL called to be a prophetic voice in the world, guided by what I would describe as major biblical themes that we need to remember as Christians today. The first, from the Common, or Old Testament, comes from the prophet Micah, words that are well known to many of us and speak volumes: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Then, when Jesus—teacher, prophet, God’s very image here on earth—entered the scene, he quickly went about the task of teaching his followers that the law of Moses and the people of Israel, which appeared so complicated when we read Old Testament descriptions, was really quite simple—though not always easy to live out. When asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
As Christians—followers of Christ—Jesus has interpreted what God desires from us, and I believe that his words embody the justice, kindness and humility that Micah speaks of. Loving God and loving neighbor are the principles that determine how we are to live our lives. And I firmly believe that following the two great commandments to love God and love neighbor, with the understanding that God provides for us abundantly, will make it possible for us to shape a very different world.
In such a world, all would work to facilitate the kingdom of God here on earth. All persons would receive respect, regardless of their place in society. No one would experience discrimination in any form. All would have what they need to live lives of dignity—living wage jobs, adequate access to health care, housing, food, and education. All who are unable to work or care for themselves for reasons of poor health, disability, economic climate, or other factors beyond their control—whether permanent or temporary—would have access to adequate care and support as it is needed. Those who have run afoul of societal rules would be treated with dignity, with an eye toward rehabilitation and restoration.
Now while I would stress that individuals must accept this sacred responsibility to work toward this vision of the world I’ve just expressed, individuals cannot do it alone. More collective action is needed. Government must work for the welfare of all persons, and businesses, other organizations and institutions must treat employees fairly and contribute appropriately to society. To ensure that government and private entities work for the common good, all persons# must have a voice in government at all levels, and access must not be limited in any way. In other words, all must work cooperatively with the resources they have for the common good—and we, as individuals, must hold our governments and institutions to that responsibility.
We sometimes believe that we are being faithful Christians when we show up in the pews on Sundays. God makes it clear that showing up alone doesn’t cut it. Even offering generous gifts and tithes isn’t enough. Amos makes God’s point even clearer when he points out that God “hates” superficial efforts of piety if we don’t “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It was clear that Israel didn’t get it when all they could do was offer suggestions of material gifts to God in responding to Micah’s question “What does the Lord require?” The Lord requires nothing short of justice. We cannot check our faith at the door when it comes to our responsibility in the public arena.
My Presbyterian tradition calls us to be concerned about public policy. Our very own forebear John Calvin made this clear when he wrote, “Civil magistery is a calling not only holy and legitimate, but by far the most sacred and honorable in human life.” I believe a statement on my denomination’s Washington office website describes our responsibility well:
When Jesus was asked to state the greatest commandment, he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In this complex age, one way we love our neighbors is to help shape the laws and policies that define how we live together in God’s world.
The political process is where decisions are made that help or harm people; decisions that help to make the kind of world God intends.
Many of our denominations do a tremendous job of advocacy. Unfortunately, as I tell everyone who will listen, one person (or a handful of people) alone speaking with legislators and decisionmakers will not make the impact that thousands—millions—of Christians can have. Those responsible for setting policy need to know that more than one person supports issues important to us as people of faith—issues of justice, peace, and stewardship of the earth. You—each and every person of faith—has a responsibility to make his or her voice heard in the public arena, and most of the denominations represented here can find terrific resources available through their respective advocacy ministries, or through ecumenical sources like the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.
That being said, many of us continue to seek excuses for why not being faithful advocates for the common good. We fear that our differences will divide us. For example, we all know that even people of faith differ on many issues—or at least on how to approach them, and we fear that our differences will divide us. And we do see ample evidence of these divisions in every election campaign from this year’s national election down to local elections for school boards and city councils. My own denomination recognizes these differences as evidenced by these words from our Book of Order, which acknowledges that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” and our truths are not to be dictated by temporal powers. However, it also claims “an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty,” but acknowledges that “there are truths and forms with respect to which (persons) of good characters and principles may differ.”
In other words, we may find in our personal discernment, based on our individual circumstances, that God’s word seems to be revealed in very diverse ways. Think of it as looking at the Grand Canyon from different points. What you see from the North Rim may be very different from what you see from the South Rim. Perspective cannot be discounted. Because of the reality of divergent views, our Book of Order goes on to say, in a kind of “therefore” statement, “we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” Despite this admonition, “mutual forbearance” seems to be a commodity in short supply—all we need do is look at the debates going on within this year’s Republican primaries to see this demonstrated in all its glory.
So, where does that leave us? The fact that differences exist doesn’t give us reason not to participate in the system. What we do have a duty to do is to examine our own faith. We must engage in personal spiritual practices such as prayer, but we must also participate in corporate discernment, a way of contemplating faith and issues that would be beneficial to people of all faiths. The very process of prayerful group discernment, guided by Jesus’ commandments to love God and love our neighbors, may lead to insights that we may never discover on our own, as long as we are willing to hear each other and practice “mutual forbearance.” It may help us to bridge the differences we fear.
We also have a responsibility to pay attention to what is happening in our communities, in our nation, and throughout the world. Do the policies that are enacted at every level, and the way in which they are carried out, match what we have discerned based on our study and discernment of our own faith and how it affects our views on important issues? If not, then we MUST act. A key statement from my denomination states, “The church, if it is to remain true to its biblical roots, theological heritage, and contemporary practice, must not fall silent. It must speak faithfully, truthfully, persuasively, humbly, boldly and urgently.” I am certain that most of our denominations have similar statements that call us to be faithful citizens.
So how do we stay informed, and how do we make our voices heard? We must seek out the wealth of information that is available from a multitude of sources. Read your local paper to stay informed about what is happening in your own community. Seek out balanced news reporting, and look to see what is being said from a range of perspectives. Don’t rely on one news source that matches your views as your only source of information.
As for actually making our voices heard—well, first and foremost, we must vote. As we learned from the 2000 election, as well as some more recent elections throughout the country and our Commonwealth, our individual votes DO count. We can also engage in direct contact with our legislators at the local, state, and federal levels. Legislators and their aids consistently comment on the lack of such communication. Because of this, your calls, letters, e-mails and visits can and do make a difference. You can write letters to the editors of your local newspapers. You can, through the church or other organizations, host non-partisan forums that present a range of views on an important topic to help people understand an issue and act responsibly. You can encourage your family, friends and neighbors to register to vote if they haven’t done so, and to vote if they have.
As children of God, and members of the body of Christ, we all have a responsibility to participate as citizens of the country, the world, and of the kingdom of heaven. It isn’t always easy, and sometimes our efforts take a long time to bear fruit. Because of this, we should keep in mind Luke’s parable of the widow and the unjust judge—the widow’s persistence eventually paid off, and the judge granted justice in response to her plea.
So, as you can see, God’s call to Jeremiah does have a great deal to do with what we, as people of faith, are called to do as citizens, especially in an election year. Like Jeremiah, we must discover our own prophetic voices, and we must not be afraid to speak out. When fear or apathy strikes, we must recall God’s words to Jeremiah, “Do not say, “I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Like Jeremiah, it is our duty to shake up the masses and draw them out of their complacency—complacency that leads to poor policymaking and possible injury to humanity or all of creation. Our efforts can be the cause for hope for those who do not have a voice.
Praise God that we are free to participate in our governing system, and let us offer our thanksgiving by responding to God’s call to “love God and love our neighbor” by participating faithfully in it.