Saturday, October 19, 2013

SNAP Cuts (Part 3): The Faith Perspective

(This is the third in a series looking at the conversations around the congressional cuts to food stamps. Part 1 featured the SNAP challenged taken by the CEO of Panera Bread, and Part 2 included comments from a Democrat and a Republican who opposed the drastic cuts approved by the House  in September).
"In the whole kind of Biblical frame, God made three provisions for hungry people," said Gary Cook, Bread for the World's director of Church Relations. "One was the tithe, which was literally a tax, because the government was the same as the religious order, and allowed widows and orphans to eat. The second provision was that there would always be Sabbath and jubilee, where every seven years and 50 years, there was land redistribution. This provision was to prevent class of people that were currently hungry."

The last, Cook said, was gleaning — where corners of the field were deliberately not harvested so poorer members of the community could gather the remainder and use it to feed themselves. "Here, hungry people have access to food as a matter of right, not as a matter of charity." 
Gary Cook was one two people interviewed by The Christian Post in an article that sought to present contrasting Christian positions on the efforts in Congress to cut funding for safety-net nutrition progams, primarily the Supplemental Nutration Assistance Program (SNAP).

The article appears to have given Cook a little more ink than  the opposing view of Ken Blackwell, Senior Fellow for Family Empowerment at the conservative Christian lobbying group, Family Research Council. Blackwell argues that  programs like food stamps have prevented people from being truly empowered. "I think through empowering others and creating self-sufficiency…there within lies the path to sense of worthiness," Blackwell told CP. "When I was growing up, there was fundamental belief, that there were times in people's life when they needed a hand up…there were temporariness to hose programs, where they were structured so that they didn't breed so that they didn't breed dependency."

A segment of conservative Catholics share Blackwell's view, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who defends his position by pointing to the doctrine of subsidiarity, contained in an encyclical letter circulated by Pope Leo XII and expanded by Pope Pius VI. Ryan argues that if we allow individuals to thrive, then society will thrive and the common good will be served.  Read more about this debate in a post we published in this blog in September 2012.

The detractors seem to ignore a common theme present both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, which is the concept of caring for our neighbor. A common theme in the Middle East then and now is that society has a responsibility of taking care of everyone, including the most vulnerable members--widows, children and immigrants.  This "strong group" concept is in stark contrast to our western values of individualism, where each person is responsible for his/her own well-being.
"Over and over, I see church members and their families who work hard and even hold down two jobs but still have to choose between paying rent and feeding their kids," Rev. Fred Thelan, pastor of Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Lansing, Michigan, wrote in the Congress Blog, "Minimum wage jobs do not pay enough to lift people out of poverty. Cutting off the lifeline of food support is cruel and morally indefensible." The blog is published by The Hill, a new site that covers events in Congress.

Scriptures Misquoted
During the debate in Congress on reducing food stamps, detractors quoted many scripture verses to justify their position. The most often misinterpreted verse was a statement in Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, and John 12:8. The half sentence that is used is "the poor you will always have with you." If these legislators would bother to read the whole chapter in each of the Gospels, they would see that the message is to stop their activities for a moment (even helping the poor) to give glory to God.  For context, here are links to Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12.

Another misinterpreted scripture verse used by House members (specifically Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Stephen Fincher of Tennessee) to justify their position is 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we are with you, we would give you this command: If you are not willing to work, let him not eat.”

"As North Dakota faith bloggers were quick to point out, Cramer was taking the passage wildly out of context. The author of 2 Thessalonians was not condemning the poor, but rather attempting to convince ancient Christians who had become idle in anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming to get back to work, lest their neighbors 'look down on the new Christians with suspicion'," wrote Jack Jenkins in a piece entitled Preaching a False Gospel in ThinkProgress.  Here is a link to the full chapter of 2 Thessalonians 3.

"Many of the same lawmakers who tout the importance of “family values” and call themselves “pro-life” are advocating for these punitive policies that will undermine human life and dignity," said Father Thelan. "One lawmaker from Tennessee who voted for SNAP cuts even referenced the Bible to justify his vote and lectured the poor about handouts – while taking more than $3 million in farm subsidies from the government over the past decade. As a Catholic pastor, I find this moral arrogance and callousness stunning. Jesus spent his ministry warning about greed, challenging hypocrisy and commanding his followers to feed the hungry."

Churches cannot fill the void
Another point of debate is whether churches can fill the void created by the huge cuts in funding for safety-net nutrition programs. "We are not lacking in churches in church communities across this nation in making sure that basic human needs are met without creating another government program that establishes rules that have very low expectations for self-discipline," Blackwell told The Christian Post.

"The presumption that churches and private charities can somehow shoulder the massive burden of feeding American’s poor is also patently false," said Jenkins. "Many faith-based charities already rely on government funding to function. (Catholic Charities, one of largest charities in the country, gets almost 70 percent of its operating budget from federal funds)."

When Congress threatened to slash funding for SNAP last year, Bread for the World, estimated that the cuts would cost every church in America an extra $50,000 every year for the next ten years just to cover the additional charge of feeding more of America’s poor.

And in a letter to Congress, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote that SNAP “helps relieve pressure on overwhelmed parishes, charities, food banks, pantries and other emergency food providers across the country who could not begin to meet the need for food assistance if SNAP eligibility or benefits were reduced."

No comments: