In the fourth chapter of Genesis, Cain kills his brother, Abel. Murder and violence enter the human story. God finds Cain. “Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) Am I my brother’s, my sister’s, my neighbor’s keeper? It is a rhetorical question, not an invitation to debate from scripture’s perspective. The answer is a resounding, “YES!”
It is with that rhetorical question in mind that I read today that debates over funding the government have broken down (again) and the cause is the debate over SNAP benefits to feed the hungry. It seems like the question for these lawmakers is, once again, “Am I my neighbor’s keeper?” And scripture screams, “YES!”
Making the cuts proposed will not balance the budget, save Social Security, or decrease the national debt. The wrong-headed question being asked is whether people deserve the help, deserve to eat, deserve about $4 a day to make ends meet*. The question is asked by people in $1,000 suits, eating gourmet meals and living large. They live under the illusion that all that they have is “deserved.” The truth is that all we have is a gift from God. The wrong-headed question about deserving help is mostly a diversion from “Am I my neighbor’s keeper?”
SNAP and other assistance programs are not about “the welfare mom” who has become an evil meme in our rhetoric about the poor. “SNAP provides important nutritional support for low-paid working families, low-income older adults (60 years and older) and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, and other individuals and households with low incomes. About two-thirds of SNAP participants are in families with children, and over one-third are in households with older adults or people with disabilities.” https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/the-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap
I understand that programs to feed the hungry should abate fraud and encourage recipients of aid to find long-term solutions to the paucity they experience. Even scripture recognizes that fostering dependence may not be wise. Laziness brings on deep sleep; an idle person will suffer hunger. (Proverbs 19:15) I am not being naïve or idealistic about the charge, the command, the calling to feed the hungry. It is, however, a moral imperative and tenant of our faith.
The prophets repeatedly condemn the nation (not just the religious) for ignoring the needy and living with much when others have little. Amos announces the Lord’s judgment and destruction is at hand, “because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5:11-12) On the other hand, Isaiah announces God’s blessing upon the people: “if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:9-10)
Many of the people calling for a cut in SNAP benefits are also those who declare that “America is or should be a Christian nation.” Be careful what you desire friends. To be a Christian nation is, according to scripture, to be your neighbor’s keeper, and to have mercy on those who are in need. God declares, through the prophet Jeremiah, “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you…” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)
If you can’t buy the fact (and it is a divine fact) that we are our neighbor’s keeper, then we can at least look at the benefit to all when the hungry are fed.
“SNAP benefits are one of the fastest, most effective forms of economic stimulus because they get money into the economy quickly… every dollar in SNAP that a low-income family receives enables them to spend an additional dollar on food or other items. According to a 2019 USDA report, every dollar in new SNAP benefits increases GDP by $1.50… CBO and Moody’s Analytics have each found that SNAP has one of the largest “bangs-for-the-buck” (i.e., increase in economic activity and employment per budgetary dollar spent) among a broad range of policies for stimulating growth and creating jobs… https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/the-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap
We spend $1.1 TRILLION on defense, more than the next five countries combined. We spend $160 BILLION on Food and Nutrition Programs, like SNAP. That is 15% of the defense budget. It is but 21% of what we spend on interest payments on debt. Saying that we are addressing excess spending by cutting food programs is disingenuous and the wrong answer to the question, “Am I my neighbor’s keeper?”
Each week we provide food from our food pantry to those who can’t make ends meet, whose children experience hunger in a place of affluence, and who may even receive $4 a day in SNAP benefits. We do so because we are our neighbor’s keeper. We do so because an empty belly speaks louder than vain arguments about who deserves and who does not.
Pax Christi, Tim Olson – Lead Pastor.
* On average, SNAP participants received an estimated $127 per month (or about $4.16 a day) per person in regular SNAP benefits in fiscal year 2021