Australian Baptists account for only an estimated 1.6 percent of the Australian population, but they played an important role in getting their government to reverse its declining foreign aid budget and to pledge an increase from $2.5 billion to $4 billion by 2010.
That about-face came in no small measure from three Baptists: Les Fussell, CEO of Baptist World Aid Australia; Scott Higgins, development education and advocacy officer for BWAA; and Amanda Jackson, national coordinator for Micah Challenge Australia, whose position is underwritten by and office is housed at BWAA.
Due to their commitment and that of many others, Australian Baptists are still leading global Baptists in educational and advocacy efforts for the Micah Challenge.
That campaign seeks to lobby governments to keep their pledges to support the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to halve worldwide poverty by 2015.
Other goals include providing access to primary schooling for all children; promoting gender equality and empower women; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and ensuring environmental sustainability.
A key component to the MDG is increased foreign aid from Western industrialized nations.
“I think that in 2005, we were a strong part of the reason why the government promised to increase aid funding by $1.5 billion over five years,” said Jackson. “It was the first year of the campaign and our postcard campaign with Make Poverty History had an impact.”
Fussell added in an e-mail interview that prior to the government’s decision to increase its foreign-aid budget the prime minister’s office received tens of thousands of postcards which underscored the promise the government had made for more foreign aid.
“It appears the prime minister, like any ‘good’ politician, detected that the direction of the mood of the electorate had changed, and accordingly changed the direction of the policy on overseas aid,” said Fussell.
Behind the emerging political activism of Australian Baptists is a broader commitment to hunger relief.
“We believe that at least 65 percent of the 100,000 or so, who regularly attend Baptist churches in Australia, are regular givers to aid and development agencies such as Baptist World Aid, Compassion and World Vision,” wrote Higgins in an e-mail interview with EthicsDaily.com.
“Around 65-70 percent of our churches take up a Christmas Day offering that is devoted in its entirety to Baptist World Aid. In addition to this, our mission-sending agency has a strong and well supported focus on poverty issues,” he said.
Higgins readily noted that Australian Baptists “tend to view poverty through a lens of compassion,” instead of a social justice issue.
“We are seeing a change in understanding on the biblical imperative to do justice for the hungry,” said Les Fussell. “Five years ago the debate was very lively as to the biblical imperative. Today, I believe there is a much wider acceptance of the imperative.”
Fussell said, “Many of us have still to address the issue of our affluent lifestyles and how we might live more simply in order that the global poor might simply live and the global environment might just survive.”
He acknowledged that much education work remains to be done to get Christians to exercise their moral responsibility to advocate with the government for a national budget that helps the poor.
“Baptists are very good at bringing people to the cross, but we forget there was resurrection Sunday, which calls followers to discipleship and a belief in the Lord’s Prayer—’thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven,'” said Fussell. “Baptists tend to seek conversions rather than discipleship, a personal faith in Jesus Christ rather than a public faith in Jesus.”
The bearded Australian said that wealthy Western Christians “read the Bible through the context lens of affluence and fail to see or apply the compelling biblical witness of justice for the poor and the oppressed. Poverty is outside their experience and they fail to see how they, as the rich in this world, may be contributing to the poverty of the remaining 90 percent on this globe.”
“Sadly, we have transported this skinny Gospel to countries we have missioned and produced theologically malnourished disciples,” said Fussell.
Higgins said that Baptist churches communicate effectively love for others but that message centers on individuals and neglects systemic issues.
“Church leaders/pastors are the key to creating a church culture where justice is seen as an integral part of discipleship,” he said. “Moreover, churches must find ways to identify those who have a God-given burden for social justice and to empower them to engage in justice ministry as one of the ministry arms of the local church.”
Reflecting on the status of the United Nation’s MDG, Higgins said, “Progress is being made, but it is uneven across regions and countries. Some countries and regions are on target, while others will fall way short.”
At the half-way point toward the target date of 2015 and three years after the Baptist World Alliance passed a resolution endorsing the Micah Challenge at its general council meeting in Seoul, South Korea, Fussell expressed concern about the lack of activism of Baptist unions, conventions and fellowships outside of Australia.
“It would appear that many of the global Baptist communities within the BWA have yet to be involved in educating and activating church members to press their governments to keep their pledges to support the MDG,” he said. “In fact, in many Baptist communities it is still debated as to whether this is a political activity that a good Baptist should or should not be involved in.”
Fussell will encourage greater global Baptist support for the Micah Challenge in a workshop at the Baptist World Alliance’s general council meeting July 2-7 in Accra, Ghana.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.