A Lenten Meditation: 'This I Believe'
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On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during Lent, we offer reflections from Bread staff and others who faithfully work to end hunger.
Lectionary readings (from the Revised Common Lectionary):
[This Lenten reflection is taken from a meditation offered to First Presbyterian Church of Cedar Rapids, IA.]
Many Americans assume that the “separation of church and state” means that religious organizations should not attempt to influence government policy. But I believe that both American history and the Bible strongly challenge this assumption, and a vital part of my Christian witness involves efforts to influence public policy on issues like hunger and the environment.
There are abundant examples of such action in American history, and in the history of this congregation. Before the founding of this nation, colonial clergy were a major force in arousing the spirit of independence, and churches of nearly every major persuasion joined in the battle for independence. In the 19th century, churches were at the forefront in the struggle to abolish slavery and clergy provided an estimated two-thirds of the leadership. Several of the charter members of my congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Cedar Rapids, IA, including Alexander and Mary Weare Ely, were active abolitionists. More recently, churches and synagogues were at the center of the civil rights movement. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey often stated that the Civil Rights Act would never have passed without the energetic, well-organized, and courageous support of religious groups, both black and white. And our senior pastor in the 1960s, Dr. Francis Pritchard, and numerous members of our congregation publicly supported that legislation.
Today, many congregations in our city provide programs and services for poor persons in our community, and we can be proud of First Presbyterian’s leadership on issues like food distribution and refugee resettlement. And yet, the U.S. government can do some things on a scale that charities cannot. Ronald Sider, the head of Evangelicals for Social Action, has stated, “If religious congregations were to try to replace the federal government’s support for just the most basic programs for the poor, such as SNAP [formerly food stamps], each one of the 325,000 religious congregations in America would have to raise more than a million dollars a year to provide comparable assistance to the needy.”
The biblical mandate that we care for the poor appears more than 2,000 times throughout the Scriptures, both in the works of the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus’ ministry to “the least of these” and his admonition that we are to serve him by doing likewise. As Ronald Sider again states, “God judges societies by what they do to the people at the bottom. One thing is crystal clear from the biblical texts: God and God’s faithful people have a great concern for the poor.” For me, that concern must take the form of political action, as well as support for private charity.
Al Fisher is a sociology professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA, and an active member of Bread for the World.
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