Faith-Based Hunger Games

By Joel Berg 1-16-2014 | Series:
Child holding empty bowl, Suzanne Tucker /
Child holding empty bowl, Suzanne Tucker /

The central figures in four of the planet’s largest religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – were all once homeless. Moses was encamped in the Sinai, unable to return to the Promised Land. Jesus was born in a manger. Buddha wandered through the wilderness seeking enlightenment. The Prophet Muhammad was forced out of Mecca.

Is it a coincidence that each of these figures was, at key parts of his life, dispossessed from the society around him? Hardly. This is a clear message that even the most powerful can be made powerless.

In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, believers are directed to give a set portion of their harvest to people in poverty and immigrants. It is neither voluntary, nor are the amounts to be based on charitable whims. It is a commandment to automatically give a specific percent, making it an anti-hunger tax of sorts. In fact, both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that justice is a higher calling than mere charity.

In Mathew 25, not only does Christ proclaim that those who clothe, house, and feed the “least of these” are engaging in acts equivalent to directly aiding the Lord, he also preaches that those who refuse to aid the poor are consigned to damnation.

Most secular ethical traditions also make societal actions to reduce hunger, poverty, and homelessness a centerpiece of their teachings.

Virtually every elected official in Washington claims to abide by these ethical and faith-based traditions. Indeed, many have used their professions of faith to advance their political careers.

Yet many of these same leaders repeatedly take actions opposite to the values they espouse.

Even though the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program has saved half a million babies from dying at birth because it provides nutrition supplements for low-income women who are pregnant, the majority in Congress – including most of the members who claim to be “pro-life” – voted to implement the sequestration process that slashed funding for WIC, as well as aid to faith-based and secular soup kitchens, food pantries, and homelessness prevention programs.

On top of that, this Nov. 1 – as a result of a deal enacted in 2010 by the president and Congress – every one of the 47 million Americans who now require assistance from the SNAP (formerly food stamp) program had their already-meager grocery allotments slashed. I recently met a mother of two, putting herself through college, who lost $45 in grocery dollars per month, making it that much harder for her and her two children to escape hunger. These cuts will take away $5 billion – yes billion with a “b” – from struggling families in the next year alone.

To put that cut into perspective, it is vital to note that every morsel of food provided by the more than 40,000 nonprofit food pantries and soup kitchens — most of which are faith based — equals, at most, only about $5 billion worth of food per year. Thus, the latest cuts essentially wiped out the impact of every single food charity in America.

Those who advocate for such cuts and then claim that churches, synagogues, and mosques can pick up the slack simply aren’t telling the truth. Massive cuts in government funding are impossible for the charitable sector to overcome.

As if that all wasn’t bad enough, as the House and Senate consider a new Farm Bill, rather than restricting the massive corporate welfare in the bill, they are considering cutting an additional $4 billion to the $39 billion from SNAP, on top of the cuts already implemented.

The good news is that you can fight back. Make sure your legislators know that SNAP must be protected.

Joel Berg is Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Image: Child holding empty bowl, Suzanne Tucker /

This post was featured in Sojourners' monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.


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