If you believe the newspapers and popular media reports, there are only two faces of the campaign to get G8 leaders to make serious decisions about debt relief and aid: anarchist thugs and pop music consumers. But Baptists in the United Kingdom have been taking part as well.
Reports and photographs on the front pages of many newspapers this week showed masked and hooded protesters in violent clashes with police in Edinburgh, marking reaction to the G8 summit in Gleneagles.
The weekend’s press in Britain was dominated by the LIVE 8 concerts, pop music events which, while perhaps raising awareness of global issues, cynics might be forgiven for seeing as more a vehicle for celebrity ego-tripping and an all-round good time for audiences than a serious political gesture.
Anarchist mayhem and consumer-conscience politics seem to be the two possible faces of campaigning on behalf of the developing world, neither of them particularly attractive. The Make Poverty History march on Saturday, however, was neither meaningless and plastic, nor violent and disruptive.
The atmosphere was compared by one participant as being similar to that of a Greenbelt, a well-established Christian arts festival with a social justice flavor that takes place every year in southern England.
With no alcohol on sale in the grounds and marchers specifically asked not to bring their own, the steady beat of inoffensive world music in the background and the cheerful family atmosphere, the uninformed might have been forgiven for confusing the day with some sort of massive youth-group event.
But the fact is, there were very few who were uninformed, and much of the day’s content was extremely grown-up. The complexities of fair rather than free trade, debt relief and aid, in a world plagued by greed and corruption in both the developed and majority worlds, are not usually discussed from the stage of a music festival. Neither are they, in many parts of the developed world, heard by mainstream Christians as a matter of choice.
Yet Make Poverty History has been a campaign behind which UK churches and Christian organizations have rallied in their droves.
The three main groups represented at the march on Saturday were Tearfund (The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund), Christian Aid and World Vision, all unashamedly Christian organizations.
Christian Aid placards, emblazoned with slogans like “Free Trade” and “Debt Relief,” were among the most popular during the march, but banners, posters, t-shirts and placards from the Salvation Army, the Methodists and a myriad of Anglican churches were also in evidence.
Banners from the Baptist Union of Great Britain and BMS World Mission (formerly the Baptist Missionary Society) declared that “Baptist Churches Support Make Poverty History.” And many Christian families marched alongside non-Christians of every description.
So why, when many Christians, including some vocal Southern Baptists, are rejecting The ONE Campaign (as Make Poverty History is known in the USA) did so many UK Christians show their support in Edinburgh?
Gary, a Christian in his early 30s at the march with his family, answered that question by saying: “Because it’s our God’s world, and we can be a massive influence this weekend; I think we’re going to look back and realize that we were part of a generation that did make history.”
To the suggestion that some Christians may find the Make Poverty History aims too much of a liberal agenda, he replied, “I think they should just embed themselves in Scripture. If you read the Word of God we are supposed to go and help these people, and if we just sit back and leave it, we’re never going to be able to resolve this issue.”
Gary’s words articulate the general feeling at the march, that “sitting back” is an unacceptable response to world poverty from Christians. The Make Poverty History campaign seems to have been chosen by many UK Christians as the most likely vehicle for achieving real change, and if the numbers of people at the march (upwards of 220,000), they are not alone.
Grahame, a Baptist in his early 20s, said that the reason he was supporting the campaign is: “Because it’s biblical. And we as Christians have been rubbish at campaigning over the years, so we need to get involved”.
His view is shared by Mark, a member of The Brethren on the Isle of Skye, who quoted many scriptures and said, “Our prime goal as Christians is to see his name glorified, and I think he’d be glorified if poverty was made history. Because he doesn’t desire for anybody to be in need. He is desiring to meet people’s needs. But, he wants to use us in that as well.”
But support for Make Poverty History among Christians at the march was not just limited to those motivated by wanting to do something about poverty.
As any critic of the campaign will point out, Make Poverty History and its aims of debt relief and trade justice are not the only possible solutions to world poverty.
But, as Edwin, a Baptist minister and employee of BMS World Mission, said: “In Uganda, apparently, where some debt at least has been relieved, 30 per cent more children are in primary school. That’s got to be a winner for alleviating poverty in the future.”
Bruce, a minister from Glasgow, was motivated more by the fair trade aspect: “Love goes beyond justice, but let’s get justice in the first instance. If somebody was building a wall for you, you wouldn’t just give them a few pennies and then as charity just add a fiver to it. ”
Roy Searle, president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, in a sermon on the next day (Sunday) in Edinburgh called the fact that rich nations are in some cases demanding seven times more in debt repayments than aid, they are giving as “alien to the heart of God.”
Alistair Brown, general director of BMS, in stating support for Make Poverty History, has said that “poverty is a stench in the nostrils of God,” and that the true shame was that it is unnecessary.
British Baptists, in leadership and on the ground, are clearly behind Make Poverty History.
Alan O’Sullivan, a journalist with the Baptist Times, identifies a possible reason why UK Baptists might differ from many in the Baptist family abroad in something American Jim Wallis said in an interview: “He said that the main difference between the US and the UK is … that the average person in the UK knows more about Make Poverty History and international debt relief than the average Harvard student.”
While Wallis may not be correct in his generalization, the fact is that British Christians, mainstream Baptists, conservative Brethren and politically polite Anglicans have all joined in supporting Make Poverty History to some extent. And many hope that Christians around the world will do the same.
Among them are Christians from the developing world that the march sought to benefit.
Victor, an Indonesian Baptist pastor and evangelist at the rally, commented that, from the point of view of the poverty-stricken area where he works, “I think this is a thing that can help the poor countries, because many people in the Western hemisphere don’t really know what it’s like to live in poverty, but voicing the concern of the voiceless is one of the things that people here can do.”
When asked whether he thought other Christians around the world should support the campaign, he replied simply: “Sure. We need to go back to our theology and realize that relief is not a matter of charity, it’s a matter of justice.”
With tribal drums, festival whistles and bagpipes as the soundtrack, Christians joined with some unlikely campaign-fellows in the form of socialist workers and independent anarchists, all with very different agendas but one focus on the day, a campaign that seeks to bring justice to trade, more effectiveness to aid and relief to poor-nation debt.
The Make Poverty History campaign has meant Christians have had to make some difficult choices. And, as the Rev. David Kerrigan, a former missionary to Sri Lanka and director for mission at the same mission agency that William Carey founded says, “It’s something they will have to get used to.”
Jonathan Langley is a media development officer for BMS World Mission in Didcot, England.