Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A Conversation with Mae Elise Cannon, Author of Beyond Hashtag Activism

Mae Elise Cannon/IV Press
Dr. Rev. Mae  Elise Cannon is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). Her ministry and professional background includes serving as the Senior Director of Advocacy and Outreach for World Vision-US, the executive pastor of Hillside Covenant Church (Walnut Creek, California), and consultant to the Middle East for child advocacy issues for Compassion International. 

She earned doctorates in History (Ph.D) and Spiritual Formation (D. Min). Her Ph.D focused on American History with the minor in Middle Eastern studies from the University of California – Davis. Cannon’s Doctorate of Ministry in Spiritual Formation is from Northern Theological Seminary. Cannon holds an M.Div. From North Park Theological Seminary, an M.B.A. from North Park University’s School of Business and Nonprofit Management, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University. Cannon completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Chicago.

You have had a long career in advocacy work. Your book, BEYOND HASHTAG ACTIVISM: Comprehensive Justice in a Complicated Age, deals with effective advocacy. Could you give a definition of advocacy, and what that looks like?

Many people say advocacy is about speaking up for others. On the one hand, this is true; advocacy is about elevating the voices of those who are often marginalized and whose voices aren’t heard in mainstream or broader society. However, we must be attentive to the pitfalls of believing that we have the ability to ‘speak for those without a voice,’ as this presumes people are incompetent or unable to speak for themselves. We must be sensitive to protect other’s individual autonomy while also not being oppressive in our attempts to advocate on behalf of those who may be suffering as victims of injustice. (Beyond Hashtag Activism, p. 15)

In your, book, BEYOND HASHTAG ACTIVISM, you write: "The reality is that those who are the most buried and suffocated by oppression and injustice often don't have a choice about whether or not to engage. People of color don't have a choice about whether or not to engage in the realities of racism because they suffer from overt forms of oppression and microaggressions on a daily basis in white-dominant contexts... People living in poverty don't choose whether or not to care about economic realities because if they wrestle with the effects of poverty, they won't have food for their families. Women threatened with sexual violence don't have a choice about whether or not they should care about gender equality and justice...However, even in the midst of these gross injustices, oppressed communities are often the most profound places to find hope." How is it that hope is often found within oppressed communities?

I think sometimes those who experience the greatest pain, sorrow, suffering, and oppression know what true joy tastes like so much more than others who might be more privileged and less exposed to suffering. When a person has experienced deep and penetrating pain, somehow the moments when light breaks through the clouds seem so much more redemptive. One might argue the greater the suffering one experiences, the greater the opportunity for that person to experience joy. This type of joy was expressed in my conversation with Sidney Muisyo from Kenya. He talked about how the communities that are the most impoverished are often the ones full of the most unadulterated joy at the simple things in life like human connection and time with family and loved ones.

I'm intrigued by what you call prophetic advocacy, which you define as "includ[ing] both spiritual and practical methodologies of directly responding to injustices we witness in the world." Why is it important to include a spiritual dimension to advocacy work? And to what extent does the lack of prophetic advocacy damage the focus of white evangelicalism's advocacy efforts?

I write about this question a lot in my book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action. One might ask - is there really a difference between secular and Christian advocacy? My response is YES! The spiritual dimension for those of us who choose to follow Jesus is where the fuel for our advocacy comes from. In a conversation recently with Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III we were talking about how to be sustained in the work of racial justice. He reminded me of the spiritual depth of heroes of the faith like Harriett Tubman, known as Momma Moses, who got her strength from her spiritual connection to God. With the atrocities she witnessed, her strength and fortitude were otherworldly and came from her connection to the divine through her spiritual beliefs and relationship with God.

Prophetic advocacy is painful and often penetrates the very heart of the lies that perpetuate injustice and privilege. In general, the advocacy efforts of white evangelicalism haven’t been willing to dismantle systemic issues of injustice like racism, sexism, and other sins. Rather white privilege and assumed supremacy have undergirded and upheld systems of injustice - making us (I am including myself intentionally in this confession) complicit in upholding racist systems.

You make the observation that: "Lament and repentance are necessary precursors to reconciliation. Too often, particularly within white communities, scriptures about being ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5) are used as an excuse to overlook individual and systemic racism. This does not mean that reconciliation should not be pursued. It just means that reconciliation must always be sought hand in hand with efforts towards justice." Especially given the recent Covid-19 situation, it seems like the world is in a position of lamenting, a lot. How do you think this unusual situation can actually help the advocacy process?

In many oppressed communities, one will hear the mantra “no reconciliation without justice.” Justice is about truth being told. Two parties or communities cannot be reconciled without truth. Thus justice and reconciliation must be both be pursued for either to truly come to fruition.

The realities of isolation and communities lamenting because of COVID19 definitely provide an opportunity for us to repent and “turn away” from our sinful past… however, we would be remiss to not acknowledge that COVID19 has and will continue to have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable. I wrote about that in this article published by the Christian Citizen and highlighted that the injustices and vulnerabilities that existed before COVID19 will only be further exacerbated as a result of this conflict.

In regards to the complex issue of immigration, you note that "the church has an opportunity to witness to the world about God's love, acceptance, kindness, hospitality and goodness through the way we welcome the refugee." And then you go on to tackle genocide. "Genocides around the world have long been instigated because of assumptions of racial or ethnic superiority... One of the only appropriate responses to these realities of brokenness, violence and evil within the church is to repent."  I'm curious if you see any connection between a seeming lack of compassion among the (white} evangelical American church and the assumption of superiority?

The Bible describes the situation when one lacks compassion and won’t turn from their evil ways as a “hardened heart.” Certainly, privilege and assumed superiority are ideologies that contributed to hardened hearts. We also see this in communities that have financial resources and wealth. When the rich are disconnected from the poor and do not have the opportunity to be in direct proximity to those who are suffering, they are able to ignore the suffering. This is part of why proximity is such a critical issue in terms of exposing all of us to communities who experience isolation.

I appreciate what you have to say about the thorny subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You quote from a speech that Vice-President Mike Pence gave to the Israeli Knesset, in which he said that the U.S. stood with Israel because 'we stand with Israel because "we believe in right over wrong; in good over evil, and in liberty over tyranny. " You go on to make the point that "What specifically is problematic with this language? It seems to indicate that the 'good' Jewish state of Israel (note that 80 percent of Israeli citizens are Jewish and 20 percent are Arab Palestinians) should triumph over 'evil.' The assumption is that the evil' forces are Arab Muslims who [according to the US view] seek only destruction... What is problematic is the complete avoidance of any legitimacy of the same rights [aspiration to return to their homeland] for Palestinian Arabs." You then site some powerful statistics as to the number of Palestinian refugees and the apartheid-like hold that Israel has maintained over the Palestinians.  What, in your opinion can the U.S. do to improve its deteriorating influence as a peacemaker?

Turn course. The current Administration’s foreign policy is detrimental to peace in the Middle East. This includes Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, but expands beyond to other parts of the Arab world as well. Even the former Secretary of Defense, General Mattis said if the realities of the Israeli occupation are not addressed the condition of the Palestinian territories will become apartheid. The Israeli Knesset is set to vote on the proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank in July. If annexation proceeds, which the current U.S. Administration supports, efforts toward a long term and just peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be obliterated. It is also important to acknowledge that preceding Administrations (both Democratic and Republican) have disproportionately favored the interests of the Israeli people, most of whom are Jews, over the aspirations of Palestinians. If we ever want justice, and a resolution to violent conflicts - the lives, human dignity, and aspirations of all people must be taken into account - without privileging one over the other. 

Is there anything else you'd like to mention?

Beyond Hashtag Activism was published the day after George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The book addresses police brutality, dismantling white supremacy and privilege, and calls us to stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and other movements that have been active for decades - if not centuries. I am so grateful for the many people who shared their stories and contributed to the book. And I am grateful to those who helped launch Beyond Hashtag Activism into the world at this pivotal moment. My hope and prayer is that the book will be a tool for the church as we seek and pursue beloved community. I hope people will read books by people of color first! But I also hope this book will be a resource for people who desire to dive deeply into research and theology about the many justice issues it addresses. I also would welcome people to listen to the accompanying #Activism podcast that interviews incredible Christian leaders like Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church, Rev. Dominique Gilliard, Nicole Morgan, and several others. 

For more information on Mae Elise Cannon, please click here.

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