Individual articles from the Fall 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.
For more than 50 years, policy advocacy and public engagement in Canada and the United States have been integral ways MCC has carried out its mission of relief, development and peace in the name of Christ. MCC uses advocacy as a tool to address systemic causes of poverty, oppression and injustice. The advocacy network is comprised of the Washington, D.C., Office (started in 1968), the Ottawa Office (1974) and the United Nations Office in New York (1990). Building on MCC’s unique relationships with churches and community-based organizations around the world, the network is tasked with engaging decisionmakers on both national and international levels to address policies that contribute to poverty and injustice, as well as with offering proposals and affirming policies that can lessen suffering and promote justice, peace and human dignity.
This work has not been without controversy, including some Anabaptists raising concerns about how advocacy conforms to the proper role of Christians in relating to government authorities. In the years leading up to the opening of the Washington Office, MCC staff, board members and Anabaptist church leaders had hearty debates on the subject. Some preferred a “quiet in the land” approach, maintaining a strict two-kingdom theology that drew stark divisions between the church and the world. Others saw a less clear distinction between the “sacred” and the “secular” and argued that the church should instead set an example for the broader society. An MCC church-state study conference in 1965 concluded that “Where the church’s concern for human welfare overlaps with the state, in such areas as civil rights, the church will urge (1) an emphasis on just laws, which protect and uphold the human dignity of all citizens and (2) the fair and just administration of all such laws.” This approach helped lay the foundation for MCC’s future advocacy work.
Advocacy has also given MCC legitimacy on a local level, as MCC’s work in advocacy demonstrates a commitment to righting relationships distorted by war and legacies of colonialism and responding to partner realities. During the Vietnam War, recipients of MCC’s relief efforts urged MCC to advocate to the U.S. government to end the war. More recently, some partners in Palestine and Israel have expressed concern about only receiving humanitarian aid and support, stressing the importance of MCC being willing to speak publicly about Canadian and U.S. policies that perpetuate systemic injustice in the region.
MCC’s advocacy work is based on partner knowledge and experience and builds on grassroots peacebuilding and advocacy work already taking place in a variety of local contexts. Advocacy network staff meet regularly with MCC staff from around the world, who serve as a communications channel between partners and the network. Advocacy staff then pass on those communications to policy decisionmakers and to MCC constituent churches and supporters in Canada and the U.S. In some cases, the offices may speak on behalf of those who are not able to do so directly, but they function primarily as a megaphone to amplify partner concerns. These relationships give legitimacy to MCC’s voice in Canada and the U.S. An Anabaptist faith witness also informs and guides the work of advocacy, as MCC’s commitment to nonviolence and to grassroots peacebuilding form the foundation through which MCC understands and speaks into policies.
In Ottawa, the connection between MCC’s program partners and its constituent churches is a pillar of the office’s work, with this connection fueling advocacy that strives to be relational. Education to encourage advocacy is a way to share stories and lived experiences, often between churches in the global south and the global north. Through awareness raising activities like the Mining Justice Campaign and A Cry for Home (MCC Canada’s campaign on Palestine and Israel), the Ottawa Office has connected people from around the world with Anabaptists in Canada, with the goal of learning that will lead to political action. For political change to take place, Canadians must understand global connections and the impacts of Canadian policies and then take action to encourage change. The Ottawa Office provides spaces for reflection and learning, including ways of communicating with elected officials. These acts of relationship building often take place through educational resources, such as fact sheets, blog posts, student seminars and social media. However, the Ottawa Office has also facilitated direct bridges between people, such as strategic learning tours to Palestine and Israel or encouraging Mennonite Brethren (MB) churches in Canada to visit MB churches in Colombia to learn about how the churches in Colombia respond to conflict in their country, a conflict exacerbated by the presence of Canadian extractive industries.
The Washington Office functions similarly. From its humble beginning in space rented from the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the office has long recognized that it brings a small but distinctive voice to “the empire.” Congressional foreign policy staff generally welcome the opportunity to hear from MCC staff and partners, with many saying that it gives them more insight into what is happening on the ground in various countries than what they can get from news sources or the U.S. diplomatic corps. The Washington Office works closely with and values ecumenical and interfaith advocacy colleagues. But on occasion, the perspective provided by MCC’s partners has led to a different emphasis than what our D.C. colleagues are supporting. A recent example is the advocacy carried out by some colleagues in Washington to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Syria for the purposes of civilian protection. While understanding that perspective, MCC continues to advocate for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria, following the lead of our partner organizations within the country. As is the case in Ottawa, the Washington Office also devotes significant time to ensuring that church members in the U.S. are informed about U.S. policies and have the tools they need to take action.
As Christians, if we believe that Christ is indeed Lord of all, that includes the powers and principalities described in the first chapter of the letter to the Colossians. Our faith cannot be confined to the private sphere. It spills out into the public sphere as we call on our governments to implement more just and peaceful policies. This work for systemic justice, following in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, is often less obvious than sharing a cup of cold water (Matthew 10:42). But as MCC’s partners in the U.S., Canada and around the world have made clear, it is no less important.
Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach was director of MCC U.S.’s office in Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2020. Anna Vogt is MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office director.
A theory of change for MCC’s work
How does MCC understand change? At the level of specific education, food security, health, livelihoods, humanitarian assistance and peacebuilding initiatives, a variety of localized factors help determine what will effectively bring about desired changes. So, for example, when seeking to improve food security outcomes for displaced peoples, MCC and its partners use a variety of approaches to bring about change, from giving displaced families cash disbursements to vouchers to monthly food baskets, with each of those approaches emerging from context-specific determinations about what will contribute to change in each situation.
While MCC can thus be said to have multiple context- and sector-specific theories of change at the project level, more fundamentally MCC has an overarching theory of change captured by core commitments (referred to internally as operating principles), which name key dimensions that MCC considers essential for durable change: who is involved in lasting change and where and how it comes about. These core commitments, fleshed out below, encapsulate MCC’s conviction that lasting change often requires long-term dedication and happens when all members of a community connect across lines of difference to actively participate in shaping and implementing visions for just social, environmental and economic structures.
Serve in the name of Christ: Undergirding all of MCC’s program is the conviction that when people serve in the name of Christ, change can happen, with God’s Spirit taking our incomplete and sometimes fractured attempts to follow Jesus’ example and using and transforming those efforts for the purposes of God’s reign. All of MCC’s other core commitments are rooted in this foundational commitment to service in Jesus’ name.
Accompany the church and other partners: MCC believes that local communities are best positioned to identify community assets and needs and to determine what types of changes or outcomes towards which they want to work. Local institutions and organizations within those communities that have the trust of community members are essential to the process of identifying, planning for and mobilizing efforts to realize desired change. Specifically, churches and other local faith communities are vital actors for bringing about change: they inspire and offer hope to communities with a theologically-rooted vision of peace, justice and reconciliation; they have a lasting presence within communities and relate to networks of other churches; they mobilize and motivate volunteer efforts; and they are influential shapers of community norms. MCC thus prioritizes long-term partnerships with community-based organizations, and particularly with churches and other local faith communities, because they are critical agents for bringing about lasting change.
Act sustainably: MCC understands human beings to be part of, rather than separate from, God’s good creation. MCC operates from the conviction that any type of lasting change must contribute to, rather than undermine, the sustainability of the ecological systems in which all human beings, including the communities with which MCC works, are enmeshed. MCC recognizes that ecological, social and economic sustainability are interdependent and are thus all essential for enduring change.
Build just economic relationships: Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, is with the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40), found among persons marginalized by economic systems. In his inaugural sermon (Luke 4:16-21), Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of the Jubilee year, with its promise of liberation from economic captivity and the radical transformation of unjust systems that oppress and exclude. Because Jesus is present and God’s Spirit is at work among the economically disenfranchised, MCC understands durable change not as something done to or for the poor, but rather as led by economically marginalized communities and shaped by their strengths and visions.
Connect people: In the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), God binds together a new people from diverse languages and backgrounds. The new creation inaugurated by God through Jesus connects people across various divides into a shared body. When people come together crossing lines of difference, the opportunity arises to learn from the rich diversity of humanity created in God’s image. From such learnings, positive changes in the lives of communities can emerge. MCC thus supports initiatives that create bridges of connection across difference.
Dismantle oppression: Lasting change occurs when the talents and gifts of all community members are valued and nurtured. Discrimination and oppression mar the dignity of persons created in God’s image and prevent the full use of God-given abilities. In its relief, development and peacebuilding efforts and through public policy advocacy, MCC works with partners to dismantle discriminatory and oppressive barriers so that all persons might use their talents and abilities to their fullest.
Practice nonviolence: As followers of Jesus, who taught his disciples to love their enemies, MCC believes that violent, armed conflict does not bring lasting and positive change. Entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19), MCC endeavors across its programs to bring about positive change by doing no harm, supporting peacebuilding efforts and integrating activities that transform conflict into its relief and development work. MCC also believes that lasting change flows from love and mutual care for one another, including “strangers” and “enemies.”
Seek a just peace: With the Psalmist, MCC understands lasting change within a vision of justice and peace embracing (Ps. 85:10). Inspired by that vision, MCC supports efforts that address the structural barriers that prevent broad participation and leadership in communities. MCC supports community-based efforts and public policy advocacy at local, national and international levels that build durable peace by naming, dismantling, and transforming structures of injustice and their legacies.
Developed by MCC’s international program directors in May 2018.