The church's responsibility to the global poor
Undermining the case for helping the global poor
The Church’s Responsibility to the Global Poor
Eds. Marijke Hoek and Justin Thacker
Paternoster. 214 pages
Micah’s Challenge is a response by the international Christian community to the challenge of meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Its objective is to deepen the Christian community’s commitment to the global poor and to strengthen its advocacy role.
The book itself is intended to provide the ‘underpinning thinking’ for the movement, including biblical and theological reflection and practical application. Its preface acknowledges its wide range of styles and emphases, written as it is by 14 different authors. Troublingly this has led to an unfortunate degree of overlap and repetition. It comes complete with a foreword by Gordon Brown and carries endorsement from all three main UK party leaders.
This is a frustrating book. When I picked it up I was hoping this would be the book to convince British evangelicals of something I strongly believe — that we have to engage seriously with issues of world poverty because we have a biblical mandate to do so. Unfortunately this is not that book.
The problem is not with the basic argument, which is one that all evangelicals need to accept and act upon. The problem is that the argument is repeatedly undermined here by sloppy exegesis and a failure to engage with some key questions. In two chapters, for example, the parable of the ‘sheep and the goats’ in Matthew 25 is applied directly to our care for the global poor, ignoring the fact that Jesus is referring to ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ and not to the world in general. Marijke Hoek tells us that ‘the key question in the letter [Romans] is how God’s justice will be realised in a world that is dominated by evil powers’. Really?
Bland and bizarre
Joel Edwards, in his survey of Micah’s Challenge to date, says they are ‘aware that such a movement can never be an exclusively evangelical club’. Indeed ‘it will refuse to limit itself to evangelicals, drawing instead from the wider Christian family and civic society’ (p.11). But in these wider circles, people do not believe in the ubiquitous effect of the Fall or that the poor without Christ are lost. Doesn’t that matter?
Odd throwaway comments range from the bland and inaccurate (‘as Christians we are convinced that the world for communities and individuals will be a better place’ (Malcolm Duncan, p.162)) to the eye-catching and bizarre (Tony Campolo’s suggestion that the argument over Christ’s deity at the Council of Nicea may have been clinched because Athanasius had better choirs than Arius). I am afraid that this book may confirm prejudices that Christians involved in ministries to the poor are all dangerous theological liberals who do not understand the gospel.
There are some positives and some interesting insights, especially from the Filipina author Melba Maggay. The outstanding chapter is Tim Chester’s ‘Walk humbly with your God’, where he develops an understanding of humility in the light of the cross. This is excellent and radical and leads via the powerful concept of the church as ‘jubilee community’ into true engagement with the poor. The applications — practical ways of working out the Micah’s Challenge vision — are all there in the later chapters: but too many of the foundations are missing.
We need a book about world poverty that will do the biblical groundwork properly and answer some of our serious questions about such campaigns, for example about the extent of useful ‘co-belligerence’ with different churches and even other religious groups; and whether Christians should ever be content to be lumped with other religions as ‘faith communities’ (personally I detest the expression!). Should we seek the praise, even the endorsement, of secular leaders for our ministry? Gordon Brown’s foreword is enthusiastic, but contains no recognition of the uniqueness of the Christian message, only of values shared by all the ‘world faiths’.
Read this book if you are already engaged in the debate over Christians’ involvement in development and aid issues. If you are not, then do get hold of Tim Chester’s Good News to the Poor, which is the best introduction to a subject we cannot ignore.