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.


Judy Redman said...

A quick comment on this: there is a growing recognition that unless government policy is appropriate, grass roots work cannot succeed. Poverty is largely the result of inequitable government policies, both domestic and international. Thus, Jubilee 2000, Live 8 and Stand Up Against Poverty (Make Poverty History) are all aimed at getting governments to institute policies that will allow the work of aid groups to have the most significant effect.

I don't think that Christians should just write letters, but I think they need to lobby government as well as doing other things

Patrick George McCullough said...

Amen, Judy. I think that it is part of the prophetic role of the church to pressure the government into pursuing justice, in response to the injustice that they have performed.

I agree that letter writing shouldn't be the only way to enact this prophecy. But I also think that organizations should try to have focused goals. I appreciate that Bread has very specific and related goals (unlike a recent paper that I wrote... that's a lesson that carries over into academia!).

Jemila Monroe said...

Great stuff Pat. At first I scrolled through your introduction and I thought, "Gee, Pat has really finally lost it -- he's writing advocacy letters to himself." Hee hee ;)

pat.allen said...

Pat, I appreciated your comment, and it got me thinking. My response is too long to post as a comment. I have posted it in my blog at patallen.typepad.com on July 20, 2007. Once again, thanks for your comment and the chance to respond. Pat Allen