Last month I was in a meeting of African bishops discussing the transformation of Africa when a speaker strayed from his specific topic and gave a list of details which outlined the impact of extreme poverty on child development and education. To my amazement, as he presented the facts and showed photographs, it provoked loud laughter. I was very disturbed.
I was so concerned that I asked a young woman in the audience why they were laughing. Later I asked a senior bishop who hadn't laughed. The following day I asked two other people why the bishops laughed. And they all said the same thing. It's a kind of shock reaction. Presented with the stark realities of extreme poverty and with few resources to respond, laughter was a coping mechanism.
I think I understand. When people are overwhelmed, or guilty of inappropriate action, sometimes they cry. And sometimes they laugh.
Poverty is like an avalanche which can totally overwhelm or sweep us away. So it's not surprising that Jesus' statement that the poor will always be with us is used as an excuse to do nothing about global poverty (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8). Far too often that text is used as a Western form of laughter in the face of the avalanche. But early Christian response to the poor was regarded not merely as acts of charity, but more fundamentally as divine justice.
The church has no option but to plunge itself into the very center of global events. And we do so for a number of reasons.
First, God's love demands it, and the most basic understanding of the gospel and our history compels us to become involved in the sufferings of our world. And that is the point: It is our world.
Those of us who think that we are cultural islands have no chance! Our mobile phones, laptops, skype calls, overseas holidays, and short-term missions all testify against us. We belong to everyone else, and they belong to us. If you were caught up in the Iceland ash a few months ago, you were left in no doubt that Iceland's problem was also your problem.
Secondly, God has always been a global God -- the God of all people. This was rooted in the call to Abraham and carried through the work of the prophets, to the promised Messiah. It was reflected in the work of the Church and the Great Commission to go into the entire world.
Missionary work between the 17th and 20th centuries was based on a 'new frontiers' mindset of reaching the ends of the world with the good news about Jesus -- as well as caring for those in need.
Thirdly, the gospel redefines 'neighbor' in a global context. The story of the Good Samaritan was a direct answer to a question about neighborhood. In Jesus' worldview, my neighbor is the outsider who is not defined in religious or political terms but in relation to his desperate need. So when floods overwhelm Pakistan they are our neighbor.
Fourthly, Jesus redefines family. "Who is my brother and sister?" he asked. Anyone who does what God asks of them. These people have become closer than genetic relationships because they share a world view and a relationship which is bound up in God's purpose on the planet. And ultimately, that family finds its greatest expression in the new humanity redeemed in Christ and called as ambassadors in a global work of reconciliation, bringing everything back to God (Colossians 1:20; 2 Corinthians 5:18).
And finally, at a time when the world has shown unprecedented interest in poverty reduction, it would be a sad indictment of the church if we were to become invisible or silent on the subject. Our advocacy and our quiet actions should be lights on a hill.
And more than anything else, our responses to the poor offer us an opportunity to become visible sign posts of God at work in the world.
Rev. Joel Edwards is the International Director of Micah Challenge International. Joel travels the globe inspiring the church to get involved in advocacy with and for the poor as part of their core mission. He will be speaking alongside Micah Challenge's National Coordinator from Haiti at a Worship Event as part of MC's 10.10.10 campaign, on September 20, 7 to 9pm at the Salvation Army International Social Justice Commission, 221 East 52nd Street, New York. For more information contact at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.micah2010.org.