I have commented several times on Gather about the Christian value of advocating for social programs to assist hungry and disadvantaged people. A proposal in Congress to cut SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits by $4 billion has recently ignited discussion on the subject.
While I think that the Gospel of Jesus is quite clear on the subject of helping the hungry, poor and oppressed, I've seen a variety of arguments against not only government assistance, but even directly helping the person in need. Many such arguments are launched by self-described Christians. I don't question their faith; I consider them confused, and I'll explain as I discuss some of the points and counterpoints that I've observed, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Please feel free to add to them, but please try to make your point without resorting to name-calling or psychoanalyzing others. That doesn't serve.
Last weekend, as it happens, I attended a theatrical production of Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," a play that imagines a conversation that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might have had at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the night of April 3, 1968, after delivering his "mountaintop" speech—before he was assassinated the next afternoon. I went back to King's speech to enlist King's assistance in a couple of ways before I finish.
First, I've heard that when Jesus quoted Isaiah, proclaiming
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4:18,19 NIV; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2)
...that He might have been reserving the freedom to live without hunger or oppression for the next life, and not this one (The "good news" is life eternal, the argument goes. Are we advocating the release of all people in prison, for example, or was Jesus speaking of a different form of prisoner, and a different form of poverty?") Curiously King had this to say:
It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
Second, I've heard that it's no good to try to help people in need because there are other problems that must be resolved first, such as job creation or immigration reform (which is presumably draining our resources, making it a fool's errand to feed people), and so on. Again, King:
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base....
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to ... Jericho ... to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about ... 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked—the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
We might ask what does "dangerous unselfishness" require of us, whether the "danger" is some kind of personal risk, or worries about priorities, when children are going hungry each night in America—by the millions.
Third, I've heard that Christians should deny people food and shelter in order not to foster dependency. Indeed, Ken Blackwell at the conservative Christian lobbying group, Family Research Council, told Christian Post "I think through empowering others and creating self-sufficiency…there within lies the path to sense of worthiness." The article continues, "Blackwell also suggested that there was 'nothing more Christian' than 'not locking people into a permanent dependency on government handouts, but making sure they are participants in their own upliftment and empowerment so that they in fact through the dignity of work and can break from the plantation of big government.'" Blackwell seems not to understand the demographics of SNAP recipients. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children. (Almost 70 percent of SNAP recipients are not expected to work, primarily because they are children, elderly, or disabled.)"
Fourth, I've heard people claim that Jesus calls us to personal sacrifice, and not advocacy for government action. While Jesus certainly does call for personal sacrifice, I have to wonder how some of the same people who launch this argument also advocate the view that America is founded on Christian principles, or that they support the concept of a representative democracy (which depends on the driving force of principled citizen advocacy for its proper functioning). And luckily these latter views have merit, notwithstanding the multitude of failings in government that are obvious to all. The latter views have merit because the federal government does, in fact, provide an enormous level of nutrition support for hungry people. In fiscal year 2012, the federal government spent about $81 billion on SNAP (which is the largest, although not the only US food assistance program). Compare that to the $4 billion total of all private charitable food assistance programs, and the significance of the federal effort becomes clear. The proposed $4 billion cut in SNAP benefits would require a doubling of the private programs in order to make up the difference resulting from just the proposed cut in benefits.
“Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” (Mark 11:2b-3 NIV)
The Lord needs hungry children fed. He commands the use of resources in society to meet human needs.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8 NIV)
Dr. King said,
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.
Now I have a request for you. Call the US Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to speak to your member of Congress. Ask them to vote against any cuts to food assistance. It's the wrong thing to do during a recovery from the greatest economic downturn in 70 years.
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. …
The opposite of poverty is justice.” — Bryan Stevenson
Photo credits: King photos Wikipedia; chart CBPP