The message of Christ is not often so clearly presented in American media as it was yesterday, nor is that message as clearly contradicted in the same news cycle.
Yesterday, Pope Francis, while not actually changing any doctrinal stance of the Catholic church, clearly asserted in a rare and frank interview that compassion and mercy must be the light that radiates from the global church for the world to see, rather than the church’s current “obsession” with gays, birth control, and abortion.
At the same time that the pope’s words were cycling through the media, other words were also coming through loud and clear: those of Republican lawmakers who have decided that the least of these will remain just that and, accordingly, voted to slash the food stamp budget by almost $40 billion.
The juxtaposition presented between these two events is striking. It also represents an enormous divide among Christians, and, frankly, demonstrates why so many feel Christianity is a religion full of hypocrisy.
Highlighting the Good News of the Gospel, the pope stated:
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."
Specifically addressing the issue of homosexuality, the pope said:
“We must always consider the person. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
In other words, God meets you where you are. And as followers of Christ, that is what we are required to do for our fellow man as well: “to act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
This is in significant contrast to what happened in the halls of Congress yesterday, when the House voted to drastically cut food stamp funding, effectively cutting 4 million people from the group of beneficiaries receiving food stamps — two-thirds of whom are children, the elderly, and the disabled — within the next year.
In July 2013, when lawmakers first passed a Farm Bill without funding for food stamps (officially called the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” or “SNAP”), one Republican lawmaker (Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn.) quoted 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” In yesterday’s debate, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) invoked Genesis —“God created Adam, placed him in the Garden to work it.”
Exegesis aside, what both of these quotes ignore is that most of those on food stamps are working. They might be working part-time, or for minimum wage, or both, but they are working. What they also ignore is that those who would be most severely impacted by such drastic cuts in food stamp funding — children — cannot work for their food. They can instead only wake in the morning and hope they are fed.
While his words were spoken in direct relation to a question about homosexuality, the pope’s statement that “We must always consider the person. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy,” applies to poverty as well. Where the 217 Republicans who decided so drastically to reduce SNAP are finding mercy in their action is unclear.
In a perfect world, people would realize the fallibility of humans is separate from the glory of God: just because Christians fail doesn’t mean God fails. Unfortunately, because we are not in a perfect world and because humans are fallible, this isn’t what happens. Instead, people are turned away from God’s word because of the hypocrisy they see when Jesus-professing policy makers turn their backs on the needy.
And by attaching a vote to cut food stamp funding to the word of God, these lawmakers, and others who do the same, send the message loud and clear that Jesus is not about compassion and mercy, but is instead about reducing federal spending by taking food from the hungry.
While the pope’s words may carry more moral authority as well as a further global reach than those of U.S. policy makers, it is the actions of the policy makers that will have the most direct and immediate impact on the largest number of people.
The pope’s words will spark debate and discussion, desperately needed in a country where too many think of Christians as having only a narrow, judgmental focus on the issues of homosexuality, abortion, and birth control. Hopefully the impact of this will be great and far reaching. That said, even the pope himself acknowledged that change in the church should be slow to occur. While we are waiting to see what, if anything, those changes will be, millions of Americans will be a little poorer, a lot hungrier, and much more in need of justice and mercy than they were before yesterday’s House vote.
Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer and attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Andy, and their children. Her work can be found in Sojourner's, Red Letter Christians, and Literary Mama, among others. She is a contributor to Faith Village and a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Jamie blogs weekly at http://jamiecallowayhanauer.com, and you can find her on Facebook or on Twitter@HappyHanauers.