A 2023 invitation

Did you make any new year’s resolutions? Are you on track? Or have you had some early hiccups? I’ve been speaking to lots of people over recent months who share a common goal for 2023. They’re looking for positive and practical ways to make a real difference in hurting communities – locally and globally.

They want to be known for what they are for – not what they’re against. Maybe you share this inner yearning? Maybe 2023 is a year for you to dive deeper into advocacy and pursuing justice for others who often voiceless in our communities? Maybe you want to be like Bill?

I recently spoke with a lovely man in his seventies. I will call him Bill. With tears in his eyes, Bill told me: “I have grown up as part of the silent majority. I have kept quiet. I haven’t rocked the boat. I have played it safe. But now I feel ashamed. I see that my silence has fostered injustice. It’s time for this old man to find his voice.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes. I thanked Bill for his vulnerability and courage. I held his hand, looked him in the eye and reminded him that it’s never too late to raise your voice and get your hands dirty in a broken world. Within days of that conversation, Bill had signed up as a volunteer at a local refugee support centre and posted on social media for the first time about the hurt and pain his trans grandchild was experiencing. I look forward to what God will do in and through Bill’s life in 2023 and beyond.

The inspiring John Lewis, speaking of injustice said: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.”

One week into 2023, some of us may be on track with our new year’s resolutions. Others of us may have already faltered. Some of us may still be pondering what changes, practices or priorities we may want to put in place this new year. I sense many of us are looking for practical ways we can make a real difference in hurting communities – locally and globally.

Can I encourage all of us to consider how we might practically embrace John Lewis’ challenge and be committed to living as advocates for others in 2023. That’s a resolution that can change the lives of people living with injustice, as well as our own!

For some, this will be a renewal of a long-held commitment to pursuing justice; to living as an advocate for those living with injustice.

For some, like Bill, it will mean intentionally stepping into new territory. It will take courage. It will mean moving beyond comfort zones. It will mean listening, learning, becoming vulnerable, getting to know and stand alongside people you feel burdened to support. It will mean finding your voice.

Advocacy always begins with courage.

Lewis, an African-American Baptist pastor, civil rights hero, 17-term US congressmen and Presidential Medal recipient said: “You cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.” Brene Brown says: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

I love that thought. The real Bill is being seen in his local community as he courageously pursues his growing heart for justice.

I continue to meet people, just like Bill, who speak of an inner yearning to be true to their convictions. They have seen themselves as part of the silent majority but they feel increasingly challenged to make a stand on issues that matter. They want, as Brown writes, to show up. They speak of their yearning to make a positive stand for change, given their increasing discontent with the intentional fostering of fear and divide by some politicians, media outlets and  Christian and nationalistic organisations. They want to be known for who they are for, rather than against.

Bill’s post about his trans grandchild rattled the cage. He was encouraged by the love and kindness of many. He was horrified by the vitriol of some. Advocacy always rattles the cage. It makes others feel uncomfortable. It can come at a cost. I was told I would need to be silent on some issues to stay in a previous role. This was a compromise I couldn’t make, particularly given the value I place on the Baptist distinctive of liberty of conscience.

Yes, we should always be willing to listen to and respect the views of others. We should always expect some will disagree with us. We should respectfully allow others to present counter opinions. We will not always be right. As Bishop Tutu said we should seek to disagree with others peacefully.

But as Tutu highlighted, that doesn’t mean failing to take a stand against injustice when we see it. “If we are neutral in areas of injustice, we side with the oppressors,” the one-of-a-kind African gift to humanity said.

Advocacy is born out of proximity and gut-felt compassion. That’s the Jesus response in the gospels. It flows from a God-given burden for people. I am inspired and encouraged when I read that Jesus got close to people with great needs and the Scriptures captures this with statements like “Jesus saw the woman”, “Jesus saw the man”. God breaks into human history and love with skin on sees real people, with real stories and real needs. Jesus’ gut is moved as he comes alongside people in need, as he hears their cries for help.

We have all been wired differently and this will foster passion for different justice and mission causes. This is a beautiful thing when fostered in faith communities. But let’s remember that pursuing justice is not about a cause or about us. It’s about others – real people – individuals, families, communities and nations impacted by inequity, racism, poverty, violence, oppression, discrimination, bigotry, exploitation and corruption.

African-American law professor, death-row lawyer and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson powerfully reminds us that living as an advocate and pursuing justice requires proximity. We need to come alongside people. We need to know their names, hear their stories, identify with their needs, serve them and understand their hopes and dreams.

Senator Rev Raphael Warnock, who counted John Lewis as a mentor, said in his recent re-election victory speech: “I’ve learnt as a pastor you can’t lead people unless you love people and you can’t love people unless you come alongside them. And as you come alongside them and know them.”

At the beginning of 2023 may we hear again the ancient prophet’s invitation and challenge: “To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”

What does putting those words into action look like for you in 2023?

Where do you feel your gut moved for others? Where can you be an advocate for others? An agent for positive change? What does proximity and genuine engagement look like for you?  What might the next conversation be? The next step?

May we all be fuelled with courage and conviction in 2023 to respond, as Lewis put it, to things that we know are not right, not fair, not just!

And as Bryan Stevenson says: “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice”. We all have the opportunity in 2023 to inspire hope in others as we stand alongside them seeking justice and change.

 

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