Poverty is such a complex situation. It is complex because the experience involves men, women, and children who experience a variety of variables resulting in a diversity of outcomes.
I have been recently working through Dr. Howard Thurman's seminal work, Jesus and the Disinherited. In Dr. Thurman's text, I was struck by his summation the Church moved from being a place which advocated for the poor and oppressed. The Church moved to a position of being a voice for the powerful-individuals and institutions-which took advantage of the poor and oppressed.
The faith which is so precious to me had been co-opted. A faith born in slavery and became fully realized in a poor human being named Jesus, stumbles because she pursues power with greater vigor than the poor.
I am thankful even in the midst of shaken faith God sends the poor to remind me he is paying attention. God uses the daily experiences of those who have hard lives. Yes his Word is present but there are moments when the still voice of God speaks in the trembling frustration of a homeless man, an overwhelmed single mother, or autistic child.
I have heard God speak as well through my friends who do not believe as I believe and yet these men and women believe there is a God who is there. I know in whom I believe and why I believe what has been written. I am not arrogant enough to say I know all about who God is in my life. (I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the Trinity and loving my enemy like Jesus asks of me!) But I am humble enough to know I can learn about love, joy, peace, long-suffering, and goodness from my friends of different faiths. In the end, all things will be used to wipe away every vestige which has casts shadows and invoked fearful tears.
So what does all this mean?
I am working to create an environment of mutual support and activity between persons of various faith perspectives who will gather to discuss and stimulate change as it relates to poverty. I want to encourage these men and women to explicitly use the faiths precious to them and see how these faiths can be used to address poverty in a holistic manner.
What will this Interfaith group value?
Doctrinal Humility: People willing to honor their doctrinal positions with the outcome to encourage and inspire others to address poverty in Conway and Faulkner County.
Religious Commitment: Persons who will maintain fidelity to their individual faith traditions while learning from other traditions.
Interconnectedness: Persons willing to develop and sustain relationships between participants translating into visible activities .
Empathetic Life: Through dialogue and actions, persons consider the lived experience of the poor while maintaining individual unique identities.
If you would like to participate in a constructive manner, connect with me.
Overview of the Legislation
Arkansas State House Representative Mary Bentley (R) has submitted House Bill 1035 as an act to be considered during the 91st General Assembly of the State of Arkansas which will convene in 2017. HB 1035 has two purposes; 1) restrict food stamp benefits to the purchase of healthy foods and 2) address obesity among persons living in poverty who by “overconsumption of excessively sugared foods, food products, and beverages increases the risk of obesity and other diseases” (HB 1035, Section 1, (a), 2).
In summary, HB 1035 seeks to influence the health of low income Arkansas citizens receiving SNAP benefits by restricting benefits to the purchase of foods and beverages possessing nutritional value as determined by the Department of Human Services (DHS). DHS will develop these restrictions based on current programs such as Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) and the implementation of the modified program will depend on DHS having approval from the Department of Agriculture.
On face value, Representative Bentley’s proposal serves to address a needed concern in our state but like all government interactions there will be unintended consequences. Immediately, restricting food purchases to healthy foods will cause men and women to purchase food at a higher cost and therefore, impact purchasing power. Secondly, SNAP acts a “supplement” to an existing, though limited household income, creating a situation in which another income source will be needed to make up the loss due to the purchase of higher priced foods. It is important to understand who are the men and women who will be impacted by this legislation.
The Obvious Need
The United States Census data reports 13.5% of persons are currently living in poverty. In our state of Arkansas, 19.1% of persons or 568,836 beautiful persons are living in poverty. In a land of material prosperity, men, women, and children are the working poor seeking many times to make decisions between rent and utilities, groceries and medicine. It is a curious thing our legislatures are quick to amend and financially restrict programs which impact the poor and not as quick to limit their own spending power. When was the last time a legislature proposed spending restrictions on its own bureaucracy? I am willing to be corrected. More importantly, who are these men and women?
Angela is a single mother of two. Angela works in the medical field assisting doctors with patients and based on her hourly wage of working forty hours per week Angela qualifies for SNAP. Angela, could take a second job but such an action would not allow her to be home for her children after school hours. So, what would you do?
Carl is a single father of two. Carl spent two years working with DHS to gain custody of his children who experienced a terrible situation of abuse in the home of their biological mother. Carl secured employment at a local car wash and uses SNAP to provide meals for his children. When the weather is bad, Carl does not work. SNAP functions as a necessary resource for his children.
Per the USDA, an Arkansas household receives an average monthly benefit of $252.57 through SNAP. The proposed legislation will impact 214,056 households or 468,904 persons in our state. Open a refrigerator and you will find generic three liter sodas, basic eggs, milk, and close to out of date meat. Take a moment, pull a seat up to the kitchen table of these households and look in the grocery bags of these men and women. You will see knock off Cheerios, potato chips in a yellow bag, and maybe those vanilla cookies that come in the long three rows. These are typically not the goods you will find in Kroger on Salem or Whole Foods on Chenal Parkway. These are men and women who are taking what they have and putting food in their stomachs to make it through the day.
The Responsibility of an Individual and Society
Human beings are participants in a shared reality possessing a common bond because of their personalities of rationality, creativity, and need for affiliation. In other words, we are all brothers and sisters regardless of ethnicity, religion, or economics. As individual human beings, we are the center of responsible action and each of us must live in a manner which extends our individual lives in a moral and ethical manner. Simultaneously we exist alongside other individuals. Individuals mobilize to create a society to maximize individual lives and accomplish a set of goals based on shared values. In the context of a society, the tension between individual needs and societal preservation exists. The individual has the responsibility to act morally alongside his or her neighbor which includes the use of resources. The society acts to serve the individual, especially the weakest, so the society can continue to flourish.
Our society determines to address food insecurity by establishing SNAP and improve an individual’s opportunity to purchase food. The individual in response to such generosity has a moral obligation to use such resources for that expressed purpose. Under the proposed legislation, the representatives of Arkansas identify it is necessary to create amendments to this program and yet the proposed approach does not necessarily address the second objective of obesity reduction through healthy eating. Therefore, what role can the society and individual play in improving the use of SNAP and obesity reduction?
Recommendations to the Legislature, Community, and Individual
In the Gospels, Jesus looks over a mass of men, women, and certainly children which had been following him and listening to his teachings. At one point, a disciple discerns the hunger among the people and Jesus states, “You give them something to eat.” What follows are some improvements which can be made to HB 1035
Therefore, as we discuss this bill in the upcoming legislature let us all remember to seek to participate in a beloved community. In a community in which individuals who are hungry and thirsty experience satisfaction and the community works passionately to act compassionately and steward our resources well.
The incarnation reveals a God willing to see and personally address the variety of sufferings which exist in the human experience. Therefore, as the resurrection influences the people of God to live in the reality of a new creation, we possess the ability to see and act compassionately among ourselves and the citizens of our world.
Worldwide, humanity with all of her variety is experiencing varying degrees of difficulty. Young teenage women in Africa are being kidnapped by military groups such as Boko Haram for marriage. In the Middle East, Christians in the Jordan, Egypt and Syria are kidnapped by ISIS and beheaded for their faith. This past weekend, ISIS chose to extend it's violent influence into the great city of Paris. Populations of persons are struggling under financial debt to create a stable economy for themselves and participate at some level in our global economy.
The tensions in America are great. We are familiar with a variety of shootings from Tennessee to Chicago. Consider in Chicago, on any given weekend some young African American male will lose his life in gun violence. Young children are being killed in the womb and their body parts sold. Families are struggling to find work. The homeless are looked as potential criminals and drug users. The recently incarcerated are released and struggle to find a place to live and secure adequate employment.
In the Church people suffer in silence. Maybe because of some domestic or sexual abuse, or an inability to forgive within the community of faith, men and women grieve on the inside. This past summer people who have communicated grief because they feel as if their voice is not being heard by other Christian brothers and sisters who prefer an earthly Southern heritage over the grief of their brothers and sisters.
The context in which we live is fraught with difficulties. I wonder if our eyes are open to recognize the difficulties people are living in at this present moment. Can we observe with our new eyes the strain people are under? Can I hear beyond the words of "I'm fine," the possibility a person right before me simply needs my presence? When we hear and see someone or some group in difficulty maybe the question we need to ask is, "What will happen to him or her if I do not do something?" instead of the usual question, "What will happen to me if I do something?"
Compassion represents a very human and deep activity which places an individual in the storm of another individual's experience. Compassion is made up of two words, "together" and "to suffer." In essence, I gain knowledge-hearing or seeing-about your situation and this emotion rises out of the depth of my being to propel me to embrace another person in his or her difficulty.
Why should we respond? We should respond on the basis of the recognition of our sameness. Our sameness is rooted in the truth we are image bearers of God. I have either experienced my own suffering or I know at some point a difficulty is on the horizon. Nevertheless, I understand to be alone or to be isolated as a human being when all hell is breaking loose is not how I am supposed to exist.
So, we acknowledge the humanity of another by entering into difficulty. I acknowledge you are there and I acknowledge by my actions you will not be alone. Can we grasp how transformative it becomes when in the middle of my pain, my grieve, my tiredness, someone says, "I see you" and "I am joining you in this moment?"
Compassion Close to Home
Who among us in our city and state are physically and/or emotionally weary? An easy situation involves the work each of are involved in on a daily basis. Husbands. Wives. Students. Lawyers. Childcare workers. Mothers. These are vocations the Lord has empowered us to accomplish to announce his kingdom, bring about healing, and silence darkness. At the same time, we must be able to recognize when those among us are in need to get to a desolate place, rest, and refresh. Our acts of compassion will require us to enter into another person's difficulty and say, "It is time for rest." A more difficult situation involves the use of physical force in order to enter into difficulty of family and friends. An often used statement are phrases such as "turn the other cheek" and " those who live by the sword will die by the sword." These two famous statements of an Ancient Near East Rabbi serve as instruction to gain the hearing of an enemy and an admonish of how a kingdom will be established. I argue what these statement\s do not infer is a pacifist approach in situations in which a family member's life is under severe threat. I enter into the apparent suffering of another individual when I perceive his or her life is threatened. While I may die by the sword the compassion involves me choosing to value life of an innocent individual. Ask any mother or father worth his or her salt as a parent and I believe we will hear words which convey compassion in order to protect his or her offspring.
Second, acts of compassion can not remain among our homogeneous groups or persons we have an affective relationships; compassion must extend to those like us. How much in need are these men and women?
It is here we are having difficulty right now. Our inability to enter compassionately into the lives of "others." It is very disconcerting this past week to see Christians make arguments against compassion. We begin with arguments which implicitly value American citizenry above Christian principle reflective of eternal citizenship. Second, we apply Old Testament text which were given to a covenant people-Israel-expecting a non-covenant government-America-to honor those text. Our American government is not a theocracy and under no obligation to obey those texts. Christians must offer and apply these texts of compassion first and primarily to ourselves. How will Christians who live in America act compassionately within local churches in our individual vocations? More specifically, to those in political office, you have the difficult challenge of executing your duties as an duly elected servant and your Christian principles. Elected officials are part of an entity designed with the purpose of protecting its citizens and use of the sword on evil. Therefore, if you are pro-life in matters of birth, "How does compassion influence your pro-life principles to address the current refugee discussion?" "How does compassion influence your responsibility to execute the sword in order to bring about justice?" To the larger Christian community, we must ask ourselves "Why are we appealing to establish a criteria first to carry out compassion when this is antithetical to the Gospel?"
Christians, Jesus did not cast judgment first when he demonstrated compassion. Jesus extended compassion through instruction for the soul and nourishment for the body. How can we go about living compassionately in our context and live as a prophetic voice which powerfully encourages all to be compassionate abroad?
Finally, I have this fear in one weeks time we will return to business as usual. We will use the immediate situation of Paris and by extension Syrian refugees as ideological footballs to be kicked around for a moment. We will pontificate on Facebook, Twitter, radio programs, and television for a moment, returning to "normal" life when its time to cut turkey and watch football. So I ask myself, do we as Christians truly have a significant grasp of what it means to live compassionately in the Church, America, and World. I am glad you changed your Facebook profile picture to the French flag but then what? When the refugee situation fades into to background there still will exist people in our context-homeless, orphans, abused, and others-still in need of persons who will enter into their suffering.
The Church-the people of God-stand on the other side of the resurrection. We are men and women empowered to see and act with compassion. As God entered into the suffering of humanity and reconciled humanity back to God through the cross, we now enter into the suffering of humanity because Christ has triumphed. He has made us alive because he is alive. Therefore, to live means being active and aware. It means being able to move into situations which are powerfully difficult and situations in which we will not completely understand.
I don't want to suffer alone. I am hoping someone will see me in a storm of emotional, physical, or spiritual distress and say, "I am coming to suffer with you because God in Christ showed compassion and suffered with me."
Let's go people of God. Let us move into difficult human experiences and be present. Let us join with some person, group, or ethnic group who needs to discern the presence of God in us and be his hands, his voice, his ears to act in a way which will have people declare, "I have seen the Lord!"