Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Social justice activists need to kick into high gear

Fran Quigley is an activist with Bread for the World.  This opinion piece originally appeared in the Indianapolis Star. 

The war in Iraq has raged on, despite public opinion polls showing that nearly 70 percent of Americans think we are making a mistake there. Congress recently passed a five-year farm bill that is in large part a protectionist sop to agricultural corporations at the expense of poor farmers around the world.

The U.S. spends twice as much as other industrialized nations on medical care, yet leaves 47 million people without health insurance. The land of the free is now a notorious torturer, and imprisons hundreds of foreign nationals without charges.

Those of us who oppose all of the above have held marches, petitioned Congress and written op-ed columns filled with outrage. But we haven't been able to stop any of it.

If the Indianapolis Colts were on this kind of losing streak, you can bet that the players and coaches would take a long, hard look at their game plan. A look at the game plan of 21st century peace and justice activists shows a gaping hole in our strategy: We lack visible and galvanizing displays of our own commitment.

The iconic social justice campaigns of recent history are the labor movement, the struggle against colonialism, the U.S. civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid effort in South Africa. All were characterized by self-sacrifice. Thousands of people, and not just leaders like Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., went to jail, fasted and even endured beatings and death for the cause. By their suffering, they "melted the stoniest of hearts," just as Gandhi predicted.

Our current activism doesn't measure up. There are inspiring exceptions, including here in Indiana. Last year, Indianapolis grandmother Valerie Fillenwarth went to federal prison for three months to protest the U.S. military's training of vicious Latin American guerrillas at the former School of Americas. Ron and Pam Ferguson, co-pastors of Winchester Friends Church, have instituted an organized fast where the cost of the missed meals is donated to hunger-alleviating ministries, and the participants are urged to advocate for compassionate public policies.

But for most of us, the limits of our commitment have been defined by sending an e-mail to our member of Congress, a check to a favorite not-for-profit, or attending an occasional peace rally. For example, the debate over the recent farm bill caused me to write a few letters and make some quick phone calls to our senators. But the sheer convenience of this kind of advocacy blunts its impact: Members of Congress report receiving as many as 2,500 emails and calls each week on a variety of issues.

Not surprisingly, when my armchair activism was matched against the millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbyist fees spent by corporations, the moneyed interests won the day. Given the life-and-death consequences to the global poor, those of us opposed to the farm bill's protectionism should have picketed the offices of our members of Congress. We should have boycotted the goods sold by corporations that profited the most from crop subsidies. We should have fasted in solidarity with the poor who are being left hungry by this legislation.

It is as if we activists are faced with the challenge to swim across a vast river of indifference and greed, yet we dare only to gingerly wade in up to our ankles. If we want to stop wars and ensure justice for the least among us, it is time to take the plunge.

Quigley is director of operations for the Indiana-Kenya Partnership.


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