Blogging “Blue”: Social Justice and Public Policy

This is the nineteenth in a series of posts on the “Blue” Book for General Convention 2012. Previously, I blogged about Small Congregations. Next up is Stewardship and Development. Please see my index of General Convention 2012 resolutions, with a summary of the 7WD position on them.

justiceOh, goody! Here are a bunch more resolutions to which I can apply my Principle on Political Resolutions at General Convention. The short version is this: Let us tell the world what we are going to do about political problems, rather than telling the world what they should do about political problems. Please go read that blog post for more info on my thinking, because a bunch of these resolutions will not receive a yes vote from me, despite the fact that I agree with the politics they articulate.

Here we go…

A077: Model Prisoner Ministry. Likely vote: NO.
The United States has a massive prison problem, there can be no doubt of that. I won’t give the full rant here, but we imprison more people for more things than pretty much anywhere in the world. We are in the company of places such as North Korea and Iran on most statistics. And much of this is because we let for-profit prison corporations write our laws and policies. Rats! I have digressed.

This resolution is unclear as to what it would actually do, but I believe it intends to create model programs and to get the Episcopal Church to state positions on prison reform and the death penalty. I have a couple of concerns. First, I think a networking model is a much better way to share best practices than a top-down demonstration approach. Second, this is wholly focused on the US, and we are an international church. Right? Third, we have already stated our position on the death penalty, and I am not sure 1,000 people at General Convention are qualified to make definitive statements about prison reform. Yes, I think prison reform and criminal justice are important issues, and I even think the church should have a voice on these issues. But take away what I see as impractical aspects of this resolution, and I’m not sure what’s new here.

A078: A Right to Human Identity. Likely vote: NO.
This would ask dioceses to state a position that adopted children have the right to access information about their parents. Confusingly, the explanation drags genetic research into the reasoning. I generally support the idea here, but I think it is a confused approach to an American issue (other legal systems will differ on key points). Also, while I think it is important for adopted children to be able to gain information, I think the parents who give children up for adoption have some privacy rights of their own which are not articulated here. Oh, and I am adopted, so the rubber hits the road for me on this one. Still, I can’t support this resolution.

A079: American Civil Liberties. Likely vote: NO.
Where to start? This resolution expresses concern about a bunch of American laws and practices and asks that we send a note with our concerns to the President and to the Attorney General. It violates nearly every part of my principle on political resolutions. While I am sympathetic to its aims, I do not think General Convention should be passing these sorts of resolutions. What about the other 15 countries of the Episcopal Church? Will Obama care what we have said? How would we learn enough (in the maximum permitted 15 minutes of debate) about a particular Supreme Court decision to render an educated opinion about it, as we are asked to do here?

A080: Income Tax Reform. Likely vote: NO.
It’s all about America and its Internal Revenue Code. It tells the US government what to do with its money, but does not say what the Episcopal Church and its members will do about the problem of taxation injustice. Again, I think our tax code is horribly regressive, but I cannot vote for this resolution. The tail end of the resolution has merit, asking that the “Episcopal Public Policy Network assist local Bishops, Dioceses and Public Policy Networks with this issue at their federal, state and local setting.” If it were just that, I would gladly vote yes.

A081: Call for Reform Certain of Interest Rates. Likely vote: NO.
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church (present in 16 nations) should not spend its time dictating with two decimal places of precision what the maximum consumer interest rate should be in the United States. I’m beating the same drum on this resolution again, and it is unlikely that I will vote for this for all the reasons I’ve been saying.

A082: Call for Reform of Mortgage Lending Practices. Likely vote: NO.
Ditto the above. Sigh.

A083: Advocate for Reforming Credit Reporting. Likely vote: NO.
Again, no. Double sigh.

A084: Establish Episcopal Credit Union. Likely vote: NO.
Now this one finally puts our money where our mouth is, proposing that the Episcopal Church set up a credit union. I’m not exactly sure what this would accomplish, but I am completely sure we cannot as a church afford the institutional energy necessary to launch a financial institution. For the next triennium, we want less institution- and mission-creep, not more. Why must we reinvent this wheel? Surely there is an existing credit union that Episcopalians could partner with, if it is deemed important for us to do this.

A085: Asset Based Community Development. Likely vote: YES.
Wow. I was beginning to think the no votes would sweep this one. But finally comes a resolution that does something which seems efficacious and appropriate. If passed, this encourages congregations “to participate in the alleviation of domestic poverty through local actions of service as well as advocacy for the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised in their communities” using the model of asset-based community development. There’s no harm in reminding congregations that we need to care about the poor and the welfare of everyone in our local communities, and this is something Episcopal congregations are not particularly likely to do on their own, without an occasional reminder. (Pro tip: your annual collection of used socks to give to a local clothing ministry does not fulfill your obligation to care for the poor.)

A086: Native Communities. Likely vote: NO, but I can easily be persuaded otherwise.
This resolution does a lot of commending of various ministries with Native People. These ministries sound fantastic, and I am glad to learn about them. However, I generally do not like resolutions in which things are commended. There are better ways to raise awareness and share gratitude.

However, near the end, this resolution commends “the strategic plan that establishes domestic development programs for The Episcopal Church” and then asks for $300,000 to implement the resolution. It does not take $300,000 to commend things, so I believe the intention is to do some sort of domestic poverty plan. While I am concerned about the lack of an international focus, I do think that it’s OK for us to do things in various individual nations, so I might support this idea. However, I didn’t see any description of what the plan is, how it works, or what the $300,000 does. So if there’s a great plan — things that Episcopalians can do, rather than telling others what to o — I can get on board with it.

A087: Resolution on Wealth. Likely vote: NO.
This resolution asks for funding to conduct three regional hearings “to explore the significance of this disparity of wealth.” The resolution does not have a referent for “this” in the quote. Based on the explanation, I see they are talking about American wealth inequality, which is a moral problem of the gravest kind. The explanation stipulates that Americans don’t know much about wealth disparity, and neither to Episcopalians. Fine. So let’s get a bunch of people together to share resources (which already exist) and develop materials for parish use, if necessary. There’s no need for $150,000 worth of hearings for that.

A note

I appreciate the hard work of the people who wrote these resolutions. My politics are in line with theirs. Nevertheless, in my opinion, this sort of work is not the best use of our church’s resources. I’d much rather see us developing Bible studies or moral theology curricula. Let’s teach people how to engage with God’s Word and to apply our lofty beliefs about God’s Kingdom to the challenges of our present world. Let’s teach people to think theologically rather than in partisan soundbites. Engaging in local study will transform the world one life at a time, and people will naturally find ways to work for a more just and peaceful world. The kinds of efforts I’m talking about are transnational and cross conventional political lines. Some work can be done by churchwide staff, and others can be done by networks and organizations. It is organic and grassroots, rather than top-down and institutional.

Efforts to influence national politics are dear to my heart. In my home, we support several organizations that seek political outcomes to our liking. If Episcopalians want to do this work, we can easily network among ourselves — and with others. Social media is a powerful organizing tool, much more likely to reach thousands upon thousands of people than General Convention resolutions which few people will read, let alone study.

As a church, perhaps we need to rethink our Washington political office as a group which primarily educates and empowers Episcopalians, rather than as an effort to lobby Congress. In the education/empowerment model, the work could also span borders to encompass Episcopalians in other nations. Surely we can find other ways to direct the Washington office than General Convention legislation. Surely we can find ways to maximize the good work of the wonderful people who are in our Washington office.

If there were a rule that required General Convention to act only on resolutions which affect the whole Episcopal Church, and not just Episcopalians in one nation, we could greatly cut down on our legislative workload. That would free us up for other things. The opportunity cost of our present system is enormous.

So let’s fix this, shall we?

And let us continue to pray and to work for justice and peace in the whole world.

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15 Responses

  1. Jim Naughton says:

    “As a church, perhaps we need to rethink our Washington political office as a group which primarily educates and empowers Episcopalians, rather than as an effort to lobby Congress.”

    I am pretty sure that this is what the Episcopal Public Policy Network does. But an additional question: why? What should we stop lobbying Congress? Who exactly does that help? Not the people with whom we work in coalitions. They’d have one less partner. Not our brothers and sisters in Anglican Communion who need people to open doors for them in official Washington. Not our denominational leaders who need experienced staff people to show them around when they want to express the church’s values to the people who make decisions that affect Episcopalians everywhere.

    So why?

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Jim, thanks for stopping by. If we lived in a world of unlimited church resources and institutional growth, I think you’d have the right question.

    However, now is a time for us to be scrutinizing every program and ministry of our institutional church. The burden of proof, it seems to me, is on those who wish to maintain the many, many things we’re doing. In other words, the question is why do this, rather than why stop doing this.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for the Episcopal Church to lobby Congress, but I do not think it is as important as some other things we could be doing or might wish to continue doing. And I think there are other ways for Episcopalians to make their voice heard than with this particular institutional solution. But, as I’ve written before, I’m willing to be persuaded.

  3. Rebecca Wilson says:

    For a decade, I made most of my living doing local and state advocacy on non-partisan issues. It’s incredibly helpful to have judicatory resolutions on the kind of issues you mention. The resolutions of General Convention and other mainline synods and assemblies help get local clergy and laypeople galvanized and gives them the permission they often seek to speak out. It gives legislators the backing they need to resist the pressure of religious conservatives who have savvy lobbyists and none of our belief in our own irrelevance.

    What’s more, I’ve many times been in diocesan or congregational social justice or advocacy meetings when the group used General Convention resolutions for guidance about how to approach a certain issue. I’ve seen bishops do the same thing. These people are using the wisdom of the wider church to strengthen their grassroots local networks. I think we need more of that, not less.

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Glad to see Canticle Communications on message. 🙂

    Rebecca, I don’t disagree that this could potentially be useful. But there are opportunity costs associated with this work. As with everything, to say yes to one thing is a no to something else.

    I don’t have objections to the intrinsic value of political speech by the church. But I think there are other things we should be doing with our time and resources at this moment.

    Also, I think it is curious that an international church wants to focus so much on one country. Where are the resolutions about tax policy in Taiwan or prisons in Haiti?

    The General Convention is for the whole church, not just for Episcopalians in the United States.

  5. Gary Goldackerg says:

    Perhaps our DC lobbying office could be moe effective by lobbying/educating the thousands of Episcopalians already working in the federal/state governments as to our “positions” on important issues. Their contacts and communications with people of influence can be more effective than my small voice from the pew.

  6. Rebecca Wilson says:

    Scott, you’ll be glad to know–or not(!)–that Jim and I each commented without consulting the other.

    I agree completely that our advocacy efforts should extend to the other countries of the Episcopal Church. I’m a little skeptical that we have so many other things that require our time and resources that we can’t do work that helps poor children keep health insurance, community food banks keep their funding, or Native American women gain protection against domestic violence.

  7. Scott Gunn says:

    That’s a compelling set of issues, and who wouldn’t agree with us fixing them.

    But what’s the real impact of our current efforts? Is this the only way?

    The Episcopal Church is imploding because we do not spend enough time thinking about and talking about Jesus. I’d love to see us focused on that for a bit. And local congregations can work for health insurance reform, feed hungry people, and protect women. A distant office and institutional program isn’t the only way to accomplish those goals.

    I find it interesting that the folks who push subsidiarity want to maintain a churchwide office (even though that office is focused on 6% of the nations of the Episcopal Church). How does a lobbying office square with the principle of subsidiarity?

  8. Rebecca Wilson says:

    Scott, all of the examples I used are policies governed by federal legislation. When you’re trying to move Congress, you definitely need local networks. But without people on the Hill to pay attention to what legislation is moving in committee and on the House or Senate floor and on what schedule; which legislators are backing it and which are on the fence; and which staffers can be advocates with their senators and members of Congress, local efforts are less effective.

    Here’s how it works, ideally: An advocate in DC tracks legislation and figures out that Senator So-and-So from some state is on the fence about the Violence Against Women Act, the food bank provisions in the Farm Bill, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, etc. That advocate gets on phone/email/social media with networks in the state of Senator So-and-So and tells them that she needs to hear from her constituents on this issue. People–bishops, clergy and laypeople–call, write, visit and talk about why their faith motivates them on this issue. And when it works, Senator So-and-So is able to say that she heard the voices of those she represents and so is voting for the bill.

    It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. Thanks be to God.

    I bet the folks in the Office of Government Relations would love to have you visit for a day or two. Give them a call. Jim will meet you there.

  9. Scott Gunn says:

    Again, I’m not doubting that the OGR does good work or that the people are fantastic. I meant what I said in the blog post.

    But I wonder if that’s the best way for us, as an institutional church, to use our resources? How does it square with subsidiarity? How to we reconcile a stated identity as an international church with our focus on the political life of only one of the 16 nations in our church?

    We cut out budget for Christian formation and increased our lobbying budget. From my perspective that does not seem liks the right priority. But others may differ, clearly.

    Oh, one more. How do educate deputies so they know whether 12.98 or 12.99 is the best maximum consumer interest rate? Should we be passing resolutions about consumer interest rates with two decimal places of precision? Is this the most productive and effective use of 1,000 deputies’ and bishops’ time?

  10. Helen Brotemarkle says:

    Scdtt: Your ‘take’ on the Resolutions is very informative. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  11. Kevin Lloyd says:

    Even though I don’t agree with ALL of your political leanings, Scott, I wholeheartedly agree with your principle. Frankly, the more I live into my vocation, the more apolitical I become. And I’m a big proponent of subsidiarity. In my experience local congregations can have a much more profound and enduring impact on social justice issues than General Convention resolutions or lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

  12. Sarah Lawton says:

    In terms of using resources better, I can see figuring out a better process for winnowing issues and deciding on priorities. I can also see reducing the number of CCABs and looking at how we generate legislation.

    What I can’t support is dropping our very ability to advocate and encourage advocacy for the poor and marginalized in the USA and the world.

    It’s a huge mistake to pit this against evangelism. My 15-year-old daughter says we already talk too much and do too little. In her view we sit in church and talk about Jesus but we do too little follow Jesus into the streets (even though our congregation is pretty active in the streets in all kinds of ways).

    I understand the argument that GC resolutions are just more talk. And they are talk. Talking is pretty much what GC is supposed to do (except for that hour when lots of us march with the hotel workers) on any issue. The point of GC is to approve resolutions.

    But that talking really does give power and authority and courage and encouragement to Episcopalians to do the work on these issues.

    I know it is strengthening our work on the death penalty ballot measure here in California this year to have the many statements issued over the years backing us up — we can say clearly that The Episcopal Church opposes the death penalty, and we say that along with many other churches and faiths, so our voice is amplified.

    Same on immigration — we support reform, oppose militarization of the borders, we want families to stay together, we urge compassion in welcoming the stranger. We use this language all the time in parish halls to educate, reflect, and motivate to further action. I’ve also seen over and over how meaningful this is to our primarily immigrant congregations — the church stands with us! — and how people can be moved to action knowing that the church has taken a stand. It provides background and gives courage to know where the church stands on this, in the name of Jesus.

    And when our international dioceses and our companion dioceses ask us to help on issues of human rights, development aid, and the like, how can we remain silent? It does mean some resources in funding the small OGR office, but there is *much* appreciation for the OGR’s ability to get a meeting for an overseas bishop with a key senatorial office or administration official. Hidden work that makes a real difference and helps to incarnate our relationships with overseas dioceses and companion relationships.

    Our resolutions are meaningful to the many who think of Christians people as hostile, mean-spirited and exclusive. In my city and generation, our statements on issues that people (such as my daughter) really care about are prime evangelism tools. They almost always lead to conversation about Jesus. Just one example. There was a an article in one of our local LGBT papers three years ago about General Convention passing a trans civil rights resolution. The author could hardly believe a church had spoken out on this issue. He asked why we did it . I said we did it because of Jesus. And then we talked about Jesus.

    Passing resolutions costs committee time and GC time, yes. We need to figure out how to winnow these down and focus better. Funding the OGR and EPPN is an expense too (relatively small though) but is a perfect example of exactly what we should be doing *on the national or central level* of the church under the principle of subsidiarity. Of course to be effective we must also carry out the work at the grassroots — but we do this better with the encouragement and resources from OGR and EPPN that turn our GC resolutions into calls for coordinated action on a national scale.

    I know this is the opposite of what you intend or expect, but I see your principle as turning us more inward than ever as a church. I urge you to reconsider!

    Scott, I’d love to have this conversation in person — maybe we can organize a coffee get-together for interested persons in Indy. I mean, I know we’ll have the whole structure hoohah to hash out on the floor of the HOD, but face-to-face conversation in smaller groups would be great.

  13. Lelanda Lee says:

    Scott, I’ve been following your GC Blue Book posts with great interest.

    I’ve been suggesting for a while a related type of principle regarding voting on resolutions at both GC and Executive Council, which is not to vote to direct church staff at any level to do anything without first engaging them in conversation. It seems that we jump to the “direct” piece too early in the process, often skipping over the communicate and collaborate pieces. And yes, what to do about recalcitrant staff? Well, presumably, staff follow the lead of GC and EC with regard to priorities and positions… And management holds staff accountable… And if they don’t, well, then they’re not doing their jobs, and….

    On the need for GC resolutions that take positions on various social issues– I’ve served as the EC liaison to the EC Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility this past triennium and seen first hand the significant work being done collaboratively with other ecumenical and interfaith groups regarding voting shareholder proxies for both DFMS and CPF. We own the stocks; we get to have a say in how those corporations are doing business. Often, because TEC has taken a position on a particular issue, we are then able to join forces with other faith groups to engage in direct dialogue with corporations to effect social change. Examples over the years include more inclusive corporate boards (more women and people of color), addressing how international hotels have been complicit in child sex trafficking, living wages for all workers, clean water initiatives, and supply chain human rights violations. These are social justice issues that the church rightly is addressing as public advocates, but we can do this only if either GC or EC passes resolutions establishing the church policy that authorizes these advocacy positions.

    I’ve also served on the EC Standing Committee on Advocacy & Networking and have authored or co-authored a number of the social justice resolutions that have come out of EC this past triennium. Many of those resolutions were needed to continue to build the body of church policy upon which the OGR and the PB rely in order to speak on the church’s behalf. There have been numerous occasions when a particular part of the church, such as the OGR, one of our overseas bishops, or an arm of the church working with a particular constituency or activity (like shareholder resolutions), has requested guidance in the form of a resolution stating church policy in order to undergird their work and advocacy.

    It has certainly been the case in both the Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility as well as the Standing Committee on Advocacy & Networking that we have tried to be both realistic and disciplined about how much work can be taken on within our time and other resource limitations. We do work to prioritize the issues we take on, in collaboration with other CCABs and ecumenical partners who provide us with research and the benefit of their discussions and conclusions.

    One of the most promising areas of collaboration is in the joint hiring of OGR staff between ecumenical partners (TEC and ELCA) as a means of not only cost savings, but of doubling the strength of our impact on Capitol Hill. Our jointly hired International Relations staff person has recounted how much more she is listened to and taken seriously now that she can state that she represents both of our denominations. There is definitely interest in doing more of this kind of collaboration, because both churches view it as beneficial on many fronts.

    One of the things most surprising to me as I have worked with the OGR through my committees is to learn how much less effective the voices of the ecumenical groups are than the voices of the distinctive churches on Capitol Hill. Apparently, it is easy to dismiss an amorphous collection of churches, but the distinctive voice of particular churches commands more attention.

    I feel very badly whenever any of the church’s stances hurts part of the church’s members. There is always going to be pain somewhere in the system because of what we as leaders and as the whole church engage. I think that’s one of the reasons that we have to have more conversations and not fewer, and more communications and not less, and leaders who are willing to talk about everything without mincing words or hiding behind platitudes. And, I do not think that the fear of the possibility of hurting part of ourselves or the possibility of people feeling divided and leaving is in and of itself sufficient reason to stop doing the work of seeking positions on social justice issues and advocating for them. To do anything less is to silence ourselves unnecessarily.

  14. Kevin Lloyd says:

    Sarah and Lelanda, you both make strong cases for the need for GC resolutions on these issues, and I am very grateful for from the same “playbook” as Scott, but I think Scott’s overall point is on target and extremely important for TEC in today’s world.

    Full disclosure: I’m an “outsider” in that I have not yet been to a GC. My perspective is primarily that of a parish priest. Frankly, in my experience “on the ground”, GC resolutions have very little impact on how average Episcopalians live out their faith. Undoubtedly, these types of resolutions provide some arrows for the quills of OGR and others advocating on a national level, and for that reason SOME of them should come before GC. But there are way too many of them, creating what seems to be a significant imbalance in the work of GC. I haven’t looked at the numbers, but if what Scott says is true about the Christian Formation budget being cut and the lobbying budget being increased, one has to wonder seriously about our priorities.

    Sarah, I agree with your daughter. We often talk too much and do too little. I honestly don’t see where this inordinate number of politically oriented resolutions helps change this. Rather, I think it exacerbates the problem. In my experience people in the pews are not generally motivated to act by resolutions that “come down from on high”.

    Finally, I dearly hope that GC is about much more than approving resolutions.

  15. Sarah Lawton says:

    Thanks, Kevin, for your thoughtful reply to my long note.

    I do realize that many congregations don’t engage with the issues lifted up by the Episcopal Public Policy Network (the activism arm of our church that coordinates with the Washington-based work of OGR and takes its work from General Convention resolutions). I can say that there is a significant group that does subscribe and does respond. And maybe we are unusual, but my parish has both clergy and laity engaged over the long haul in advocacy and organizing on immigration, mortgage foreclosure, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But this is true for all of our programs, no? Even if we do subsidiarity perfectly, we will have to work to make sure that any of it is happening on the local level, whether evangelism, formation, or social justice. All of these will rely on some resourcing and support and visioning from the central level, but none of them will ever work if not taken up on the local level.

    In my experience, in our church polity it makes all the difference have a bishop to cast a vision and provide some diocesan support. The fact that my own bishop sometimes attends our demonstrations and preaches on these issues probably doesn’t hurt our parish-level engagement!

    But even then, why cut out the OGR and EPPN? We will always need some direction on the central level, on all our priorities, including evangelism, formation, and social justice. We need the General Convention and then in practice the EPPN, the PB, our bishops, to say, for example that immigration reform is an important priority. And then give us (online) materials we can use. Then it is up to us at the local level to take it up in a vital way, ideally in coalition with others in our community. Whether that is more focused on one strand more than another — traditional evangelism, formation or social justice — we all have our charisms — it is through prayer-filled action and outreach outside our walls that we are vital.

    Lelanda’s points are good and reinforce my feeling that the OGR, Corporate Responsibility and other groups can act effectively at that central level on our behalf. There is an appropriate space for us funding that sometimes hidden work at the central level. And I thank Lelanda too for pointing our our fruitful collaboration with the ELCA in staffing the OGR.

    I think we are all in agreement that we might do a better job of winnowing and focusing our resolutions. And reforming groups within the CCABs.

    As to the role of GC — what really does it do officially besides resolutions? I mean, it is an amazing gathering, truly, and a wonderful place for worshiping, networking, gathering strength and resources by having so many in one place. It’s all that. But officially, our business is governance, which in TEC is done fairly democratically through the resolutions process. I happen to think this is fine and necessary, rather than a bad thing! Every organization wields power and governs somehow. Some of the systems that don’t use our committees/resolutions system, and that claim consensus, have power wielded in less transparent ways, imo.

    The bigger question for me is always, what is happening at the local level. General Convention is not really an instrument for fixing / solving / changing that. We can reform our structures and push (or leave) more resources to the local level. But it will still take vision and energy at the local level to make anything happen. The “national church” as people refer to it is never going to do it for us (nor should it). General Convention is never going to do it. These groups can only focus attention and reach some level of common agreement across the church, and then provide resources, so that our hopefully vital and active work at the local level has some level of coherence as the Episcopal Church.

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