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Rev. Dan De Leon on Food Security and SNAP Cuts

Note: This post was originally sent by Rev. Dan De Leon, Senior Pastor of Friends Congregational Church in College Station, to church members.

When it comes to the core values of Christianity—love of God and neighbor, loving others as Christ loves us—some of the particulars of how we live out those values are a snap to understand.  God charges us to care for the widow, the orphaned child, the stranger, and those pushed to the margins of society at the hands of institutional powers that oppress them.  And Jesus, who came to bring good news to the poor, instructs us to practice sacrificial love, and to strive for the greatest form of love that comes with laying down our lives for our friends.

Speaking of those top priorities about our faith values that should be a snap for us to appreciate and act upon, did you know that tomorrow the U.S. Congress is expected to take up a bill that, if passed, would cut $40 billion from SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program) over 10 years?  Did you know that these cuts would result in 3.8 million people losing their SNAP benefits in 2014, a vast majority of whom work or are children, disabled, or elderly?  This means that, for example, someone who does not have enough money for groceries each month, who relies on SNAP for supplemental money to buy those groceries, would suddenly not have that meager amount of money, and therefore would depend on their local food pantry for food (which they already depend upon month-to-month, but SNAP keeps them from going to the food pantry until they are forced to at the end of the month when their supplemental money runs out). 

When viewed through the lens of our faith that instructs us to feed the hungry, help the poor, and advocate for the oppressed, it appears to be a no brainer that we should contact our representatives and urge them to vote ‘no’ when this bill is taken up.  It should be a snap.

However, did you know that some of the people who take advantage of SNAP benefits are deadbeats?  National Public Radio reported this morning that a video has been circulating among lawmakers in an effort to get them to approve the cuts to food assistance.  In the video, an unemployed man named Jason uses his SNAP card to purchase lobster and sushi.  Jason is a San Diego surfer dude who is portrayed as taking advantage of a program to purchase luxuries that he does not deserve.  Apparently there is even a political term given to this caricature of food assistance recipients: “welfare queens.”  If I look at Jason as an unemployed, undeserving, deadbeat welfare queen, then my faith-informed urgency to feed the hungry, help the poor, and advocate for the oppressed isn’t such a snap.

But what if we look deeper?  Peel back the layers of what is simplest for us to understand about our faith, and we find deeper remembrance.  We remember that our God provided God’s beloved people with quail raining from the sky and manna covering the ground to fill their bellies when their time in the wilderness was at its most desperate.  And remembering these holy provisions, we remember that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, came into the world that we all would “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). 

Remembrance advises me that it is not my place to withhold even an ounce of God’s extravagant provisions or Christ’s abundant love from anyone, including my neighbor, the alleged welfare queen.  Remembrance instructs me that to withhold is to assume the role of God, but to give, to help, to share is to embrace the identity of being God’s child and the humbleness of being Christ’s friend.  Remembrance further guides me to see my neighbor likewise: as a friend.

So, what if we stopped calling Jason a welfare queen?  What if we stopped looking at him as an undeserving deadbeat?  What if, instead, we called Jason a friend, that in calling him a friend the scales might fall from our eyes that otherwise see him and all of our neighbors as equally beloved children of God and equally cherished friends of Jesus?  Taking action that would provide for all of our neighbors, regardless of who they are or where they come from, would be a snap.

In a world of abundance, where there is more than enough food to go around, our faith cannot afford to be hamstrung on the character assassinations of a few at the expense of all of our neighbors.  Understanding the Jasons of the world as undeserving welfare queens not only dehumanizes them, it overshadows countless others in need of food by the severity of our judgments, thereby silencing their voices and oppressing them further.  We are called to feed the hungry, yes, but we are first required to understand one another as friends.  Such a discipline removes our temptation to play God and empowers us instead to share the provisions of our Creator with one another equally and abundantly.

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