Sunday, May 19, 2013

When Faith & Politics Mix: Would Jesus cut food stamps?

Though American society attempts to keep a "wall of separation" between church and state, faith and belief in God exist within many of our political leaders. Divorcing faith and politics cannot be done (though many wish it were so).

As such, squabbles sometimes result over conflicting views about religion. America, in its current form, still has a predominantly Christian flavor (albeit a watered down flavor). The current issue causing friction isn't actually between Christians and the non-religious.

During a debate over Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, members of the House of Representatives took to asking "What would Jesus do?" in reference to cutting federal benefits to the program formerly referred to as 'food stamps'.

So, would Jesus cut food stamps? People (particularly Christians) often have the best intentions in pondering how Jesus would have responded to a given situation. I do believe this: Jesus would not cherry-pick Biblical Scripture to achieve a political gain, and I believe that's precisely what both sides of the SNAP debate attempted to do.

Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher (R-TN) referenced Matthew 26:11, which says "... for you always have the poor with you," a direct statement from Jesus. While the statement is accurate, the context of the verse is discussing how a woman poured an expensive bottle of perfume onto Jesus. Some of his disciples objected because they believed the perfume should have been presented as a gift which then could have been sold, and the proceeds used for the poor.

In the statement about the poor always being with the people, Jesus wasn't denigrating or dismissing help to the poor. Jesus was attempting to demonstrate to his disciples the beauty of what the woman had done. Rep. Fincher was incorrectly using this part of the gospel -- either out of irreverence or a misunderstanding. I don't mean this to disparage Fincher, but I believe he was wrong in his justification.

Fincher also cited 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which says "... for even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either." Again, correct verse, but I'm not so sure about the context, as the apostle Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica, addressing how to treat believers within the church body.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) made Biblically based comments himself, also citing the gospel of Matthew (ironically the tax collector previous to following Christ -- very appropriate for the House). Vargas noted, "Jesus kinda fools around and gives you parables. He doesn't oftentimes say exactly what he means ... But in Matthew 25 he's very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says how you treat the least among us, the least of our brothers, that's how you treat him."

Vargas, like Fincher, accurately reports what the Scripture says, but misrepresents the bigger picture of what Jesus was addressing. Matthew 25 is a chapter that comes on the heels of Jesus blasting the Pharisees for their irreverent nature and desire to exalt themselves above God (along with many other sins). Jesus continues to deliver a message to a crowd and his disciples, of which Matthew 25 is only a part. The path to eternal salvation, according to Jesus Christ, is not determined by one's kind acts toward others. Salvation is achieved only through the grace of God. A follower of Christ would assist the poor, the hurt, or anyone in need -- but to suggest that salvation is connected to one's actions is tantamount to saying one can 'earn' their way into heaven. I can't think of an interpretation of the Bible that would lead anyone to believe this.

Additionally, before any follow of Christ asks what Jesus would do in a given situation, they should carefully examine the complete accounts of what Jesus actually did. Study of what Jesus would do should incorporate looking at the gospels in their entirety, not selecting individual verses that can be twisted as a means to an end.

In addressing what Jesus might say on the issue of SNAP benefits, I can't imagine the specific words. Yet, I think Jesus might respond in a manner he used frequently in the gospels. When questions were posed to Christ where the intention was less than reputable, Jesus answered the question with a question. And, I think it might be possible that Jesus would ask both sides of this debate a few things. Perhaps he would ask, "Why does the church forfeit its responsibilities to the government?"

There is no legalistic requirement to feed the poor, but if the church (as an entire body) truly believes in following Jesus Christ, they ought to be striving to help others, to give generously of what God has given them.

Christianity often spread early on because of the generosity of its members. They took on the responsibility of helping the poor in societies. Such was their undertaking, that it made others genuinely question what would drive people to make sacrifices for others. Following Jesus Christ doesn't mandate sacrifice, but it does compel sacrifice.

Finally, I would add that Jesus answered questions with profound words that typically surprised the questioner. I don't believe Jesus liked when people provided a question with only two possible outcomes. If a person truly believes Jesus Christ is indeed God in the flesh, why would you attempt corner this infinite creator of the universe into a preconceived and finite option about what he would do?

I can't say precisely what Jesus would do in this situation, but I believe both of our major political parties have dropped the ball in helping the poor.

Republicans and Democrats have forgotten to be effective stewards of their resources. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, then we ought to give generously of what has been granted to us. Both parties also seem to be putting the cart before the horse. Instead of attempting to put Jesus on their side, they ought to put themselves on his side.

1 comment:

  1. Frankly I'm sick of politicians quoting scripture to support their political agenda while at the same time dismissing as intolerant and bigoted other teachings of scripture.

    Yes scripture says we have a duty to help the poor. The same Bible also says those who don't work shouldn't eat. Don't hear to many politicians quoting that one.

    the question is so much more complicated than the existence of the program. Abuse and misuse are rampant. The idea of Supplemental Nutrition is a joke when you stop at the convenience store to get an energy drink and candy bar.

    I know people that were unemployed for a while and qualified for snap. as soon as they got it they had so much money pouring in they were buying all their groceries at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Where we live the working class people drive 10 miles to Aldi because they can't afford the Giant Eagle those on SNAP shop at.

    No one ever asks the question what would Jesus think about the abuse in the system.

    In the end I think your right in the idea that Jesus would ask why we have rendered unto Caesar what he left to us.