The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good


3 July 2011

Many of you will probably remember Tom Lehrer singing this in the 1960s or 70s.  Sheldon Harnick actually wrote it in 1958, but Tom's reach, and that of the Kingston Trio, made it global:

They're rioting in Africa,

They're starving in Spain,

There's hurricanes in Florida,

And Texas needs rain

This whole world is festering with unhappy souls

The French hate the Germans, The Germans hate the Poles

Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch

And I don't like anybody very much

There's another verse about nuclear weapons, and then the Merry Minuet ends this way:

They're rioting in Africa, There's strife in Iran

What Nature doesn't do to us will be done by our Fellow Man.

It's abundantly obvious that almost all of these realities are still with us - even though now those who are starving in Spain are immigrants from north Africa or eastern Europe, and Yugoslavia is no more.  The one positive change is that the South Africans and the Dutch seem to be getting along better than they were 50 years ago.

Yet the hatred of one group toward another, and the ongoing reality of natural disasters both continue.  Governments exist to deal with those realities.  Much of the appropriate work of governments is about defending the defenseless and limiting the ability of the powerful to exploit the weak.

The biblical tradition is a long search for right and healed relationships between human beings and God, and within human communities.  We don't ever hear of a completely right and just community after Adam and Eve leave the garden, but we do hear plenty of insistent reminders about correcting unjust relationships. 

The part of Deuteronomy we just heard is from the lectionary for Independence Day, a Holy Day in the Episcopal Church.  It's a succinct summary of what good government looks like:  "who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing."


The repeated prophetic refrain from Israel, from Jesus, and from early Christian communities, is about justice and caring for orphans, widows, and sojourners.  When human communities are dealing justly with the needs of those who don't have social power, then strife, division, and war are usually far away.  The divine dream of shalom, or the reign of God, is about people having enough to eat - and enough for a feast - and shelter, meaningful work, a place in community, access to healing, and the ability to live in peace.  The story is told in many different ways - Isaiah's banquet on the hillside, with rich food and well-aged wines, where no one grieves any more; images of the blind healed, the lame jumping for joy, and prisoners set free; Zechariah's vision of the old sitting in the streets of the city, while children play all around them, and all people living to a ripe and productive old age.  War, hate, and the threat of violence make each of those visions impossible.  Most of the human evil of hatred and violence has its roots in self-centeredness.  That's really the crux of human sin, whether we're talking about the pettiness of me-first in the food line, or the idolatry of insisting that I and the people in my in-group are lords of the universe.  When God is at the center of our reality, and not we ourselves, we begin to see others in a more appropriate and deserving and loving light.  Deciding to treat others as we want to be treated is love in action.  Justice is simply love at work in the public square.  


Jesus modeled that reality over and over again.  His first public act was to read the Isaian vision in the synagogue:  "the spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  He spent his public ministry feeding, healing, and teaching people about the reality of God's dream.  He does his own share of prophetic work, turning over the tables of moneychangers in the temple, challenging the injustices of both religious and political governments, and seeking to protect and build up the weak.  He proclaims the kingdom of God as those who care for the least of these:  the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, and imprisoned - and strangers.


Where are we most grievously distant from the divine vision of a healed community?  The most basic issue of food and hunger is a sign and symbol of the ways in which we are collectively failing to care for the least of these.  A billion people are hungry across the globe, and the number has grown 10% in the last couple of years due to steeply rising food prices and global recession.  Hunger differentially affects the most vulnerable - children, the poor, single and mostly female parents, minimum wage workers, Native Americans on reservations.  Across the globe, 70% of the hungry are women and girls, usually in societies where they have little or no access to political power.

Over 50 million people are hungry in the United States - 1 person in 6, 1 child in 4.   Children who suffer from hunger do much more poorly in school, and indeed, longitudinal studies (like the ones which followed the Dutch famine in WWII) show multigenerational effects of inadequate nutrition.  Basic human dignity, and basic justice, should insist that everyone be afforded an adequate diet.  We will not all live in peace until everyone has enough to eat. 

Our own citizens are hungry, and even though some try to respond, there is active resistance even to the simple act of feeding people.  There was a powerful article in the NY Times on Friday about attempts to feed people in a park in Florida being foiled by the arrest of volunteers who were handing out food.  They didn't have a city permit, and groups can only get two permits per year to feed people - that's for a total of two meals per year.  Hackers were responding, shutting down the websites of the city, the mayor's re-election campaign, the Fraternal Order of Police, and a city redevelopment organization. 

We see only slightly more subtle resistance to feeding people in Congress, where farm subsidies are routinely privileged over food subsidies.  Recent action by the House cut food assistance to Women, Infants, and Children by 13%, and international food aid by a third, while declining to limit the subsidies provided to farmers.  It also cut out funding for local food initiatives - the kind that encourage people to learn where their food comes from, to meet the farmers in their area.

We spend far more on military operations than on feeding the hungry, perhaps not recognizing that in the long term war only produces more people who are hungry, ill, displaced, widowed, or orphaned.  A quarter of the proposed 2012 federal budget is designated for defense.  Food aid for the hungry within the U.S. constitutes about 3% of that budget, and a paltry 0.04 of 1% is proposed for international food assistance.   Even so, over the last several decades, real progress has been made in reducing hunger both in the United States and overseas.  We were moving in the right direction before the recession began in 2008.

There are proposals in the Senate right now to cap discretionary spending - among other things, to limit the amount that can be spent on programs that feed people, and to require that all such programs be cut by a fixed percentage.  That CAP Act would decimate foreign food aid, and require major cuts in domestic food assistance.

There are many interrelated reasons for our current economic woes.  They cannot be remedied by starving the hungry.  We have more than enough wealth in this country to feed those who are hungry here, and a small portion of that spending would go a very long way toward relieving starvation across the globe.  When the Millennium Development Goals were first proposed, the developed nations of the world agreed to dedicate a small fraction of 1% of their gross national incomes to relieving the worst of global poverty.  The Scandinavian nations and a couple of others in Europe have met or exceeded their promises.  The United States has provided less than half of what was promised.

We live in a nation that has the highest income disparity in the world.  Argentina is our only close peer.  From 1940 until the early 1980s, the wealthiest 10% of Americans received about a third of the nation's income.  Since then, that share has grown to nearly half the income.  The top 1% now receive 21% of the nation's income, a figure that's doubled in the last 30 years.  The top 0.1% take in nearly 8% of the nation's income, and that has quadrupled in the last 30 years.

We have one biblical image after the Garden of Eden in which nobody's hungry - it might be called the Garden of Even.  The story comes from Jerusalem, that city of dreams, in the first years of the post-Easter Christian community: 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

That kind of community has rarely existed since, and none of them has lasted very long.  Yet we are unlikely to find peace or stability as long as the haves keep increasing their share, and others live in want.  We have a dream for the kind of government that might permit a reduction in the number of needy and hungry:  "who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing." 

That is what it looks like to live as good and godly people.  Government is meant to be a servant of the governed.  What will the governed - all of us here - do about widows, and orphans, and strangers?  

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]