Just before Christmas, George W. Bush was asked about a recent federal report
that 5 percent of Texas households had suffered from hunger from 1996 through 1998.
"Where?" Bush wanted to know, adding, "You'd think the governor would have
heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas."
Yes, you would. He then effectively issued a challenge: Show me the hungry. "I
would like for the Department of Agriculture to show us who, where are they, and
we'll respond." Whether he meant with a sandwich or a press release was left
There has been a tidal wave of religious posturing in Campaign 2000. The problem
is that these pious protestations do not seem to extend to what is at the heart
of the Bible: tending to the poor. Indeed, what made Bush's remarks so chilling
is that he articulated the entire political class' response to America's poor:
Where are they? They don't show up on our donor lists.
The attempt by the Democratic National Committee and local Texas Democrats to
make political capital out of Bush's comments is another example of how much
easier our leaders find it to exploit suffering than to attempt to reduce it.
Not only have both parties ignored the poor during our much-touted prosperity,
but now one party is using them as a cudgel against the other.
While the governor was catching up on his state's poverty stats and the DNC was
promptly blast-faxing his incredulous remarks, I was reading the galleys of
"Faith Works," a remarkable book by the Rev. Jim Wallis, to be published in
March. In it, Wallis, a preacher-activist and leader of Call to Renewal, a
national movement to overcome poverty, identifies three kinds of poverty:
material, spiritual and civic.
The partisan sniping about the existence of material poverty was evidence of the
civic poverty that has overrun our country. "Aiming either at the stock brokers
or the soccer moms," writes Wallis, "neither political party has talked about
poor and left-out people for a very long time."
Throughout the book, Wallis stresses how our perceptions are shaped by our
different vantage points. He writes of finding himself in homeless shelters,
poor shanty towns and the insides of assorted jail cells where he's been sent
"probably 20 times by now for various vigils, marches and peaceful actions of
nonviolent civil disobedience. I've noticed how different the world looks from
those places." Clearly very different than it looks from the corridors of power
in Washington or Austin, Texas. "Bush knows where the fund-raisers are,"
Wallis tells me. "He knows where the middle-class voters are, but he doesn't
know where the poor are."
Yet Bush chose Jesus as the political philosopher who most influenced him. That
was the same Jesus who, in the chapter 25 of Matthew's Gospel, so identified
himself with the poor and the outcast that he admonished his disciples, as
Wallis puts it, that "to serve them was to serve him, and to ignore them was,
indeed, to ignore him."
Al Gore tells us that he often asks himself, "What would Jesus do?" If George
W. Bush asks the same question, he won't need the Department of Agriculture to
provide the answer.
While in theological seminary, Wallis sought to identify every mention of the
poor in the Bible. He found that it was the second most prominent theme in the
Hebrew scriptures, idolatry being the first. As we're finding out, the worship
of material objects and the neglect of the poor tend to go hand in hand.
In the New Testament, the subject of poverty and the responsibilities of wealth
is found in one out of every 10 verses in the first three Gospels, and in one
out of seven verses in the Gospel of Luke. To drive his point home when he
preached, Wallis often used a Bible from which every reference to poverty had
been cut out. "The Prophets were decimated," he writes, "the Psalms
destroyed, the Gospels ripped to shreds, and the Epistles turned to tattered
rags. The Bible was full of holes."
And so is the rhetoric of many born-again politicians who profess Christ as
their savior but spend more energy inveighing on the benefits of abolishing
estate taxes and the evils of homosexuality (about which, incidentally, Jesus
had nothing to say) than about the overwhelming biblical insistence on expanding
our circle of concern to include "the least among us."
Have we become so insulated against any contact with poor people that the
Republican front-runner needs the Department of Agriculture to find them for
him? And before any more Democrats mount their moral high horse, they should
review the photo ops provided by the first family at Christmastime -- the
president shopping with Chelsea, the first couple arriving for Christmas Eve
dinner at the home of Vernon Jordan and the White House Christmas dinner menu
proudly displayed upon our TV screens. (It culminated in seven
desserts, including chocolate cake with white icing and pumpkin pie with
Yes, the president did make the obligatory stop at a soup kitchen earlier in the
week, but the triptych of Christmas images that stayed with us was shopping,
celebrating with power brokers and culinary overkill. In the midst of such civic
poverty, it is not surprising that our political elite has forgotten the 20 percent of
our fellow citizens -- 15 million children among them -- left out of the booming