Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
The head of one of America's most influential hunger ministries has urged Christians to become advocates for the nation's poor and hungry against a backdrop of proposed cuts in federal and state programs that would harm disadvantaged people, especially children.
While other Christian groups were announcing separate campaigns against proposed federal budget cuts, the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and its think-tank, Bread for the World Institute, confronted a capacity crowd of some 800 civic and religious leaders March 3 in Dallas, TX, during a prayer breakfast on behalf of CitySquare. Formerly Central Dallas Ministries, CitySquare is considered one of the country's leading urban ministries helping low-income people to solve their own life problems including hunger, housing and jobs.
Co-winner along with Jo Luck of Heifer International of the 2010 World Food Prize, Beckmann told the audience – many of whom appeared uncomfortable at his speech -- that it was time for them to lobby congressional and state officials not to balance government budgets on the backs of the nation's most vulnerable citizens.
An ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Beckmann said he had recently returned from Bangladesh, where he and his wife were missionaries in 1976. There he found the people they had served were still poor, but not nearly as poor as they'd been 35 years ago.
"The world as a whole has made dramatic progress over hunger, poverty and disease in the past 35 years," said Beckmann. "Personally, I think this shows God at work in our history."
In contrast, he added, not only has the United States not reduced hunger and poverty during the same period, the percentage of people living below the poverty line and facing hunger or food insecurity has risen in America since 1976.
"Not since President [Lyndon] Johnson has any U.S. president made reducing poverty a priority," Beckmann said. "Because of Johnson's programs, the United States cut poverty in half in the late 1960s and early '70s."
The Bread for the World executive characterized the current Republican push to cut federal spending as both "bad morality" and poor economics. Instead of focusing solely on cutting discretionary spending that harms the most vulnerable, he said, Congress should be trimming defense spending, enforcing greater taxes on the rich and fostering public programs that encourage economic growth.
"We must change the politics of hunger, " Beckmann insisted. "It's time for us to get more serious about reducing poverty."
He cited two recent examples that he said showed how the right kind of federal spending can cut down on poverty and hunger: the Child Nutrition Act and tax credits for the working poor, both passed by Congress in December.
Beckmann said the Child Nutrition Act will put "more good food" into the homes of children over the next 10 years, while tax cuts for the working poor "will keep 1 million children out of poverty."
"The tax bill alone will do twice as much for poor people as all the charities in the country combined," he asserted.
In order to focus national attention on poverty and hunger, individual Christians and congregations must become more involved in electoral politics, including helping to elect candidates from all political parties who care about reducing poverty, Beckmann urged.
"The God of the Bible is a God of justice for the poor," Beckmann told the audience. "God consistently tells nations: Do right by the poor!"
After the event, Beckman once again cited CitySquare as a leader in advocating justice for the poor, since the organization regularly lobbies the Dallas City Council and the Texas Legislature for public policies that will help and not harm low-income people.
Beckmann also told The Progressive Christian he recommended that individual Christians and congregations focus this spring on two national economic issues:
The Rev. Larry James, president of CitySquare, echoed Beckmann's community-oriented approach. After the event, James told The Progressive Christian that his organization never refers to those it helps as "clients," but always as "neighbors," while donors are "partners," not "benefactors."
"Language matters," James said. "Our language shows our understanding that we're all in this together."
While David Beckmann was speaking in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, groups of Christians across the theological spectrum were objecting to Republican proposals to cut discretionary spending in domestic programs, foreign aid to governments struggling with HIV/AIDS, health care and energyby $60 billion (click here for a list of proposed cuts compiled by Bread for the World).
The National Council of Churches issued a statement March 1 opposing the spending cuts. Sixteen national church leaders sent a letter to congressional members in which they called proposed cuts "unprecedented and dangerous." The religious leaders contend that the reductions will "jeopardize the lives and well-being of millions now and into the future."
The Rev. Michael Livingston, director of the National Council of Churches' poverty initiative, said the letter showed religious leaders' emphatic agreement that the budget must not be balanced on the backs of most vulnerable citizens, or secure more benefits for the richest citizens.
"We'll be listening with special interest to the discussion on revenue -- that is, taxes," Livingston said. "In the lame-duck session before Christmas, tax breaks benefiting the rich, including changes in the Estate Tax, added nearly $140 billion to the deficit. That is simply unconscionable, especially when some members of Congress are proposing cuts in programs that benefit persons living below the poverty line."
Meanwhile, two evangelical organizations also went on record opposing the GOP budget cutbacks proposal.
A coalition of progressive evangelical leaders led by Sojourners president the Rev. Jim Wallis unveiled a campaign called "What Would Jesus Cut?" on Feb. 28. The group is sending e-mails and orange wristlets with its slogan to all members of Congress in an effort to prevent cuts harming the poor, according to an article by David Gibson on Politics Daily.
A few days later, another more conservative group that also includes Wallis issued a statement titled “Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” reported Alicia Cohn on Christianity Today. The full statement is available at EvangelicalsforSocialAction.org and The Center for Public Justice.
“From a fiscal perspective, cuts in global health programs are insignificant; from a moral and humanitarian perspective, they would be tragic,” said Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George Bush and current Washington Post columnist. Gerson particular criticized cuts to PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) that was a signature achievement of Bush's administration.
According to the Christianity Today article, Gerson acknowledged that evangelicals disagree on the details of where the federal budget should be cut. However, he said, “There is broadly shared agreement that a focus on cutting effective discretionary programs is a seriously misplaced priority.”