UNITED NATIONS–A gray-haired South African of modest stature used one of the shortest verses in one of the smallest books in the Bible to call for political activism among Christians for the sake of the poor.
“Acting together, Christians can play a vital role in helping global partners [governments] meet their commitments,” Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane said last week in remarks at the United Nations.
The reference was to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, a pledge some 200 nations made in 2000 to reduce significantly the number of people worldwide living in poverty.
Ndungane, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, was the primary speaker at the launch of the Micah Challenge, a campaign to mobilize Christians to influence their governmental leaders to keep their pledges to cut poverty in half over the next 10 years.
“We have an enormously powerful and influential voice. We must speak up loud and clear,” Ndungane said.
Quoting Micah 6:8, he defined justice as living “according to need and not according to greed.”
“Poverty is evil,” he said. “In all its ramifications and consequences, poverty mars the image of God within us. It mars it in the poor as it deprives them of opportunities for abundant life.”
But Ndungane said poverty also distorts God’s image “within those of us who have more than enough, but who, through greed, complacency or even ignorance, fail to do justice, to embrace the loving kindness, that our God asks of us.”
Americans and Europeans, for example, “spend more on pet foods than is required to provide basic health care and nutrition for everyone on the planet,” he said.
“Europe spends more on ice cream than the cost of clean water and sanitation for everyone,” he continued. “The U.S. spends more on cosmetics than the cost of universal primary education.”
“Surely we can live with a little less ice-cream!” he told more than 100 representatives from faith-based relief and justice organizations. “Surely we can pay a little more for a fairer international global trading system.”
He quoted the Micah passage as saying, “You have already been told what is right and what Yahweh wants of you: Only this, to do what is right, to love loyalty and to walk humbly with your God.”
Before the Micah Challenge launch, Ndgundane sat down for a 30-minute interview with EthicsDaily.com.
Ndgundane, an archbishop for nine years and successor to Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu, spent three years as a political prisoner along with Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s infamous Robben Island.
It was there that the son of a parish priest’s own call to ministry came as a “response to God’s generosity.”
Ndgundane said he was “overwhelmed by a God who in all circumstances gave us his son in order that we might have life abundantly.”
“I felt an urge to respond. I saw my calling to be an agent of reconciliation,” he said.
Ndungane said he has a simple definition of justice.
“It is God’s justice,” he said. God “wills that everyone should have all that is basic for human living.”
“For me that is a basic requirement for all of us—access to food, clear water, health care, that would be a basic definition of a justice order,” he said.
Asked about the root causes of injustice, Ndungane quickly replied, “One answer—greed.”
“God has provided for our needs, not our greed,” he said. “If you look at the Genesis narratives, God gave us everything. It is in exercise of stewardship that we fall short. A clear example is what God did for the Hebrew tribes in the desert. He provided manna for their daily living. Some horded it for themselves. The food rotted.”
Ndungane said the most pressing challenge facing South Africa is “universal education for all.”
“Most children out of school are girls,” he said. “If you get girls in school, it has a domino effect. With education, you get jobs and food.”
Ndungane cited statistics that about 150 million children worldwide do not attend school. “This is immoral. This is sinful,” he said.
Four and a half days of the world’s $1 trillion expenditure on armaments would “cover education for these children,” he said.
“We belong together in this world,” he said. “We are living in a world without borders—the rich and powerful are just as vulnerable as the poor. We need to make a better world.”
Ndungane said that “9/11 showed how vulnerable we are. We need to work for conditions which make it impossible for such deadly things to exist. The greatest strategy is to work for all—food, clean water, health care.”
Asked about the state of the Christian faith in American, Ndungane at first hesitated to respond.
Then he spoke broadly about how Christians “need renewal of our minds—so that we are not conformed to the dictates of the world.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.