"Is this not the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard...
...if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light arise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
~Isaiah 58:6-8, 10
Here is a favorite Biblical theme of my generation: the burden of God that structural injustice be done away with, and personal compassion for the poor and oppressed take its place. When followers of God play a part in making these things happen, we are effective in providing glimpses of the happily-ever-after. As Americans, we are blessed with a political structure concerned with the rights of each person and so are not always exposed directly to structural injustice. We have much freedom to exercise personal compassion in a capitalist system. And believers in Christ have responded and are responding to poverty and oppression in ways that reflect the love and concern of a compassionate God. Among the untouchable castes in India, in the dark world of sex trafficing in the U.S. and abroad, and in the midst of the AIDS crisis that grips whole regions of the world.
An issue that has gotten big press in the past year has been the world food crisis, as people in places like Haiti and Ethiopia have become unable to get basic food staples due to rising food prices worldwide combined with regional crop failures or political turmoil. The oil and food prices that caused Americans the inconveniences of having to take shorter vacations, eat out less, and maybe buy fewer ipods caused men to go down to one meal a day and women and children to even less in many parts of the world. Direct giving to one of the dozens of Christian organizations working on these problems should be an automatic response for believers blessed with affluence. Even if it seems that there's nothing to spare in our own tightened budgets, we could do something as simple as eating rice for a week (like many of our brothers and sisters do on a regular basis) and appropriating the rest of our normally budgeted grocery money to help churches in underdeveloped countries feed their poor.
But what about structures and policies that exacerbate the problem? In an election year, how do we look for policies that help the global poor? There is a strong consensus among international agencies that agricultural subsidies in the Western world hurt farmers and consumers in developing countries. The most prominent example of this recently has been ethanol subsidies. Because the U.S. chose to subsidize corn crops for ethanol, grain prices became linked with fuel prices, and as fuel prices went up, so did food prices. For the sake of U.S. energy independence and dubious claims of environmental benefit, we enacted policies that hurt the poor.
As President Bush pushed for increased levels of food aid in response to the crisis, another little problem arises: U.S. laws require that any food aid sent overseas be U.S.-grown crops. This means the food-aid dollars don't go nearly as far because of transportation costs. Bush asked for a portion of the food aid to be in cash, but congress did not approve this.
Add this to the agricultural subsidies that the U.S. and Western European nations have been giving for years that raise food prices andmake it harder for farmers in developing countries to export cash crops to the Western world, and we have something that requires a thoughtful response on our part. Has our nationalism gotten in the way of our concern for the poor? Are we sacrificing the emaciated bodies of starving children on the altar of fuel independence and "stopping climate change"? Are we tilting the economic playing field in favor of American farmers at the cost of pricing the worldwide poor out of the market for the necessities of daily life? I hesitate to recommend specific policies beause politics and economics are so complicated and interrelated, but this is one that seems pretty clear. Humans, created in God's image, are a higher concern than national security (if you're a political conservative) or the potentialities of global climate change (if you're a political liberal). Nationalistic economic selfishness must give way to structures that do not make life more difficult for the poor. Where do your candidates stand on subsidies?