A Tennessee congressman cited the Bible to justify cutting food stamps for the poor while he has accepted millions of dollars in farm subsidies from the federal government.
According to press reports and C-Span video, here’s what happened.
When the agriculture committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was holding hearings on the farm bill, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) voiced opposition to reducing food stamps – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Vargas, a Catholic, cited Matthew 25.
“Many of us who follow Jesus, who say that openly, and I certainly do, often times read the Bible. And Jesus kind of fools around and gives you parables. He doesn’t often times say exactly what he means. But in Matthew 25, it is very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes, what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven,” said Vargas.
“And he says how you treat the least among us, the least of our brothers, that’s how you treat him. And interestingly, the very first thing he says, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me to eat.’ The first thing, right off the bat … For those of you who do follow Jesus, as I do, I hope you will go back and read that,” said the congressman.
“Mr. Vargas, I, too, am a follower of Christ. Jesus Christ is my personal savior. I read Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual. I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. So I take a little bit of umbrage with you on that,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a Southern Baptist, in an irenic tone.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) responded to Vargas.
“Being a Christian, as am I, Mr. Vargas, the Bible says lots of things … Matthew 26:11 — ‘the poor will always be with us.’ And then I looked at 2 Thessalonians 3:10 … ‘the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’ So we have to be careful how we pick and choose verses out of the Bible,” said Fincher, who identifies himself as “active in Archer’s Chapel Methodist Church,” a United Methodist congregation in Halls, Tenn.
“Jesus made it very clear that we have a duty and an obligation as Christians and citizens of this country to take care of each other,” he said, suggesting an individualistic approach to following Jesus’ teaching on care for the poor.
The exchange over the interpretation of Matthew 25 is an old one. I’ve heard it for close to 30 years. Does it speak to only the individual? Or does it speak to society, to government?
For generations, Christians have debated whether Jesus’ moral teachings are personal or public, private or social.
What is almost always missing is recognition of how Jesus began this Matthew 25 parable about separating the goats and the sheep, those who are unfaithful and those who are faithful.
Jesus began by saying before the Son of Man’s throne “will be gathered all the nations” (Matthew 25:32). He did not say individuals. He said nations.
The passage is about how a society treats the hungry, the thirsty, the undocumented, the impoverished, the ill and the imprisoned.
Nations are composed of individuals. So, yes, individuals are to be held accountable. But individual accountability doesn’t negate social responsibility. Nations are judged by how they treat the least of these.
Nonetheless, the problem with citing the Bible for the right and the left is the temptation to act as if a straight line exists from a biblical text to current public policy.
The Bible doesn’t offer us a blueprint for American public policy. The Bible offers us a moral compass. Our responsibility is to follow the compass and work out the details on the journey.
The problem with Fincher’s position is that he favors reducing federal spending for the poor, but favors federal spending for himself.
“Fincher has received $3.48 million in federal farm subsidies since 1999, according to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group that annually obtains figures from the Agriculture Department,” reported the Jackson Sun. “In 2012, he received $70,574.”
The paper said, “He ranks first among current members of Congress in receipt of such money.”
A New York Times commentator compared what the federal government provided to food stamp recipients with what it provided to Fincher: “The average SNAP recipient in Tennessee gets $132.20 in food aid a month; Fincher received $193 a day.”
A Forbes magazine columnist noted, “Fincher’s $70,000 farm subsidy haul in 2012 dwarfs the average 2012 SNAP benefit in Tennessee of $1,586.40, and it is nearly double of Tennessee’s median household income. After voting to cut SNAP by more than $20 billion, Fincher joined his colleagues to support a proposal to expand crop insurance subsidies by $9 billion over the next 10 years.”
One wonders why Fincher feels comfortable suggesting that government aid to the poor apparently violates biblical teaching. Yet he offers no biblical citation for government aid to the wealthy.
Let’s read the Bible and seek to apply the teachings of Jesus in the public square. And let’s make sure we protect the poor before we feather our own nests.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.