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Christian Advocacy: Whose language do we use?

March 9, 2007


Reflections from Bryant Myers

February 2003; http://www.worldvisionresources.com/newsletters/marc03-1.pdf

World Vision is increasingly involved in policy and advocacy work. Drawing on our grass roots experience, we develop policy research that addresses those policy issues that most affect the poor: child rights, child abuse, child labor and peace and conflict. This year we launched a global campaign, “A Safer World for Children.” And so we should. World Vision is about children. More than 2 million children are being cared for in the context of their families and communities through the commitment of caring sponsors. But World Vision is also Christian. Being Christian is one of our core values. Christian witness is part of our mission statement. So the challenge is: How do we do policy and advocacy work on behalf of poor children in a way that is genuinely Christian?

That’s not hard, you say. Just say what the Bible says and get on with it. And so we should. But the world that is addressed by policy and advocacy is not Christian. The universe made up of governments, the UN system and the World Bank is secular. Simply posting the Biblical view of an issue may discharge our responsibility to say what the Bible says, but it does not hold out much hope of creating change in such a world. And yet the test of advocacy work is never how much noise you make, but whether public policy actually changes. Without change we are in danger of simply making noise.

So how do you do advocacy that is both fully Christian and yet effective in changing policy in a secular context at the same time?

LEARNING FROM JUDAH

I am indebted to Walter Brueggemann for what follows. Addressing the issue of Christian education, he struggled with a similar question: Do we educate children in the language of the world or the language of faith?

Brueggemann used the familiar story in 2 Kings 18-19 in which the Assyrians challenge Judah, then captive behind the walls of a surrounded Jerusalem , to surrender. The context is confrontation between a world power, Assyria , and a tiny remnant of a nation now confined to a single walled city. The Assyrians call out to ’s leaders, who are standing on the wall of Jerusalem, and explain the hopelessness of ’s position. In doing so, they disparage Yahweh by comparing ’s God to all other now defeated gods of the Near East .

Brueggemann points to two conversations in this story. The first is the conversation on the wall between the Assyrians and the Hebrews. The second conversation takes place behind the wall between Hezekiah and Isaiah. The conversation on the wall is the conversation of worldly power, using the language of the empire. This conversation relies on the calculus of power. In this conversation, God is irrelevant; military might and economics drive the conclusion. The conversation behind the wall is different. The language is Hebrew, the language of faith. It is spoken by those who share a common worldview and for whom repentance and prayer are the appropriate responses to the challenges of those outside the wall.

In the conversation behind the wall, Yahweh is the only God and, far from being irrelevant, Yahweh is the determining factor in what is about to happen. Behind the wall, Isaiah can say in the face of the power of Assyria and the weakness of , “Do not be afraid.” The saving of the city vindicates the prophet and validates the truth claims of the conversation behind the wall. The conversation behind the wall was in fact more discerning than the conversation on the wall, Brueggemann points out. Brueggemann notes that the Assyrians had no access to the conversation behind the wall. A wall of language and worldview separated them from it. They don’t even know that this other conversation is going on. If they did, they would neither believe nor accept it.

DEVELOPING CHRISTIAN POLICY POSITIONS

Christians develop public policy positions by asking what the Bible says and how the church’s historical interpretation of the Bible in culture might help. Christians develop public policy positions using the language behind the wall. This is so because, as Brueggemann points out, our Christian faith has a different set of assumptions, a different perception of the world and a different epistemology (way of knowing). We must begin here because this is who we are. But the language on the wall is also important to us. We must be able to speak it, because it is the language of the world we wish to engage; and the world will not go away, and it cannot be ignored. The world is the place in which we are told to be light and salt.

So how does this work? One way is to learn the language on the wall and use it as we develop policy and engage the world. The weakness is that, when we accept the assumptions, perceptions and epistemology of the world, we find we can no longer assert fully Christian positions. If we accept the language of the world, everything else is, in effect, conceded and we sound like everyone else. In contrast, we could insist on speaking our language, the language behind the wall. We could cite the Bible, use theological language and make faith claims as we present our positions in the world. But in the account in 2 Kings, it is clear that the Assyrians have no respect for the speakers of Hebrew. This is the experience of many Christians who engage in policy and advocacy work. The world does not respect the language behind the wall. It does not even understand it. We are given a seat on the sidelines, sometimes politely and sometimes not.

Or, we could straddle these two positions. We could think through our positions using the language and guidelines of faith and then translate our positions into the language of the world. Some call this a “secular hermeneutic.” There is a lot of appeal to this approach. The positions we take will be Christian, yet we can use language in presenting them that is understandable to a secular world. This is just another form of contextualization, is it not? Sadly, this is not fully the way out of our dilemma either. While it does result in positions that are grounded in Christian theology, it also results in something being withheld. By taking this approach, we end up withholding news that Christians have that we would be wrong not to share.

WITHHOLDING DISTURBING NEWS

Alan Whaites, World Vision’s international director of advocacy, pointed out this final piece of my struggle to me. By packaging a Christian position in the language on the wall, we withhold two very important pieces of distinctly Christian news.

First, we prevent the world from hearing the Christian reason that public policy is needed in the first place. Christians know that sin is the underlying cause of why things do not work for the well-being of all. With no place for sin or an Evil One, the policy debate is doomed to failure and unintended consequences. Second, we fail to announce that history does have an end and that there will be a judgment. And this judgment has eternal consequences.

The life threatening problem of the Assyrian’s was their arrogant assumption that the empire has the final say. Upon hearing the report of the conversation on the wall, Hezekiah ignored the threat of the Assyrians to and bemoaned: “It may be that the Lord your God will hear all the words of the field commander, whom his master, the king of Assyria , has sent to ridicule the living God, and that he (the living God) will rebuke him (the king of Assyria ) for the words the Lord your God has heard.” Because they could not hear the conversation of faith behind the wall, Assyria did not know a very important piece of information: It was Assyria, not Judah, that was at risk.

Christians know something that the world does not know: There is a God. God is just and we are not. Therefore, there will be a judgment. Only through Jesus Christ can the outcome of our judgment be set aside. If we simply repackage Christian positions on public policy and leave it at that, we withhold this vital knowledge from the world, thus leaving the world at risk. The world’s policy-makers need to know that good policy is rewarded and bad policy is not. They need to know that the God of history cares deeply about justice and hates injustice. We must not keep this disturbing news from them.

WHAT THEN?

Where are we then? In a highly complex and nuanced place, I’m afraid.

We should not talk to the world about public policy in the language and forms of faith, because they are unintelligible to the world. And we should not just adopt the language and forms of the world to develop our views of public policy, lest we become secular ourselves. Yet even if we develop our policy positions in a thoroughly Christian way and contextualize their expression when we work in the policy environment of the world, we still run the risk of not being fully Christian in that we withhold key facts to which only Christians have access.

To be fully Christian in advocacy we need to be able to present, in the language of the world, our fully Christian policy positions, developed in the language behind the wall. But we also need to be willing to disclose enough of the language and practice behind the wall to let the world know that our faith tells us that they cannot, using the language and forms of the world, really address the underlying causes of injustice. And we need to make them aware that at the end of the day, making policy is something for which individuals and governments will be held accountable.