This has been a hard winter — from Minnesota to Alabama. It’s been a very hard winter for Tanya and Red and Jamie and Andre and Adrian and Mercy. They are my neighbors here in New York City. It’s not that the heat was shut off in their apartments because they didn’t pay their bills. They have no apartments. Since last fall, they have made their beds on the steps of Riverside Church, under the scaffolding at Union Seminary and on the benches near Grant’s Tomb.
“Will you be warm enough tonight?” I asked Tanya. “Oh, we’ll be plenty warm,” she said as she showed me their outdoor bedroom: the first layer was carpeting, then stacks of blankets for padding and many more blankets for covers. “Once you’re in here,” said Red, “it’s too hot to keep your jacket on.” I was grateful to hear that because, well, then I wouldn’t feel so terrible going inside my warm apartment.
SNAP began in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act as part of his unconditional “War on Poverty.” In his remarks upon signing, Johnson said: “I believe the Food Stamp Act weds the best of the humanitarian instincts of the American people with the best of the free enterprise system. Instead of establishing a duplicate public system to distribute food surplus to the needy, this act permits us to use our highly efficient commercial food distribution system.”
Johnson continued: “It is one of many sensible and needed steps we have taken to apply the power of America's new abundance to the task of building a better life for every American.”
Imagine. Fifty years ago the Food Stamp Act was viewed not as charity, but rather as an ingenious utilization of American enterprise in order to help “build a better life for every American.”
And it is genius.
Many of us may not know what it is like to be hungry, to regularly miss meals, or to consume a diet void of essential nutrients to live a healthy life. Poet, diplomat, and politician Pablo Neruda captures this feeling well in his poem “The Great Tablecloth.” Just before the holidays, millions of Americans learned what some aspect of hunger felt like as they saw a reduction in their SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits.
On Nov. 1, every SNAP household saw its grocery budget reduced when an $11 billion cut went into effect — the equivalent of 10 million food stamp meals a day. And the program isn’t out of the woods yet. The House and Senate have begun to finalize a farm bill that will impact vital anti-hunger programs. A compromise proposal expected in the coming weeks could further cut SNAP by as much as $8 billion, at a time when lawmakers need to protect and strengthen it.
"Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words" is a quote widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. It also seems to be the motto of Pope Francis. Instead of just talking about abstract doctrines, he consistently lives out his beliefs in public ways that have grabbed the world's attention. His example of humility, compassion, and authenticity resonate powerfully in Washington, where cynicism is rampant, pride remains even after the proverbial falls, and an ideology of extreme individualism has overtaken a significant faction within our politics.
The Pope's words and deeds fascinate us because they are genuine and selfless. How could a leader of global significance spend time cold calling pregnant women in distress, kissing the feet of young Muslim inmates, or embracing a disfigured man? What sorts of values motivate such behavior? These stories touched our hearts, but they appeared irrelevant to our politics.
Then the Pope started talking about our wallets, which, according to a several commentators on the far right, instantly transformed him into a threat to capitalism itself.
With just a few days to go before Christmas, many Americans will be rushing around completing their Christmas preparations: doing their last minute shopping, finalizing travel plans, figuring out how to deal with awkward family dynamics. In many cases, they will be faced with what is popularly known as #firstworldproblems — problems of inconvenience of a privileged and affluent people: delayed flights, out-of-stock gift items, spotty cell phone coverage.
At the same time, many people, hidden amidst the consumer celebration that Christmas has become, will be struggling just to find their next meal, shelter, community, and hope.
Striking census bureau statistics released earlier this year paint a picture of an expanding American underclass, with 15% of Americans living at or below the poverty-line, 23% of children (the highest percentage of poor by age) living in poverty, and the evaporation of the American middle class.
On the one hand, at this time of year, our society is more aware of the poor. Holiday food collections, toy and clothing drives abound, as does the ubiquitous ringing of Salvation Army bells. And yet, in many ways the plight of the poor is more hidden by the bright lights and rush of the season.
I love Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace coursework. It put our family on stable financial footing years ago, and Amy and I never fight about financial matters any more. We find plenty of other things to fight about, but that’s a different post, I suppose.
Ramsey has come under fire recently for a list of “Rich People Habits” he posted on his blog. The list was compiled by Tom Corley at a site called RichHabitsInstitute.com, which is intended to track what people of means do differently in daily life than the rest of us (aside from brush their teeth with platinum-bristled brushes, since that one’s a given).
On the one hand, I’ll agree that observing a cohort of people you want to emulate and learning from their habits makes a lot of sense, but I can see why Ramsey and Corley have caught so much heat for comparing habits of “poor people” with those of the wealthy.
There are two problems that I see. First, though Ramsey tends to be an advocate for the poor with regard to pushing back against usury lending and the like, he draws many false correlations between the habits listed below and the fact that folks who practice them are in poverty. In fact, in a recent defense of the post, Ramsey reiterated this point, writing, “This list simply says your choices cause results. You reap what you sow.”
The other concern the list raises for me is that it appears to be blind to the inherent privilege linked to the habits, as if all people had equal access to such practices and resources. Not so, Dave. Below I’ve shared several of the 20 habits on the original list (which can be found here), followed by my thoughts on where they fall short.
Brace yourselves. The calendar has turned over to December, which means that the inevitable discussion on the “War on Christmas” will soon see it’s opening salvo for 2013.
It is inevitable. There will be an outrage by a prominent figure about how we have lost our moral fabric because as someone was buying gifts with money they don’t have to impress people that they don’t always like, the cashier will commit the unthinkable sin of wishing us a “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
There will be gnashing of teeth as a town or city somewhere will have a “Holiday Parade” rather than a “Christmas Parade,” as Tulsa had done several years ago. (The parade was subsequently boycotted by one of it’s senators.)
The chorus of those who would profess to be Christians will shout that the “Political Correctness Police” have overstepped yet another boundary and that we should not take the “Christ out of Christmas” as the batch of perceived slights against Christendom freshly reveal themselves for this holiday season.
As a person who would say that Jesus is the most important thing in my life, who has devoted my life to the service of God’s Kingdom, and spends all of my waking moments trying be faithful to that devotion, I have to ask: “What exactly do we mean by putting the ‘Christ back in Christmas'?”
Jim Wallis talks about the #FaithfulFilibuster outside the Capitol Building and offers a reading of his conversion text, Matthew 25.
On our way over to the Capitol, I re-read the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. I was struck by the phrase of those building the tall tower "we'll become famous." That sounded a lot like lawmakers and politicians in Washington — it seems that they all want to become famous. In the story, the people were confounded by speaking different languages and their words went past each other. The words of the politicians and pundits are going past each other and their words are not really meant to be understood. They're not meant to find solutions or common ground. These are words that are meant to fight. To win. To defeat. Even, it seems, to foster hate.
The words we're hearing are of politics and punditry, meant to divide and not to unite. The words coming from the top have consequences for those at the bottom. And like Babel, these words are just babble.
We're hearing lots of babble at the Capitol, but across the street, we're trying to hear the word of God — what God says about the people, families, and children who will suffer the most because of Washington's babble. These words aren't just directed to churches and charities about what we should do with the poor. They're about the obligations of kings, rulers, and government to protect the poor.
Thursday marked the tenth day of the government shutdown and the second of the #FaithfulFilibuster — A Vigil for the Poor. People of faith, both across the street from the Capitol Building and across the world on social media, are reading through the more than 2,000 Bible verses that deal with poverty and justice as a witness for those the shutdown is affecting the most.
The rain didn't deter the prayers, as leaders from Sojourners, Bread for the World, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Salvation Army, and more gathered once again to call on Congress to end the shutdown and stop hurting the poor.
They are asking people of faith to reach out to Congressional leadership. Join along with them to Tweet at those members of Congress with your message to them and hashtag #FaithfulFilibuster.
Some read Romans 13 and lean toward faith being a personal thing (pay your taxes and don’t break the laws, avoid sexual immorality, debauchery, jealousy, and instead clothe yourself with Christ), but the chapter also says God has established government as his “servant to do good.”
This is why, in a country where the public is encouraged to participate in government, I want to encourage people of faith to voice the heart of God when it comes to issues like feeding the least of these.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, and almost miraculously, the values of simplicity, humility, welcome, and the priority of the poor have burst on to the international stage. A new pope named Francis is reminding us that love is also a verb — choosing the name Francis because of his commitment to the poor, to peace, and creation in sharp contrast to the values of Washington, D.C.
Last week the House of Representatives voted to cut food stamps. The previous week marked the 5th anniversary of the financial collapse, and showed more American inequality than before the recession. And now we face a threatened shutdown of the government unless the health care promised to tens of millions of uninsured people is repealed.
Pondering all that, I saw the interview with Pope Francis in America magazine and his profile in the new issue of Sojourners. And from every direction, things that the new pope was saying were breaking through the political news cycle. Even my students at Georgetown were telling me that their young friends, Christians or not, were putting Francis quotes up on their Facebook pages.
Pope Francis criticized what he called the “idolatry of money” on Sunday in a trip to one of the poorest regions of the European Union.
The pontiff, visiting the island of Sardinia off Italy’s western coast, departed from his prepared remarks to talk about his own family’s struggles as Italian immigrants in Argentina. Speaking on an island where more than half of workers under 30 are unemployed, Francis told the masses: “Don’t let yourselves be robbed of hope.”
The House of Representatives on Thursday evening narrowly passed a plan that cuts about $40 billion* from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps program. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the move will push nearly 4 million low-income people off of the program in 2014. USA Today reports:
"The House voted 217-210 for the bill that cuts nearly twice as much from food stamps as a bill the House rejected in June. It is also far more than a Senate measure passed earlier this year that would trim about $4.5 billion in spending. The bill failed to draw the support of a single Democrat, many of whom have said the steep cuts would erode a key safety net depended upon by families with children, seniors, veterans and people looking for work."
Earlier on Thursday, Sojourners President Jim Wallis condemned the then-proposed cuts, saying, "These same politicians are not willing to go to where the real money is: the Pentagon budget, which everyone knows to be the most wasteful in government spending, or the myriad subsidies to corporations, including agribusiness subsides to members of Congress who will be voting to cut SNAP for the poor. ... They are going after cuts to the poor and hungry people because they think it is politically safe to do so. So let’s call that what it is: moral hypocrisy."
Check back with Sojourners for details on how your congressperson voted.
If you know the facts and faces of the hungry families that are helped by SNAP, I believe it is a moral and even religious problem to vote to cut them. The Bible clearly says that governmental authority includes the protection of the poor in particular, and instructs political rulers to promote their well-being. So the argument that the poor should just be left to churches and private charity is an unbiblical argument. I would be happy to debate that with any of our conservative Congressmen who keep telling our churches that we are the only ones who should care for the poor. To vote against feeding hungry people is un-Christian, un-Jewish, and goes against any moral inclination, religious or
Finally, for politicians to defend these SNAP cuts because of our need to cut spending generally is un-credible and incredible.
These same politicians are not willing to go to where the real money is: the Pentagon budget, which everyone knows to be the most wasteful in government, or the myriad subsidies to corporations, including agribusiness subsides to members of Congress who will be voting to cut SNAP for the poor.
Tea Party-elected Rep. Stephen Fincher, (R-Tenn.), who likes to bolster his anti-poor rhetoric with misused Bible verses, collected $3.5 million in farm subsidies between 1999 and 2012, according to the New York Times. Fincher is helping to lead the effort to cut food stamps to working families with children by illogically quoting: “The one who is unwilling to work should not eat,” all the while collecting millions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. Congressman Fincher's position is hypocritical — and it's this kind of hypocrisy that makes Christians look bad and turns young people away from the church.
You see, for many House conservatives this isn't really about SNAP, but about their opposition to the idea that as a society we have the responsibility to care for each other, even during the hard times or when resources are few. Conservatives know their ideas for privatizing Social Security or cutting funding to Medicare and Medicaid are politically unpopular, but their ideology of individualism that borders on social Darwinism remains unchanged. SNAP is the perfect target for them. The image of what it does and whom it serves has been widely distorted by the media, while the people who benefit from it have little influence in the halls of Congress and pose little risk to the political careers of Republican members.
In response to my last article, “ 10 Things You Can't Do While Following Jesus,” I was accused multiple times of being political. All I was trying to do was follow Jesus. So, I thought it'd be interesting (and generate tons more hate mail) to show what a list would actually look like if I were being political intentionally. Like the first list, this is not a complete list, but it's a pretty good place to start.
There will be those who comment and send me messages berating me for “making Jesus political.” It's OK. Fire away. Jesus didn't worry much about stepping on political toes, and the Bible insists that governments be just toward the least of these (the books of the prophets alone make this point very clear). Frequently, people who are the most vocal about not making Jesus political are the same people who want prayer in school and laws based on their own religious perspectives. By a happy little circumstance that brings us to my list: