The Theology of Advocacy for the Persecuted

on November 30, 2018

Part One: Pleading the Cause Like Abraham and Moses

As Christians we are called, given a mandate actually, to be advocates.

You well know that Christians are called to be Christ to the world. You may know the Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no hands but our hands.” And if you’re old enough, you may remember the praise song “We are Gathered as the Body of Our Lord” that says, “We’re the hands, we’re the feet, we’re the ears, we’re the eyes.”

Advocacy from a Christian theological perspective includes many avenues such as pleading the cause of the poor, trafficking victims, refugees, victims of anti-Semitism, and persecution of people of other faiths – all important areas for advocacy. But I believe the one that needs the most exploration (and participation) is this: being an advocate for our Christian brothers and sisters who suffer for the sake of the Gospel. The mandate that I mentioned above is Galatians 6: 10 which instructs us to “do good to all” but “especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

So what exactly is an advocate, and what are the characteristics that make a good advocate?

An advocate is one who is called to plead on someone else’s behalf, who pleads the cause of another. Or one who supports or promotes the cause of another. We know, of course, of the use of the term in the legal profession. And that use goes way back. A mid-14th century etymology defines advocate as “one whose profession is to plead cases in a court of justice.” It is a technical term from Roman law and from the Old French avocat or “barrister.”

But when you add the spiritual dimension, there is even more to say about being an advocate. And rather than being a professional title, “advocate” becomes a spiritual calling that entails focusing outside of one’s self for the sake of others.

The first place to go to explore the spiritual dimensions of advocacy is, of course, The Bible. The concept of advocacy is found in both the Old and New Testament, in a variety of interesting ways, using both men and women. Their speech and actions demonstrate various aspects of a good advocate. In Part One of this article I will focus on two examples from the Hebrew Bible, Abraham and Moses.

In Genesis 18: 23-33, Abraham pleads, or more accurately, barters, with God. God reveals to Abraham that he intends to destroy the city of Sodom because “their sin is exceedingly grave.”

First, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom for the sake of 50 righteous people.

Talk about audacity! Abraham “comes near” and challenges the God of the Universe, saying “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

And God says okay! If He finds 50 righteous men, He won’t destroy the city.

Then Abraham gets a bit worried because he’s seen Sodom! There may very well not be 50 righteous men there. He continues, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, will You destroy the whole city because of five?” And again, the Lord of the Universe answers Abraham and says, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.”

You know how it goes. Abraham’s advocacy gets God down to the willingness to spare the city for ten righteous men! Unfortunately, those ten righteous men are not to be found. But Abraham shows us that:

  • Advocates are BOLD

It takes boldness to fight on behalf of others! Even if we don’t have to debate the Lord of Universe, we may have to debate and/or counter Washington lobbyists and foreign policy elites – and some of them think they are God! So how can you be that bold?

  • Advocates have FAITH

Not in themselves, but in God. Abraham is a great example of this kind of faith. He is in the Hall of Heroes, the Rock Stars of Faith, listed in the Book of Hebrews for the many steps of faith that he took. And the James 2: 23 says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

James goes on in the same verse to say that Abraham “was called God’s friend.” This shows us another characteristic of an effective advocate:

  •  Advocates have INTIMACY WITH GOD

You will remember that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son, the son who was the promised one that God had given to him and to Sarah who would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on earth. Only because of Abraham’s intimate friendship with God could he know that God loved him and loved Isaac, and he could trust God in the face of such an unthinkable request. (By the way, do you know that when God says to Abraham “take your son, your only son, whom you love. . .” it is the first time that love is mentioned in the Bible!)

Then there’s Moses. He is an advocate for the Hebrew people. Moses also had intimacy with God. Exodus 33: 11 shows the extent of that intimacy in that is says that the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And Moses had boldness, as well.

When the people turn their back on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to worship a golden calf, God is ready to wipe them off the face of the earth and start over again. He says to Moses, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

But Moses reminds God of His past deliverance of this people, boldly asking Him:

Why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ 

And after Moses’ advocacy, the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. Not only was Moses bold, but his boldness was wise because he repeated God’s own words and covenant to him.

  • Advocates understand the significance of HISTORY

Rather than thinking, “At this point, what difference does it make?” advocates remember the past and understand its significance. They see that the events of the past have ramifications on the present and on the future. As Christian advocates we should understand and see the significance of the movement of God in history.

One example of this is in the Save The Persecuted Christians coalition that was launched in February of this year. Those of us who formed this coalition have modeled our campaign after the campaign to Save Soviet Jews of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. We remember the past. This was another persecuted and oppressed people for whom advocacy opened the door. And advocacy did not just open the door for allowing Jewish people in the Soviet Union to leave, but ultimately helped lead to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. This was, indeed, a move of God. Remembering this and learning the lessons of history encourage us to believe in such moves of God in present time.

Finally, from Moses we also learn that:

  • Advocates are POLITICALLY SAVVY in dealing with the powerful!

Moses pointed out to God that if He killed the Israelites then, after leading them out of Egypt and into the wilderness, the Egyptians would be able to say “Ah hah! So that’s the kind of God the Hebrew people have!” Similarly, advocates for persecuted Christians around the world need to look for ways in which to exploit the desire to look good, or to be benevolent, of those with the power to change situations for the persecuted.

It doesn’t always work. Some of the powerful and ruthless leaders of the world have no desire to look good – at least not in the way in which our moral compass says is good. In that case, advocates need to find another incentive. Looking again at the Save Soviet Jews campaign there is an example that worked for many years as an economic incentive. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, sponsored by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and U.S. Representative Charles Vanik. This tied non-market economies’ access to the Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status to their human rights and willingness to allow emigration.

I believe that this example also informed the provisions for the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). IRFA set up a tier system for countries in regards to their religious freedom or lack thereof. That Act incentivized some nations to try to avoid being put on the Country of Particular Concern (CPC) list. And the technique is used by both the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

There are many other examples in the Hebrew Scriptures – the prophets Samuel, Jeremiah, and Amos were all advocates. But not all Biblical advocates were men!

In Part Two of “The Theology of Advocacy for the Persecuted” we will look at Esther, along with a lesson from the Book of Job.

(See Part Two)

(See Part Three)

(See Part Four)

(This article is based on a speech given at the Providence Journal’s conference on Christianity & National Security: Exploring Church Teaching on Government’s Divine Vocation. The video of the speech and all the speeches at that conference will soon be available.)

  1. Comment by William "Bill" Paul on December 1, 2018 at 6:58 pm

    God can and does use our hands, our feet, our words, etc.,. And we should ask God to do so. Granted. But as many, including the late John Webster of St. Andrews, formerly Lady Margaret Prof at Oxford, have said, the problem with the saying “God has no hands but ours” just isn’t true if it’s meant, as surely it is, to deny God’s agency independent of us; or, to put it another way, such a claim, while trying to rally the troops for service, gives us to lush a roll in God’s salvation.

  2. Comment by Faith McDonnell on December 6, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    I’m glad that nobody means that. To put it another way, it is about setting off a few firecrackers under the cozy cots of the “troops” in the American churches.

  3. Comment by William "Bill" Paul on December 6, 2018 at 9:17 pm

    No, respectfully, I think plenty of people do in fact think that our agency is God’s agency in to to and their language gives it away. I can appreciate and agree with your point that the intent may be to set off firecrackers. I said as much. But the equation of us with Christ is everywhere in my denomination, TEC, with a close by Bishop often saying without any qualification “you are the risen Christ!” To cite just one example akin to the deployment of the saying from Julian of Norwich. I could probably come up with a dozen others that one way or another give us the lush role in salvation that ought to be accorded only to Christ. I’m with you in wanting the troops to get going.I do it week-in and week-out in a very mission-minded congregation that does amazing things. I’ll stick with the prayers of those saints who said use me Lord, use my hands use my feet etc etc;)

  4. Comment by Shelley Rose Neese on February 6, 2019 at 9:58 am

    This is incredible! I am deeply moved.

  5. Comment by Faith McDonnell on February 7, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    Thank you so much, Shelley! I hope and pray that we can move more American Christians to advocacy and intercession for their brothers and sisters.

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