Advocating on Washington’s Capitol Hill

Marty sit-in
Marty (kneeling on the right) and other faith leaders stage a sit-in at the Capitol building to protest cuts to food stamps.

by Jacob Hanger, summer writing team

While theologian Stanley Hauerwas warns the church to avoid all government involvement, his mentor John Howard Yoder* did not share his reservation. In For the Nations, Yoder encourages the church to be a witness to our government by advocating the gospel to our country’s leaders. He is quick to warn against what he calls the “Constantinian Temptation,” though, and suggests advocates speak from the outside rather than from the center. Martin Shupack, director of advocacy at Church World Service (Washington, D.C.), has built a career doing just this.

Marty, as he’s known by friends and family, works with Church World Service to eradicate hunger and poverty and to promote peace and justice around the world. His job, in his own words, is to influence public policy by translating Christ’s teachings in a way that makes sense to policy makers, identifying instances of injustice where politicians have influence and encouraging them to find just solutions. When the SNAP (food stamp) Program was going to be gutted a few weeks ago, Marty and his team lobbied politicians against the cuts. As a result, the program was left untouched. Similarly, two years ago, when even more severe cuts were being considered, he and a dozen religious leaders of all faiths staged a sit-in/prayer meeting inside the Capitol’s rotunda as an act of civil disobedience.

Much of the advocacy Marty does is for the poor. He sees injustice in the fact that Congress builds structures that favor the wealthy and further marginalize the poor (like cutting the SNAP program but giving tax breaks to corporations). He does not simply look for any solution to the problems, however, but advocates for just solutions.

Marty has worked on policies for refugee resettlement and is currently working to encourage policy makers to pass a just immigration overhaul bill. His proudest accomplishment was being part of the team that helped pass Jubilee 2000, an effort led by religious organizations for the cancellation of debts held by poor countries. Many of these debts were unjust because these countries were still paying on debts that had been incurred by dictators who had long lost power. These debts were also preventing poor countries from investing in infrastructure because of the hefty debt repayments. Following the Old Testament tradition, religious leaders advocated that “richer nations clean the slate.” After about 10 years of work, in 2000 Marty saw his work pay off and many unjust debts forgiven.

The foundation for Marty’s work is his Christian faith. When he thinks about justice he uses the Gospel definition to guide his thinking; in Greek justice means “having a right relationship.” So when Marty meets with policy makers on Capitol Hill he encourages them to seek solutions that encourage a right relationship between the individuals of this country. If they ask for a picture of what it looks like he points to Jesus’ City on the Hill metaphor and explains that the Gospels encourage us to foster community with our neighbors and to be a model for onlookers. Justice, to Marty, is God’s perfect conception of what living in our society should look like.


*For more on the tension around referencing the work of John Howard Yoder, see this article by Barbara Graber.