“Walking the Tightrope in the Hurricane”

Advocacy and Activism in The Salvation Army

Five key areas to consider in our Call to Action

June 2020


Commissioner Israel Gaither, in a recent interview on the ‘Captain’s Corner’ podcast, described The Salvation Army’s obligation to advocate and activate in times of moral crisis, such as we are experiencing now in 2020, similarly to walking a tightrope in the middle of a hurricane. Sandwiched between the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, and George Floyd, the former International Chief of the Staff and former National Commander of The Salvation Army of the United States of America unapologetically called us as a Salvation Army to deeper advocacy in each of the communities where we live and serve.

Our own Territorial Commander in the USA Southern Territory, Commissioner Willis Howell, has called every Officer and Salvationist to pray and search God’s leading on how we can respond to the crisis that has gripped our nation, asking us to say and remember the names of those victims both known and unknown. In doing so, he has reiterated the sacred principle that guides The Salvation Army in its mission, that all humanity is created in the image of God and is deserving of dignity and respect. In that same call to action, Commissioner Howell cited the rich heritage that is ours through the lives of our founders and the many who have preceded us. They left a heritage for us, as they were answering their own calling to fulfill the mission of The Salvation Army. They were clear that their mission was transformation in the lives of men and women, boys and girls through the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we can neither allow our mission to be sidelined nor sit on the sidelines personally, while the issues of 2020 are so clearly strewn before us.

Many Salvationists and Officers are grappling with the question of ‘how do I respond?’ ‘What is the best way to help my community deal with the issues in front of us?’ Here are only a few suggestions, but the real answers will need to come to each of us out of personal prayer and engagement with the Holy Spirit and with one another. We must let each response be birthed from our own calling, while also recognizing there might be a need for stronger regional, divisional, or even national responses to which we must be prepared to be a part of. Here are five things to consider as we move forward.

Feed the hungry and clothe the naked

First, we must continue our efforts to “feed the hungry and clothe the naked”, especially in those communities where there is a higher degree of marginalization and suffering. The age-old call of William Booth to “Do Something” lingers in our background. It means we must take a quick inventory of our current relief efforts, to ensure we are impacting those who are being hit the hardest by this crisis within a crisis. We are in some way back to the basics of meeting human need right now. Already, our nation’s food delivery mechanisms were under a strain that is now being multiplied. We have on our hands a looming humanitarian crisis and we have the capacity and leadership to do something about that by utilizing our learned lessons in responses to natural and manmade disasters. At the same time, we cannot let our life sustaining services and poverty alleviation programs slip. They are a lifeline for so many vulnerable and marginalized. We cannot do everything, but we certainly can do something.

Be a strong part of ecumenical responses

Secondly, we can lead or at least be a strong part of ecumenical responses in each community. One of the heartbreaking developments in some communities over several decades has been the decline in ecumenical fellowship and partnership. This is a time to call the church together. You take the lead if the Holy Spirit gives you the direction. We are still neutral ground for many. A bridge for partnership. There remain some communities where The Salvation Army is the only organization or institution that reaches its hand across all socio-economic and racial divides for partnership and cooperation. We have no idea how powerful that is. In that partnership comes learning, shared experience, and ultimately healing.

Understand the role of advocacy and activism

Third, understand the role of advocacy and activism. Know the difference between the two along with their challenges and consequences. Advocacy works within a system to make change happen and activism works from outside the system to cause change. Activism, such as in the form of riots has the propensity to distort the message and may defame the gospel of peace as it could potentially alienate some in the process. The Salvation Army has preferred advocacy as it is a powerful means for which to both share the gospel of hope and peace while acting for change. Advocacy can take many forms but most often involves relationship and utilizing stakeholder interests to leverage lasting change. Its manifestations include campaigns, services, writing letters, speaking out against injustice, hosting conferences, facilitation, community counseling, creating spaces for learning, listening to the community while speaking to power, publishing articles. Catherine Booth was a powerful advocate for women’s right to preach in which she was most successful, by doing the very thing for which she advocated, in addition to her tactful and spirit filled writing on the subject. There are times we must take advocacy a step further such as when William Booth opened the match factory. He and Catherine bordered on activism when they worked to bring the issue of underage prostitution to the attention of Victorian society. It caused scandal and even broke the law. The founder would surely remind us that this method should be used sparingly and with utmost attention to the costs involved. No doubt our heritage is stronger in the advocacy role and we have found it to be the most effective.

Recognize and lament our shortcomings and restate holy living

Fourth, we must recognize and lament our shortcomings, but we cannot allow it to be a deterrence in times of trial to do something. We must allow space for lament while at the same time showing a better way. The Salvation Army has always had a slant toward the prophetic iterations of the gospel. People recognize us as an incarnational people. We must be ready to ask the personal and deep questions whether we are still representing an incarnational gospel of Jesus Christ. If we call for justice, do we represent justice in our own system of Salvation Army governance? If we wish the world around us to be “anti-racist”, do we represent anti-racism in our systems within our own living? If we wish for the suffering of the poor to be lifted, are we doing anything personally or institutionally that contributes to their suffering? The Salvation Army is not perfect because we are imperfect and still suffer the effects of sin. Our organization is comprised of all sorts from many sin stained backgrounds and we encourage each other to be on the same journey, while recognizing we might not all be at the same points. If there ever was a call for the need of holy living, baptism of the Holy fire, and a renewed determination to see the power of God unleashed in word and deed it is in these troubling times. But we must get it each one on our knees and get it today. As we preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must also disciple converts into a life of holiness. The answer has always been and still is Jesus.

Consider the impact of trauma and the role of self-care during this crisis

Finally, we must consider the impact of trauma and the role of self-care during this crisis. There is a deep need for healing not just surrounding racial injustice, but a host of other injustices that are pouring into the moments we are facing now. One might wonder, have we forgotten how to be kind. It has come to such a mean level that we are even judging each other’s kindness, and this because kindness and grace have been perverted by a few to satisfy selfish aims. The Salvation Army is and should be different. We do not recognize and exalt in the same way the world does. We do not recruit or promote in the way the world does. Our heroes are and should be different. It is exhausting to try and stay that course and takes needed energy and resources away from the simple call to go for souls and go for the worst. Instead, we listen to the humble, to the wise, and we strive to let every voice be heard. There is ample space for the doctors and lawyers among us, but they are not our compass as we move forward. Our doctors and lawyers in the Army would be the first to acknowledge that we must humbly listen to the uneducated, marginalized, humble, poor Man of Galilee as we gauge our response personally and corporately. The only way you can hear Him is to spend time with him. Surely, he comes with healing in His wings. We might need to consider simplifying our lives as Salvation Army officers even more so that we can maintain greater focus on that which matters most. Seek out sources of help for trauma care. If you are burdened with stress reach out to a brother and do not be afraid to access the health resources that we are especially privileged to have at our disposal. Let us treat each other with more kindness and care. Let us show a genuine grace above pointing to each other’s faults. Let us handle conflict in a Biblical way and quickly cover each other’s wrongs. The enemy would have The Salvation Army fracture and splinter in this evil day. We must not give him the delight. Stand together and take care of one another.

As we consider these five areas and the challenges around them, perhaps this is what it means to, “walk the tightrope in a hurricane”. As the strong winds of change and chaos blow in every direction, it sounds impossible to even take the first step onto that wire. But this we know; with God all things are possible for those that love Him and are called according to His purpose. You and I are called to His purpose. Take the next step with God.