"The first form of justice for the oppressed is the outcry against injustice—the expression of pain and anger and rage". As Church, our first act of justice is to hear that outcry and our second act is to respond. It's not always easy to know how. One way is to advocate for change.
Over the past twenty five years, I have been involved in many different kinds of advocacy. The experience has been diverse: involving representation of Her Majesty the Queen and the lowliest of her subjects, prosecuting homicides and defending evictions, bringing test cases designed to challenge laws and programs as being discriminatory and unjust and representing in routine appeals of denials of public benefits as well as policy and law reform activities and community development activities and campaigns. One theme that runs through all of this is seeking justice through enabling the outcry of those who were victimized, marginalized and oppressed.
In the context of the Church, the purpose of advocacy is to transform the unjust structures of society to develop relations that are more equitable and respectful of human dignity and creation itself. To further this end, our service ministries should not only ensure access to things like food and shelter and fellowship, but be a way to transform our relationships with those members of our communities who we seek to serve.
This means working with those who access our community centres, daycares, breakfast programs, thrift shops, food banks, overnight shelters, hospitality programs and other social services to reduce the harmful impact of oppression or injustice which may result in psychological damage and material deprivation and working with them for positive personal and societal change.
Personal transformation and social transformation when carried out together helps us to see the connection between private/individual problems and the structural or systemic source of the trouble. This makes the connection between our call to loving service of those in need and prophetic social justice making through explicitly recognizing the responsibility to address injustice at the level of the individual while recognizing that it is rooted in the unjust structures of society that must also be changed.
It should be a strength of the Church that the work on behalf of individuals informs our advocacy work. And likewise, the work on behalf of the individuals should be informed by our awareness of the political, social, cultural and structural context of those we are seeking to assist.
We should see the work of the many dedicated volunteers engaged in service ministries at the parish level "as an integral element of the larger movement of social transformation" and as important as the advocacy work that goes on in partnership with people who are experiencing injustice or oppression and with other agencies, movements and coalitions committed to social change.
People with lived experience of poverty, racism, violence and other sources of oppression must be the agents of their own change and be empowered to find and make their voices be heard in their outcry against injustice so that they themselves can be a part of the political discourse and action for change.
In supporting those who seek to find their voice we must be sensitive to the impact of oppression on them such as feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem, loss of personal identity, fearfulness, powerlessness, anger, alienation, guilt, isolation and ambivalence. Oppression when it has been internalized may also result in self-blame and feelings of being at fault. Too often our society 'pathologizes' issues as being personal trouble resulting from poor choices or inherent weaknesses of character instead of acknowledging and responding to the structural source of these troubles.
In providing services and supports we must be careful not to reproduce oppressive patterns and relationships or to be judgemental. A part of being in respectful relationship is to recognize that "professional knowledge is not to be privileged over knowledge gained from lived experience." At all times we should work together with those with lived experience to solve problems in a non-authoritarian way. We should be striving for egalitarian and participatory relationships in all aspects of our lives. The value of the mutual learning that will happen will be quickly apparent.
While acknowledging that skills and resources to build relationships that enables the empowerment of those with lived experience to be their own agents of change are limited, a way to get started is to involve the users of services, those with lived experience of injustice, in driving all aspect of the services the Church provides at the parish level and at the Diocesan level.
Inclusion of people with lived experience in the justice and service ministries "involves helping them to define their own needs, to develop the skills and vocabulary to articulate those needs, to gain access to public forums to address the structures of power and domination, and to help legitimize these authentic voices by supporting them in every way possible."
In turn, we will be inspired by their courage and resilience and benefit from their experience and skills in responding to and overcoming adversity. Acting together will make us better servants and also enhance our credibility and legitimacy as advocates.
There are models of participation that have been developed to incorporate the voices of persons with lived experience in poverty eradication work, those of survivors of violence against women in eliminating violence, those who experience mental illness in advocating for patients' rights and the work going on in the context of reconciliation. These models can provide a starting point for looking at our parish and Diocesan committees, groups and ministries to plan for ways to include the true experts on injustice, those with lived experience, in our prophetic social justice making journey.
Let's try responding to the outcry against injustice by being inclusive of those whose lives we seek to directly affect. ...