The Christian Mandate To End Hunger: 10 minutes with David Beckmann

10/15/2010 08:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By MARY JACOBS
Religion News Service

(RNS) The recent news about hunger and poverty is bad, but the Rev. David Beckmann remains optimistic, convinced that it's possible to eradicate hunger in our lifetime.

A Lutheran minister, economist and president of the ecumenical anti-hunger group Bread for World, Beckmann will receive the $125,000 World Food Prize on Thursday (Oct. 14). He helped found the ONE campaign with U2's Bono and authored a new book, "Exodus from Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger."

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Most of the news about the economy lately has been bad, yet your book has a hopeful perspective. Why?

A: I believe it is possible to virtually end widespread hunger and poverty within the next 20 years. Not all Americans know this, but the world has made historic progress against hunger, poverty and disease in the last two to three decades. According to the World Bank, the number of people in extreme poverty in developing countries has dropped from 1.9 billion in 1980 to 1.4 billion today. If you believe in God, then surely this is God answering the prayers of hundreds of millions of people.

Q: What's the link to "Exodus" that you include in your book's title?

A: I believe this progress is God moving in our history. It's the great Exodus in our time. It makes what happened in the Red Sea look like small potatoes. And it is happening right now, in our lifetime. Clearly God is calling on all of us to get with the program.

Q: What is that program?

A: The U.S. government is key. Most of the work of ending hunger will be done by poor people themselves, but we've got to provide the leadership. We have opportunities before us to do some affordable, feasible things in Congress that will help lots of hungry people. The
elections coming up are really important, but the question of what's going to be the best news for poor and hungry people is not getting asked. People running for office should be hearing those questions.

Too often, the binding constraint on further progress is a lack of political will. My hope is to provoke a surge in the "constituency of conscience" for hungry people.

Q: Many churches help the hungry with soup kitchens or food pantries. But in your book you write, "We can't food-bank our way to the end of hunger in America." Why not?

A: Churches and charities can't do it all. Our government has to do its part.

Right now there's a huge debate going on about taxes, most of it focused on whether taxpayers in the top 2 percent can keep their tax breaks. But tax credits for the working poor will also expire at the end of the year, and that's not in the news. If we can extend these tax
credits, it will mean six times as much to poor families than all the food that all the churches and charities can mobilize in one year. If we don't extend them, it could push 1 million more people into poverty.

Q: In your work, you've rubbed elbows with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Bono. Do you ever encounter skepticism about their involvement?

A: Everybody's got mixed motives. I've got mixed motives. The point is not to have pure motives. If they're helping, they're helping. In our society, celebrities are like little gods. I'm really grateful some of these people have helped us draw attention to what we can do to help
poor people.

Q: Why do you have a heart for this issue?

A: To me, it's pretty obvious. Everyday, we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," but millions of people in the world are not getting their daily bread. It just seems so fundamental to human life and to what God's about in the world. You can't be close to God and turn your
back on hungry people. And you don't have to be Mother Teresa; you only have to have faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains.

Q: Have you seen mountains move?

A: Yes. While I've been at Bread for the World, the organization has touched the lives of tens of millions of the poorest people in the world. That's pretty extraordinary for a kid from Nebraska.