Acton Institute Powerblog

Challenging the Micah Challenge

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There’s a big, fairly new, global effort by Christians to cut worldwide poverty in half by 2015. Just what is this effort? A new giving initiative? A new network connecting churches in the first world with churches in the third world? A new global faith-based NGO?

Sadly, no. The new effort is called the “Micah Challenge,” which turns out really to be a challenge to get Christians to call for government action. The Micah Challenge is described as “a global Christian movement that’s working to overcome poverty by encouraging our leaders to meet their commitments to achieve the Millennium Development Goals – poverty-eradicating goals that all the member states of the United Nations have promised to achieve by 2015.”

So just how are Christians to help the poor? By petitioning government, of course! Here’s a typical example, “Micah Challenge Canada Says Govt. Aid ‘Far Short.'”

Since when did Christian charity get reduced to political lobbying? Is the Church just another interest group? Maybe the Micah Challenge should register as a PAC.

Or maybe the Church should look to its own house. Perhaps the fact that “7% of Protestants tithed to churches” (and how much of that money is spent helping the poor, either domestically or abroad?) has something to do with the fact that the churches feel the need to rely on the government to get things done.

“…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” – Micah 6:8

Just who is Micah talking to? In focusing almost exclusively on lobbying governments to fight poverty, the Micah Challenge is missing the Church’s main responsibilities in terms of charity (which itself is secondary and derivative of the primary task of the Church, the proclamation of the Gospel).

In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “there are three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state: in the first place, as has been said, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.” So far, so good. This is what the Micah Challenge intends to do.

But the Micah Challenge effectively ignores the Church’s corresponding responsibilities, to “aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. ‘Do good to all men.’…the church may in no way withdraw itself from these two tasks.” The third way that the church can act is “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”

What the Micah Call and the Micah Challenge largely miss are the second (and third) activities of the Church, direct intervention to lift up the poor and oppressed. Instead of merely calling nations to be accountable to the MDGs, why doesn’t the Micah Challenge also put forth goals for the Church to accomplish on its own?

In fairness to the Micah Challenge, there is a lot of material on its site, some good, some bad. And some of it focuses on the direct role of Christians in the lives of the poor. But the words of the Micah Call, as well as the action plan for the Challenge, focus almost exclusively on the petition of governments rather than direct Christian intervention. If the Micah Challenge were truly a challenge to the Church to act directly, then it would become a comprehensive call for Christian stewardship. As it stands now, the Micah Challenge is incomplete, inadequate, and irresponsible.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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