Words matter. They are how we frame our society, our relationships, our entire lives. They are a gift.
Actions matter. They impact everyone and everything around us. They have the power to help or harm.
The central question for Christians, as always, is how do we take our words and our actions and fulfill the Great Commandment — to love both God and our neighbor?
Public advocacy, or public witness, is one of the ways we fulfill that command. Advocacy means “to summon” or to “call to one’s aid.”
Proverbs 31:8-9 says it this way: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Both Scripture and tradition give cause for Christians to speak up and advocate in the public square as a way to love one’s neighbor.
The power of words begins in the life of the Trinity and overflows into creative action. God calls, summons and advocates the world into existence. These divine words are unleashed into the cosmos creating stars, trees, birds and humanity itself and then the divine word summons humanity to be fruitful and to multiply and to care for the earth. It is an invitation for us to engage in the creation act itself.
This creational power of words undergirds all of Scripture and human interaction and for Christians is a way to love God and call for aid for our neighbor — especially when “powers” and “principalities” would seek to harm our neighbor.
In Genesis 18, Abraham advocates on behalf of the people of Sodom. He convinces God to spare the city if he can find only 10 righteous people. In Exodus 7, we see Moses advocate in defense of an enslaved people. Each use of human words was accompanied with action (frogs, locusts) culminating in freedom for the Hebrews. Esther pleads with Xerxes. Daniel interacts with Nebuchadnezzar. Amos speaks on behalf of God toward the nations of Israel and Judah, calling them to care for the poor, the widow and the orphan. For the Hebrew Bible, there is no question about advocating for a new way of being and living; it is assumed.
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
In the Gospels, Jesus himself advocates. He enters this world to give a deeper understanding of love by working from the inside out to reorder the world. Echoing Isaiah, in Luke 4, he declares that his public ministry will be about good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind. His preaching of the kingdom is meant to encompass economic systems (teachings on day laborers, wages), societal and religious structure (interacting with Pharisees, Sadducees and the Temple) and political powers (subverting Rome, engaging Herod and Pilate).
Christ’s work encompasses nothing less than the transformation of everything. There is no division of the secular and sacred or religious and political. Declaring Jesus as Lord was, and is, inherently a political act. Jesus advocates with his entire being, holding nothing back, not even his life. Followers of Jesus must do that same.
In the Gospel of John, the writer uses the term paraclete to describe the Holy Spirit. From the Greek it means “advocate” or “helper.” It also was used as a legal term akin to a defense attorney.
It is the Holy Spirit who gives birth to a community that throughout the New Testament is often in conflict with other communities for what it says and does. The Holy Spirit empowers the church to give powerful witness before local people and both religious and political leaders. Peter and John are empowered in Acts 4 to defend the healing of a lame man, and Paul in Acts 20 is empowered to defend himself and his work in Festus’ court.
The Holy Spirit enabled, and continually enables, the church to advocate, in word and deed, the love of God and love of neighbor.
Christians have a rich tradition of advocating to challenge systems and powers for the common good. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church, calling for change. Roger Williams advocated for religious liberty for all and specifically for the rights of Native Americans. Christian abolitionists advocated for an end to the slave trade and for women’s right to vote.
Sadly, though, Christians haven’t always been on the right side of these issues. Whether in deed or in silence, they often advocated for the oppressive status quo — which did not love their neighbor.
“If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
The question is not whether we will advocate but how and for what should we advocate.
Perhaps the most well-known and universally lauded work of advocacy is the Civil Rights Movement, which was led by the Black church. What would have happened to the Civil Rights Movement without the soaring, prophetic and advocating words of MLK Jr. inside Black churches and in the public arena?
This ushered in a new way of living and being that challenged the corrupt status quo and inspired people to action. It brought the kingdom closer. What would it have been like without the sit-ins, the marching, the non-violent civil disobedience? Without advocacy, the Civil Rights Movement could not have been. The status quo would have remained and benefited those with power.
If we celebrate the Civil Rights movement, how can churches not participate today in the means that made the Civil Rights Movement successful?
“Should a Christian participate in advocacy?” cannot be the question, because even when we are silent, we are advocating. The real question is, “Will we love God and our neighbor enough to advocate and put forth a vision that creates life, wholeness and that cares for the least of these?”
The church has plenty of scriptural, theological and historical reasons for engaging in advocacy, yet it’s a question of how we will summon aid for our neighbor that must be answered anew by every person and church that seeks to follow Christ out into the world.
Chris Ellis serves as minister of administration, mission and outreach at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Palm Beach Atlantic College, a master of divinity degree from Truett Seminary and a doctor ministry degree in global leadership from Portland Seminary.