Can I ‘eat with joy’ while my neighbor starves? (Part 3)

This week we’ve been considering this question:

Is it better simply not to know about the suffering that takes place due to poverty and hunger a world away?

As we saw in the stories from history–the Russian famine of 1921, the epidemic of cholera in Naples in 1911–knowing has a certain power. Concealment, coverups–orchestrated ignorance–never helps.

But while knowledge is a necessary first step, it is not a final step.

Consider:

Herbert Hoover read about the Russian famine and then implemented relief efforts.

A person who has learned facts about HIV/AIDS must then do something [e.g. safe sex] to prevent its spread.

Mosquito nets really help against malaria, but they don’t protect you unless you use one.

William Kamkwamba learned how to generate electricity from a textbook. And then he worked really hard to make one.

But he probably couldn’t have done it without the textbook. It had to be there first.

So then. What about you? What about me?

I’m pretty sure that knowing the needs of the least of these is itself an act of righteousness. But what can we do?

Four ideas to start with:

1. Get the facts and share the facts

Pretty self explanatory, no? Spend some of your online time reading about events in the majority world, including famines and epidemics of eradicable diseases like malaria and cholera. Tweet about them. Post about them to Facebook. Cultivate a genuine concern for your global neighbors. Consider that your coffee, your chocolate, your coconut, your vanilla come from places of extreme poverty; from the hands of people who likely live on less than $2 US per day.

Sometimes I find that reading blogs from places of extreme poverty has a specificity that shakes me out of the dulling effect of broad-brush profiles of poverty. A number of years ago I discovered Joanne’s ‘Babycatcher’ blog–about her experiences as a midwife in Malawi–and couldn’t forget her intimate, firsthand accounts of the effects of poverty on maternal-fetal health.

2. Remember the poor in your prayers

I really believe that praying for people connects us to them in an intimate way. Pray for the people you read about. It is not for nothing that you have encountered them through their stories. Pray for them.

3. Fast (or something like that)

There are many ways to fast in honor of the poor. Some people are able to fast completely for one day per week, some fast for one meal of each day, some fast from meat on given days–in each case laying aside the money they would have otherwise spent on food to give to hunger relief and sustainable development programs.

When I was young, our youth group did the World Vision 30 hour ‘Famine.’ I think there is something powerful in actually participating–however artificially or symbolically–in the experience of hunger.

For some people, full fasting is not a good idea. If disordered eating is part of your story, fasting is probably not for you.

But there are other ways to ‘fast.’ You can practice voluntary simplicity in your cooking and eating in a way that will not deprive you nutritionally but that will help you feel a solidarity with those for whom simplicity is no choice at all.

(The More with Less cookbook is a great resource for such cooking.)

I believe such things are more than symbolic, even if what you can contribute monetarily is a pittance compared with the size of the problem you hope to address. Eating in solidarity with the hungry can change you.

what one boy did for one pair of shoes...

4. Cultivate gratitude for what you have

And this is related to everything we’ve talked about above. For me, the perfect antidote to greed is gratitude and contentment. Oh, that doesn’t happen easily. But when I find myself lusting after some great shoes or something, I find it helpful to stop and consider the shoes I have already. And how those shoes are perfectly good. And how many people have none. And so on.

Same thing at dinner. Do you realize that what you and I eat on a daily basis would be like a once-a-year feast to many, many people in the developing world?

Give sincere thanks to God for what you have.

Gratitude eradicates greed–and makes room for joy–

for you, and for your neighbor.

What else can we do?

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.}

Plagues and Famines: better not to know? (part 1)

Have you wondered if maybe it’s better not to know about great suffering? After all, does knowing help?

Maybe it’s happened to you: you read an eyewitness account of famine, perhaps visit a developing country and see firsthand what extreme poverty looks like, and, turning back to your own life, you’re not sure how to go on as you have been.

You have a fridge. And it’s big. And full.

And not only do you have shoes, but you have more than one pair. And they fit you properly and are in decent repair.

And what you spend on your daily coffee is more than what 75% of Africans have to live on each day.

When you go to the grocery store, you feel overwhelmed by how much food there is. And how much plastic. And excess packaging. And things meant to be used once and then thrown away.)

This weekend, I read William Kamkwamba’s book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. When he was just 15, William built a working windmill out of scavenged scraps and junk complete with a functional circuit breaker, to power his family’s house in their Malawian village. He also built a solar powered water pump, giving his village its first source of drinking water and enabling his family to have two plantings of maize, their staple food crop.

William taught himself everything he needed to know to build the windmill from a discarded American textbook called Using Energy, and through extensive experimentation. And he was motivated to do it–at least in part–by the terrible famine that killed many Malawians in 2002. In the book, William tells of seeing starved, skeletal people walking from place to place, begging for some work to do in exchange for something to eat. At the worst point of the famine, William and his family got three bites of nsima–that’s the Malawian staple food, a cornmeal mush–a day.

William’s ingenuity and determination was motivated by the hope that his invention would protect his family from going hungry.

Because where William lives, “hungry months” are a regular feature of each year.

Where William lives, most people get malaria quite a few times in their lives, and cholera is not an anachronism.

At this point, I want to acknowledge that compassion fatigue is a real thing. How much suffering can we know–and summon the energy to care–about?

Is it better simply to not know about famines and other kinds of suffering ‘elsewhere’ since we can’t do much to help anyway?

I want to discuss this question in more detail tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this:

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

What might that mean?

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.

Using God as Backup for White Middle Class Standards of Beauty

Usually for your weekend reading I post something of interest from around the web. This week I enjoyed reading the HuffPo listing of the 10 most polarizing foods–foods that people either love or hate–but some of your responses to this weeks’ earlier posts made me think you might enjoy this one, originally posted in August, on using God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

Recently I read back through just a bit of Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman by Anne Ortlund–because I vaguely remembered that there was something in there that had once had a grip on my mind–and I only had to suffer through 43 pages until I found it:

“..my advice to all is: when you first become conscious in the morning, get decent. I know some people say [pray] first, but don’t you sort of feel sorry for God when daily he has to face all those millions of hair curlers and old robes? What if you were the Almighty, and got prayed to with words spoken through all those unbrushed teeth? It seems to me like the ultimate test of grace.”

(Hm, so I should have compassion on God and look good before I pray?)

She goes on to pose a number of questions like these:

“How are your hips, thighs, tummy?”

“Do you need to get into that jogging suit and run?”

“How is your hair?”

“What kind of program are you on to stretch, bend, and stay supple, to stand tall; to be a good advertisement of God’s wonderful care of his children?”

(So I have to look good not only for God but for everyone else, too?)

From about age 15 or so, I used to get up early to use the NordicTrack or to do some idiotic aerobics routine before school, for 2 reasons:

1. I didn’t think I deserved to eat breakfast until I’d exercised

and

2. I didn’t think God wanted to hear from me unless I was ‘disciplined’ enough to exercise regularly.

Being a typical American teenager, it didn’t even occur to me that God might have bigger things to worry about than whether I reached my target heart rate or ate too many grams of saturated fat. I’m pretty sure 1996 had enough injustice, war, natural disaster, famine, and other stuff going on that God wouldn’t have minded hearing the prayers through unbrushed teeth or from girls who chose to do something with their spare time besides fitness and beauty maintenance.

surely I’m not the only one who had a caboodle?


I’m pretty sure that somewhere, deep down, I knew that God didn’t care what I looked like. Nonetheless, pleasing God by looking good was bound up in my mind and body with actually doing good in the world.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that the pressure on women to attain to an unrealistic standard of beauty has  increased along with women’s freedoms in other areas of society. A study of archived letters from students at Smith College suggests that women before suffrage (1920) were more likely to worry about needing to GAIN weight, while women after, almost universally, worried about needing to LOSE weight.

{Why? To take up less space? To look better in the ‘flapper’ style? To eschew feminine curves for a more androgynous appearance?}

This problem, it’s not unlike my Audrey Hepburn problem. But it’s worse in some ways, too, because claims like Anne Ortlund’s use God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

And her book isn’t the only one to do that. Lots of the ‘Christian’ diet books out there do the same thing. And that’s what had me so upset about the article in Relevant last week.

Because what’s good? And what does God want from us?

{100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups every morning? Detoxification ‘cleanses’?}

NO–

To do justice.

To love mercy.

To walk humbly with God.

{I’m no longer posting on Sundays. See you all on Monday!}