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Tuesday, 23 October 2012 23:25

Advocacy: a Catholic tradition

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Christian Brother Shane Wood began his career as a teacher, school principal and administrator for over 20 years. His work at the Diocese of Broome in the areas of education and social justice opened his eyes to the plight of Aboriginal people. “It stirred me to want to learn more and to walk more closely with those affected by unjust structures,” said Br Wood. He is currently the Province Coordinator for Ministry in Developing Nations, for Social Justice and Advocacy and here he discusses the nature of Catholic advocacy.

Advocacy - a political process by an individual or a large group which normally aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions; it may be motivated from moral, ethical or faith principles or simply to protect an asset of interest.

Advocacy has a long and honoured history within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Prophets of the First Testament were past masters at it.  They saw the situation of the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the marginalised, and decided that they could not be faithful to the God they believed in and sit by without taking action. Some of their actions were rather dramatic. They were not afraid to ‘speak truth to power', even when the power rested with those in political or religious positions of authority.

The Prophets were keen to encourage people to cease exploiting the poor and to begin to act justly.  We see this time and again in Amos (seeking economic justice), Isaiah (seeking peace), Jeremiah (chastising religious and political leaders for their self-interest), and Micah (urging a return to justice and humility). Prophetic protest must be matched by strong advocacy.That is, prophets work to change policies and institutions that do violence or injustice. They challenge policy-makers. Sometimes they organize people to work more effectively on their own behalf. The Hebrew prophets took God's word directly to Israel's political leaders, and Isaiah and Jeremiah, to some extent, served as political advisors to the kings.Jesus the prophet called on the religious leaders of his time to change their practices and policies. 

Jesus was a strong advocate for those left ‘outside the Temple’, whether they were women, Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors, the sick, or the crippled.  His healing of their spirits (as much as their bodies) and sending them off to ‘show yourselves to the priests’ was a way of empowering them to seek their right to be included.  He also railed against the hypocrisy of the religious and political leaders who burdened the poor with expectations they were not willing to meet themselves. 

Following in this tradition, Religious all over the world, backed by the principles of a century of sound Catholic social justice teaching, are renowned for their walking closely with those who have been made poor, those on the margins of the mainstream, and amplifying their calls for inclusion and respect for their human rights.  This is no less the case in Australia.  This commitment to those ‘on the edge’ of society and even church, comes out of a spirituality grounded in the ‘dangerous memory of Jesus’ , and expressed in the various founding charisms (gifts) of their institutes.

A similar sense of spirituality is inspiring others to work for social justice.  I recently came across an abstract for an article describing a research project in these terms:  

The purpose of the present effort is to report on a research project investigating the relationship between one form of spirituality, connectedness with humanity, and tendencies toward social justice advocacy in a group of social work students. Results of the research suggest positive relationships between this form of spirituality and commitment to social justice advocacy and willingness to take individual action to combat injustice. 

So it seems that the idea has caught on!  Maybe it is the work of these same religious and their predecessors in the Catholic schools around Australia for over a century and a half that is still bearing fruit.  In any case, even though the average age of religious in Australia is moving towards the late sixties, their past work lives on in the committed actions of others.  Nevertheless, the religious themselves, even though many are retired from their former full-time ‘traditional’ ministries which offered direct service, are still in the front line of advocacy and social justice action through many organisations that work with refugees, Indigenous communities, asylum seekers, single mothers, trafficked women, and the list goes on.

Even those not able now to be involved in these activities, can still read and research, write letters to parliamentarians, local and national newspapers, make phone calls to local members and talkback radio programs, make their views known in parish discussion groups and gatherings of friends and family.  Because many of these religious are still in touch with their local communities, they hear the personal stories of those on the margins of our cities and country towns.  And we know that these personal stories can be a powerful means of moving even the toughest of politicians – as we saw during a recent refugee debate.  The opportunities for advocacy are everywhere, and the most powerful voter lobby group are the older Australians, simply by dint of their numbers.  ‘Grey power’ can be harnessed for much good in the area of advocacy. 

As Martin Luther King Jr., regarded by many as a modern day prophet and advocate, exhorted his hearers:

We must move past indecision to action. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who posses power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world... The choice is ours.