Advocacy: It’s More than Social Media

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, joins our host Chris Orme for the first episode of Season 3. Mae and Chris discuss different forms of advocacy, as well the spiritual formation that takes place through advocacy. 

The following is a transcript of Season 3 Episode 1 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

A few weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that at least six families must vacate their homes in Sheik Jarrah by Sunday, May 1, 2021. In total, 58 Palestinians living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, including 17 children, are being displaced so that Jewish settlers may take possession of their homes. The ruling of the court was the culmination of the decades-long struggle for Palestinians to stay in their homes that I witnessed on that tour bus back in 2009. 

Chris: Well hello friends we are back season three episode one of Do Justice and we’re excited to be together again for deep and meaningful conversations to help you navigate, just how to get through all of the issues that come and bombard us all of the issues that are important and demand our, our attention, and to look at the intersection of our faith and justice, and how that plays out, both in belief and practice. Excited to be back.

And today, so, so excited, grateful and humbled to have our new friend, my new friend. Reverend Dr Mae Elise Cannon with us.

Reverend Dr Cannon is the executive director of churches for Middle East peace. She’s an ordained pastor in the evangelical covenant church. She holds an MBA from North Park Theological Seminary and MBA and MA in bioethics from Trinity International University, and a doctorate in American history and we are so, so thankful to have her with us. Thank you for joining us today. Welcome.

Mae: Thanks, Chris. I’m excited about the conversation and have such great respect for the work of justice ministries with the Christian Reformed Church so work with a lot of your colleagues and I’m looking forward to our discussion.

Chris: Thanks May, so let’s just get into it a little bit. Tell us a little bit more about who you are about your work. And then I want to ask you something specific about the topic today we’re actually going to be talking about. Hashtag activism how to sort of navigate the space of social media.

But yeah, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do. 

Mae: Sure. Well, people are listening so they can’t see me but I’m a white woman who does work on biblical justice and racial justice and justice in the Middle East, and you know i think that that burning desire within me to understand God’s heart for justice came from a number of people who influenced my life, so I was raised south of the Mason Dixon line if people don’t know where that is.

I was raised in Maryland. Many people think that Washington DC is, you know, in the north, but anything south of the Mason Dixon line is pretty darn Southern, and a number of people from the time I was a very little girl that influenced me were African American, and I lived in this divided community where blacks and whites, you know, and this was in the 70s and 80s and 90s not the 30s 40s and 50s, where racial divisions were quite prevalent in my community and so having these incredibly beautiful people of color Invest in me. And planted seeds in me of the work that I do today.

Chris: Beautiful it’s such a yeah, a beautiful exercise and if you’re like me, it’s a humbling exercise to sort of look back and see who because of tapestry of people who have invested in me.

And it’s diverse and it’s different and it’s voices from all over and I’m fortunate to have that I’m sure you feel the same way.

Today we’re talking about social media activism or hashtag activism and you actually wrote a book. So you are, you’re the expert here today.

And I just want to start off like why why and how does this matter to our listeners, why is this something that we need to get into because I mean I’m, I’m the type of person I’m, I’m a consumer of social media, I’m not very active on my social media platforms. I’ll share some appeals from the work that I do, if I see a nice puppy, you know my kids are now at an age where they don’t want me to post anything about them anyway so I don’t post pictures of my kids, you know, but it’s it’s a really interesting sphere, right.

So, so how, why does this matter?

Mae: Sure.Well, I think, at a minimum, even if we don’t engage in social media we need to understand what a powerful, powerful tool it is around the world. So, in 2010 2011 for example I had the privilege of living in Jerusalem and working in the Middle East and people may not know the date but January 25 of 2011 was a historic year in the world, because it was a revolution of the Egyptian people that in large part was fueled by social media, it could not have happened had social media not been a tool, you had grandmothers and grandfathers, many who weren’t even I mean they were so elderly they weren’t very mobile and they call it the couch revolution because people would bring their couches, out of their homes on the street, so that grandparents and people who were, you know, not to this young activist, age, could come out and participate in this, regulatory, and you know experience of the Egyptian people and if people don’t understand what the revolution was about, it was about overturning a despotic regime that had been in power for decades, Mubarak, and, ultimately, it was successful, and for Christians, listening, I think one of the pieces that so interesting about that particular story is that the Egyptian revolution was undergirded by the prayers ofthe church. There were churches and there was a 24 hour prayer vigil that had been going on for years and years and years, praying for, you know, a new government.

Chris: Again, a beautiful picture. I think, one of, one of the things that appeals to me and this is let me tell you a little bit about who I am, I mean the idea that you can bring your coach to your revolution. You know, that’s just who I am, I’m kind of like, wow, I can bring my couch. That’s amazing. I mean huge. Yeah, globe shifting issues here. paradigm shifting issues.

And, yeah, just a powerful outcome, in that sense, thanks for that, I want to I want to move into your book a little bit, you know as Christians we look for ways to respond.

We, we look for, for ways to engage and, and in the book you mentioned different strategic avenues for advocacy.You talked about spiritually socially legally politically and economically, how, how can we lean into these different advocacy avenues as a way of meaningful change rather than just, you know, click Share fire and forget walk away?

Mae: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. What I love about the title of the book is it talks about Beyond Hashtag Activism and how you know social media as a starting point, but these types of advocacy, or what bring about systemic change, so I just was having dinner last night with a dear dear family friend who’s, um, you know, in her 70s and her family are farmers from Indiana and she was talking about the conservative ism within her family I mean her family votes on the issue of saving the lives of unborn babies and they vote on the issue of abortion and her perspective, she’s an agreement with them on that but her perspective in terms of politics is that there are other critical issues that need to be considered.

And she was talking about how in her family. You couldn’t even talk about voting in a different way, because it was such a heightened issue and so during this most recent election, you know when there was the opportunity to either reelect President Trump in the United States or to elect President Biden, she was saying about how it took so much courage for her to say, I think that there’s some other issues we need to pay attention to.

And that’s an example of social advocacy, which can be the most most most difficult to do in our own families because of, you know, how much heightened passion there is and, you know, family dynamics and all of those types of things.

So social advocacy is in this microcosm of our communities, and then extend that to doing political advocacy.

And I just got a note from someone I have a lot of people that write me notes that are very hateful they call me names they say terrible things, and I just got a note about this saying that I was leading people away from Jesus because I work with the White House. And my response was, Jesus cared about the lives of the poor and suffering and the White House has power to alleviate suffering and to not perpetuated by selling bombs and promoting war.

So, to me it you know if Christ is the Prince of Peace — which I very much believe him to be — our political advocacy is one avenue, not the only avenue,of many by which we can usher when we pray the kingdom of God when we pray, Thy will be done, when we talk about, you know, being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, using the structures that are power structures in the world to seek to bring about good to me seems very honoring to Jesus.

So, anyway, I hope that answers your question.

But that’s just one example of what comes to mind.

Chris: That’s all. Yes, that’s amazing. Like, what I what I hear, and I think yeah what what our listeners are concerned with is like well I want to follow Jesus but you’re saying yeah you follow Jesus into the center of some of these conversations into the center of of the power see where, where truth will be spoken to power. It seems like it seems like there’s a direct correlation like Jesus has goes into those spaces and speaks powerfully. And honestly, in those situations.

Mae: Yeah, I think, yeah, sorry, I just want to pause there for a minute because I think, how are we faithful followers of Christ in this moment, wherever we’re placed is at the heart of the question.

It’s at the heart of the question of if, if we aren’t being advocates for justice, when we witness injustice around us, who will be. And so I just, I think that you hit the nail on the head in terms of the questions that we need to be asking and praying about and seeking end our posture has to be a posture of humility.

I’m not going into the situation saying, I know the answer and the answer is A, B and C. So even in the introduction when you said you’re an expert. I always, I’m incredibly educated and the more I know the more I know that which I do not know.

And so having a posture of humility in these spaces, I think is critically important as well. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Be to be listeners as much as as we are, you know, speaking, I think that’s right.

Chris: Awesome. I’m a little sort of jaunt off of that so you’ve mentioned that the prayers of the church are also a vehicle for advocacy and activism.

And, you know, there, there are some folks who will be sort of concerned with, you know what does this activism, or what does this engagement look like as an individual, but corporately for the church, the church can also engage in these in this process. Can you tell me a little bit what what what could that look like for a corporate? Yeah, like corporate engagement of this you know we look at the individual level but you know some of our listeners are pastors some of our listeners are church leaders, what does that look like in the church?

Mae: So just to pick up on that example that I was talking about in Egypt, there was a church community that had 24 hours of prayer that went on for years, and I believe the church, prayed in like the church toppled and unjust government by the prayers of church I fundamentally believe that to be true. And we read stories and hear about that even happening in the United States. You may be familiar with the book the circle maker.In terms of about the the prayers of the church in terms of responding to the needs of communities. And I think that the power of God is so much greater than we know.

And so what does it mean for us to seek to tap into that by submitting ourselves in a posture of prayer, and we don’t know often if the prayer is going to change us more in terms of our perspective, or our engagement around issues.

But I think that it has the power to dismantle structures of injustice at the very very core, on a spiritual level. Yeah, yeah, yeah i mean when we talk about principalities and powers oftentimes that you know sort of what we’re talking about you know these systemic things that exists that that are principalities and powers yeah there’s a there’s a physical realm flesh realm where these things are enacted, and work out but yeah there is also that sort of spiritual space where yeah we can engage on that plane too.

Chris: this year has been incredibly unsettling, for lack of a better word, and it has brought polarization.

And the instant sharing of your opinion of anyone’s opinion can happen now just with one click. We don’t even have to think about it we can just say, blah blah blah, click Done. We respond to urgent events we we change our profile pictures. When stuff happens it happens on Facebook.

Here’s the question: has this sort of spotlight on our echo chamber The, the echo chamber reality that we’re all kind of in has it has it impacted your work and how.

Mae: Yeah, I think, echo chambers are one of the most dangerous aspects of social media and one of the most dangerous aspects of communities isolating themselves.

So when we’re in echo chambers we’re not in proximity with people who are suffering outside of our own context. And in that regard. Proximity is what transforms our heart to love our neighbor, you know when we hear you know Christ’s message to love God, to love our neighbor as ourselves, let alone to love our enemy, we often don’t even know who our enemy is because we’re so isolated from them and so in that regard.

The echo chamber idea you know people who watch news only from one new source, whatever it may be, on the, you know, political spectrum. That’s incredibly dangerous because it doesn’t allow us to learn, to grow the verse that I was praying over.

If it’s okay if I can share it in this context. Oh yeah.

The verse that I was praying over for our conversation was James chapter 1:19, because I think this is the answer to that question, be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry, human anger does not produce the righteousness that God requires.

And in that regard social media allows us to be pretty darn righteous and to drop those little excuse the metaphor social media bombs, where we drop a phrase we drop an expression we express our anger, and then we remove ourselves from it so we don’t see the consequences of the way it might hurt others, we don’t see the proximity of how it might be a violation of people who have, you know, different perspectives than ours.

And I think that’s a breach of community so that’s one of the great risks of engaging in social media.

Chris: The anger thing.

Yeah, I relate too. It’s, it’s easy to, it’s easy to be reactive in those spaces. And it’s easy to just sort of throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. When you walk away from it.

So I’m wondering, has, has anyone ever had their mind changed by social media. Has it ever worked?

Mae: Yeah. Um, so just a precursor as I answer that question. This wrestling with the anger and what’s it mean to engage in a righteous way.

The focus of my Doctorate of ministry, it’s in spiritual formation. And the question I sought to wrestle with is, what’s the spiritually transformative process of learning to love your enemy.

And the reason I felt like I wanted to engage in that is because I’ve never had more enemies than being present on social media and being present. You know my work focuses on Middle East peace.

And so I often say it’s a terrible recruitment tool, come and work with me and everyone will hate you.

Right. I mean, it’s like, we get criticized, we get criticized across the spectrum, and, you know, I think that there’s a sacredness of that space and I think that there’s a faithfulness in that space but how do we respond in a way that’s transformative which brings us to your question of, has anyone had their mind changed.

And, you know, I think, for me, social media is not the end all be all. but it’s the Beyond Hashtag Activism it’s the beyond social media. We’re social media can give us an invitation that then can allow us to be transformed.

So I’ll use an example of a movement that’s happening right now. You may be familiar.

January 6 was a big date in the United States, in terms of the, it’s called the interaction on the US Capitol building and I’m sure people are familiar and have seen pictures and that event happened, but then social media’s response to that event was so significant that now there’s a movement happening in the United States and in Canada and in an end there’s a response around the world to what’s called responding to Christian nationalism, beyond Christian nationalism and there’s a website called lamenting Christian nationalism, that seeking to address what happened at the US Capitol building on January six, and to say, what is the church’s responsibility and responding to that.

And so that’s an example where I feel like social media is a tool in the midst of that conversation.  I remember, I remember watching it so. So for our listeners, I think, you know, just for context I’m based out of Canada and.  And yet, I remember being on a call for work and someone said you got to go turn on the news you won’t believe what’s going on.  There’s a powerful image that came out of that, there’s there’s an image where there’s a flag with the former president’s name on it, a flag with a cross on it.

A big board that says Jesus on it, all sort of framed around a hangman’s noose that has been built in front of the Capitol, or, you know, as, as men are seeing that image and and thinking that was what the heck is going on.

Yeah. I don’t know if you saw there’s a video that’s available on YouTube, and it’s in one of the chambers, I believe it was the Senate Chamber of people praying, and the prayer that they are praying as appear that many of us would pray in our own churches I talked about the power of God and God’s omniscience and omnipresence and the greatness of God, and then it went on to continue praying for the elevation of the United States over others the elevation of one people group I mean really the focus on, you know, white supremacy and it was this prayer that took these truths of the gospel. On one hand, and integrated them with these horrific blasphemies of the thief on the other end.

And the reason I bring up that example is what’s happened since then via social media, I believe has been transformative. There was a prayer event on Ash Wednesday, launching us into the Lenten season it’s available on a website called say no to Christian nationalism I’m pretty sure that’s the website, and a group of us got together and said, not in the name of Jesus. And so we did this prayer service and several people joined in and thousands of people watched and then we did another prayer service.

On March, 26, which was a Friday right before Holy Week, and it was this powerful, powerful service of lament and repentance for the ways that Christian Christian people and Christianity in the United States was expressed, you know, so many people who are not Christian saw those videos and so what a potential damage to the witness of Christians and so to try to say, you know, that’s not our understanding of the person of Christ and so that’s why that website lamenting Christian nationalism began.

And now we’re trying to move beyond that and so there’s a hashtag you can follow beyond Christian nationalism and all of that I think is an example of social media being used to seek to change minds.

Chris: Wow. Yeah, I’m. Yeah, it’s it’s like, it’s like, what are they trying to take a bite out of an elephant, you know like, how do I start well I guess you just got to take the first bite and see what happens, you know like, let’s try and get through it.

Um, it’s a huge topic it’s it’s a huge topic and it’s nebulous and it’s kind of all over the place but you have brought such clarity and direction, I think.

I wish we had another two hours to talk to talk together and I hope that you’ll come back and spend some time with us. I know I have so much more to learn and I’m excited to continue to dig into your work and learn more from you.  Before you know as we come to a close here maybe for our listeners who, you know, maybe they’re just dipping their baby toe into the pool.

Maybe they’re just, you know, sitting on the edge of the pool ready to start to get into this what what do you say to that person as kind of like a first step, or a guiding principle. To get started, in this realm of advocacy of activism of justice. What’s the on ramp look like?

Mae: Well, I think sometimes the things that actually stir our spirit the most and make us the most angry are places where God wants to do work within us, either to use us to bring about constructive change or to be transformed within us.

And so, my encouragement to people listening would be to pay attention to where your blood boils, pay attention to what keeps you up at night, pay attention to the questions that are stirring in your spirit.

And then if I may just suggest a response to that of, Lord, teach me Your ways or Lord, show me things I don’t know, or, or what’s it mean, you know, so then what’s our starting point for where we’re getting information about that issue or that concern.

And how do we expand that and maybe we’ll expand it and be introduced in proximity to people that will only reinforce our ideas and that’s okay. But if we have this posture of learning that often those things that tweak us are places where healing is needed or transformation is needed, or we’re uniquely equipped, you know, to help bring about goodness into that space and so I really encourage people to pay attention to that.

And I think that’s at least a place to start and I wrote the book Beyond Hashtag Activism. You know it addresses so many issues that addresses Israel, Palestine it addresses the Middle East and part of what I was hoping to do was to have each of those little chapters on their own be starting points for those issues of look at somebody who disagrees with you sit with them and consider what it means to love them and also learn from their perspective that might be different from our own

Chris: Mae really quick before we go tell our listeners where, where can they get the book Beyond Hashtag Activism Where can they pick a copy of that work. so I would encourage people if you have a local bookstore or a place.

Mae: You know where you’re in community a lot of churches have bookstores. It’s pretty much available anywhere books are sold.  There’s a bookstore I love called hearts and minds bookstore, that I would point people to.

And then I of course have a website that’s just where they could see the different things I’ve written and if they want to learn more about the Middle East as well.

Chris: Awesome. So folks, folks if you’re listening and following along with us to yeah to follow along with maze work and get the book and dive into this, this practice of activism and advocacy, you can visit Mae Cannon . com and also yeah anywhere that books are sold so it’s available to you. Mae. We’re so grateful for the time that you spent with us today. I know it has been enriching. I know I’m going to be tracking your work going forward. It’s been informative, it’s been enlightening, highly impactful for me and I know our listeners feel the same way. So, God bless you, thank you for being with us.

Mae: That means so much to me. Blessings to you. Thank you.

This article was originally published on the Christian Reform Church’s Do Justice. podcast