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Daily Bread

May 7, 2012

What criteria do people need to meet before they deserve to eat? I don’t ask this question because I am particularly interested in the answer but because I think this question opens a door to a larger way of seeing the world and the Bible and the way the two interact.

Let’s clarify the question first. Some people don’t have the opportunity to eat within a reasonable timeframe of when they are hungry. Some people starve to death. What makes someone deserving of having food? In the Western world where food is plentiful this often becomes a question about work. Does this person work? Are they out of food because they are lazy? Let’s just remove that factor for a minute. Let’s take a farming village in some underdeveloped nation where food cannot easily be transported between regions. A drought strikes a large area and local crops fail. The village cannot get food from outside because they are far from anywhere where there is food to be had and it is all sold before any gets to them. Do these people deserve to starve or do they deserve to eat?

Let’s take another scenario. Josh’s family has no food because Josh’s parents do not work. They are able-bodied but they don’t want to work. Does Josh, age six, deserve to eat? Let’s add a wrinkle to this: Josh’s parents don’t work because Josh’s father has an undiagnosed mental issue that makes him terribly afraid of interacting in a work environment. Does this change anything for the family? For Josh? For Josh’s father? What if his mother doesn’t work because she has a drug addiction? Does this change anything for her or the family?

When Josh is twenty, Josh is still hungry. He’s hungry because he’s been raised not to work and so he doesn’t or at least doesn’t do so well enough to hold down a job. Does Josh deserve to eat? Does he deserve to eat three large meals every day? Does he deserve to eat steak every day?

Like I said, I’m less interested in the specific answers to these questions (at least right now) than I am in what they show. When you answered these questions you had to use some sort of criteria to determine who deserved to eat and who didn’t. That criteria might have been, “Are these people at fault for their situation? If not they deserve to eat” (a lot of these scenarios are playing with that idea). It might have been, “Are these people going to starve if they don’t get food in the manner specified? If so they deserved what was specified.” It might have been, “Are these people people? If so they deserve to eat.” Or it might have been any number of things. Obviously, if one believed that only people who were in no way to blame for their circumstances deserved food, then one would come to a very different conclusion about all manner of practical issues of food aid as opposed to someone who believed that people deserve food because they are people.

The economic systems of the West (both capitalism and communism) are built on an idea of deserving food through having earned it. Capitalists believe that individuals earn their right to eat in a very individual manner (if Bob works harder then Bob can eat better) while communists have a more corporate vision of responsibilities (each individual fills a role in the community and each individual receives food from the community). However, both models allow a person to cease to deserve food through laziness. In practice communism frequently allows lazy people to eat but this is a logistical difficulty caused by the fact that people are not incentivized to work. In theory a person in a communist society who refused to work for the community would not eat (and this is how some close-knit communal societies actually work).

What I wish to suggest is something fairly straightforward: the Bible has an answer to the question of “what makes a person deserving of having food to eat?”. This answer may or may not be clearly spelled out. One common answer, drawing on 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, is not one that is normally applied to people who are not able-bodied (or, in our very cerebral working society, able-minded) or to children. It is also generally not one Christians would apply to people who refuse to work because the only work available is immoral. If a woman refused a career in prostitution and began to starve for lack of other options (something that has been, and is, common in societies where women work only as part of a family unit). I don’t know any Christian who would say, “Well, those who are unwilling to work…” Finally, it’s not an answer that is immediately helpful when the person who is without food does have a job but just not one that pays for all their expenses. A more complete idea of what makes someone worthy to have food is needed to deal with the family whose income cannot cover rent, electricity, water, gas to get to work and run errands, the heating bill, and food every month. This requires studying the whole Bible to come to a holistic idea of what the Bible says about the distribution of vital resources. For instance, the various commands towards charity (including the sorts of indirect provisioning of food for the poor that the gleaning laws of the Old Testament cover) would need to be examined together.

The reason I point out that the Bible has an answer to this question (despite that fact that I don’t know that I have the Bible’s answer to this question to give to you) is that when such abstract questions are brought up people often wonder why anyone should care. Sure, it’s nice for the theology books that our idea of what it means to be human might enumerate what rights are ours as humans and which ones we earn through our effort but who cares? The result is that we end up making our decisions based on other systems of values that are already present in our society and hence our thinking. The challenge of living Biblically is to figure out what the Bible thinks about such deep issues and working from there to the immediate questions. In this case, the decision about whether to buy a homeless man a sandwich, whether to donate money to a food bank or for food aid to a famine-afflicted area, and what sort of policies one should support vis-a-vie government actions like food stamps all depend on some deeper principle. If that principle has been carelessly absorbed from society at large the decisions that come from it will be fatally flawed. That is the challenge of living Biblically and the call to deep and careful reading of the Bible.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2012 7:23 pm

    Very thought-provoking. Thanks for reminding me that things aren’t always so cut and dried. Enjoyed the piece.

  2. Eric permalink
    May 9, 2012 8:37 am

    Thanks! Every once and a while I have to explain my affinity for abstract concepts.


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