Friday, July 27, 2007

Why I am not a Democrat.... or a Republican.

Though the Democrats generally tend to lean towards my values as a Christian, I cannot call myself a Democrat. But that doesn't make me a Republican either. Nor any other political party. What occurred in the past few days in regards to the Farm Bill and the Fairness Amendment is a perfect example of why that is. If representatives of congress were free from political pressure to vote their conscience, the Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment should have passed. Instead, the amendment failed with a vote of 117 to 309 (see if your rep dropped the ball here). Note this bit from an LA Times article before the voting began:

"This is the biggest change we've had in payment limits ever," said Peterson. He said that "wheat, cotton and rice are not in support" of the change and that neither were many of his committee members. Nine of them are freshmen Democrats who defeated Republicans in rural districts. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have made protecting those Democrats a priority to ensure that they keep their seats.

In the past, Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) had supported similar measures introduced by Kind.

"We have pushed them beyond where they feel comfortable," Peterson said of the freshmen as he explained why he would oppose any move to further lower the cap on subsidy payments. "Their constituencies do not support what we have done." Advocates who expected Pelosi to push for deeper reform were frustrated.

That's putting it lightly. As I heard one advocate say: "What's the point of getting the Dems reelected if they don't change anything?" I'm amazed that our political system works as well as it does! The thing is, though, that so many Christians allow themselves to be lured in by one side or the other. We all know about the Religious Right and how so many Christians in America identify themselves with the Republican party. But the "Religious Left" is not the proper answer. As a Christian, my core identity is found in Christ. I am certainly concerned that the government acts in accordance with my moral values (particularly protecting the disadvantaged of society), but we ought to watch out for that sweet, addictive drug they call "political power." We ought not get duped into thinking that some political party, or government for that matter, is the embodiment of Christ on earth. They merely have their power on lease from God, and we need to make sure they understand that.

That is why I may be disappointed in the outcome of the vote yesterday, but I do not feel that my efforts were wasted. It is not a waste to do what is right. It is not a waste to speak truth to power, even if power wins in the short term. Of course, we can see some "practical" benefits. We know that we've made some progress, we've had good press coverage, we got some baby steps in reform, and tons of new advocates found their first opportunity to raise their voice. And this round is not even over: there is still the Senate bill to think of and then the conference to reconcile to the Senate and House versions. These practical points are important for organizations like Bread, so they can keep their steam going. But ultimately we do this because we are standing up in our biblical concern for justice and we need to make our voices heard, even if they are not heeded.

Today, one of the things about Bread for the World that I am grateful for is that one key word they emphasize: nonpartisan.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Article spotlight: Washington Post

There is a brief, but good piece in the Washington Post from Saturday, written by the president of the Capital Area Food Bank, entitled "School's Out, But Hunger Isn't Taking A Break":
While the summer offers many children a chance to live free of care and to indulge in a world of fantasy and make-believe ["A Kid's Reality," Metro, June 26], for more than 200,000 children in the Washington area, life becomes not so easy and the enjoyment of summer is overshadowed by a lack of food.

The summer presents us all with challenges on how to guarantee that children and families at risk of hunger have access to nutritious food and three quality meals each day.

Reflections on Focus on the Family

After thinking about my observations from yesterday, I'd like to just briefly mention two bite-sized reflections on what I found.
  • Poverty is one of the biggest threats to marriage and the family (see here). And one thing my wife reminded me of is that abortion is so much more likely when people are in poverty. Let's not get caught up in whether poverty is primarily the fault of personal responsibility or structural/systemic issues, but rather work on transforming both.

  • Focus on the Family believes that we should love those who suffer (even in poverty) as the result of sexual immorality, be it their fault or not (see last paragraph here). They even appeal to the example of Christ "of loving ministry to those who suffer from the results of their own acts of sin." Taken to the next step, then: we should perform visible, tangible acts of love to those who suffer from poverty and other hardships, no matter whose fault it is.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Dobson and Focus on the Family on hunger and poverty

I am just doing a search for what Dobson and his FoF might have said regarding hunger and poverty. These are family concerns, right? I'll just do bullet point observations here:
  • FoF website has a section on "Social Issues." This includes: Abstinence; Bioethics/Sanctity of Life; Education; Gambling; Law and the Courts; Marriage and Family; Pornography; Sexual Identity/Gender; Worldview and Culture. Why no separate topic on Poverty? Isn't this a tremendously important social issue for families?

  • I searched through "Dr. Dobson's Study: A collection of Dr. Dobson's monthly newsletters, other articles, book excerpts, biographical information and more." I checked for references to either "poverty" or "hunger" and came up with 7 total occurrences of the words used as real conditions (as opposed to "spiritual poverty" or "soul hunger"). Four references to poverty focus on the relationship between gambling and poverty (here and here; see also here). One refers to strong marriages as a means of reducing poverty. One compares those who spoke out against slavery to those speaking out against abortion. One states that poverty will be one result of the social chaos resulting from the disintegration of the family.

  • Found a 2001 article entitled "Pray for the Children." The description line: "Thousands of children around the world suffer from abuse, abandonment and hunger. The least we can do is pray for them." The article centers primarily on pray as "a starting point." I applaud the strong statement: "As Christians, we cannot ignore suffering." Amen. The article also emphasizes the need to be informed about hungry people and to try to "feel" their pain in creative ways. Why not point to the next steps? It is awesome to have churches and families pray together. But how about writing letters to congresspersons? Serving in local food ministries? Donating financially to effective antihunger/antipoverty groups? Also, I think it is important to recognize what role we might play in the food distribution of the world, particularly those in North America who could be called "rich Christians in an age of hunger." One more thing we can do is to try to live more simply.

  • In an article on "Why Marriage Matters," the author briefly speaks of its affects on poverty. It's main stance: "Historically, poverty has been a result of unemployment and low wages. Today, it is primarily a result of family structure." The article quotes the Progressive Policy Institute as saying (in a 1990 publication): "It is no exaggeration to say that a stable, two-parent family is an American child’s best protection against poverty." The article cites a former Clinton advisor as explaining "that avoiding family poverty requires three things: 1) finish high-school, 2) marry before having children and 3) marry after the age of 20." Amen. A strong family is obviously an important asset to financial stability. But it's a two way street: financial instability drastically affects the health of a marriage and family (and another FoF document makes this point here: "The strongest factors contributing to marital failure are young age at marriage, poverty, remarriage and low education . . . the well-established higher divorce rate in Southern Bible Belt states is due primarily to increased rates of poverty and of marriage at younger ages, rather than to the rate of religious participation in this part of the country."). Oftentimes, without sufficient financial support, educational opportunities in urban environments do not help young urban citizens to get out of the cycle of poverty. There seems to be an entrenched urban culture that desperately needs holistic attention. We need to focus on both strong families and structural change.

  • Also, in response to the statement that a higher divorce rate in the Bible Belt is a result of increased rates of poverty, I think that well-establishes poverty as a threat to marriage. I would suggest that poverty is a much bigger threat to the institution of marriage than is same-sex marriage (I mention this since FoF emphasizes same-sex marriage as a threat to heterosexual marriage, devoting a large portion of its website to the issue).

  • In the Colorado Statement on Biblical Sexual Morality, you can find a singular mention of poverty in the last paragraph. This is actually quite profound and a great challenge to conservative Christians everywhere. I'd like to cite the final paragraph in total here (emphasis mine):
"Christians must grieve with and help those who suffer hard-ship caused by sexual immorality, even when it is caused by their own acts of sin (Rom. 12:15; Luke 19:10). But we must give aid in ways that do not deny moral responsibility for sexual behavior (John 8:11). Thus we affirm that God calls Christians to love all who suffer social isolation, poverty, illness, or the burdens of unplanned pregnancy and single parenting, whether or not it was caused by their own sexual sin. We believe Christ set an example of loving ministry to those who suffer from the results of their own acts of sin. We reject the idea that our obligation to alleviate human suffering is valid only if such help is 'deserved.'"

Okay, that's all for now. Perhaps more observations later.

Doing the Evangelical thing

As a part of my internship, I am attempting to submerge myself in the average "Evangelical" person's concerns. Fuller Seminary, my current host for education, is certainly a strong voice in Evangelicalism and has been for many decades. But a lot of it is heady stuff, and in my studies, I'm focusing more on historical issues related to biblical studies than on Evangelical beliefs per se. So, as I write this, I am listening to a feed of "Air 1" radio ("the positive alternative"). Good Christian music. Some of it brings me back to my youth group days (DC Talk is on right now: What if I stumble?). I have also been listening to the podcasts for this call-in radio show from the California radio station KWVE called Pastors' Perspective (with hosts Brian Brodersen and Chuck Smith), which is apparently connected with Calvary Chapel. I am about to take a look into Dobson and Focus on the Family and see if they've got much on poverty and hunger.

Something that I've observed is that as an Anabaptist Christian, I am perhaps in an advantageous position to bridge the gap between Evangelicalism and the cause of justice. Like most Evangelicals, I am concerned with the authority of the canonical text for everyday life. I am concerned with honoring the reign of God and Christ. At the same time, I do not want to forget the importance of living out our faith. How can any true Christians, Evangelical or otherwise, feel that allowing people to go hungry in this world is the right thing to do? Therefore, I would like to present the case for our more conservative brothers and sisters that they need not fear seeking justice for hungry people.

I would even say that it is more important than combating a "homosexual agenda" or speculating on the identity of the antichrist. But, hey, let's take baby steps here. First, let's acknowledge the need to do justice for the hungry.

[Qualification: Many who would call themselves Evangelicals are quite concerned with issues of justice. This I know. I am more interested in reaching out to the ones who are still a little skeptical of all things "progressive" or related to "peace and justice." In the spirit of Christian unity (a la Ephesians, for example), I want to find common ground.]

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Interview with Robert Egger in Washington Post

From the intro to the article:
Robert Egger, much-lauded founder of D.C. Central Kitchen and longtime revolutionary in the war against hunger, recently won the food industry's Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award for his humanitarian work.
He says some interesting things. Check it out.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Does Paul talk about hunger? [Part 1]

Well, not much directly perhaps. But neither does he only talk about us all being sinners falling short of the glory of God and needing justification (which is, of course, quite important). Paul also emphasizes the need for a transformed life in the Spirit.

I don't want this post to get super long, so we're going to have some fun and make this into a short series. The main principle of the series is that Paul may have been focused on the issues of his time and place, but from his discussion on those important issues, we can steal the principles that he has used and apply them to our understanding of hunger today. We will even touch on some of the specific passages where Paul does address the issue of poverty and feeding our enemies. So, without further adieu, what seems to be the big problem for Paul and the early church?

Many of our churches tend to be characterized by divisions (on homosexuality, abortion, women in ministry, pews versus chairs, etc.) rather than a united effort to serve others in a powerful Spirit-led witness to the non-Christian world. The big divisive issue in the earliest church was a result of the initial Jewish makeup of the early church butting heads with the influx of new non-Jewish (Gentile/Greek) Christians. Do Gentile Christians need to obey the law of Moses? Do they need to be circumcised? Can they eat meat sacrificed to idols? Are their children allowed to watch Teletubbies? This is the heated debate that brought about the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and that finds a prominent place in the letters of Paul, particularly in Romans and Galatians. But what does Paul say about this division?
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. (Gal 5:6)

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Gal 6:15)
Paul is otherwise a fierce advocate for the "uncircumcision" side of the division and yet, here he says that wherever you come down in this debate, what matters is faith working through love and becoming a new creation. So, the point here is: don't get distracted with divisive conflict in our efforts to be a witness, a testimony, to God's love through our actions to others.

Do our concerns about various political litmus tests undermine our ability to be servants of God, of one another, of outsiders, of our enemies? As many people in the anti-hunger movement like to say: hunger is not a controversial issue. Can any true Christian genuinely say that hunger in this world is an acceptable situation? What prevents us from uniting on this issue? Is it truly our service to God? Or is it about this-worldly political divisions?

[Next up in the series: Paul's "new creation" is about the "fruit of the Spirit"]

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Sicko: the "softer" side of Moore

“But behind it all, we need to realize that if we say we're a Christian nation, providing health care for every American is the Christian thing to do,” concludes Moore, a Catholic who embarked on his quest for social justice after opting not to become a priest.

“I don't know why we call a Christian act socialism. I think Jesus would want for every one of us to take care of human beings and guarantee it for everyone.”

~from Pasadena Weekly article

So this isn't directly related to hunger issues, but it is related to poverty. And I went to see it with my internship supervisor (who was a friend long before he was a supervisor, by the way). The above quote was not in the movie, but was a comment made at the unorthodox and barely-media-covered premiere of the film in Los Angeles' "Skid Row." One news source with representation at the event was the Pasadena Weekly, which has an interesting article on it (including some descriptions of what's in the movie).

I'll be honest, I'm not the biggest Michael Moore fan. Truth be told, I was quite surprised to find out from the aforementioned article that Moore is a Christian. It was not his politics that led me to think otherwise, but his frequently abrasive demeanor. On the other hand, Christians are well known for their abrasive demeanors, so go figure. This film, however, was the best Moore film yet, in my humble opinion (the others being Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11). The reason? Moore got out of the way a little bit and let other people talk for themselves. Also, he spent a significant amount of time focusing on positive messages rather than ranting attacks. He does make some jabs and his biting humor is completely present, of course, but it's somewhat toned down.

As a former worker in the health insurance industry myself, I would first just like to mention what I see as the biggest con of the movie, which is that his examples are obviously showing only one side of the story. I can't speak to how well the positive examples from other countries (Canada, UK, France, Cuba) portray their systems (though I have my suspicions). For the American system, however, I know that there is information that we're not hearing. When I answered phone calls for a Medicare HMO plan, most of the errors were either misunderstandings by the callers/members ( and granted, the plans are complicated) or unintentional clerical or processing errors. I also processed claims, so I had an understanding of why things got denied.

There were a few rare occasions in which I had no personal knowledge of why something was denied. That was when authorizations were reviewed by the medical director. But these denials had explanations: for example, further inpatient days at the acute level of care were denied because the patient was not making any progress according to the reports of hospital doctors. I can't say whether there was some kind of medical director conspiracy of the kind that Moore documents, since I was lower on the totem pole, but I will say that even if a possibility existed for such occasions, it was quite rare. But I talked to a lot of people who had plenty of conspiracy theories about claims, benefits, enrollment practices, etc. Most of these people simply misunderstood their benefits and wouldn't accept any explanation that pointed out their mistakes. After working for two different health insurance companies, I still have respect for the integrity of those companies, even being a person concerned about poverty and social justice concerns.

The purpose of this movie is not to be "fair and balanced" (if such a thing is possible), however, but rather to demystify the concept of "socialized medicine." Moore highlights an alternative way of looking at the issue. His cherry-picking of bad stories in the US and good stories in countries with universal health care asks the question: Is it really so bad? I believe that we should try to be more balanced and nuanced, but frankly, intellectual nuance is a thing lost in the media and popular culture. Moore speaks in a way that people can resonate with his message.

It really is a good movie. Funny. Helpful. And I would certainly recommend people watch this with family and friends for invigorating discussions.

Here are some interesting articles on the movie:

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Should we let the government do it?

I came across a blog post by Pat Allen, a corporate lawyer in (I think) Illinois, asking some very good foundational questions about the mission of Bread for the World (and I'd like to add that he does so without a harsh polemical tone). His church is participating in Bread's "offering of letters" campaign and this is his reflection:

Here is what I wonder: Is writing letters to Congress, asking them to pass more laws and spend somebody else’s money to help poor people, really the best way to help poor people? Or do we accomplish more if we give our own time and money directly to groups that really help poor people?

Is the church’s role to be just another lobbyist asking the government to do this thing or that? Is this all we have to do: ask government to do more? Does that fulfill our responsibility? Or are we supposed to do more, to use our own time and money to help those in need? (Our church does a lot of this, too.)

Obviously, government has more resources than any one individual does. But if you give your time or money to a group that directly helps poor people, you know something is actually getting done. Spending your time and money writing letters to Congress has the potential to result in a lot of nothing.

As I said, I may be wrong on this. I am just wondering.

I started to write out a comment in response to his blog post, but it just got too long, so I'll reflect on his questions here . . .

Hi Pat,
First of all, I think you raise an excellent and essential question. I am involved with Bread myself and it is a question that I ask myself. I am an Anabaptist Christian and thus I am very wary of the church getting in cahoots with the government. I also feel that it is important for the church to serve the hungry itself in obedience to Jesus and as a witness to the world of our transformed lives in the Spirit.

The reality, however, is just the amazing numbers difference. No organization's attempt to address an issue can come anywhere near what the government can do. On Bread's website they address this issue to some extent and one point they make is this:

Government action is not the only mechanism to deal with hunger and poverty, but charitable responses, however vital and compassionate, seldom result in lasting, structural change.

What Bread is advocating for is assisting poor people in finding their way out of poverty, so that they are able to live a sustainable life, without the need for charitable handouts. There are many organizations doing great work out there (I think of World Vision, Mennonite Central Committee, and others), but in terms of how much bang we get for our "buck" (that is, our efforts to end poverty), the United States government has no competition. That's the practical concern.

Another response that I have is related to the way we think about the government's budget. On your comment regarding government funding as "spend[ing] somebody else’s money to help poor people": I think we need to be honest about government funding. If we are to say that it is "somebody else's money," we need to apply that across the board. For example, funding for the military, farm subsidies, as well as grants and other favorable treatment to corporations (what some would call "corporate welfare"), would all fall under these categories.

Since the government is "spending other people's money" in a sense, many Christian leaders have begun to emphasize that the government's budget is a "moral document," which must reflect our moral priorities. In reality, for example, foreign poverty spending is less than one half of one percent of our budget. Is that too much? Does that accurately reflect our concern for the world's poor? I certainly don't think so, and that is why I have gotten involved with Bread.

One final comment that I have is in response to your questions about whether this is "all we have to do." I believe you're saying "no." And I would say, Amen! I don't think that "lobbying" the government with our moral concerns is the only thing that we do as the missional Body of Christ in service to the poor. I think that we should have a holistic vision for responding to poverty: both in being prophets to the powers that be, as well as in doing real, live service to those in need.

I hope that my response to your post sounds even a tiny bit as gracious as your original words. We need people to talk about these things in respectful dialogue. Thank you for raising the question and I would love to get your (or others') response(s).


Update (Same Day): Here's some more information from Bread:

A single letter can be worth $1,000

Consider Africa , where hungry people have few defenders in Congress. Bread for the World’s 1995 campaign to protect crucial development aid to Africa mobilized approximately seventy thousand letters and reduced by about $100 million the cuts that took place. In this case, the average letter leveraged more than one thousand dollars to Africans in dire need.

Merely writing a letter can save a person's life

In 1991, Bread for the World mobilized 100,000 letters and helped get the U.S. State Department to mediate a peace agreement in Ethiopia that saved half a million lives. By any reasonable calculation, each letter in that campaign saved at least one life.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Interview with Ron Kind

The Blog for Rural America, which is the blog for the Center for Rural Affairs, has an interesting interview with and discussion about Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI), who as they say, is "the most vocal and active House member pushing for major changes in the farm bill." Ron Kind has introduced FARM 21 and The Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act of 2007. FARM 21 has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately.

I am just learning what all this stuff means, and I barely understand it, so having something that is well written, accessible, and informative like this interview is quite helpful for me. Here are some excerpts:

The Center for Rural Affairs is NOT endorsing Kind’s legislation. However, we always like to evaluate all proposals on their merits, and we hope our elected representatives do the same. And on principle, we can say that we strongly condemn some of the political machinations encountered by Rep. Kind's legislation - every bill should receive equal and fair consideration. Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way. While we are not endorsing, we must say that we enjoyed speaking with the Congressman. Given our experience with a few other politicians (who shall remain unnamed), Congressman Kind’s forthrightness and willingness to answer our questions was surprising and gratifying.

[ . . . ]

FARM 21 is the more significant of the two, and would completely upend current farm policy. It would move from farm payments based on production to a “farmer savings account” model. Using the money saved, FARM 21 would also provide substantial funding increases for conservation, rural economic development, local foods, and other priorities.

[ . . . ]

When talking to Rep. Kind, it becomes very clear that he is dead set on fundamental farm bill change and he will do what it takes to make that happen. He is not a “lone voice in the wilderness” for farm bill change, or some kook or crank insisting on some ideologically pure farm policy. He is working very hard to win, and rather than hold out for the “perfect” farm bill, he has crafted his proposals to appeal to the widest range of lawmakers possible.

[ . . . ]

Ultimately, the success of Kind’s push for FARM 21 depends on who can win the support of 218 House members- Ron Kind or House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson. But that doesn’t mean Kind will “lose” if FARM 21 doesn’t become the meat and potatoes of the 2007 Farm Bill. Simply the threat of a floor fight- and the knowledge of his near-success in 2002- will force Collin Peterson and the House leadership to pay attention to his proposals, and they may have to allow at least a few of Kind’s concepts to become part of the 2007 Farm Bill. If Kind plays his cards right he may gain passage of FARM 21, but even if he can’t win a straight floor vote on his entire bill he may be able to block the passage of a farm bill he and his supporters dislike. In the world of farm bill politics, that makes him a force to be reckoned with.

The emphases are mine, I took out theirs. The post is especially interesting for a beginner in this complicated world of politics such as myself. Check it out.