knowledge/power: conspiracies & coverups in the time of cholera (& famine)

{Part Two}

So yesterday I asked whether it is better not to know about the suffering that is in this world that we might not know about or encounter in our day-to-day lives. After all, most of us have obligations and cares that rightfully consume most of our time and energy. Why read news stories, blogs, or books that tell us about terrible suffering?

For me, history is often instructive and comforting. And I think that history proves the proverb I shared yesterday–

“The righteous know the rights of the poor;
   the wicked have no such understanding.”
 (Proverbs 29:7, NRSV)

–or, at the very least, shows that knowing is often an important first step–that knowing the needs of the poor is good.

Not so long ago, I watched this documentary about the Russian famine of 1921. When crops failed, and millions were facing death by starvation, Lenin (for various political reasons) refused to request/accept aid from other nations, the writer Maxim Gorky issued an appeal to the outside world in the form of newspaper advertisements, some of which caught the notice of world leaders–including one Herbert Hoover–who organized a massive relief effort that saved many, many lives.

Someone read that newspaper ad and did something about it.

HELP

And in this series of lectures I’ve been listening to, the delightful professor tells a story of conspiracy and coverup–that was perfectly true: that Naples, Italy, had an outbreak of cholera that they did not want to openly acknowledge because of the colonial and economic associations of the disease: it is a disease from the global South, and it is a disease that disproportionately affects poor people. As a result of the coverup, more people died than would have had the authorities addressed the epidemic and handled it with the knowledge and resources that were available at that time.

Had people been equipped with knowledge, lives would have been saved.

The famine I referred to yesterday–the one that took place in Malawi, the one that William Kamkwambe lived through–was yet another event in which government officials either didn’t know about or refused to acknowledge the reality of the famine until most Malawians were already on the brink of starvation. (Source here.)

Again: knowledge + timely action could have saved lives.

And so it is with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Myths and misinformation proliferates, and with it the virus that has created more than 10 million African orphans.

So knowledge is power, and power is knowledge–thus, knowing the troubles of “the least of these” has inherent value.

But of course, we are not talking merely about knowing. We’re talking about knowing that involves some kind of doing.

If we know that it would cost no more than $30 billion to give everyone in the world access to clean water, but half the people in the developing world still don’t have it, that knowing doesn’t help much.

If we know that most of us throw away more food per year than some people eat in that same year, but don’t do anything, those people still go hungry.

But if we don’t know, how can we even hope to do?

We need to know.

{Tomorrow we’ll talk about some things we can do: how we can ‘eat with joy’ in light of our global neighbors.}

Why and How to Minister with Meals

I’ve written a number of times about bringing a home-cooked meals to people.

It’s a time-honored tradition, one my family and I benefited from richly following the birth of our second son in St. Andrews, Scotland. When there are new babies, or when there is illness or death, bringing a meal, far from being a mere symbolic gesture, does at least 2 things:

1. It lets the person/family off the hook from planning/shopping/preparing dinner.

2. It lets them know that they are not doing this “thing” (cancer, grieving, new parenthood) alone.

{These observations are from my friend Ellen’s post this week–she learned firsthand the power of meals when she had cancer and she and her family were fed for 8 weeks by friends, acquaintances, and a few people they’d never even met!

“And it suddenly made sense, this impulse to feed people who are going through something life-altering.”

Recently I became aware of a nifty website that aims to facilitate such sharing of meals. It’s called MealTrain.com, and it’s an easy way to organize meals for someone. It’s free, you can put the word out via email and/or Facebook, and it allows you to note the receiving family’s preferences and/or allergies as well as to indicate what you plan to bring (so that the new family doesn’t end up with lasagna–or whatever–4 nights in a row.)

And it’s free!

Meals are a great way to communicate love and care in a variety of circumstances–

  • when a new family moves into a community
  • when there is a death
  • when someone is ill, injured, or hospitalized
  • when someone has had a miscarriage, or during a difficult pregnancy
  • when there is a new baby
  • when someone’s spouse has been recently deployed

Maybe you can think of more reasons. Whatever the reasons, a meal given to someone is a means of grace made edible. I don’t want to go all preachy on you, so I’ll just say this: think of a time when you were so tired, or sad, or overwhelmed, or lonely, and cooking dinner was really the last thing you wanted to have to worry about. Imagine what it would’ve meant to have a friendly face show up with a meal made especially for you.

What have been your experiences of giving and receiving meals? Have you used MealTrain?

(Just to be clear–I’m writing about Meal Train because I like what they’re doing, not because I’m receiving anything for doing so!)

These are a Few of Life’s Crappiest Things! (Reading Ecclesiastes)

Did you know that this blog got its name more-or-less straight out of a Bible verse?

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch that; it comes from Ecclesiastes, which, being a frequently-neglected book of the Bible, is, naturally, one of my favorite books. (I enjoy rooting for underdogs.)

While some writers and preachers like to say that Ecclesiastes is all about how bleak life is without Jesus, it seems to me that the little book pretty well sums up many of the crappiest things about life:

1. Where there ought to be justice and righteousness, there’s injustice and wickedness.

2. Even if you’re strong, beautiful, brave, ambitious, and rich, you’re going to get painfully feeble and old, and, eventually, you’ll die. And, by the way, you can’t take all your stuff and money with you.

3. Everything people do can, much of the time, be chalked up to pride and competitiveness.

4. Rich people just can’t ever get enough money. They always want more.

5. It’s not the most deserving, or strongest, or wisest, or most knowledgeable people that get the recognition. Time and chance have everything to do with that.

6. More knowledge is usually a depressing thing.

So, yeah. Any of these could’ve come from a blog post or op-ed written, well, yesterday, but they’re from this funny little Ancient Near Eastern book that’s part of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scripture.

By now you’re wondering what all this has to do with the title of this blog. Well, there’s this refrain (of sorts) throughout Ecclesiastes that goes something like this:

There is nothing better for a person than that she should eat and drink and find enjoyment in her work. This is from the hand of God,  for apart from God, who can eat or have enjoyment?

Because here’s the thing about eating: obviously it’s not the most important thing in the world–aren’t things like doing justice, working hard, loving God, loving neighbor, taking care of your family much more important?

Well yes. And no. Because if you don’t eat, you can’t really do anything else. It’s easy to miss this in an overfed culture, but “give us this day our daily bread” is talking about the literal stuff that keeps you alive & kickin’.

Yes, life is marked with death and sadness and injustice and unfairness and depression and general crappitude.

Yet. Yet–

This world is still a beautiful place; there “lives the dearest freshness deep down [in] things.” There is love, there is laughter, there is community, communion, companions–there is the joyful, jovial fellowship around the table and thousands of things to delight our senses.

And food is one of them, a delightful necessity. A chance to nourish others, to be nourished ourselves, and to taste just a hint of God’s goodness.

So, yes. Death and greed and decrepitude and turpitude and all manner of crappiness. And still the ancient Preacher says:

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.”

Yes. Life is more than food. But in this life where little makes sense, food and wine are a spot of grace and goodness—

God’s love made edible. And delicious.

Moment by moment, sustaining us by grace.

spare me words like “homegoing,” “graduation,” or “life celebration”

If you have been reading Eat With Joy for a while you’ll know of my fondness for two very old friends of mine, whom I’ve referred to here as Mr. and Mrs. S.

That’s them on their wedding day in 1949–after Edie (Mrs. S.) had served as an Army nurse on a psychiatric unit and after Jack (Mr. S.) had spent nearly four years in military hospitals following a serious injury sustained to his leg on Iwo Jima.

{They were married in the Episcopal church, a three minute walk from my home, and I was always amused when Jack got to the part in the story of their wedding where the rector asked them to kneel. His leg had fused into one long bone–no knee–after his injury, and so he couldn’t kneel. “Can’t kneel,” he said. So they just skipped that bit.}

There is so much I could say about these people. About their kindness and courage and virtue. About how my parents loved them as if they were their own parents; about how they were grandparents to me from the time I was 7. About how my tiny son, undaunted by Jack’s blindness and skin afflictions, climbed up to plant a big kiss on his lips during one of our Saturday breakfasts (which later turned into Saturday dinners.)

About how two weeks from now will mark 92 years since his birth.

And about how, on Friday, he died in the nursing home, holding Edie’s hand.

This kind of death–when a person is very old, when they’ve been very sick and in great pain, when they share our faith and belief in the resurrection of the dead–this kind of death is sometimes shrugged off:

“At least they’re not suffering.”

“He had a good, long life.”

“We will see him again.”

Even when such observations express some truth, they irk me for the following reasons:

1. Death is an enemy, not a friend

Don’t know about you, but I’ve attended too many Christian funerals that leapfrogged over the horror of death to get to the promise of the resurrection. (“I’m happy for brother so and so that he’s with Jesus!”)

Have you noticed that in these contexts, old, sturdy, and thoroughly appropriate words like “death” and “funeral” are conveniently left out in favor of “passed away,” “went to be with the Lord,” “homegoing,” and (my most-hated) “graduation”?

Sorry, but even a tradition that holds fast to the hope of the resurrection shouldn’t shy away from calling death what it is–what the Bible calls it, for goodness’ sake–an enemy, an evil, a wicked and grievous thing.

2. Grieving a death thoroughly is not un-Christian

I have never had the chance to be at a funeral that was primarily attended by people of African-American heritage, but I’m told that keeningcrying out and wailing–is an important part of the funeral in this tradition, and this sounds good to me. It isn’t “grieving without hope.” It isn’t denying the resurrection. It’s a practice that gives full outward expression to grief–“real emotions in real time,” as my dad puts it–and that’s a healthy thing. Where on earth did we get the notion that the ‘Christian’ thing to do is put on a happy face for funerals (excuse me, “homegoings”) and pretend like it’s no big deal, ’cause we’ll catch up with ‘ol Jack at the End of All Things? 

3. Losing people you love hurts.

Doesn’t matter if they were old, or sick, or in pain; if the death was peaceful, painless, expected. Death ends our ability to commune with our beloved ones, and trusting in the promise of Resurrection doesn’t erase that loss–they have still gone, as Shakespeare wrote, to that “undiscovered country from whose bourn [border] no traveler returns.”

Plus, love doesn’t listen to stupid reasons.

I keep thinking of this interview I heard with Jean Vanier, who helped found the L’Arche communities. He tells of a woman who was severely disabled–blind, unable to speak, incontinent, needing to be fed, dressed, everything. And she had been a part of their community for 30 years and was in her 70s. One day a woman visited the house and asked:

” ‘Oh, what is the point of keeping Françoise alive?’ And the leader of the little house said, ‘But madam, I love her.‘ “

And I loved Jack. So I will mourn, not without hope, but still I will mourn.

What about you? What place does mourning and grief have in your experiences of faith and life–and death?

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.