Interview with the Rev. Mae Cannon on her “Social Justice Handbook”

hen you see John Perkins recommending a book on social justice, you know you’re looking at real shoes-on-the-ground, sleeves-rolled-up, knees-bent-in-prayer authority.
    John Perkins may not be a household name where you live—but ask around in poor neighborhoods where congregations really are engaged in transforming social structures … and his name will ring hopeful bells in someone’s mind. Half a century ago, John co-founded the Christian Community Development Association with his wife—and now he works with major prophets like Shane Claiborne and the Rev. Mae Elise Cannon. John wrote the Foreword for Mae’s new, “Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World.”
You may not know Mae either, but we’re proud to introduce her to our global audience today.
The Rev. Mae Elise Cannon is executive pastor of Hillside Covenant Church in Walnut Creek, California. That’s an evangelical congregation where women clergy weren’t even allowed in the pulpit not too many years ago. Today, Mae has helped to reorganize and revitalize her church—and now she’s sharing with the rest of us her other body of expertise: organizing social-justice ministries that truly make a difference.
Like Perkins, Claiborne and many others in this vanguard of transformative ministries, she writes about the difference between mere charity and—deep justice.
Just a few weeks ago, we introduced Peter Greer and his important new guidebook on microfinance, “The Poor Will Be Glad.” Greer is a part of this prophetic vanguard, as well.
Take heart in this news! As John Perkins writes in Mae’s new book, “I am encouraged that a new generation is joining God on this courageous adventure of transforming a fallen and hurting world.” Amen!
We do need to explain that this book we’re recommending today is designed for evangelicals. Frankly, if you consider yourself an evangelical, it’s so important that you should immediately click (below) to order a copy of this book. This is a resource you should have at your fingertips if you care about social-justice work from a biblical perspective.
If you’re not evangelical, you also should have a copy of Mae’s book on your shelf with other timely resources. You won’t agree with everything she writes in these pages, but it’s a hefty, encyclopedic book that offers hundreds of alphabetically arranged entries on issues from AIDS to Work—Living Wage Initiatives.
Within her 300 pages, she also packs an overview of social justice in American religious life, plus mini-profiles of more than 100 groups, nonprofits and well-established campaigns that can help activists from a broad range of faith-based perspectives. She even finds space for a list of recommended movies to raise awareness in congregations.
CLICK HERE to order a copy of “Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World” from Amazon.


    DAVID: You write eloquently in your book about how far Christians have wandered from God’s call for us to truly and fully love our neighbors.

Here are a few lines from your book: “Having worked in many churches and Christian communities, I have seen numerous well-intentioned Christ followers living simple lifestyles apathetic to many of the world’s travesties around them. We are well meaning and profess to love Jesus. We care about our neighbors—those we encounter on rare occasions. We give money to the church and to the poor, but often we don’t know any poor people by name. … Have we become apathetic to the things that break the heart of God because of the many things that have gotten in the way?”

So, let me put the question to you this way, Mae: How did millions of devout Christians manage to disconnect social justice so completely from their faith?

MAE: There was a false dichotomy that came out of the whole Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. There was this idea that you had to be one or the other—you had to choose sides—you had to be either a Christian concerned with saving souls or a social-gospel activist.

The history is far more complex than that, but that’s largely what happened. Many people became convinced that if they engaged in a social gospel, they would lose their focus on salvation. Evangelicals became known as the people who would uphold the good news and the most important thing in the world to them would be saving souls. But that was a false dichotomy.

We cannot abandon social justice. It’s an essential part of loving our neighbors.

DAVID: We’ve featured Shane Claiborne here at ReadTheSpirit and your work is connected with his in a number of ways—through John Perkins, for example. What impresses you about Shane’s work?

MAE: I know Shane. Right now, we’re working on a joint project—we’re both contributing chapters to a book on the theological impact of John Perkins’ work. I think the greatest contribution Shane has made is taking us back to the basics of the gospel. I can still remember the first time I heard Shane say, “How would our lives look different if we took the gospel at face value?”

That may sound like a very simple question but it has profound implications. The truth is that we would live our lives quite differently.

DAVID: This idea of radically re-evaluating our lives, our faith and our communities is central to your work. Your new book is a very useful guidebook—like Peter Greer’s is a useful guidebook on microfinance.

But the challenge you’re placing before people is not: 10 Easy Steps for Setting Up a Charity. In fact, in your view of the world, “charity” and “acts of compassion” can be problems because they’re so limited in scope. You’re calling for a much more profound, bottom-to-top rethinking of our social priorities.

Here are a few more of your words from the book: “In the Christian subculture, people have a tendency to jump on the bandwagon without really understanding the cause. Churches that have been doing amazing works of compassion for the past several decades have declared they are committed to social justice, but instead of extending their works of compassion to fighting for institutional change, they have simply redubbed their ‘compassion ministry’ as ‘justice ministry.’ This is incredibly dangerous!

“The 21st-Century church might be doing a lot of good things to help those who are hurting, but will never be able to dig beneath the surface to tackle the root causes unless it understands the systemic issues deeply rooted in modern society.”

Why are you so hopeful that you can turn around such deeply rooted attitudes?

MAE: A movement is emerging in the church that truly is addressing social justice. That movement has always been there, but it hasn’t always been the mainstream. Now, though, we’re seeing more people looking at scripture and their faith in Christ and asking: What does it really mean to make a difference in the world?

Among evangelicals, there hasn’t really been a lot of dialogue around this question. Of course, people want their lives to have meaning and they want to make a difference in the world, but in many cases they haven’t asked this hard question about what it means to make a real difference. I think it’s incredibly exciting that people, now, are talking about these deeper issues.

My hope and my prayer is that this won’t just be a fad. I hope this emerges as a holistic movement at the core of what the church does in this new century.

DAVID: I understand you’re hopeful, but there’s a whole lot of hard work involved here—I mean, 300 pages of hard work you’ve outlined here through hundreds of examples and recommendations.

MAE: The danger is that people will get excited by talking about “social justice,” but they’ll assume that they know how to do this without any further work. Or, they’ll assume that they’re already doing it.

Churches right now are meeting many needs all around the world and that’s wonderful, but we’re not really overturning the big structures of injustice. It’s not enough to cut off the heads of dandelions. I’m talking about reaching down and ripping dandelions out by their roots.

DAVID: Readers will find many echoes of Shane and John and others in your book. You quote all sorts of people here, including Catholic writers as well.

One of the major points you make, which comes right out of work by people like Shane, John and also many great Catholic theologians, is the idea that we’re not trying to score points by helping needy people—we’re trying to form new kinds of communities.

You put this so well when you write that too many people think: “Service is what we do for others.” Really, you argue, “Justice is something we do with others.”

In that same section of your book, you write that too many people think: “Service focuses on what our own ministry can accomplish.” But, you argue, “justice focuses on how we can work with other ministries and accomplish even more.”

MAE: Right. A good example of this is prison ministries.

Many churches have prison ministries. The church where I am now has a prison ministry at San Quentin that I find deeply encouraging. At San Quentin, we’re part of a community of people who are trying to live out the gospel and change lives. That’s a very good program.

But if true social justice is a “10,” then we’re only at a “2” or a “3” if we leave prison ministry at that level in the prison.

The next step is meeting with the department of justice for the state of California and exploring ways we can partner in rehabilitation for these prisoners. How are these men going to earn incomes after they get out of prison? What are the deeper questions of how to transform the situations faced by these men and their families?

Now, that’s moving toward social justice.

DAVID: You point out in your book—and others do as well—that we simply don’t spend enough time getting to know the people living around us. We don’t know nearly enough about the families—and the social structures—in our own communities.

MAE: Yes, here’s another example: Most people don’t realize that there’s an entire population of Americans who work, but don’t earn a living wage. Most people think that homeless people are not working, but many homeless men and women do work—they just don’t earn enough to establish a place to live.

DAVID: At the moment, you don’t see America moving in the right direction. You tell readers that we’d better get on our feet and meet the neighbors right now, because things are getting worse.

MAE: Data show the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. (Click here to read a short OurValues story on these data.)
I certainly would never wish any nation to go through the kind of devastating crisis we’ve experienced over the past year or so—but, at this moment, millions of people are reflecting in new ways about our underlying values.

That reflection is an opportunity. People are asking: What does it mean to reshape our lives? That is the kind of question we need to be asking about these major social structures all around us.

DAVID: You come from an evangelical perspective and your book does include evangelical perspectives on issues like abortion, for example.

But, in many evangelical ministries, the list of social priorities is pretty short and sometimes it begins and ends with a half-dozen issues, at most. Your book points out all kinds of important interrelationships between various justice issues.

For example, you’ve got a long and very well-organized section of your book on confronting racism. That’s not a typical issue in the evangelical “short list” of priorities. Why do you devote so much space in your book to confronting racism?

MAE: Race is one of the major challenges that we face now—and that people have faced throughout the history of the world. If you think America has moved beyond racial polarization with the election of President Obama, then I say to you: What world are you living in?

Unless we are able to address racism directly, there’s no way we can get to deep justice. It’s one of the core issues the church needs to wrestle with, especially in terms of the power differential associated with race.
Who continues to hold the power? It’s predominantly white men. That’s not to beat individuals over the head with guilt, but unless we come to understand the significance of white male privilege at the core of our society, then I don’t think we can fully experience the justice of God.

And that’s not a message most people are eager to hear. It’s not an easy message. But it’s the truth.

DAVID: You’re a truth teller. It’s what inspires people about the preaching of a Shane Claiborne or a Rob Bell or a Desmond Tutu or a Barbara Brown Taylor.

But I’m also impressed that you want us to listen far and wide for truth to be spoken. You clearly are impressed with Bono, for example. We’ve written in ReadTheSpirit about the gospel according to U2.

You argue that the truth may come from surprising directions.

MAE: Young people today are showing us this truth. The next generation of evangelicals has a much broader scope of understanding concerning the larger world around us. Young people are attracted to Bono’s message and his advocacy.

These prophetic voices are outside the core of the evangelical movement, but they are valuable voices.

I recommend a lot of resources in this handbook—a lot of things beyond the evangelical church. I’m honest about things I may disagree with here and there, but God is the God of Truth—so where Truth is penetrating and breaking forth in our world—well, that’s where we need to be listening today.

God is speaking. We don’t want to miss it.


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