When a living legend in faith-based activism for social justice speaks, we should listen. When he writes a 225-page book bringing to bear more than a half-century of wisdom about the enduring challenge of economic inequality, we should read it.
Back in 1972, Rev. Arthur Simon convened a small group of Catholics and Protestants to form what would become the powerhouse anti-hunger advocacy organization Bread for the World. Bread’s mission then and now is to raise up faith voices advocating for a larger, wiser governmental response to poverty. It’s a mission that shines though in Simon’s latest book, Silence Can Kill: Speaking Up to End Hunger and Make Our Economy Work for Everyone (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing).
Simon’s early 1970’s experience as a Lutheran pastor in the Lower East Side of New York City exposed him to grinding domestic poverty, of which hunger is one but certainly not the only symptom. The response he and other Christians settled on was not another food pantry or soup kitchen, but instead what Simon calls a “citizen’s lobby” against hunger. “Why a citizens’ lobby?” he writes. “Because conveying our views to government leaders is a way in which each of us can help the entire nation deal more effectively with hunger as well as the poverty that lies behind it.”
One of the core messages of Silence Can Kill is uncontroversial enough: hunger is bad, and we should end it. Specifically, Simon endorses both the intent and feasibility of the Sustainable Development Goals aim to end poverty by 2030. He spends much of the book making the case for the value of ending hunger and economic inequality, and sharing the proven approaches for doing so.
When Simon turns his attention specifically to people of faith, his message becomes more challenging. Because, when it comes to the goal of ending hunger and dramatically reducing poverty, we have a charity problem.
Charity is Limited, the Government is Not
Simon is all for donations and philanthropic outreach, of course. And he points out that individual church-goers and faith institutions do far more than our fair share of both. But, it turns out, too many of us are too comfortable with the warm feeling we get when we write a check to a non-profit organization or ladle out a bowl on a soup line. White Christians may be more likely to support charitable programs than our secular counterparts, but they are also less likely to support government programs that alleviate poverty.
The two attitudes are interrelated, Simon writes, citing the sociologist Janet Poppendiek’s description of a “moral safety valve” where charitable acts relieve the pressure for a systemic solution to poverty. “People are led to think that the role of charity is far more consequential than the role of government in addressing hunger, when the opposite is the case by a wide margin,” Simon writes, citing the decades of data that back him up. Perhaps even more concerning, Christians are more likely than our secular counterparts to blame poverty on individual failings.
That self-satisfied, judgmental explanation for the poverty that engulfs one in eight Americans may feel good to the lucky seven who are not currently struggling. But it ignores the well-demonstrated structural weight of racism and generations of U.S. policies that have increased inequality rather than alleviated it. Blaming the victim, along with elevating charity over justice, Simon argues, fly in the face of the lessons handed to us from the Old Testament prophets, the Gospels, and generations of Christian leaders.
It is also a lousy way to address hunger and poverty. Even if we could somehow put a soup kitchen on every corner, there are plenty of data to show that the SNAP (Food Stamps) program, health insurance, housing assistance, and efforts to ensure living wages all have exponentially more impact in reducing poverty. Simon cites that data to make his case in Silence Can Kill, but he invokes our common sense, too.
“Our ability to show compassion to others in a direct, person-to-person way is quite limited,” he writes, “Charity is limited in both the extent of its reach and its authority. The government, however, has the authority and the responsibility of ensuring public justice, and in our ‘government of the people,’ citizens are responsible for holding government leaders accountable for that.”
When we accept this challenge and raise our voices to demand our government provide justice for the poor, we can make a life-saving impact. Bread for the World and a multitude of other advocacy campaigns have proven that. But when we choose to press the mute button on our democratic expression, Arthur Simon reminds us, our silence can and does kill.
Faith and Healthcare Notes
Public Healthcare Dollars Fueling Billions in Private Corporate Profit. UnitedHealth Group reported a $13.8 billion profit on $242 billion of revenue in the full-year 2019, fueled in significant part from adding 325,000 people to its plans funded by Medicare Advantage—i.e. taxpayer, government—dollars.
The American College of Physicians Endorses Universal Coverage. The major doctor organization last week said the U.S. healthcare system “is ill and needs a bold new prescription,” and publicly supported either single-payer or public option reforms.
More Americans Delaying Care Because of Cost. New Gallup Poll: A third of U.S. adults say their family couldn't afford care in past year. One in four say care was deferred for a serious medical condition.