A few years back a brilliant tv ad was created which showed 2 teams of people passing a ball. You the viewer were asked to count how many times the white team passed the ball. And so you count…1,2,3,4,5. The ad ends, the correct answer is given and just as you are basking in the glory of getting it right the narrator asks “but did you see the dancing bear?” Dancing bear? The ad is replayed and you see some guy in a bear suit dance right through the middle of the teams passing the ball. And you missed it! It should have been bleedingly obvious but you missed it!
I grew up in a church that knew Micah 6.8: God has shown you what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. We even immortalised the words in a popular Sunday school song, but somehow we didn’t see the call to justice. We were big on mercy and walking humbly with God; it was a church where people were extraordinarily generous and sacrificial in showing kindness; that nurtured a deep devotion to Jesus, but justice? It just didn’t register on our radar, and when it took the form of social justice it sounded altogether suspicious. To paraphrase a South American bishop, when he fed the hungry we called him a saint; when he asked why they were hungry we called him a communist.
The church of my youth, like most Baptist churches of the era, embraced a theology known as premillenial dispensationalism.Indeed to be a member one had to agree with this doctrine. Among other things this held that the world is getting worse and until Jesus returns would continue on a downward spiral to chaos. To this worldview individual acts of mercy made sense, but the pursuit of social justice was futile. It simply could not be achieved, and if by chance we did have some limited success, we would only be delaying Christ’s return.
Your church may have theologised it differently, but with a few notable exceptions, in mid twentieth century Australian churches justice was a missing dimension of discipleship.
By the turn of the millennium this had started to change. Churches were learning to see all of micah 6:8 – justice, mercy and walking humbly with our God.
Micah Challenge both reflected this changing paradigm and helped shape it. We were a campaign that did 4 things:
1. MC helped Christians see that poverty was an issue that should be front and centre for us. I remember reading John Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today when it was first released in, I think, the early eighties. Stott observed that every generation of Christians has a blind spot and that in his opinion the blind spot of Western Christianity was the scandal of global poverty. MC set out to change that, to help us see the great focus on poverty in the bible.
2. MC helped Christians see that engaging with those living in poverty demanded more than personal acts of kindness. It meant grappling with the fact that poverty is created by systems that are fundamentally unjust. If you were a follower of Jesus your generosity in sharing your wealth must be matched by a commitment to buying goods made ethically, to a lifestyle that was ecologically sustainable, and wherever and however one could to combat the deleterious impacts of social, economic and political systems that trample on our fellow human beings
3. MC helped Christians see that following Jesus had a prophetic edge, that the Church’s role was not to be chaplain to the state nor a sect cut off from the state but to be prophet, to call the State to a just use of power. One of the great tasks of the church of our age is to discover what it means to be the church in a post-Christendom world. What does it mean to be the church in a world where we are no longer at the centre, where what was, I suspect, only ever a thin veneer of Judaeo-Christian values is replaced with a commitment to pluralism? MC helped us see that in part at least, it means becoming prophets, advocates and agitators for change.
4. MC gave Christians the tools they needed to exercise their prophetic voice. Once we discovered the call to justice we needed a way to do it. For many MC was that tool. For the first time ever they wrote a letter to a politician or signed a postcard or mustered the courage to visit their MP. Church leaders were emboldened to preach about poverty and not only our responsibility to share but our culpability in creating the conditions that kept people poor.
Of course MC was not the only factor responsible for this shift, nor for many even the most significant factor. Like most shifts in communities the shift to justice was multidetermined. But for many of us MC was our entry point to lived justice, the movement that helped us see the dancing bear. For others MC was a valued partner in a journey they had already begun. But for all of us mc helped us see and live all of micah 6.8: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.
TRANSCRIPT OF A TALK DELIVERED TO MARK THE END OF MICAH CHALLENGE AUSTRALIA (TO BE REPLACED WITH MICAH AUSTRALIA LTD)