Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Voices for Justice

A few more thoughts on VFJ

Martin Luther King said in as many words that any Gospel that doesn’t take into account the plight of the poor is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And Sojourners founder Jim Wallis said once that we need conversion everyday. It is a process that we need to constantly be reminded of.

What have these two statements got to do with each other? Well, Voices for Justice was a catalyst for a kind of reconversion for me. Over those few days in Canberra I was immersed in God’s love for the poor and his passion for justice. I realised too that this is a life that requires assertiveness. It is about taking a stand and being a voice – a voice for justice. As a lobby group leader I had to move beyond my sense of inadequacy and just do what is right. That’s what it takes but anyone an do it. All you need is a passion for God and God’s ways. If we ask we will receive, and we can be a prophet of hope for millions who live daily with none.

Voices for Justice – prophetic engagement with the powers

One of the workshops I attended on day 3 of VFJ 2010 was on prophetic engagement with politics and society. It was a panel discussion facilitated by Jeanette Matthews who is currently completing a PhD in Old Testament studies. The panel included Dave Andrews, Deborah Storie, and Phil Ireland. Jeanette opened the discussion by explaining that the prophets of the Old Testament were primarily spokespersons and not fortune tellers, which is pretty much the opposite of what I was told when I first became a Christian in my teens.

The prophets often performed strange symbolic acts. Ezekiel 4 is a good example of this. Generally, the prophets were into what you might call ‘shock and awe’, unlike the people in the wisdom books of the OT. The message that a prophet carries is a burden to them. But the point that really challenged me was that a prophet embraced the Word, that is, they lived out what they spoke. Some examples of prophetic actions from the OT are as follows:

  • Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 19)
  • Ezekiel (3:1-3, 4:1-3, 24:3-13)
  • Jeremiah (chapter 19)
  • Zechariah
  • Jeroboam and the prophet Ahijah (1 Kings 11)
  • Isaiah (chapter 20)
  • Micah (1:8)

One of the questions Jeanette raised about this is about whether or not there is room for such prophetic action today. I have no doubt that there is, and as usual, Dave Andrews gave a wonderful example. He was once out in his home town of Brisbane when a young man had just smashed a window and vandalised a shop front. The owner came out, mad as a snake as you would expect, and demanded that the youth be dealt with severely. On hearing the fracas, others came out and also had a go at the youth. But then one man said, “I know what we should do. Why don’t we give him a hug?” What?!!! But the man persisted, and he went up and gave the youth a hug. Slowly and awkwardly, the others standing around also went up and gave him a hug. Eventually, after yet another hug, the youth dissolved into tears and blurted out in remorse about how he was so sorry and he just wanted to be noticed. It was a perfect example of prophetic action in practise. It was non-violent and saved potential further violence. It is highly likely that if the hug-fest hadn’t of happened, the youth would not have shown any remorse and would have continued his angry life of committing the same offences again. But this prophetic act of love (they weren’t condoning his vandalism remember) brought the youth to his metaphorical knees and caused a heart change that mere punishment never could. Dave then made the point that prophetic action needs to be colourful and creative, designed to engage people. Anger is to be a last resort. My first thought on hearing this was that Jesus expressed prophetic anger at times, particularly in turning over the tables in the temple. But Dave emphasised that this was one of Jesus’ last acts and it got him killed.

Following this, Phil Ireland mentioned that one of the most prophetic acts that anyone can engage in today is to participate in a church. And he emphasised the word ‘participate’. It is being active in a church, not being a pew-warmer. His point was that participating in a church community dismantles the individualist ethos so prevalent in our culture. He followed this up by saying that our primary prophetic actions need to be through the church. People in the church can also inspire each other. For instance, often it’s the little acts that nobody notices that can be the most prophetic, such as tending your garden, as it tears down the culture of consumerism and reconnects us with the earth. Dave added that the most effective acts are often the most unseen ones. The most important thing is to live the prophetic life.

One of the points that Dave made was that a distinguishing characteristic of the prophets was their sympathy with God. And in the example given by Jesus who was strong in relating to the powerful and gentle in relating to the powerless, the prophet is to do the same. Deb reiterated this in saying that prophets always treat people as human beings – as people with dignity, especially the people they are prophesying to. We need to remember what we are wanting to draw people to. Finally, Deb mentioned that we need to respect the non-Christian prophetic voice. God does not only work through Christians. God can and indeed does work through anyone he wishes.

One of the points that Deb Storie made was that not everyone is called to be prophetic, and similarly, sometimes to be prophetic is to make space for others to do the prophetic acts. Backing up Dave’s comment, she also emphasised that prophets see the world through the eyes of God. Another interesting point she mentioned was that often, people in the OT thought the prophets suffered from mental illness. It is pertinent to remember that Jesus’ own family thought the same of him. But we need to remember too, Deb reminded us, that if they do have a mental illness, then that is fine. Dave mentioned that Michael Leunig is a great example of this, as someone who has been public about his own struggles.

It is panel discussions like this that stay with me for a very long time. A colleague mentioned to me afterwards that it was dialogues like this that made her want to go back to the Bible. That of course can only be a good thing. We sing a song at our church sometimes which talks about being a prophet of hope. The term ‘prophet of doom’ has widespread use, so the term ‘prophet of hope’ sounds somewhat of an oxymoron. I think the prophets were both. They sounded warnings of judgment as well as the hope of what a future with God can be like. God help me to be a prophet of yours. Amen.

Voices for Justice Day 3 – Stories of Hope

Well, yesterday and today have seen us flat out visiting our nation’s leaders, strolling the corridors of power asking them to increase our nation’s commitment to halve global poverty by 2015. The response has generally been very supportive. I have to mention one MP in particular. Mike Symon, my local Member in Deakin in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, has made a personal commitment to do all he can to get the Labor Government to commit to 0.7% by 2015. He is also very keen for the Government to do more on the issue of climate change. The lobby group I am with visited Mr Symon this morning and we were very impressed with his support and passion for these issues. He is also a member of the Parliamentary Friends of the MDGs group and has made speeches in Parliament highlighting the plight of the global poor. Mike (as he insisted we call him), thank you!

Yesterday our lobby group also met with Minister Jenny Macklin. She was also supportive, although I had to hold myself back from responding when she tried to tell us that we have no greater supporter on climate change than Kevin Rudd! He may be personally supportive, but as a Prime Minister, I am afraid he has shown an appalling lack of leadership. With no legislated commitments on climate change to 2020, and with our commitment to only a 5% emissions reduction by then, there is simply no way we can claim to be a global leader on this issue. We have a moral responsibility to do alot more than we currently are.

Yesterday I mentioned that I would hope to blog about our eminent poet Cam Semmens and his words of wit and wisdom that he has inspired us with over the last few days. Here’s some of what he said:

  • “We see the homeless sleeping in the bus shelters of our apathy, lying in the laneways of our indifference.”
  • On asking how different we really are from the poor and how we tend to ‘other’ them: “Between black and white, there are shades of grace; between 3rd and 1st I’m having 2nd thoughts.”

Some of the workshops here have also been excellent. Yesterday I attended one about the Old Testament prophets and political engagement with the powers. I’ll blog more about that either today or tomorrow. ‘Til then….

Being a nag for the poor

I didn’t get a chance to post yesterday as we were quite busy going over policy issues and messaging. But today, at this 3rd day of Voices for Justice 2010, we have started doing the practical work of visiting our MPs to give them our asks of increasing Australia’s ODA from 0.5% to 0.7% of GNI by 2015, and of increasing our action on climate change as this is a poverty issue.

This morning the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition spoke at what was quite literally our signature event – signing the Micah Call – a statement pledging to support the aims of Micah Challenge – something that 112,000 other Australians have signed. When Mr. Abbott spoke, he mentioned that we are nags and that people in power need nags like us to keep them accountable.

One of the things that has jumped out at me at this event is that our times of worship – when we’re singing – are so much more meaningful in the context of what we are ultimatelyhere for. Over the last 2 days we have spent a bit of time singing songs of praise to God for who He is – a God of justice, mercy, and compassion. And it meant so much more than just words, as we were here in the nation’s capital to put into practice the words of the prophet Micah – to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). The worship was not just a feel-good session of empty praise. I’m so glad to be part of a movement like this where we can put into action on a large scale what we all have a deep conviction about – that God hates poverty and commands us to work to alleviate it as our life’s calling.

Another thing I have found encouraging this time is seeing so many young people here. This year there are 320 of us and the majority would be in their 20s. As someone who is now in his 40s, I am so encouraged to see young people with such energy, such conviction and such passion for following Jesus on the journey to live out Micah’s call. One person in the group said they were here to get out of their confort zone. How impressive is that?! In a society that values comfort and ease above all else, we need more people who will live out the call to a discipleship that means taking up our cross and following Jesus regardless of the cost.

Tomorrow I hope to blog about our poet Cam Semmens and his little pieces of wisdom and wit, as well as some stuff on the prophetic engagement with the powers. ‘Til then…

Voices for Justice 2010

I first went to this Micah Challenge run event in 2008 and I was so inspired then that I have always wanted to come back. I couldn’t make it last year so I’m wrapped to be blogging from Canberra on today, the first day of VFJ 2010.

The first 2 days are times of teaching and learning, not just about policy and messaging, but about the reason we are actually here in the first place, which is to play our part in helping to bring in the Kingdom of God. Dave Andrews is one of the speakers this year and he has, as he always is, been an inspiration with his passionate delivery and moving stories. One of the pearls of wisdom he gave us today was that “when lots of people do lots of little things, big changes are possible”. It kind of reminds me of the first disciples, 12 ‘unschooled, ordinary people’ who led a movement that turned their world completely upside down and let to half the Roman Empire claiming allegiance to the Man from Nazareth a few centuries later.

Dave’s main message was on the Beattitudes, those wonderful words of Jesus from Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel. It’s interesting how almost every Christian would be able to say they know of the 10 commandments, but not many would be able to say how many Beattitudes there are (there are 8, depending on how you define them). One of the things that Dave told us about the Beattitudes was that they talk about justice and then about mercy, reminding us that the kingdom is not just about justice but about mercy as well. Many people who are into justice are merciless, and this is something I need to be aware of as well. Justice, compassion and mercy can never be separated.

Anyway, our next session is about to start. More tomorrow.

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