How much is enough?: Part 9 in a series on JustFaith

Written by a Lutheran pastor, 'How Much is Enough?' is a compelling read that has plenty of food for thought. How can Christians in America and the West resist 'affluenza'?

By Stephanie Block

At last, Justfaith has a book that a Catholic can embrace. Flipping through How Much Is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture by Arthur Simon, one catches headings like “Fat Wallets, Empty Lives,” “Consumerism,” “Spiritual Hunger and Poverty,” “Saying ‘Yes’ to Life,” and “Who Are the Meek?” These are critical issues for a Christian to understand correctly and half the battle to correct understanding is to ask the right questions.

Before delving into the book, however, one needs a bit of background, which is less promising. The author, Rev. Arthur Simon, is a Lutheran pastor who founded, and is president emeritus, of Bread for the World, self-described as “a nonpartisan citizens' hunger lobby.”

To appreciate the place of Simon’s book among other JustFaith reading material, one must know that JustFaith has several “partner” organizations besides Catholic Campaign for Human Development – one of which is Bread for the World. Not coincidentally, another president of Bread for the World was Bishop Thomas Gumbleton (from 1976 to 1984), who has been an activist in the Catholic dissident movement Call to Action and was founding president of Pax Christi USA, another JustFaith partner and part of Call to Action’s COR – Catholic Organizations for Renewal – coalition. These “relationships” make a troubling backdrop for the book.

What is Bread for the World? A World Bank publication describes the organization as “born of a small group of Catholics and Protestants, meeting under the leadership of Rev. Arthur Simon in the early 1970s, to reflect on how to mobilize people of faith to affect U.S. policies related to domestic and world hunger. In the spring of 1974, the group decided to test its ideas, and by the end of that year 500 people had joined the movement. Today, with nearly 58,000 members, Bread for the World is a nationwide movement and advocacy group seeking justice for the world’s hungry.” [i]

Addressing world poverty and feeding the hungry is a laudable undertaking until one gets into the politics of it. For example, Bread for the World is one of the key backers of the Global Poverty Act, a bill in the US Congress designed to implement global strategies toward realizing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which include those very same objectives of reducing world poverty and feeding the hungry…and others objectives that are less worthy.

Steven Mosher of the Population Research Institute, referring to a report about the Millennium Development Goals, writes: “The British Parliamentarians argue that ….it will be ‘almost impossible’ to achieve the MDG of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger without population control. Does anyone else find it odd that the effort to eliminate poverty and hunger should involve the elimination of the poor and hungry?” [ii]

Mosher details rather overwhelming examples of UN population control programs from around the globe. “They ask for bread and we give them contraceptives. They ask for help with malaria and HIV/AIDS and we sterilize them.” The UN Population Fund asserts that: ". . . almost 1.5 billion young men and women will enter the 20-to-24 age cohort between 2000 and 2015, and if they don't find jobs ‘they will fuel political instability’.” [iii]

A Bread for the World Briefing Paper, “The Millennium Development Goals: Reason for Hope, Call to Action” by Eric Muñoz, a policy analyst for Bread for the World Institute, is very clear that the Institute sees the MDGs as “represent[ing] the consensus of the global community on the basic conditions needed to improve the lives and prospects of the world’s poorest people,” and it supports this.

But does it also support the MDG’s population reduction ambitions? One book copy-written by the Bread for the World Institute explains that “because Bread for the World works with the Roman Catholic Church and a diverse array of Protestant churches, whose positions on birth control vary, it seeks a common ground with those churches while stressing that the curtailing of rapid population growth is a necessary part of overcoming hunger.” [iv]

That’s a murky answer. Actions speak louder than words. Bread for the World has awarded monetary grants to CIDHAL,[v] the Mexican liberation theology women’s rights group that advocates for “reproductive rights,” [vi] among other things.

Like so many other organizations attempting to remedy social problems in an ambitious manner, there is a temptation to make compromises – to form coalitions with broad agendas that bring to the table good and bad. The Rev. Richard Neuhaus, a Catholic convert who edited First Things until his death, was on the executive committee of Bread for the World in its early days and wrote about the tendency of well-intentioned “activist groups [to] become instruments of government expansion….I believe Bread did great good in alerting Christians to the problems of world hunger. Eventually, however, the organization became less of an instrument of citizen action in response to human need and yet another liberal pressure group lobbying for increased government spending. While continuing to respect Art Simon and many others involved, I was reluctantly forced to the conclusion that, on both domestic and international policies, Bread has become part of the problem.”[vii]

Turning to the Book

If the organization Bread for the World has lost its way, what can one expect of its founder’s thoughts? How Much Is Enough, however, is surprisingly compelling. Simon is genuine and open about his struggles to apply Jesus’ call to himself, a middle class American pastor coming to terms with his privileged economic position…and he is not quick with cheap answers. There’s a lot of food for thought here.

Particularly interesting in the light of Bread for the World’s co-option by big government visionaries is Simon’s discussion about free enterprise. His thought is remarkably similar to Catholic teaching, which boils down to the appreciation that free enterprise is an engine for economic growth, new wealth, and material progress, although it can be dangerously seductive. “To work its magic for the economy, free enterprise needs plenty of room and not too many restraints. But to achieve public justice, free enterprise, like the urge to consume, needs to be tamed and guided.”[viii]

There is a moral ambiguity to affluence, says Simon. We can, on the one hand, generate prosperity for increasingly large numbers of people but must still harness our “unbounded appetites.”[ix] Much of his book is an exploration of that moral ambiguity – not with any formulas for the world but challenging questions for the individual: Can I live with less? Have I become addicted to “having” and indifferent to not only my “being” but to other beings? How do I express gratitude for blessings? How do I respond to need in others? How do I avoid the idolatry of mammon? Answers are personal and individual but important to explore.

Father Neuhaus, for all his criticism of Bread for the World, gives How Much Is Enough? a supportive review: “Art Simon invites us to a new way of living that, freed from the shackles of consumption, is the way of gratitude and generosity. And he leaves it up to each of us to think through, and pray through, exactly what that means for us.” That’s a pretty invaluable undertaking for participants in a social justice program.

Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.

[i] Katherine Marshall, Marisa Van Saanen, Development of Faith: Where Mind, Heart, and Soul Work Together, (Washington DC, The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank: 2007), p 146.

[ii] StevenMosher, “The Return of Anti-People Propaganda: A Comment on the "Return of the Population Growth Factor," PRI Weekly Briefing, 6-22-09.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] David M. Beckmann, Arthur R. Simon, Grace at the Table: Ending Hunger in God's World, Paulist Press, 1999 (by Bread for the World Institute), p. 62.

[v] Suzie Siegel, “Mexican Women Work for Progress,” The Tampa Tribune, 3-8-96.

[vi] CIDHAL has been, for example, a major player if the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, which has sexual and reproductive “rights” at the forefront of its concerns. See Latin and American Women’s Health Network, “International Campaigns for Activism, (accessed 4-27-99).

[vii] Rev. Richard John

Neuhaus, “The Public Square,” First Things, August/September 1996.

[viii] How Much Is Enough? p. 105

[ix] How Much Is Enough? p. 107, quoting Lewis Mumford.

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