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ELCA World Hunger

In Memory of Rev. George Johnson


As many of you may already know, Rev. George Johnson, one of the foundational leaders of ELCA World Hunger has died. For seven years (1980-1987) George served as Director of the World Hunger Program for the former American Lutheran Church (now ELCA). Pr. Johnson rooted the then American Lutheran Church’s Hunger program, which would grow into ELCA World Hunger, on a foundation of justice. The ELCA World Hunger staff give thanks to God for his life and his service to the church.

George taught that a sustained life-long commitment to justice must start with one’s worship life. While this may not sound radical at first read, it was a bold statement in his time and is worth taking the time to explore what it means for life in 2020. It can be easy to relegate the work we do towards a just world where all are fed to something that is done outside of Sunday service. It is easy to look at our soup kitchens, meal packing programs, community gardens, job training programs, advocacy work, and more as standalone ministries, not as the central work of the church that flows from the shared songs and prayers of Sunday worship.

For George, creating a just world where all are fed started not with the chopping of vegetables for a soup supper or picking up the phone to call your congressperson, it stated with the songs, teaching, and prayers shared in worship. George’s work and life serve as a reminder of what it means to live into that Sunday promise of justice and carry it out into the world.

So, it is fitting that George’s final work from his very long and prolific life explores various theological understandings of justice that people can use to ground their personal and communal lives of worship in the justice that Christ preached. To celebrate Pr. Johnson’s life and service to ELCA World Hunger, here is an excerpt from the preface to his final book, No Time for Silence:

I HAVE ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. Nothing to brag about, nothing to be ashamed about, and I see no reason to be silent about it. My brain served me well for eighty-five years, but now it has more and more difficulty remembering things.  I decided not to spend the remaining days of my life dwelling on what I have lost. Instead, I want to give people resources that will help them think and act critically in an age of confusion and conflicting voices. While I come from a Christian background, the points in this book pertain to people of all faiths, cultures, races, and genders.  The main premises of Silence Is Not the Answer are for all people to read and act on. I have read widely these past years about theology, politics, and suffering and its root causes. I cannot recall all that I have learned, but I can refer you to authors and spiritual leaders who I believe will challenge your preconceptions and give you hope for the future. One of my favorite authors and theologians at this stage in my life is Marcus J. Borg. His book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary is a masterful portrayal of the historical Jesus and emerging Christianity. He explores the way Jesus resisted the domination system of the Roman empire power of his day. For Borg, both the personal and the political dimensions of Jesus’s message are important for understanding the revolutionary aspects of his life and teaching. I highly recommend Borg’s book if you want to understand who Jesus is for Christians today.

Another theologian I find inspiring is Leonardo Boff, a Roman Catholic priest from Brazil whose speaking out about the suffering of the poor and the death of millions in Latin America made head-line news. Despite attempts by the church to silence Boff because his speech was offensive to the establishment, his message made a difference. Boff’s book When Theology Listens to the Poor is a call for the modern church to create a better option for the poor. He points out how Mark 26:11, “The poor you will always have with you,” is used to support the status quo and creates an attitude of fatalism, pessimism, and cynicism that destroys any hope that things could be different.  However, Boff argues that the true meaning of this verse is that the opportunity to help is always there. Boff reminds us that when Jesus offered a better option for the poor, he was making it clear that God acts to free people from the bondage of poverty and oppression. It is the prophetic task of the church to do the same. Some people may say, “I don’t remember George espousing such progressive positions in his previous writings. Has he changed his mind?” In the past, I sometimes felt that I didn’t have enough information about an issue, that others had good points too, that I  should wait to see what happened and that my voice wouldn’t make a  difference.  But these excuses allowed bad choices to be made that cause suffering for our brothers and sisters.  As Brian McLaren says in his book The Great Spiritual Migration, we are all in the process of development. Sometimes new wine needs new wineskins, as Larry Rasmussen says. I have a certain perspective. My education and life experience have shaped my thinking and analyses. Others will see things differently. I respect that. But as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says, “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.”

We need to read and listen attentively and then speak out for causes that we think are important. John the Baptist is described in the Gospels as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” He calls us to “repent,” wake up and change.  Silence Is Not the Answer is a collection of prophetic voices urging us to wake up, notice what is happening, and take a stand. Our world today is filled with fear, conflict, war, and confusion. I encourage you to read the writers in this book with an open mind and think about their urgent cry. Some points will be made more than once.  Some truths are worth repeating. When I say to my wife, “I love you,” I am glad that Vivian does not say, “George, you already told me that. “When I began putting this book together, my wife said, “With your diminished hearing and eyesight and your memory problems, are you able to tackle another book?” Maybe not, but some things need to be said as we move toward the 2020 elections and beyond. So, with the help of Vivian and a professional editor, I collected some pieces written by myself and others to let our voices be heard and break the silence. If we remain silent, then our leaders and fellow citizens will not wake up and change course.  We must speak up and act now before our society is beyond saving


The Forgotten Luther II – New Book in Series


“When we begin to attend as a community to public issues, we exercise faith practices that embody our understanding of the gospel, witness to the world our public commitments, and communicate a different way of being a church.” – Amy Reumann, Director of ELCA Advocacy

Many people – Lutheran and non-Lutheran – are familiar with Martin Luther’s teachings on civil order and obedience to laws. Fewer folks, though, recall the Luther who admonished preachers to use the pulpit to rebuke rulers for injustice, argued for public support for education of girls and boys, and inspired generations of future Lutherans to stand against political oppression and injustice.

The authors of The Forgotten Luther II: Reclaiming the Church’s Public Witness (Fortress Press, 2019) offer this side of Luther and Lutheran faith to congregations today. Featuring chapters by theologians, pastors and teachers in the ELCA, this second volume in the Forgotten Luther series shares the stories of Lutherans from today and yesterday whose faith moved them into public advocacy and activism – and encourages readers to hear the call of faith to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Carter Lindberg, a contributor to the first Forgotten Luther book, Mary Jane Haemig and Wanda Deifelt deal with issues as diverse as war, education and embodiment, while Amy Reumann, the director of ELCA Advocacy, offers a clarion call to advocacy by congregations, shaped by faith and inspired by the stories of congregations already active in the public square.

Chapters by Kirsi Stjerna and Anthony Bateza recall the dangerous memories of racism and anti-Semitism that have pervaded Lutheran history, sins that have deformed the church’s public witness in history, while offering suggestions for building a more inclusive, just church today.

Together, the authors address critical questions for the church today: When should the church support the state’s agenda? When should it resist? What are the options for critical but constructive cooperation? Their answers are surprising, troubling and inspiring.

Discussion questions accompany each chapter to help guide conversations in education forums, adult Sunday School series and more. Interviews with each of the authors are also available at

Order copies for yourself or your congregation from Fortress Press:

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will go to ELCA World Hunger to support the longstanding work of ELCA Advocacy as part of a holistic and transformative strategy to end hunger.

The Forgotten Luther III symposium is coming! The Forgotten Luther III: Reclaiming a Vision for Global Community will be hosted at Saint Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, October 25-26, 2019. Learn more here. Watch for more updates on the ELCA World Hunger blog!

Building the Good Life for All: A New Book from a Familiar Voice


Many folks passionate about hunger issues are familiar with Shannon Jung’s work. He has written extensively on the topics of food and eating from a faith-based perspective. His books include Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating (2004), Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment (2006), and Hunger and Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing Our Souls (2009). In addition to his perceptive writing on these topics, Dr. Jung is a Presbyterian pastor and professor who has taught at Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.) and Wartburg Theological Seminary (Dubuque, Iowa) as well as Dubuque Seminary and Saint Paul School of Theology. Below, Jung introduces us to his newest book, Building the Good Life for All: Transforming Income Inequality in Our Communities, available this year from Westminster/John Knox.

We hear a lot about the gap between the economically secure and those just getting by. What we wonder is, “How can we transform this gap in our communities?” We know that this is the sort of neighborliness Christ commended. But still the question: How can we build the good life for all?

Sometimes that neighbor is working hard to get by but seems to be falling behind and going further into debt. Many times, a single expense (doctor’s bill, car accident) will shatter a tight budget and force a family to choose between food or medicine or a house payment. “Getting by” can often be a pretty precarious way to live.

We see the devastation that natural disasters can wreak on vulnerable communities. Yet the income inequality we see now can leave communities vulnerable as well – to hunger, poverty, homelessness, and disease. What can we do about this?

In this new book, Building the Good Life for All: Transforming Income Inequality in Our Communities, the focus in on those who are working but find themselves struggling to get by, including those whose income already leaves them living in poverty.

As I contended in Hunger and Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing our Souls, I argue here that our own happiness depends not on the quantity of goods we have stored up, but rather on our efforts to eliminate hunger and to ensure that all have access to the resources for a “good life”. Indeed, our own flourishing is tied into the flourishing of our neighbor. Thus, alleviating suffering and enabling long-term well-being is spiritually uplifting for the receiver, but even more so for the giver.

Building the Good Life for All maintains that our work at enabling all our neighbors to enjoy a good life will enrich our spiritual life. We are interdependent. God creates us like that. Striving to empower all people to have a sufficient and secure life–free from hunger and want–is one step towards recovering what God intended for the world.

This isn’t an attempt to harangue Christians into “doing more.” Instead, the book moves by way of stories from one strategy to another. People and churches are already working to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. They are also engaging in efforts to help people develop skills and abilities that will enable them to feed and clothe themselves. So, what the body of the book contends is that this effort is already underway and that Christians could enrich themselves by joining them or initiating similar efforts in their communities.

The beginning focus is on the specific community of Manatee and Sarasota counties in Florida, but many of the efforts there (advocacy, food pantries, tutoring programs, congregational-based community organizations) have branches around the country. So, the question is, “What fits your community?” There will be other similar efforts in your community. Many of the chapters in the book focus on one of four strategies:

  1. Relief: This is the sort of program that a crisis like a hurricane calls for–feeding the hungry, finding clean water for the thirsty, making sure people are free from illness.
  2. Self-Development: Here, churches can come alongside the working class and poor to assist them to learn English, to learn household management, to develop job skills, to get a job or to get a better job. People are thus able to feed themselves.
  3. Public opinion formation: The church’s hunger ministries are efforts to shape public opinion in such a way as to see hunger as a scandal in the land of the free.
  4. Public policy advocacy: This is the sort of work that ELCA Advocacy does with its partners, including Bread for the World, to influence legislation that will guarantee an income floor for all people and to support the rights of workers. It also includes such efforts as Fight for Fifteen – the movement to raise the minimum wage, and working to make affordable housing more accessible.

I strongly hope this book will be used by adult Christian education groups in churches. Each chapter has a list of discussion questions to spark conversation, and the last chapter encourages churches to develop or extend their own work. It is helpful that the operating assumption is that churches and other organizations are already doing this and the encouragement is to develop efforts that fit one’s own context.

In addition to the discussion questions in the book, there will be a video series to accompany the text, to help facilitate use by congregations.  Building the Good Life for All: Transforming Income Inequality in Our Communities is now available on sale from the Presbyterian Church (USA) store at

Review of Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save

singer-book-791556I just finished reading Peter Singer’s new book, The Life You Can Save. The book is engaging and accessible and argues persuasively not only why we should give but also how much is reasonable for us to give.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 4, which explored six psychological factors in giving. The studies he cites there make intuitive sense–one is less likely to give outside of their own group (parochialism), if they are simply given statistics (by the way, have you perused our Good Gifts Catalog lately?), or if the responsibility is diffuse. Our sense of fairness (who is shouldering the aid load) and the fear that our efforts are futile (expressed recently in Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid) can also inhibit giving.
The study I found most fascinating was the effect money has on helping. Quoting Karl Marx, who described money as “the universal agent of separation,” Singer describes a study in which one group of subjects was primed in various ways to think about money (through word puzzles, visual prompts, and so on) then asked to perform various tasks. A second group did not have the money prompts. The “money group” took longer to ask for help, left a greater distance between chairs when asked to discuss things in a small group, and were more likely to choose solitary leisure activities. At the end of the experiment both groups were asked to donate some of the money they had been paid for their participation. The “money group” gave less. I’m not sure what to do with this, but it is intriguing.
I found other parts of the book worthwhile, particularly his discussion on what we are morally obligated to give (the sliding scale idea sounds more or less right to me; see the book’s accompanying website for a calculator: I also enjoyed chapters six and seven on how to evaluate the effectiveness of an aid organization (it’s difficult to do!). I found his argument against folks like William Easterly and the afroementioned Dambisa Moyo to be compelling as well. How can we say that infusion of aid won’t work when we’ve never really tried it?

On to a few of my problems. First, I think that Singer is far too materialistic in his understanding of “saving” a life (which, by the way, is a phrase I find quite problematic). I finished the book with the impression that, for Singer, saving a life only involves providing food and shelter. The emotional and spiritual health of a person is not considered. This was especially clear when Singer held up as models Paul Farmer and Zell Kravinsky who both strive not to love their own children more than any other child. The emotional health and well being of their children is somewhat immaterial–they have food and shelter so they are set. Singer really had no argument against this, other than it is difficult for typical human beings to live this way. I would argue that especially strong care and affection that one has for his or her own children is both natural and necessary.

All in all I enjoyed the book and encourage you to spend some time with it. For those of you in the Chicago area, a group will gather to discuss the book on June 11 at 7:30pm at United Lutheran Church in Oak Park (409 Greenfield Street). I invite you to join us for what promises to be a lively dialogue!

David Creech