Saturday, October 29, 2005

Capitalism as Religion

The other day after Mass I was discussing global hunger with a fellow parishioner, and this person's response was that the problem exists only because "thug governments" prevent the distribution of food aid.

One must admit there is a little bit of logic in that statement. The free flow of food, medications, water and other supplies would be very helpful in easing famine in Darfur, Niger and North Korea.

What I tried to explain to my fellow parishioner, however, is that there is a great distinction between famine and systemic hunger, which is the result of poverty.

Why aren't we as a society doing more to alleviate poverty, which is one of the principles in our Christian faith (and for that matter in almost all religious traditions)? What role do our attitudes about economics and wealth have in our failure to respond?

I read a very thought provoking article by David Hilfiker in The Other Side, which engages in discussions about social transformation and its connections to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. Hilfiker's article, Naming Our Gods , discusses the role of capitalism in our daily lives.

The article is not necessarily an indictment of our economic system; rather it raises concerns on how we've allowed capitalism to dictate even the way we respond in faith.

"Capitalism, of course, is an economic system, a particular method for allocating resources by price and ability to pay,"
says Hilfiker. "One can argue for or against the benefits of that economic system, but I don't want to get into that argument here. Nor do I intend to rail against consumerism (although it's worth railing against) or detail the failure of the free-market system to care for the poor or protect our environment, although those, too, are deadly serious issues."

Hilfiker goes on to say:
"This focus on profit, on earning money, has mushroomed beyond the sphere of economics to become central to our understanding of life itself. The purpose of work is to make money." By placing such emphasis on making money, argues Hilfiker, the principles that Christ taught in the Gospel are often set aside. "Activities that are not financially remunerative, even those essential to societal well-being, are not valued," says Hilfiker, who works as a physician in a poor community in an inner city.

Hilfiker's article is long, but it offers some very compelling points. The bottom line is in the summary: "The function of religion in the human community should be to call forth our best and highest selves," says the author. "As an economic system, capitalism may or may not serve us well. As a religion, especially an unnamed one, it is disastrous."

The Rev. William Byron, S.J., who collaborated with Art Simon in founding Bread for the World, equates our societal drive for profits with gluttony.
"Profits to a company are like food to a person," Father Byron said in a program called The Jesuits, which was part of the PBS series Religion and Ethics newsweekly. "Whoever said you have to maximize your profits quarter, after quarter, after quarter?

Father Byron, who has taught economics at Loyola College in Baltimore and Georgetown University in Washington, emphasizes the importance of bringing the values that Christ taught in the Gospel into our daily lives. "It would be folly for somebody, a person of faith, to say, 'Holy Spirit, you have to wait out here, I'm going in, I got real work to do.' And leave outside, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control. Doesn't work. They belong in the workplace. And the workplace becomes more fully human."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also addresses the issue in a pastoral letter entitled
A Decade after Economic Justice for All. The pastoral letter was issued in 1995 on the tenth anniversary of Economic Justice for All, an earlier statement by the bishops which promoted the concept of Preferential Option for the Poor.

Our pastoral letter insisted that the measure of our economy is not only what it produces, but also how it touches human life, whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person, and how it promotes the common good," said the bishops, in reference to their earlier letter.

"Ten years after Economic Justice for All, the nations needs to hear its message once again and respond to its continuing challenges. At a time of great national debate, the Catholic community must continue to speak for poor children and working families."

The bishops don't disagree with the right of Congress to revise some of our government policies, but they say any decision should keep the plight of the poor as the highest priority.

"Our nation must reduce its deficits, reform welfare, reshape its foreign assistance and reorder national priorities,"
said the bishops. "However, the fundamental moral measure of these policy choices is how they touch the poor in our midst, especially children and families who struggle against economic, social and moral pressures which leave them poor and powerless."

(Photo: Kyra Ellis Moore and Ella Wood hold The ONE Campaign Banner at local interfaith vigil on Sept. 15, 2005)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Beyond the Great American Bake Sale

In New Mexico, we usually experience the fall season with our nose rather than with our eyes. As September merges into October and November, we look forward to two very distinct wonderful aromas: the smell of green chile roasting and a the sweet scent of piñon wood burning in some fireplace in the neighborhood. Those of us who live in Albuquerque do have one very special visual treat: a parade of hundreds of hot-air balloons grace the sky every October during Balloon Fiesta.

In other parts of the country, particularly New England and the upper Midwest, the fall season is a feast for the eyes as the trees explode into different shades of red and yellow and orange, maroon and scarlet and coral. (Above is a photo of fall in Kansas City by Karen Navarro)

But there are universal signs that mark the arrival of fall in our country. Pumpkins start to appear on porches, and your local bagel shop starts to promote its autumn blends of coffees. Fall is also food-drive season, as civic organizations and grocery stores and churches start to solicit canned goods and other non-perishible food items in preparation for Thanksgiving.

Another very nice tradition that has appeared on the scene in recent years is
The Great American Bake Sale, a partnership that brings together Parade Magazine, the organization Share Our Strength and corporate America (the makers of PAM spray) to raise funds to help end childhood hunger in our country. "By hosting a bake sale in your community, you'll be supporting the innovative programs in your state that are working to feed the 13.3 million American children now living in homes without an adequate supply of food," said Parade magazine.

The magazine proudly points out that the Great American Bake Sale has raised more than $2.7 million since the program was launched in 2003. Indeed, the campaign has done two great things: to bring greater awareness about the persistent problems of hunger in our own country and to raise much-needed funds for the fight against hunger.

So what is wrong with this picture?

First, there's an irony. The campaign is promoting the sale and consumption of starches and sweets at a time when advocates are trying really hard to promote better nutrition among children. But that is not the real argument. The campaign is an illustration of what we do so well in this country: charity. To truly end domestic hunger, we have to take a step beyond charity and look at hunger solutions in terms of justice. The place to start is the federal budget. Does our federal budget provide the essential tools to bring people out of poverty? Right now, there is a proposal in Congress to cut $3 billion from agriculture programs, which could
could endanger Food Stamp benefits for many eligible people. "Budgets are moral documents," says Call to Renewal , a faith-based movement to Ovecome Poverty. "A nation's budget reflects its priorities."

If we want to look at the question of charity vs. justice from a faith perspective, let's consider Mark 12:41-44: 41Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

This is not to say that the Great American Bake Sale, the annual Thanksgiving Food Drive for your local Second Harvest affiliate, and other manifestations of charity should be downplayed. They are much needed and appreciated. What we must do once we've peformed charity is to take the next step into justice.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Studying the Rural Food Gap in New Mexico

The Santa Fe-based organization Farm to Table, with the help of a coalition of state agencies and non-governmental organizations (Project Advisory Team, PAT), has initiated a very interesting study to determine the extent by which rural communities in New Mexico have difficulties securing a healthy and affordable diet.

New Mexico already ranks high in several categories, such as food insecurity and childhood poverty.
It would be interesting to see how much rural poverty contributes to the overall trends for the state. See Roadrunner Food Bank's Fact Sheet. Roadrunner Food Bank is attempting to address the problem of childhood poverty through its Food for Kids Program. (The above logo is borrowed from the Roadrunner Food Bank website).
A report from America's Second Harvest points to several factors that promote hunger in rural communities:
Fewer jobs are available in rural areas than in urban areas. Rural residents face long commutes to get to jobs and childcare providers. Housing costs and unemployment rates are high. The need for cars is often greater in rural areas than cities due to longer distances to products and services and the pervasive lack of public transportation. Access to social service programs for the rural elderly poor is more limited than in urban and suburban communities. Read Report on Rural Hunger from America's Second Harvest

The coordinators of the Farm to Table/PAT study--Pam Roy, Miles Patrie and Joseph Lee--are starting in northwest, north-central and central New Mexico, but are hoping to extend the study to other parts of the state as additional funding becomes available.
Interviews will be conducted in three areas selected from Cibola, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Socorro, San Juan and Mora Counties and the Zuni, Navajo, and Acoma Nations. These areas were selected because of their high and persistent poverty rates, long travel distance to food sources, and geographical isolation.

"Initially we will engage local leaders, stakeholders, and interested community organizations about the rural food gap," said a study proposal. "These community contacts will help provide background about the area, thoughts on the size and effects of the rural food gap, and aid in bringing together focus groups."
The findings and resources created by this project will be shared with communities, organizations and interested parties throughout New Mexico, including public officials. We will try to publish a summary of the study results when they are available. In the meantime, please contact Pam Roy (, Miles Patrie (, or Joseph Lee ( if you have any questions or want more information.

The Project Advisory Team includes: The New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council; The New Mexico Task Force to End Hunger; New Mexico Legal Aid; the New Mexico Association of Food Banks; the New Mexico Tribal Extension Task Force; the Congressional Hunger Center; The Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture; New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service; Obesity Prevention; The Physical Activity and Nutrition Program of the New Mexico Department of Health; the New Mexico Rural Development Response Council; and the New Mexico Farmers Marketing Association.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Put a Woman in Charge, End World Hunger

One of the new programs on the ABC lineup is called Commander in Chief, where MacKenzie Allen (a character played by Geena Davis) becomes president of the U.S. While the program is no West Wing, it brings up an interesting question: Is it possible for a woman to become the U.S. president? The program does not speculate whether a woman can be elected president. It gives you a circumstance where the sitting vice president is a woman, who is elevated to the top position when the president dies of a brain aneurysm.

It's fun to speculate whether the circumstances that led MacKenzie Allen to assume the presidency could actually take place. Would a woman president at the helm of one of the powerful members of the Group of Eight (G-8) nations put a higher priority on ending global poverty, hunger and disease?

Another influential woman, Sheila Sisulu (pictured above), addressed this question during the 13th annual summit of first ladies from Latin America in
Asunción, Paraguay, on Sept. 29. Sisulu, a South African native, is deputy executive director of The U.N.'s World Food Program (WFD). "If anyone can end hunger, we women can do it," Sisulu told participants at the summit. (In case you're wondering, the summit was not covered very widely, although thankfully, the Spain-based news agency EFE was there).

Sisulu's comments were directed primarily at Latin American governments, which she said are not devoting sufficient funds to improve the health and nutrition of their populations. She said an average of 37,000 children under age 5 die in Latin America and the Caribbean each year because of malnutrition.
"What level of malnutrition are we willing to accept?" said Sisulu. "How many more children are we going to lose simply because they lack necessary vitamins and minerals?

Malnutrition, said Sisulu, promotes disease, inhibits the learning abilities of children, and creates a weaker, less-productive workforce. She cited statistics from The World Bank, which indicted that malnutrition was resulting in the loss of 3 percent of GDP in Latin America. "By simply reducing the incidence of newborns with low birth weights, we could increase the earnings of the region by $1 billion (annually)," said Sisulu. She said we have the means to solve the problem, but are not doing enough. "Malnutrition is unacceptable in a world that has sufficient resources," said the WFD director.

Sisulu's fellow South African, the Most Rev. Njongonkulu W. H. Ndungane, Archbishop of Cape Town, asked a similar question at the Interfaith Convocation in Washington during the summer of 2005. "How can hunger be so widespread when there is such growth in the global economy?"

Archbishop Ndungane goes on to say: "Of this we can be sure, that poverty that brings hunger is evil. In all its ramifications and consequences, it mars the image of God within humanity; it mars the image of God in the poor, as it deprives them of opportunities for abundant life. It mars the image of God within those of us who have more than enough, but who through greed, complacency or even ignorance fail to do the justice to embrace the loving kindness that our God asks of us."
Read full article from Radical Grace newspaper.

All countries should do what they can to alleviate hunger and poverty within their borders. And many promised to do so by accepting the Millenium Development Goals in 2000. The poorer countries cannot do it alone, and they need help from the wealthier countries, especially the members of the G-8. To its credit, the G-8 made some important positive commitments in this regard after the summit in Scotland in July. But much more can be done, especially if the U.S. takes a leadership role. Perhaps if we had a President MacKenzie Allen...

Saturday, October 01, 2005

New Mexicans Make Hunger History

I was asked at a local meeting of the United Nations Association why the United States had not made any commitments to implement the Millenium Development Goals within our own country. I replied that yes, indeed, there was a piece of legislation in the U.S. that was related to the MDGs called The Hunger-Free Communities Act .

This was the subject of our Offering of Letters in 2005. The legislation uses some of the same dates as the millenium goals to set our own goals; cut hunger in half in our country by 2010 and eliminate hunger by 2015. It can be done. We have the resources.

Separate pieces of legislation were introduced in the House (HR2717) and the Senate (S1120)
As of Sept. 27, 118 members of the House had co-sponsored HR2717, including Reps. Heather Wilson and Tom Udall. We're still working on Rep. Steve Pearce. In the Senate, 29 members had signed on to S1120, including both Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman.
This phenomenal record is due in large part to the myriad of voices from New Mexicans, who wrote and called our legislators to support the Hunger-Free Communities Act. We generated almost 1,050 letters to Congress this year! There were a lot of remarkable developments with this year's offering of letters. Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces generated 192 letters! Three congregations: St. John's United Methodist Church in Santa Fe and Iglesia Congregacional Unida and La Mesa Presbyterian Church, both in Albuquerque, held their inaugural offering of letters.

And students did their part too. At the University of new Mexico, three campus ministry groups and the BFW student chapter set up a couple of letter-writing tables at the Student Union Building and managed to get coverage in the student newspaper The Lobo. Read Article. And at St. Michael's High School in Santa Fe, religion teacher Karina Doyle managed to get her class to write 138 letters!

The Hunger-Free Communities Act also got some attention in the broadcast media during Arcie Chapa's call-in show on KUNM radio on June 9. The topic of the show was hunger in New Mexico. The guests were New Mexico State University nutritionist Kari Bachman (also a BFW member), Mark Winne (a member of the New Mexico Task Force to End Hunger) and me.

And of course, we brought the issue to our legislators on Lobby Day on June 7. We were able to meet in person with Rep. Udall, Sen. Bingaman and Sen. Domenici to ask them to support the Hunger-Free Communities Act. (Pictured above with Rep. Udall are Carlos Navarro, Ann Sims, Andrea Lucero, Connie Mirabal and Hank Bruce).

While we've achieved some success thus far, our efforts have just begun. We need to continue to let Congress know that one of the best ways to end hunger by 2015 is to ensure that nutrition programs remain adequately funded and that those who serve the poor and hungry continue to get needed support. So keep those letters coming!
Posted by Carlos Navarro