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Rep Conaway debates SNAP reduction

So…the debate on Capitol Hill turned biblical the other day.

Democrats and Republicans took turns quoting Scripture during a debate over a proposed $4 billion cut to the welfare program formerly known as food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

Kicking things off, Representative Juan Vargas (D-California):

There are starving children in the United States… but for me, it’s more basic. Many of us who follow Jesus — who say that openly, and I certainly do — often times read the Bible, and Jesus kind of fools around and gives you parables. He doesn’t often times say exactly what he means. But in Matthew 25, he’s very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says that how you treat the least among us — the least of our brothers — that’s how you treat him. And interestingly, the very first thing he says is, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me [something] to eat.’

If Republicans were caught off guard by Democrats unabashedly using the J-word, they hid it well. But they had their work cut out if they were going to regain the upper hand in the Capitol Hill Bible Challenge.

Not missing a beat, Mike Conaway (R-Texas) took to the pulpit to respond:

I read Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual; I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. So I will take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things, but not our government.

And then came Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) with a prooftext of his own, quoting the apostle Paul as an early supporter of cutting government food assistance:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Rep. Fincher’s mishandling of Paul’s statement has to be one of the more egregious abuses of Scripture I’ve seen. Others have already pointed out how the context of 2 Thessalonians undermines Fincher’s interpretation. Paul was addressing a community of early Christians who thought the end of days was upon them, that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. Therefore, they decided there was no point in working any longer. They were content to just sit back and wait for Jesus to reappear.

Paul wanted Christians to be active and engaged in the world around them — earning a living, contributing to society — not pressing the “check out” button early. That’s why he said, “Hey, if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to eat, either.” It had nothing to do with poverty, government assistance for the hungry, or anything like that.

Nor is it remotely fair to equate food stamp beneficiaries with the supposedly lazy recipients of Paul’s letter. The reality is that most people living in poverty work harder, longer, and earn much less than I make while I sit in a comfortable office each day.

All of which is to say: context matters.

By quoting an isolated verse with complete disregard for its context, Rep. Fincher shamefully misused the Bible to advance his own political agenda.

I would really like it if the story ended there. I’d also really like it if Matthew 25 meant what Rep. Vargas said it means.

But it doesn’t.

Social justice organizations — many of which I support — have gotten a lot of mileage out of Jesus’ “least of these” statement in Matthew 25. It’s quoted repeatedly as a general call to help the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable. Heck, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used it that way.

But what Jesus actually said was, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine…”

“Brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) is a term Jesus used of his disciples. The word “least” is actually a form of the Greek word for “little ones” — which he also used in reference to his disciples.

If you back up a few pages, you’ll find that Matthew 25 is part of an extended discourse which began after Jesus and his 12 disciples left the temple. As they sat on the Mount of Olives, Jesus started preparing them for a coming period of upheaval — one so intense that not even the temple would survive.

Jesus told his disciples to anticipate hardship in the years to come. The blessings (and curses) in Matthew 25 were for those who showed (or withheld) some form of mercy to Jesus’ suffering followers. It was not a blanket statement about poverty and injustice.

Now, as it happens, there ARE plenty of broad statements about poverty and injustice to be found in the Bible.

Isaiah 58, for example.

Or Isaiah 61 which, though originally addressed to Jewish exiles in Babylon, was picked up by Jesus and was expanded to include Gentiles (much to the chagrin of his synagogue audience in Nazareth).

The fact that Matthew 25 may not be a blanket statement about poverty does nothing diminish to Scripture’s unrelenting focus on the poor and the vulnerable.

So why do we keep using Matthew 25 out of context?

The thing is, if we insist on using our favorite verses like this, then we have no right to challenge others when they misuse the Bible. I happen to think Rep. Vargas is more in tune with the overall trajectory of Scripture than either Rep. Conaway or Fincher. But all three were examples of Christians quoting the Bible badly the other day.

Not that such examples are hard to come by. The truth is, we’ve all given in to the habit of quoting Scripture selectively.

We might not have this problem if we didn’t insist on dicing Scripture into artificial nuggets and calling them verses. Or if we would get into the habit of reading what comes immediately before and after a given passage of Scripture. Discerning the context of Matthew 25 or 2 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t take a theological degree.

All it takes is a willingness to read attentively. To read the Bible on its terms, not ours.

And to maybe read more than a verse at a time.

If we read the Scriptures more holistically, we might not make Mike Conaway’s mistake either — claiming the Bible addresses individuals only and not societies whenever it says something that doesn’t line up well with our political leanings.

“Clearly you and I are charged to do those kinds of things [e.g. feeding the hungry],” Rep. Conaway reasoned, “but not our government.”

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has read the prophet Amos, who yearned for justice — by which he meant economic justice — to “roll on like a river.”

And just who, according to Amos, was partly responsible for maintaining economic justice?

Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has ever read Psalm 72, where the writer prays that the king (Solomon in this case, according to tradition) will maintain justice and righteousness:

May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway is aware that his brand of individualism — the lens through which he reads and then discards those parts of the Bible that make him squirm — would have been an utterly foreign concept to the original writers and recipients of Scripture? Theirs was a world shaped by community, one in which an “I built that” mentality was simply incongruous.

The idea that some portions of Scripture could be read individually and not corporately?

It would have been unthinkable to those first recipients of the Bible.

Context matters when reading the Bible.

Which means that, no, Matthew 25 isn’t a blanket statement on helping the poor — though there are plenty other such statements in the Bible.

And no, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 isn’t a biblical endorsement of libertarian economic policy. (It’s a denunciation of end-times escapism.)

And no, Rep. Conaway, you can’t read the Bible’s injunctions on poverty and injustice as if they were statements to you as an individual and not to the society you’re a part of. The biblical writers simply didn’t make that kind of distinction. And as for the prophets, well, they spent a good chunk of their time addressing people like you — that is, rulers and authorities with the power to do something about injustice.

So may we all learn to do better by the Bible so that, together, we can embody the kind of justice it expects of us and our society.

Today a friend shared this video on Facebook, in which a reporter from ReasonTV, a libertarian video channel, interviews delegates at the Democratic National Convention to find out just how pro-choice they really are.
 

For many, the video highlights a glaring inconsistency in the Democratic platform. Apparently, “it’s my body, my choice” applies when you’re terminating a pregnancy, but not when it comes to drinking excessive quantities of soda.

My guess is the libertarian producers of this video were more concerned with the regulation of sugary drinks and light bulbs than abortion. Though in fairness, many libertarians are pro-life, because in their view, one individual’s liberty ends where someone else’s personhood begins. Either way, the inconsistency highlighted by this video is real. And troubling.

But imagine if someone had turned the cameras on the other party during their convention and asked, “Just how pro-life are Republicans?” On the one hand, the Republican platform calls for a constitutional amendment to protect unborn children.

But how pro-life is it to oppose the EPA’s efforts to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants — a rule designed to protect children born and unborn from the well-documented health effects of such pollutants?

How pro-life is it to lead the country into not one but two wars of questionable necessity (assuming you believe there’s ever such a thing as “justifiable necessity” when it comes to war)?

How pro-life is it to play politics with climate change when the risks of inaction far outweigh the risks of overreaction in the unlikely event the scientists are wrong? Many experts in the humanitarian sector (in which I used to work) will tell you that climate change is the single greatest threat to all the progress that’s been made combating poverty, hunger, and disease over the last few decades.

Now it’s not as if one party is more virtuous than the other. The truth is, hypocrisy runs deep on both sides of the political divide. Those of us who are Christians would do well to remember this as we engage in (or disengage from) the political process this year.

Politics is not just the art of governing; it’s also the pursuit of power. And in our increasingly polarized society, it seems to be more about the latter than the former. Hence our never-ending election cycle.

That’s why Christians should be wary of getting too cozy with either party. Because we are called to serve, not to become someone else’s pawn in their accumulation of power. We are called to speak truth to power but never to seek it for ourselves. Ever notice how the Old Testament prophets routinely confronted the kings of Israel without seeking their favor or patronage?

It’s not that there’s no place for Christian political engagement. I believe there is. But I also believe our role is to be a prophetic voice, and you can’t do that when you’re a mouthpiece for one party or the other.

So when Democrats talk about protecting the vulnerable in our midst, we can applaud while also pointing out the blind spot in their thinking when it comes to abortion. And when Republicans talk about the sanctity of life, we can say amen while also reminding them that life is just as sacred outside the womb as in it.

This may not be a strategy for electoral success, but as Christians, aren’t we called to believe in something bigger?

Fast food continent

5 August 2007 — 3 Comments

Recently, I saw this ad—one of several from the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates, among other things, the use of free market economics to help fight poverty:

burger_ad-12.jpg

I respect the Acton Institute. I think they have several good ideas about fighting poverty. Some of their other ads advocate things like microloans for the poor and access to global markets for developing countries so they can trade their goods freely.

But in the case of this particular ad, there’s another perspective worth considering. What if 30 grams of fat is not, in fact, good for the world’s poor? What if the Big Mac represents the kind of consumerism that can hurt the poor by damaging their environment?

Consider this example from Matthew Sleeth’s book Serve God, Save the Planet (which I blogged about last month):

To obtain billions of hamburger patties for a few cents each, America’s fast-food restaurants buy much of their meat from Central and South American farmers. These farmers clear-cut forests, often starting a cattle-raising process that can be sustained for only a few short years. The loss of rain forests in South America means that the clouds they once made no longer blow across the Atlantic to drop their water on Africa. As a result, the Sahara grows by thousands of acres a year. What is the bottom line for Africans? More starvation. And the bottom line for Americans? Cheap burgers and growing waistlines.

South American rain forests generate the clouds that deposit rain on African farmlands. As these life-giving forests disappear, children starve.

Incidentally, those working in places like East Africa confirm that the frequency and severity of droughts has increased significantly. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media is too obsessed with the latest drunken celebrity incarceration story to cover the plight of the rural African farmer.

Meanwhile, these farmers report more and more difficulty as their climate changes for the worse. The Sahara is pushing southward, and the rains that once fell with some measure of predictability are becoming scarce.

In a world where children starve so I can scarf down a $4.00 value meal (one that will probably shorten my life span as well), can we really argue that unbridled consumerism is good in all its forms? Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, envisioned an invisible hand—the idea that a person who is free to pursue their own economic well-being will unwittingly contribute to the common good.

But what happens when consumerism reaches epic proportions? What happens when our appetite for more stuff—including things which, like the Big Mac, have no redeeming value—grows out of control? What happens when we embrace capitalism without restraint, without accountability, and without responsibility for those who are impacted by the choices we make?

Is it possible that we’ve bound the invisible hand? That the connection between self-interest and the common good has been broken by our unrestrained (and unrecognized) greed?

Is it possible that our choice of what and where to eat is really a choice of whether or not we will love our neighbors (including those who live on the other side of the planet)?

It may be that fast food is not only hazardous to our health. It may be that our addiction to fast food is hazardous to Africa’s health.