Wednesday, April 20, 2016

When Disunity is a Strength

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, leader of NC's Moral Monday movement,
energizing the assembly during his opening address. Photo:
Christian unity is not just a thingit is an event. There is probably no other group that witnesses to this better than the Ecumenical Advocacy Days. Every year, on a weekend in April, Christians sponsored by over 50 faith-based religious societies, denominations and nonprofits, gather together at a hotel in Arlington, VA, to put their faith into action with a common witness.

These people of faith spend the weekend training their minds and opening their hearts for a task. They engage in fellowship, learn about social justice issues, worship together and hear testimonies of the cry of the poor. They develop skills in advocacy and lobbying. This culminates on Monday with the group marching through the halls of Congress, lobbying as a unified faith community on behalf of the poor, the vulnerable and the earth.

This year's topics in brief:

Supporting the Voting Rights Advancement Act [VRA] of 2015.

Throughout U.S. history voting laws have been used to concentrate power by intentionally stripping certain citizens from their most prized and powerful right: the power of the vote. The bi-partisan Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a great step toward eliminating legal barriers to the voting booth. Still after its passage several states continued to deny people the right to vote under the disingenuous guise of reducing voter fraud.

Defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP] trade agreement that deepens inequality and prioritizes corporate interests over both God’s creation and people, especially vulnerable communities in the U.S. and abroad. The TPP is a trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim nations, which will establish trade rules between these countries. It serves primarily the special interests of the privileged.

Pope Francis has called on nations to say no to ‘an economy of exclusion.’ All global economic policies, including trade agreements, should be evaluated on the basis of their impact on the common good of all, especially the marginalized, and the earth. The agreement has been negotiated in secret, largely by corporate lobbyists, and would legitimize unfair labor practices, destructive environmental activities and serious human rights violations. The TPP is harmful to people and to our planet. It threatens health, jobs, food security, and the environment in all TPP countries.

These topics seemed odd to me, at first. Don't get me wrong, I fully support them and urge others to find out more about them (I recommend starting here). What caught me by surprise, though, is that I didn't notice any obvious continuity between them. EAD is usually focusedthere are so many problems in the world on any given day, but we resign ourselves to the knowledge that we can't be all things to all people. In light of this, the best strategy is often to pick a single topic and put all our energy into it. This year, we had two topics.

Yes, they are both timely, and yes, they are both important. But voting rights in the USA seems like an odd partner for a bill about international business trade. When we only have a short amount of time to make our points with the legislators office, it seems strange to have such a divided agenda.

Then it hit me: They are both about exclusion. We are about inclusion. Denying people the right to vote excludes them from their right to participation. The TPP, negotiated in secret, carves up the world's resources and leaves the vast majority of people out of it, especially those already poor. It makes perfect sense why the unified Body of Christ would cry out in pain over these issues so strongly.

As an ecumenical assembly, we hope for the Kingdom that will come when Christ reconciles all back to himself. We all pray as sisters and brothers to the same Father. Unity, wholeness, inclusion—these make sense in light of the Revelation of Christ incarnate into humanity, with all of us being part of that Body.


Ecumenical Advocacy Days is a powerful witness. Common stereotypes we are fed in the media and elsewhere in society will say that people from different religious denominations simply can't get along. Our experiences tell another story. As it turns out, the fact that we are different makes our witness so much stronger. Let me explain.

Christ inbreaking into history was like the big bangan explosion that propelled particles far and wide in all directions. Catholics went down certain noble paths. Protestants followed other fine paths. Evangelicals found still more excellent ways to go. Yes, we all have moved in different directions. The Spirit has called us in different ways at different times. Perhaps we even took some wrong turns along the way. 

We believe different things. We worship differently. We sing differently. We consult different experts and even, in some cases, different holy books.

But still, we remained faithful and kept listening to the Spirit throughout history: We prayed. We wrestled with the demands of faith. We are always working it out in fear and trembling. And you know what?

We all ended up at the same place: Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

This is the miracle of Christian unity. This is the message we took to Washington, D.C.

You could say there is chaos in disunity. You could say the lack of Christian unity is one of the most glaring faults of Christianity. Some even use that fact to discount Christianity. But we are people of the Resurrection—we trust that God can transform even the most hideous tragedy into a victory. 

When people from different places, different churches and different walks of life and are all led to make the same pronouncements on matters of peace and justice, that is not chaos. No, there is another way to understand that: This, my dear friends, is a Holy Spirit moment. Our diversity then showcases our strength, because it is exactly because we are different that makes it so much more compelling when we do come together in unity.

It reminds me of the Rascal Flatts song: God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you.
We went down different paths and still arrived at the same place. This is robust, fully free diversity in reconciled unity. We are not united because we have fused together into some monolithic entity. Rather, we are united because we are going in the same direction, sometimes taking different means and methods to get there, but we can still be companions for each other along the way.

If you feel moved to talk to your legislators about these issues, consult the instructions on the link above.  Call, email, Tweet or stop by and visit your legislators to talk to them about it! Or better yet: Find others who are already doing this work and join your efforts to theirs!

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