Cutting Faith

May 17, 2013

On Wednesday, a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee turned into a bit of a theological debate. At issue was a proposed $20.5 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is better known as the food stamps program. Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts who has long been one of the strongest voices in Congress on behalf on the poor and hungry, offered an amendment to restore the cut money (the photo is one I took of McGovern at a Bread for the World gathering). During the debate, members for and against the amendment cited the Bible. With Jesus invoked on both sides of the debate, it seems clear that confessional politics continues to play an important role in U.S. politics.

Quoting Jesus, Representative Juan Vargas, a Democrat from California, argued for the amendment: "When I was hungry you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink." Noting that he "follows Jesus," Vargas urged the members to support the amendment to care for "the least among us." Representative Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas, shot back that he also followed Jesus but read that passage in Matthew 25 to be speaking to him as an individual and not to the government. It is a dichotomy often made, but it is even more troubling when it is used by a governmental leader to justify doing nothing to help the least of these. Representative Conaway should probably read the passage more carefully, because in the parable Jesus is not separating individuals. Jesus actually talks about having "all the nations" before him for judgement and then separating them. This language suggests communal treatment as nations are judged. This and other passages show how the American tendency to individualize biblical teachings is often problematic. Yet, even if Conaway is right, individuals and churches are not doing anywhere close to enough to take over the government's anti-poverty efforts. Representative Stephen Fincher, a Republican from Tennessee, went even further in his arguments. To respond to Vargas's quoting of Matthew 25, Fincher quoted part of a verse in Matthew 26 about how we will always have the poor. Ironically, he then warned people about Vargas's claim by arguing "we have to be careful how we pick and choose verses out of the Bible." Apparently, he did not realize he had just done that. In the Matthew 26 verse, Jesus was alluding to a verse in Deuteronomy that offers two parts (but that the latter one is usually ignored): "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land." So rather than being a verse about just give up and do not help the poor because we will always have them around, the biblical teaching is instead that since we will always have poor in our land we must help them. A few years ago, Ethics Daily released a film that focused on this point: Always ... Therefore: The Church's Challenge of Global Poverty. Perhaps all of this is a good reason why congresspeople should not be debating theology or invoking Bible verses to justify their partisan public policy positions. After all, they do not seem to even understand the teachings.

Unfortunately, the members of the House committee voted against McGovern's amendment and kept the cut in place. As Bread for the World noted, the cut will result in the following reductions in SNAP services:
*Remove 2 million SNAP recipients from the program
*Reduce SNAP benefits (by about $90 each month) for 850,000 households
*End free school meals for 210,000 children.
*Cut international food aid by $2.5 billion over 5 years—those cuts would include a 78 percent reduction in funding for improving the nutritional quality of food aid
Churches are not ready to make up the difference. Yet, too many legislators seem content to pretend everything will be okay as they balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Maybe they should talk about Jesus less and act to help people more.

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