Campaigning is a dangerous business

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Anyone who has ever been on a SPEAK day of action will be familiar with the excitement of it all – The crowd raising their voices against injustice, an imaginative and colourful demonstration, and a procession to that most prominent site of UK politics, the Houses of Parliament, where a group of young and conscientious activists will lobby their MPs on issues of global poverty.

Suddenly, the letters, petitions, and Pray & Post Cards have an even greater meaning. After the security checks on the way in, and passing by the pomp of this great architectural space, comes the end result: meeting with a group of wealthy, mainly white, mainly male decision makers in an attempt to appeal to their conscience.

Campaigning is, of course, serious business – especially for us as Christians it is more than a moral imperative, but a divine imperative. The need to see abject poverty come to an end, for situations of injustice to be transformed, for the oppressed to be released and for the oppressors to find repentance. Out of this godly desire, it is only natural for us to gravitate toward the centres of power, to appeal to those who “make the decisions.” The ultimate danger we face in all of this, is that instead of challenging the centres of power as we would desire to, we instead end up legitimating it; conceding our own powerlessness in society and therefore handing over all responsibility to the unquestioned 'leaders' of British 'democracy.' Campaigning for us becomes dangerous when it ceases to be confrontation  power, and becomes little more than collaboration with power.

I thank God that Christian campaigners and activists of many different backgrounds have taken with utmost seriousness the foundation of Jesus' ministry, to

“proclaim good news to the poor... proclaim liberty to the captives... recovering of sight to the blind... and to set at liberty those who are oppressed...” (Luke 4:18-19).

However, is there a reality in all of this that we cling onto the seriousness of Jesus' teachings and yet give nowhere near as much seriousness to the kind of life and ministry He led? We campaigners write to our MPs and march to parliament with the Gospel in our hearts and minds. Yet, after Jesus spoke these immortal words of the prophet Isaiah, He didn't gather His disciples and march to the palace courts of Caesar, demanding that he run the military occupation in more gentle manner.

Instead, Jesus made His life and ministry directly among those whose lives were oppressed by the occupying force and by the religious institution : lepers, the infirm, the homeless, the alien, the worker class, and the dispossessed. He ministered radically to women and Samaritans, who at that time and culture were even less than second-class citizens. Jesus refused to take His cause to the seat of power, and instead took direct action Himself, to deliver God's revolutionary freedom to the margins of society.

I'm sad to say that I when I have talked with global campaigners about matters of solidarity and ministry amongst the poor (such as through homelessness or asylum issues, for example), these issues have often been met with hesitation, dismissal, or disinterest. I point the finger of criticism equally at myself in all of this, for I too have often opted for the easy route of signing a petition about the arms trade, in full knowledge that many of the victims of war and persecution seek asylum in Great Britain, often ending up homeless and destitute on our own streets. I wonder if, as mostly white, middle-class, educated citizens, we are used to only thinking about poverty and oppression at a distance from ourselves, and therefore keeping these issues at arms' length? Perhaps we can only think about solidarity with the poor through the lens of letter-writing, since the vast majority of us have never had to deal with poverty ourselves, and it therefore remains outside of our experience, outside our levels of comfort.

I also wonder if, given that we are privileged citizens, we have some element of fear about questioning the status-quo too excessively, since we ourselves are in one of the most prime positions of society to reap its benefits? This temptation to remain unquestioning, uncritical, and even in endorsement of political power was not alien to Jesus. On many occasions, His disciples urged Him to take up arms, to become a king, or a great military leader who would liberate their people from the empire. Jesus Himself, however, came from a tradition of kings and knew full well that God's purposes could not be achieved through earthly power, which only served to increase oppression and injustice (1 Samuel 8, for example). On one such occasion when His disciples assumed He would take up arms, He gathered them together and said:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them, but it shall not be so among you. Instead, whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

(Mark 10:42-44)

It is interesting to note some of the Greek in the above passage - “rulers” comes from the term archos, and essentially Jesus is calling us to exercise a different kind of power. To be an-archos: Anarchists. This is the way of Jesus' great revolutionary plan for justice and liberation; not through the violence and self-serving ends of political power, but through a ministry of becoming the least, of a Kingdom where those at a top are in fact those at the bottom of worldly society. This is justice, this is solidarity.

Campaigning and lobbying will always be essential tools for the Christian, for we are charged with speaking truth to power in much the same way Jesus did when He criticised the Pharisees and encouraged the wealthy to surrender their riches to the poor. We must remember, however, that these actions necessarily grow out of relationship with those at the margins. We cannot afford our campaigns to just become another form of lording it over others, of transferring responsibility to those in power for the justice that we are not prepared to enact ourselves.

Let us continue to speak truth to power, to call for justice from those at the centre. But let us do so in the firm faith and conviction that our own place as followers of Jesus will always be at the margins, in relationship with those who are suffering, sick, poor, and powerless. No longer lording it over one another, but standing together as servants of Jesus' revolutionary love.

This article was written by Adam Dickon, a member of the SPEAK Network in Manchester. To get inolved in campaigning check out our campaigns section on the website or email us at campaigns[at]speak.org.uk