As I was looking through recent posts and comments I realized that I have been speaking about hunger and poverty very much in terms of personal decisions. Several of you in the comments rightly pushed back that systems and structures cannot be neglected–they often dictate the options that are presented to us. Moreover, our individual choices can only be as efficacious as the system allows. I can turn off lights when I leave the room, but what about the carbon and particulate emission and when I need to turn the lights on? I can support good work in Bangladesh, but the ~$487 million in annual tariffs that the U.S. imposes is really the bigger problem. I can support migrant worker rights, but that won’t fix our fundamentally flawed food and trade policies with Mexico. (Maybe you have a better example you would like to share in the comments…)
Here is the rub, and I mentioned this in comments on an earlier post, I am not convinced how well equipped the church (where I have most influence) is to address the systemic issues that perpetuate and exacerbate hunger and poverty. Some limiting factors:
1) There is no clear agreement on what the church should be. Theologians may make proposals, and I have made a few assertions (that are very convincing, if I do say so myself), but pastors and congregants ultimately define the direction of their congregation (this seems to me to be in line with the two most recent social statements released by the ELCA where the “bound conscience” of individuals, congregations, and synods play a large role in moral discernment). People participate in churches for personal solace, for community, for family programs, because they always have, etc. The church has become a place where individual piety and preference play an ever increasing role. Why this may be so is a topic for another day.
2) The church itself is a part of the system. The church often benefits from the same structures that keep people impoverished. My pension depends on companies performing well. Large gifts to the ELCA generally come from those who are beneficiaries of the system. Those of us employed by the church best not bite the metaphorical hand.
3) Related to points 1 and 2, the church creates its own system. Like any institution, the church exists to a certain degree for itself.
In light of these limitations, what can the church do? First, I think it is important (essential even) that the church be engaged in anti-hunger work. It is part of our identity and key to our public witness. Second, and related, we do have texts and traditions that present alternatives to the current system. We need to continue to lift these up and remind people (especially those who identify as Christian) of God’s vision for humanity. Third, I am convinced that the church is uniquely situated within the system to provide real relief and development. We are nimble, low to the ground, and work out of longstanding partnerships. Our accompaniment methodology is sound.
I’ve given you my thoughts, what are yours? Where is my thinking limited? How would you frame the issue? Let’s talk! (Oh, and happy holidays 🙂 )
– David Creech