Weeks 26 and 27 of the JustFaith program spend a good amount of time discussing Exodus from Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger, a book written by David Beckman, a Lutheran pastor, former World Bank official, and current president of Bread for the World. Bread for the World, as explained elsewhere in this series,[i] is a partner of JustFaith and supports worldwide strategies for reducing hunger that include population control. (see video here).
The book’s essential thesis is that “dramatic progress against poverty, hunger, and disease is possible.”[ii] The corollary to this is that “If we want to make serious progress against hunger, we also need to make our government an active and effective part of the solution.”[iii] Early chapters emphasize that hunger, termed “food insecurity” in the US, is damaging to people, particularly children and that a fourth of US children live in “food-insecure” situations, where meals may sometimes be skipped or portions reduced because there is no food in the house that day – often at the end of a month when the food stamp allotment or the month’s pay check has been spent.
Then the book delves into the author’s theological perspective. Beckman is a Lutheran minister who puts his activism to alleviate hunger and poverty in the context of a worldwide political movement, a great transformation and cultural change “including profound shifts in what people believe and how they live their lives.”[iv] This present time, Beckman believes, is “a movement of God in the world,” “God moving in history.”
Beckman’s conclusion – that “God has benevolent intentions for humanity” and that, for Christians, “doing our part to overcome hunger and poverty is crucial to religious integrity” – is fine. His scripture studies, however, are deeply flawed. The Passover is about so much more than freeing slaves; Jesus multiplication of the loaves and fishes is about so much more than filling bellies; and Jesus wasn’t crucified for breaking purity rules and Sabbath customs (not that doing so endeared him to the authorities).
One points this out not to disparage the good work of those who address worldwide hunger but to insist that, for a Christian, it isn’t good enough. Those who sought Jesus after he feed them miraculously were told, “Do not labor for the food which perishes but for the food which endures to eternal life.” Jesus wasn’t exhorting his disciples to ignore the starving but, as God “moving in history,” wanted them to recognize that there was something even more wonderful at stake.
The book then moves on to the bulk of its argument: that it’s time for the US to get serious about eliminating poverty in its own backyard. Beckman makes the interesting observation that the Bible makes “connections between morality and the prospects of nations.”[v] He’s alluded to the point earlier but here the theme is developed.
Beckman isn’t concerned with personal morality, however. He knows that God is particularly angered by idolatry, but spins the sin: “When the kings and their nations worshipped carved images or other gods of their own making, they felt less obliged to behave morally, especially toward the poor and powerless people.”[vi]
Then, Beckman makes a curious application. “We can see similar patterns in modern history, in the fall of the Soviet Union, for example. By the 1970s Communism no longer inspired many people in the Soviet Union. Even people in Moscow’s inner circles of power worked the system to their own benefit.”[vii] The socialist ideal, he seems to be saying, is a good example of the sort of communal “morality” that pleases God.
Next, we read that the US – while being a “wonderful country” – gives a “higher priority” to “individual liberty, economic growth, and military strength then to helping poor people.” (One wonders how this correlates to Beckman’s observation earlier in the book that “most poor Americans have amenities that would qualify them as middle class or better in Bangladesh.”[viii])
Further, we learn that “poverty” is no longer the inability to obtain material necessities but is the domain of anyone falling below half of a country’s median income.[ix] Defined in this way, even if a country assured its population total “food security,” universal healthcare, jobs, and housing, etc., it could never be said to have eliminated “poverty.” This sort of “poverty” can only be eliminated when there ceases to be a median income, in other words, when everyone has the same income.
Beckman doesn’t articulate this conclusion but he does quote Bill Gates as saying: “Inequity is the most harmful force in the world….As you begin to solve inequity, you decrease the number of problems and increase the number of problem-solvers.”[x]
Now look: the bone of contention here is not the specific government programs Bread for the World has initiated (many of which are good and are detailed throughout subsequent chapters) or supported. Some may be wonderful, some may be less so….but that’s not the problem. Nor is it the entirely honorable ambition of making a serious dent in material human suffering.
The problem with Beckman’s book is the foundational philosophy, bolstered by a distorted theology, that is being offered as part of the package.
Inequity isn’t a cause of poverty. Nor are economic inequities it necessarily unfair or unjust. Nor did Jesus ever task mortals with equalizing those inequities. In fact, when a fellow comes to him about an inheritance he wants divided equitably, Jesus warns the man against greed.
Therefore, legislation that is concerned about forcing “equity” (and chapter 7 describes several particular pieces that are Bread’s current concern) and efforts to restructure governance to support equity aren’t addressing poverty but promote a particular political ideal – one, we may add, that has been particular hard on the poor. Just ask the millions of eggs broken to help progress the Soviet socialist omelet…before it became corrupt and selfish.
Morality, on the other hand, as Christianity has always understood it, does get to the heart of the problem. To take one example: considering that the vast majority of US children living in “food-insecure” situations are coming from single-parent households, perhaps God’s instructions about marriage are meaningful. One can’t improve the prospects of nations – no matter how much fine legislation one advocates – without accepting the full moral framework God lays out in the scriptures.
If one takes personal morality off the table, however, there will be no discussion of how churches or government can encourage intact, functional families. The discussion will only be about money…and the problems will get worse.
JustFaith and Exodus from Hunger
One of the exhortations Beckman makes in his book is that people support Bread for the World’s public policy issues by writing letters of support to their congressmen. The JustFaith program picks up on this suggestion in week 26 by preparing an “Offering of Letters” activity to support Bread’s legislative activity. The “Biblical Basis for Legislative Advocacy” that precedes the “Offering” implies that this is one way Christians can model “Christ’s perfect love-the cross-to transform and reconcile all things. When we steward our influence and urge our nation’s leaders to transform social structures and protect society’s most vulnerable people, we love God and our neighbor.”[xi]
Then, after watching video footage from Bread for the World, participants discuss “which of the following types of letters they might be willing to write their U.S. senators and congressional representative in the coming week:
“1. Create a circle of protection around vital programs for hungry and poor people in the United States and abroad
“2. Create a circle of protection around funding for vital domestic nutrition programs like SNAP and WIC that meet the needs of millions of American families
“3. Create a circle of protection around funding for vital poverty-focused foreign assistance programs like that address the root causes of poverty and give people the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty
“4. Create a circle of protection around critical tax credits like EITC and CTC for low-income working families
“5. Create a circle of protection around funding for international food aid programs that serve as the greatest—and often only—line of defense between millions of families and hunger”
Participants are given sample letters, blank paper, envelopes, and legislators’ names and addresses. They aren’t asked to critique any particular piece of legislation but simply to accept that whatever JustFaith or Bread for the World has endorsed does, indeed, “create a circle of protection” around the poor.
That’s quite an act of faith.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.
[i] See Part 9: “How Much Is Enough?”
[ii] All page numbers are from Exodus from Hunger, unless noted otherwise: p. 7.
[iii] P. 11.
[iv] P. 66
[v] P. 81.
[vi] P. 82.
[vii] P. 83.
[viii] P. 40.
[ix] P. 84.
[x] P. 86, from a speech given at George Washington University, 12-3-08. An earlier section in the book extensively quotes a Bangladeshi man who has a far deeper insight into the matter (pp 37-40) but his thoughts, unfortunately, are presented as a sidebar and not discussed in the context of the text.
[xi] JustFaith, week 26 Supplement, p. 3.