The start to my ordained ministry was a rough ride. I chose to go to a parish that was experiencing significant conflict, which ended up with the departure of a number of members. When they left, of course, they took their pledges with them, leaving us to figure out how to construct a budget that was $600,000 lower than it had been the year before.
This parish had a tradition of extraordinary generosity toward to the poor, and in keeping with that tradition, they chose not to take the “easy cut” and eliminate all funding for outreach, even though that decision would mean severe cuts to the programs and staff which our members counted on. However, we could not give the amount we had given in years past, which is how I came to be writing to forty of the agencies we traditionally supported and explaining to them that we could not support them this year. We had chosen our recipients with great care, electing to allocate continued funding where we believed it would do the most good, but as I signed all those letters, I knew that each stroke of my pen was causing hardship: fewer beds at the homeless shelter; fewer crayons at a preschool; less food at a soup kitchen. Someone might even die from what I was doing that day. I had thought that kind of decision was for generals, not for clergy. At the end of signing them, I broke down weeping and went home. It was the only time in my ordained ministry that I have been that broken.
This week, House of Representatives decided to eliminate forty billion dollars from the food stamp program (whose real name is SNAP) over the next ten years. That’s a whole lot more than I was forced to cut, and it’s aimed at the very people Jesus told us to cherish. There is only one passage in Scripture in which Jesus discusses the Day of Judgment in any detail, and he lays out only one criterion: “as you have done it to the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it to me.”
Many years ago, a philosopher named Hannah Arendt coined a term that describes how harm is done in the modern world; she spoke of “the banality of evil.” It means that, today, people do not need to have malicious intentions to do great harm. Because any significant action in our world generally requires the conjoined efforts of a lot of people, each of whom sees only a small piece of the task, it can be hard for people to realize the cumulative consequences of their actions. We don’t need to be cruel; we need only to be indifferent.
I find Arendt’s insight both unsettling and true. It would be comforting to be able to think of evil in cartoon images: Satan in a bright red suit, colorful villains out of James Bond movies or Pink Panther films, great men and women striding across the world stage making flamboyant speeches and doing extravagant deeds. The truth is both less colorful and less reassuring. We have reached a time in which good people can do immense harm simply by keeping their focus on the small tasks they are given without lifting their heads to see the big picture, the lives they will damage, the health they will stunt, the hope they will destroy.
Here in Washington, DC, the average SNAP benefit in 2012 was $137 per person per month. Across the country, it is $133, which works out to $4.43 per day or $1596 per year. 86% of that money goes to households containing a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. Based on those figures, the cuts that the house just passed will mean de-funding 2.5 million people completely, or cutting the allowance for many millions more. This is as harmful a decision as I have seen the leadership of our country make in my lifetime.
Let me be clear. I would love to see participation in SNAP shrink to pre-recession levels. I would love to see it go away entirely. But I think the way to get there is to help create jobs that pay enough for people to support their families in a way that does not force them to choose between being able to feed their children and being able to give their children an antibiotic when the kids are sick. We saw a lot of that in my last parish: long lines of people with two jobs each who still could not make ends meet. Taking away their food, when there is not enough work to go around, is not a solution.
Underneath all the rhetoric, there is a fundamental question under discussion: What does it mean to be citizens who share a country and a community? Are we simply people placed in proximity to one another by accident, or do we owe one another a minimum level of care? If the latter, what should that care be? There are a wide range of thoughtful opinions on those questions, but only some of those responses are consistent with the witness of Scripture. From the earliest days of Israel, God conditioned God’s continuing love for God’s people on our care of the widow and the orphan — on those who were utterly without family or without resources of their own. Jesus did not alter that teaching, but embodied it, living among the poor, eating with sinners, dying among the outcast, and commanding his followers, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Love, here, is a verb.
In the end, it’s about the kind of community we want to inhabit: a place like the town in which I grew up, in which we could walk the streets in safety and laugh with our fellow Americans and dream big dreams, or a place like a city I inhabited later, where the street-corners were littered with people who were begging for food and people walked by one another in silence and the dreams of half our children withered unrealized.
The choice is in our hands.
Tell your legislators and the president that this is unacceptable, or phone and let them know that you support this decision. (I know that many of you who are reading this, and whom I love, will disagree with me on this issue.) But whatever you believe on this one, say it to those who make the decisions. Take a side. We owe God’s children at least that much. Indifference is what kills the heart.