Feeding the hungry and public theology

Over the last week, I’ve received this petition a number of times, both through various social media venues and via email. I agree that cutting food stamps is not Christian, and would give rise to serious misgivings about voting for candidates who supported reductions to the current pittance most SNAP recipients rely on.  Part of it is my now-tenuous ties to the church and its teachings (although issues of justice and human well-being are still a big piece of what I retain).  As the former Archbishop of Canterbury said, quoting Tolstoy, “food for myself is a material issue.  Food for my neighbour is a spiritual issue.”  Another part of it is knowing how little assistance SNAP really provides, especially to single adults.

But I did not, and will not, sign this petition.  It is evidence of the arrogance that saying someone, or some thing, or some action, is not “Christian”, is the worst insult possible, with unfortunate political, social, and economic repercussions to follow–in this life or the next.  Representative Mike Conaway, who spearheads a bill to make these reductions, is himself a Christian, who does not, apparently, believe his Christian faith requires him to refrain from promoting legislation that would reduce aid to the hungry.  He believes that the Bible requires individuals to feed the hungry and meet the other needs of impoverished persons, but it is not the job of the U.S. Government to do so. He’s been completely clear about this for several years, even entering into debate about the topic with other Congressional Christians.

Whether or not the floor of the House of Representatives is the appropriate place to debate what Jesus had to say about hunger is perhaps a different set of discussions.  What is most interesting is that, as a Christian, appealing to a voter base of what he believes to be other Christians, Conaway does not believe that God requires the US Government to follow a Biblical command to feed the hungry (which echoes through both Old and New Testaments, and thus is of primary moral import to followers of all three Abrahamic faiths).  He believes it is a personal requirement.  Yet, Conaway does believe that the United States Government has a requirement to put significant restrictions on abortion, claiming it is a central factor of his Christian faith, and that the “sanctity of life” is one of the founding values of his country.  Yet, abortion is not, to my memory, directly referenced in either the Old or New Testament; the moment of life’s beginning is not defined in scripture.

God does not require the US Government to have an interest in what goes on at the dinner tables of the poor, but God requires that same government to police the reproductive organs of women.  And once the correct form of policing has taken place, the government has no interest in or responsibility for feeding the inevitable natural products.

Family values logically have to extend past the moment of birth.  If a child is sacred to the point where it must exit the womb alive (and the government has an interest in making sure that exit happens), then it follows that same child is sacred to the point where it must be fed during its natural life.  And the government has an interest in making sure that feeding happens.

Conaway cannot legally impose his Christian beliefs about feeding the hungry or abortion on his constituents, and by the legislation he sponsors or supports, on the rest of the United States. The only reason it is possible is that he has been voted into office by people who either share his limited view of Christianity (and as I said in yesterday’s post, everyone’s view of Christianity is limited), or who somehow believe he supports a lifestyle they wish to protect, or to which they aspire.  Obviously, it’s a critical mass in his district, but the critical mass in his district is not necessarily representative of the entire United States electorate.

All of that said, there is still the First Amendment balance of the prohibition of religious establishment, and the free exercise of religion.  Which means, there is a middle space between forbidding faith-based language to enter political discourse at all, and giving religious arguments and assertions a definitive say. It allows religious (not just Christian) language to enter the public sphere, authentically, but as one voice and set of arguments amongst many.

The starting point is one, not of arrogance, but of modesty.  Public theology begins, first and foremost, with natural theology: it makes no appeal to “revelation”, but treats scripture, theology, tradition as a rich record of  thought, action , and reflection on experience which has, over a long period of time and under varied circumstances, formed human persons for the better.  And it is honest about where it has gone wrong. Adequate method in public theology requires more nuance than most religious political discourse exhibits. It seeks a balance between the understanding that religious commitments touch on all aspects of life, but there is almost never a single public policy solution that can be reached solely by appeal to religious tradition. Once again, we are back to William Temple’s “middle axioms” approach. Good public theology means making one’s own tradition accessible and reasonable to those who are outside, and potentially even hostile to it.

In the case of proposed legislation to reduce SNAP benefits, how might one signal their objections using  public theology as a method? I would suggest the following:

1.  Choose scripture or other pieces of the religious tradition well, and rather than making an appeal to its nature as divine revelation (which only matters to someone inside the religious tradition), appeal to the enduring  human wisdom it embodies.

The scripture chosen for debate between Representatives Conaway and Varga (a former Jesuit) was Matthew 25: 31-46.  It’s good scripture for this, but neither of them used a particularly good method for doing theology in public. I think Varga was closer to right, based on this piece of scripture, but he would have been better off not to appeal to his own beliefs and feelings.  A better step would be

2.  Show why this particular scripture supports one or other viewpoint, and be open that a range of interpretations might be possible, even as you argue vigorously for your own.

For Matthew 25:31-46, when arguing that the government indeed has a substantial interest in feeding the hungry, a point to be made is the language of kingship that recurs throughout the passage. When you deny the king (code for temporal government) what is due him, it is a form of disloyalty and even treason. Here, the king makes a stunning claim: refusing to provide the necessities of material and temporal wellbeing to the poor is exactly the same as refusing the king himself. Which is disloyal and treasonous.

3.  Make the connection to the shared secular tradition.

In this case, the Declaration of Independence might be particularly appropriate. It is a call to a different kind of government, taking concern for all persons, not just the privileged. The government has an interest in securing the conditions under  which persons can undertake “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  Hunger, homelessness, and ill health are inconsistent with those conditions, and failure to address those problems is the concern of those who make, enforce, and interpret the laws of the land.

And that is the way to bring Christian theology into public discourse.

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