Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Local Pastors, Leaders And People As Rights Activists and Advocates

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Recently I had the good fortunate to join in discussions about why many Christian pastors are not more strident civil rights activists and advocates. Why aren’t more pastors more actively involved in civil and human rights advocacy locally and nationally? Why don’t pastors preach more sermons on political, social and economic issues to their congregations? Why aren’t more black pastors involved in ministry that really matters rather than sitting on the sidelines doing and saying nothing about the state of politics in America in general and the state of black America in particular?

Several conversations found me listening to excoriating critiques about pastors and their minimal and virtually non-existent roles in shaping positive political outcomes in their communities.”Why don’t pastors do something? Why are they so laid back? They give the church a bad name.”

Many of the criticizers are missing a very important point on the role and ministry demands and workloads of Christian pastors in local churches.

I am writing this article to add insight to these discussions. It is true that many front line leaders of the Civil Rights era were Christian leaders serving as pastors of local churches. Included in this august group are the Reverends Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph David Abernathy, Jessie Douglas Sr, Fred Shuttlesworth, C.T.Vivian, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, James Lawson, and many female ministers and people of other races and religious faiths.

Many local pastors were activists in the Civil Rights movement and others today like the Reverend William Barber, Al Sharpton- although I don’t believe he is currently pastoring a local church but at one time did early in his career -and many others are actively involved in aggregate movements for Civil and Human Rights for all kinds of causes across this nation and world while pastoring local congregations.

However, before jumping to conclusions about what local preachers and pastors do or don’t do for the movement we must keep a very important fact in mind.

Virtually every Christian pastor who serves or leads a congregation of people in his or her community is an activist-advocate of sorts. He or she may or may not march in collective protest for human or civil rights or stand openly on street corners decrying those forces which threaten the safety and well being of members of his congregation, community and country. He may not openly hoist placards to defy the powers that be, but each time a pastor goes to the hospital to visit a sick or dying person whose long term social dis-eases due to poverty or unemployment or some other form of human dislocation amplifies and mutates into long term physical disabilities, afflictions or diseases, and each time he or she visits the emergency room to comfort persons who have been victimized by gun violence, domestic violence or environmental violence where people have become sick from living near toxic waste dumps in their neighborhoods or  experience some form of  racial violence, or each time she or he deals with the devastating and disproportionate impact of what Robert McAfee Brown calls “structural violence,”which means dealing with people who are woefully undernourished or dying from malnutrition because they can’t get nutritionally sufficient foods to eat coupled with not having a home to live and stay warm in, which means they often have to be fed, clothed and housed by local churches, or they experience economic violence where persons are not gainfully employed and cannot adequately care for their families; each time a pastor writes a character reference for a young person required to do community service as penance for a misdemeanor or stands in a court room to provide a character witness or advocacy for a youth, adult or young adult who have been denied procedural justice, distributive or restorative justice and given only punitive or retributive justice in the criminal justice system or has been falsely accused of some crime that he or she did not commit; and each time he or she goes to prison or jail to visit a inmate, parishioner or family member of a member of the church or goes to the funeral home to stand with parents of children who have been gunned down in cold-blood; and each time he or she feeds the hungry or donates blood to the Red Cross or engages in some other healing, saving, redeeming or meaningful acts on behalf of a parishioner in his church or stranger on the street, that pastor is an individual activist-advocate; a Civil Rights, Human Rights, Spiritual Rights and Human Dignity activist-advocate for the people he or she is called to serve because he or she is making a difference personally and locally in the lives of the people that other people don’t know or even care about knowing.

Any person pastoring a church and caring for a congregation is a priest-prophet-activist-advocate, who sacramentally and elementally stands up for the rights, dignity and well being of his or her people and the members of their families and communities. They are not armchair pastors, avoiding fighting the good fight on the collective front lines of human freedom and human dignity because they have nothing else to do. They are actively engaged in the lives of their congregants 24-7, and you can rest assured they are standing up individually for someone somewhere who has lost something of value like a job or a home or somebody they knew and loved and are hurting and suffering untold pain from that loss. Those pastors are working quietly behind the scenes and engaging in the laborius work of mending lives and caring for the least of these who need care the most while society in its hardened cultures of violence and cruelty, says Henry Giroux, are vindictively stripping away that care and declaring that “those people” don’t deserve or are entitled to that care.

Leaders who speak truth to power and prophetically shepherd movements on the macro level are serving larger numbers of people who have been the victims of macro-aggression by larger entities or organizations, that is to say, those incurring violations in numbers. They have the national spotlight which are optimum forms of disclosing the critical issues which bring harm to numbers of people everyday and often effect the most immediate positive change for them. Thank God for social media. Such advocacy and prophetic witness are highly important.

But many of the issues local pastor activist-advocates meet head on each day are faced on the micro level and are also piercingly devastating. Such work is far beyond the cameras and the spotlights, but are just as important in caring for and providing advocacy by meeting the needs of the oppressed, hurting and ailing people in this land.

God bless the leaders and people who have a larger stage upon which to do their important work, but let’s not forget leaders and people on a smaller stage who are also deluged with the everyday work of saving and redeeming lives in God’s name and helping people locally.

This notion that pastors of local churches are not activists and need to do more for Civil Rights misses the truth about the type and scope of work pastors are already doing daily to actively meet the needs of their congregations which are often suffering from the same evils and problems locally which harm the well being of their parishioners, rob them of dignity and degrade their humanity as those who are experiencing such harm collectively and on a larger scale.

Both models of activist-advocacy go back to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The pre-Easter Jesus was in many respects a non-violent pastor-prophet- priestly-healer-freedom fighter-activist for the lost sheep of the House of Israel contextualized in a Kingdom of God ministry. Jesus initially led a renewal movement for Israel which later morphed into an empowerment crusade for the Gentiles and other people under the leadership of the Apostle Paul who for many is a co-founder of Christianity.

Jesus understood that all politics was local and what he did in first century Palestine in those provinces which smarted under Roman domination and imperial rule, was to give the people a glimpse of God’s coming Kingdom where social inequality, slavery, oppression, sickness, social dis-ease and physical disease and every other form of social, political, spiritual and economic dispossession and disinheritance would be finally abolished. He witnessed to and served them personally, face to face, one on one and one by one, away from the large crowds, beyond the gaze of the spotlight which was more intimate and deeply personal. Jesus even admonished many of those he healed to not tell anyone what they experienced lest he be targeted for violating certain laws of the time which forbade those without the proper religious and political credentialing and authority to heal the sick and “raise the physically, spiritually, mentally, relationally and morally dead. It was this Kingdom of God ministry which ultimately led to his crucifixion-assassination.

Jesus of Nazareth epitomizes a kind of activism on behalf of the poor, oppressed and dispossessed. He was very concerned about those systems of devaluation which honored some by according them full rights and privileges but shamed others by essentially confiscating their basic human and civil rights. He was compassionately concerned and thus realized that the people needed his ministry in the villages and small towns where they lived and struggled for life and health each day. Jesus never even went to a big city like Jerusalem until the end of his ministry. He never had a larger platform from which to do his Kingdom work. The point is without his local-away-from-the-limelight work-there would be no national work for renewal and change which helped set the stage for the emergence of a larger movement for positive change in the Holy Roman Empire and beyond.

Even the post- Easter, post-resurrection Christ took on another more powerful reality and gained a far larger audience for what would become the Christian faith by his ascension into Lordship and deification as Jesus the Christ on earth and in heaven, but such apotheosis never cancels out completely his prophetic claims for the advent and implementation of a greater kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. But still as a pastor activist-advocate, the Jesus of history’s platform was very small and paled in comparison the people he healed and saved as Jesus the Christ of faith.

So let’s not be too quick to put down ministers of congregations who are quietly braving and doing the hard work on the local levels to mend the shattered and broken people in our land who often have no voice and cannot be seen or heard but still need their rights, healing, redemption, liberation and salvation. It’s not just work on the aggregate level of society which is important but that which occurs on the personal level which is also important.

The human dignity and freedom and sovereignty struggles on the individual personal level of which we speak can even be observed in Jesus admonition to turn the other cheek in resisting various forms of evil. Walter Wink in his book Jesus and Nonviolence A Third Way, reminds us that Jesus statement to turn the other cheek must be understood in the context of people suffering under the domination system of Rome as Empire. Turning the other cheek is a form of resisting evil and refusing complete humiliation by those in power but is not an admonition to not fight against evil. Evil must be resisted non-violently. “If a person strikes you on your right cheek turn to him your left.” The only way that a person could strike the right cheek would be with his right hand and not the left because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. To strike one on the right cheek in a right handed society meant striking with a backhand. This call to turn the other cheek is not a declaration of war but a way of resisting conflict between unequals, a way of gaining temporary parity between the higher ups and lowers rungs of society. It is a backhand which slaps people into their place; masters backhanding slaves, superiors backhanding subordinates and so forth. When the right cheek is slapped and the left cheek is also offered as a means of declaring temporary equality between a subordinate and a person of rank in society, a virtual equality is momentarily realized by the person who has been slapped. He is not at all diminished by the backhand but may be accustomed to it in a hierarchical society. The expendables and so called inferiors must find ways of fighting back; they must preserve personal dignity and individual sovereignty in an oppressive and unequal society. By turning the other cheek, the subordinate has kept his dignity. He has refused violence to redress his concerns with his superiors. He has gained a measure of pride to live with dignity for another day in the Empire.

The concept of nonviolent resistance advocated by Jesus was taken by Gandhi and used by Martin Luther King Jr as core values of the Civil Rights movements on the macro levels in India and America, but during Jesus time had its original power and import on the local, personal level in the lives of everyday people. What happens locally is also important because of its implications for society as a whole.

My point is that when we criticize pastors for not being active on the front lines of the movement because so many pastors in the Civil Rights era were, comparatively speaking, able to serve their churches and still participate in the national movement, please remember that pastors who are working locally for the people on the back lines and in the back washes of the communities and neighborhoods they serve are also engaging a form non-violent personal activism-advocacy whose primary focus, much like activism on the national level, must be sustained over the long haul. Activism and advocacy often originates locally as we stand up for justice and peace in the personal lives of everyday people.

We must also remember that local pastors doing civil rights work means taking on enormous responsibilities for service which often takes them away from the daily duties of ministry. Without good associate or assistant pastors to help with pastoral care duties for their members, many of those ministers would not have been able to spend as much time in the movement without falling short of essential member care duties in their churches.

Many pastors today are the sole bearers of their ministry work load. By the time they finish any given day they scarcely have time or energy to engage in additional work especially when their families who are already paying a large price in terms of sacrifice are demanding more and more of their time.

Because pastors are serving in those personal realms of pain and injustice which demand every ounce of their time, energy and strength each day, their acts of grace and healing should never be discounted as failures to be activists or advocates for those who are hurting, dispossessed and in great need.

Surely, we need both forms of activism on all levels of society to bring healing, peace, freedom, equality, justice, wholeness and human dignity for all people everywhere and at all times. But never underestimate the level of personal activism-advocacy pastors already commit in carrying out their ministry duties to their local congregations each day. The local work of saving, healing and advocacy through activism is highly important and never really ends but is greatly needed to complement the work pastors, leaders and people are doing nationally to serve the larger causes of rights activism.

It would be ideal for local pastors to join in the fight on the national level for human dignity and human rights, but meanwhile they must care for those who are hurting and dying in their congregations; those who need to hear from and see God and his kingdom personally and intimately. Let us remember the importance of their work in eradicating hopelessness, pain, suffering and the loss of those whose names may never be known or heard but whose lives also matter in the total scheme of things as the storms of life are raging.

We thank God for pastors, leaders and people; activists and advocates both nationally and locally who include every soul willing to spend time to speak for those who cannot speak, to serve those who cannot and are not served and to stand up for those whose voices need yet to be heard in a society that would quickly victimize, forget and dismiss them  entirely as unworthy. They still deserve love, justice and peace, healing, redemption and amazing grace everyday they have life in their families, neighborhoods, communities, congregations and nation and in the world itself for all time.



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