If You Don’t Work, You Don’t Eat?


For those of you who don’t know, I was a career firefighter until I was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to retire. I also live in North Carolina. As a result, the majority of people I know are pretty conservative, which exposes me to a lot of conservative talk and ideas. One is the notion that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat, a concept most recently voiced by Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN).

This week, during a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee, members were discussing whether or not to cut $4.1 billion from SNAP (food stamps) when some Democratic representatives cited Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to care for “the least of these”. Fincher countered with 2 Thessalonians 3:10: ““If anyone doesn’t want to work, they shouldn’t eat.”

If you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they talk about cherry-picking, this is it. Rep. Fincher quotes a verse that, taken out of context, seems to support what he thinks. In reality, it has nothing to do with whether poor people should receive assistance. The thing is, this idea is at odds with the rest of the Bible. In Leviticus 23:22, the law instructs farmers not to harvest the edges of their fields saying “Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant“. That doesn’t sound like “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” to me.

There are two problems with Fincher’s quotation. One is that it could be faulty exegesis: some scholars say the author of 2 Thessalonians wasn’t talking about the poor and the needy, he was referring to Christians who had stopped doing pretty everything in anticipation of Jesus’ immediate return. The second problem with “you don’t work, you don’t eat”  is that a lot of the people affected by this idea aren’t capable of working. In the case of SNAP, over half the participants are either children (45%) or elderly (9%). As for the idea that these people won’t work, a significant percentage lived in a household with some income. However, only 12% of recipients got some form of welfare. (All figures from 2012 USDA report)

I think Fincher’s comment is a prime example of cognitive dissonance, which Merriam-Webster describes as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously”. People like Fincher identify as Christians, i.e., followers of a man who began his ministry by saying “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed meHe has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed”. They also believe they’re not their brother’s keeper.  Justifying these competing ideas is a problem and results in this kind of thinking.

Look if an idea, concept or belief requires mental gymnastics (like proof-texting and cherry-picking) to make sense, maybe you ought to take another look at it. Don’t you owe your faith at least that much?