Joel Edwards on the Micah Challenge to halve extreme global poverty

|PIC1|Rev Joel Edwards, General Director of the UK Evangelical Alliance, was in Washington DC last week where he took part in a key meeting between the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, and leading evangelicals from around the world to solidify joint efforts in halving extreme global poverty.

The meeting was hosted by the National Association of Evangelicals in the US and Micah Challenge, the global movement of Christians dedicated to seeing the Millennium Development Goals to halve extreme poverty become a reality by the target date of 2015.

During the Global Leaders Forum that followed the meeting with Mr Ban, US evangelicals affirmed their full commitment to work with other Christians around the world as part of Micah Challenge.

Christian Today caught up with Rev Edwards to find out what significance the meetings with Mr Ban and the US evangelicals had for the progress of the Micah Challenge movement.

CT: Ban Ki-Moon has been very positive about Micah Challenge and the work of evangelicals and churches around the world on poverty. It must be very encouraging for you.

JE: Anything that comes out of the evangelical stable normally incites cynicism and scepticism at best and hilarity at worst, so to actually have the Secretary General of the UN saying that a group like the Micah Challenge is a serious critical partner in the enterprise to reduce absolute poverty is just great news.

CT: There are whispers of a new activism and a new era for evangelicals and their working together with governments and political bodies like the UN. Do you feel that same change?

JE: Yes I do. I've spoken to a number of key leaders like Jim Wallace and Richard Cizik - the veterans of persuasion - and to hear those guys, who have been pushing at closed doors for so long, say that something is changing is just wonderful. For the North American Evangelical Alliance to come together with the young kid on the block, Micah Challenge, and to invite the Secretary General of the UN to a meeting of senior evangelicals in the US definitely signals a wind change.

CT: Evangelicals in the US have been a little slow to get behind Micah Challenge. Now that they have expressed their full commitment, do you feel it will radically change the way that Micah Challenge moves forward?

JE: I think so. I think the problem with America is that it is so large that it is very insular. Any nation which has a major sporting event with all-American teams and calls it an 'international' has serious problems with its foreign policy! If you have that kind of attitude, the extent to which other experiences can come crashing in on you and enlarge your world is bound to make a difference.

Having foreign speakers on the platform was very important symbolism. This was saying to America there is a world out there beyond the US that has something to say to you and something to teach you and that is very important. The extent to which the US can do that is the extent to which we will accelerate the change in attitude in the rest of the world.

CT: So they are pivotal?

JE: Yes, very pivotal. It's like opening the windows.

CT: This is the first meeting between the UN Secretary General and church leaders on the MDGs. Why do you think it's taken this long to have this meeting?

JE: That's a very good question. Maybe it has taken a long time, but maybe it has just been a natural process that has led to this. Salil Shetty (Director of the United Nation's Millennium Campaign) always mentions the fact that Christians were at the very epicentre of movements like Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History, and those movements have changed the discourse on poverty. A part of that is undoubtedly the role of the church.

In addition to that, I think in 2007 we have established our credibility as serious critical partners, and that is important because we are not just here to beat up politicians on the behalf of the poor. We're here to work with politicians. We have practical ideas about what can be done and I think the Secretary General has seen this. The likes of Salil Shetty have seen that to ignore the church is an act of political vandalism in terms of efforts to alleviate poverty. And I think world leaders are also recognising the world class contribution of the church.

CT: So it signifies to you a change in attitude towards evangelicals?

JE: Yes, and I think for those involved with Micah Challenge, this was a hope from the outset. Our number one priority remains to deepen our commitment to the poor, but to actually offer the world a different perspective is one of the spin-offs we were hoping to achieve.

Evangelical doesn't have to be a dirty word. It has a servant posture that has been there for 200 years. We are here to bring good news.

CT: Why do many churches feel that it is together with the UN that we will break poverty? Why doesn't the church 'go it alone'?

JE: I was in Zambia recently and I found that people were doing MDGs without necessarily using the language of MDGs. I think that it's an important issue that we have been involved for a long time already, working together on issues such as child mortality and HIV and Aids.

The language of the MDGs has simply caught up with that activity. They are ten years old but our activity goes back a long way. I think what we are seeing here is a merger of an old behaviour which fits new language, and I think that's part of what we are celebrating.

CT: What would you say to people who fear that movements like Micah Challenge are just another example of churches replacing theology with a social agenda?

JE: I think it is a legitimate fear. David Neff criticised his church for talking more about the MDGs than the gospel of Jesus. That's a serious indictment. It's important that we position ourselves in the Bible, in the love of God, and in the mission of God to the world. I think that is where our heart is.

We also shouldn't forget that Micah Challenge is a biblical name. It's our way of saying this is the heart and the motivation of our enterprise. We are not social workers at large, we are not social activists. We are biblical Christians seeking to behave biblically and we have spotted something that world governments have done that resonates with the prophetic imperative to care for the poor and we want to join that. We want to say 'good for you governments. You have tripped over Micah. Can we help you find the landing that God has given you?'

CT: Do you think Gordon Brown will respond to the Micah Challenge call?

JE: I think he will. I dare say the Prime Minister has a few things to do under the table, but I would be amazed if Gordon Brown didn't turn around in the near future and respond to what we are saying, particularly as Micah Challenge raises its profile and he becomes increasingly aware that Micah Challenge is a global movement.

I was at the very last meeting of Jubilee 2000, in December 2000, and Gordon Brown's keynote speech had right at its very centre a very serious recognition of the role of the church within that movement.

I was also part of breakfast meetings he had with Clare Short, who was International Secretary for Development at the time, and it was very clear then that he treated the Christian NGOs in the room as seriously as he did the non-Christian NGOs. So I am pretty sure in time he will come to salute, applaud and see ways of partnering with Micah Challenge - if we can help him to understand the dimensions of it.

CT: What kind of role do you see Micah Challenge UK playing in the international movement, given that Global South countries are where the need to realise the MDGs is greatest and the church is booming there?

JE: I think that's so important. Christians in these countries are saying 'don't be paternalistic, recognise the human resources and natural resources of Africa, and respond to our perceptions of our own needs'.

The trip to Zambia, which included the national director of Micah Challenge UK, Andy Clasper, was about finding out what was happening so that Micah Challenge UK will respond responsibly to the needs of the Global South. We have a mandate not to be parental but to be responsive.

CT: We have just celebrated Micah Sunday and the focus was HIV and Aids. What are you asking the UK Government on this issue?

JE: I think our message is that you cannot ignore the church in this battle against HIV and Micah Challenge is in a unique position to bring together some of the expertise within the Christian world. With our infrastructure across Africa, we want to work positively with the Government in the fight against HIV and Aids. That's what we are working towards.