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Monday, Dec 02 2013 11:00 PM

TIM VIVIAN: Saints help feed the hungry; rebels ask why they're hungry

Early Thanksgiving morning I was blessed to be one of the hundreds of people assembling Thanksgiving dinners in the Costco parking lot on Rosedale Highway. We were taking part in Love for Thanksgiving, an annual program supported by many Bakersfield churches to provide Thanksgiving dinners to those in need.

But as I worked and watched the joyous mayhem, I couldn't help but wonder: How many of the good people doing good there supported Rep. Kevin McCarthy's and Congress' vote to cut off or curtail food stamps for 23 million of their fellow citizens, vastly more people than we could feed on Thanksgiving?

As this paper recently documented ("Already struggling families making do with less," Nov. 30), "despite the improving economy and national news reports calling Bakersfield a 'boomtown' because of its population and job growth, food stamp usage is up, not down, this year. ... Already through September of this year, 4,640 more Kern County residents used food stamps -- called CalFresh in California -- than in all of 2012. Twice as many local people have received food stamps this year than a decade ago. Those folks are now getting about 5 percent less a month in CalFresh benefits."

This past Thanksgiving morning I also thought of Martin Luther King Jr., one of many brave and prophetic persons in the 1960s who pointed out the direct connection between America's militarism and the poverty, illiteracy and homelessness that wracks millions of its citizens. How many of us at Costco, I wondered, have ever really thought about the costs, the real costs, of war? How many of us supported, and still support, our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? (Polls showed that Evangelical Christians were one of the groups most strongly supporting the war in Iraq.) How many know that we -- we -- killed or caused perhaps a million people to die during our immoral invasion of Iraq?

Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Câmara once observed that "When I give food to the poor, I'm called a saint. When I ask why they are poor, I'm called a Communist." Feeding the hungry -- thus feeling good about ourselves -- without questioning the principalities and powers in America that are daily enriching the rich, impoverishing those already poor, emaciating the middle class, and finding endless wars to wage is putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. How blessed it is when we can say "When I ask why the poor are poor, I'm called a Christian."

When Jesus tells his disciples that "it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven," he's not talking about heaven-by-and-by but God's reality and presence here and now (Matthew 19:23-25). As he says elsewhere, "You cannot serve God and Wealth" (Matthew 6:24). The disciples' response is ours: "Then who can be saved?" They, like us, have so deeply internalized the values that wealth and power dictate that they cannot imagine life -- or even God -- free from what is now capitalist, corporate, and militarist suzerainty.

The great 20th-century contemplative and activist Thomas Merton observed that "we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been." Merton urges Christians to cultivate "loving attention to the presence of God." But such attention, he emphasizes, is not self-centered and solipsistic: "inner awareness and openness makes us especially sensitive to the urgent needs of the time." What can be more urgent than diagnosing and healing, with love, the causes of poverty and hunger?

I began this essay by saying that I was blessed to be at Costco on Thanksgiving morning, and I was. Feeling blessed can remind us of those whom Jesus calls blessed: the poor, the hungry -- and those who hunger and thirst for justice and peace. But Jesus, no wimp, is realist enough to also bless those who are persecuted while striving for justice (Matthew 5:10). That is a blessing that comes without turkey and all the trimmings, but it is food that can feed thousands upon thousands.

Tim Vivian is priest-in-charge at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.

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