We in the United States care for hungry people in many ways. As individuals and in civic, campus and church groups, we contribute food and funds to alleviate the symptoms of hunger and poverty in the United States and in other nations. This aid, often termed charity, is good and absolutely necessary. But often the problems leading to hunger and poverty are massive and the causes are structural.
Governments can play a major role in both causing and resolving these problems that affect billions of vulnerable people in our world. Those committed to reducing hunger and poverty must encourage our nation’s leaders to adopt policy changes and adequate funding levels for programs that both respond to immediate hunger needs and address the structural issues that keep people in poverty in the United States and around the world. Americans are generous people. When disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Asian tsunami strike, we open our hearts and pocket books and give liberally. We also have the right and the responsibility to use our voices to promote public justice and tackle the root causes of hunger and poverty.
Why should people of faith engage in advocacy? God calls us to love and care for our neighbors, and biblical prophets such as Micah urge us to imagine and also do justice. We speak up for those who are hungry and oppressed just as Moses spoke to the powers of his day. Jesus and his disciples challenged religious and political authorities to provide for those on the margins of society.
Throughout history, people of faith have served as critic and conscience of their nations’ leaders. Today, advocating for public policy change continues that essential prophetic task. Some may worry that engagement in the political arena blurs the distinction between church and state. In fact, government action is not the only mechanism to deal with hunger and poverty. When people of faith organize to advocate for hungry and oppressed people, we draw clear distinctions between the two. Individuals in the church say to government leaders, “We are concerned about the people and things that matter to God and will hold you accountable for government’s role in addressing those concerns.” Always working for legislation in a bipartisan, balanced way allows people of faith to speak out across party, ideology and faith tradition lines, and has been effective in improving policies enacted in Washington.
Government action is not the only mechanism to deal with hunger and poverty, but charitable responses, however vital and compassionate, seldom result in lasting, structural change. Our advocacy – speaking out boldly with and for our neighbors who are hungry and living in poverty – is urgently needed in these times and embodies the vision of God’s justice.