In 1968, Paul Ehrlich, declared defeat in his book The Population Bomb: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. ... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
The prophet of doom didn’t reckon on Norman Borlaug, the father of the “Green Revolution,” who bred fantastically fruitful strains of food plants that kept the burgeoning population of the world (especially the Third World) from starving to death. Almost nobody has heard of him, but without him we could very well be living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. I am hopeful that if anybody stands a good chance of hearing Jesus say to them, “I was hungry, and you gave me food,” it will be Borlaug, who goes down in history as the guy who gave more food to the “least of these” than anybody who ever lived.
Borlaug symbolizes one pole of a dynamic tension that always exists in the Catholic Tradition: the tension between practical results and good intentions. The woman who put two small copper coins into the Temple treasury is at the other pole (see Luke 21:1–3). In terms of “results,” they couldn’t be further apart. Nonetheless, the two have something in common: They did the most they could with what they had.
We are called to do likewise. For us average Catholics, this usually means we schlep along, supporting charities, making sure that company is fed when they visit, and perhaps working in our parish soup kitchen — trying to give a little bit extra.
Result: American charitable giving exceeds $300 billion — even during the worst economic downturn since the Depression. This clearly shows how the ordinary, commonplace ethic of Christian charity is one of the most vital lubricants to the smooth running of our civilization. The Lord alone knows how many social upheavals have been prevented because ordinary people took it upon themselves to buy a down-and-out guy a cup of coffee or help an unwed mother move into her apartment or just spend an hour on a park bench listening to a lonely soul. It is impossible to calculate the good that has been done by the works of charity the Christian Tradition encourages. And in a certain sense, all of them could be seen as “feeding the hungry.”
That said, let’s stick for the time being to the subject of feeding the hungry with physical food, for there are 1 billion people still in literal danger of starving to death. This is because starving people live under evil, man-made socioeconomic and political systems that prevent food — of which there is more than enough in the world — from reaching them.
The solution is not to kill the child of the poor. It is to demand that the rich Westerner, Third World tyrant or exploitative corporate system give the poor person what is rightly his: enough food.
St. John Chrysostom vigorously emphasized this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs. … The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.”
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, the Catechism says we are paying a debt of justice.
For the Tradition has always been emphatic: Feed the hungry to the best of our ability. Don’t make much? Feed the hungry anyway, even if it’s just a bit. Unsure if the poor person you are feeding deserves it? Jesus didn’t say, “Feed the deserving.” He just said, “Feed the hungry.”
We are to feed the hungry for two basic reasons: First, because the hungry are hungry, and, second, because the hungry are Jesus. This is purely a matter of faith in his word. For Jesus really is present in the “least of these” as (in a different mode) he is present in the Eucharist.
In a world of starving people, our Tradition says to live within our means, take care of our families — and be as generous as God, a terrifying prospect. “Love your enemies. ... Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:44, 48, emphasis mine). In a word, do not act from “Minimum Daily Adult Requirement” thinking, but, like Christ, ask: “How can I give my life away in love for God?”
There is no program for this. We puny mortals chip in our two bits and help a family here and there with a gift. That’s not a thing to be sneezed at. After all, Jesus was able to do a lot with five loaves and two fish. Most of us can’t be the founders of some gigantic ministry that feeds the poor. But lots of us can (and do) give our tithe — and then some — to those who do have such a calling. Mercy Corps, Food for the Poor, Feed the Children and a boatload of other organizations wouldn’t exist if everybody was a visionary inspired to create some multinational organization to help the starving masses. Such organizations require ordinary folk like you and me to pour in our little copper coins faithfully, according to our means, so they can do their great work. If you can help them, do it.
And then start thinking about washing it down with something to drink. Of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.
Part one of this series may be found here.