This post is part of a series summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.
Here I focus on how we treat food and how we could do it better.
We all need to eat. Human life first developed in places where there was plenty of food. Over time people spread over more parts of the world. As populations increased they found ways to increase the food supply on their land.
People also found ways to preserve and transport food, so they could take it from places where there was more than enough, and deliver it to places where there was not enough.
These technologies have proved very useful, but now we mostly use them for the opposite reason: to transport food from places where people are starving to places like Britain where there is an obesity problem. Governments often drive traditional farmers out of their land and make it available for growing cash crops for export. An extreme example was the Ethiopian famine of 1983-1985, but it often happens.
It illustrates the contrast between Christian and capitalist values. Capitalist governments judge success in economic terms. Profit. Economically, what happened in Ethiopia was a success. With the strength of the economy calculated on the basis of how much money changes hands, cash crops for export are always far more economic than letting people grow their own food and eat it.
In a Christian society success is judged by how well everybody’s needs are met. On this basis, growing your own food and eating it is as good as it gets. Depending on what the local land can sustain, it is usually the most nutritious way to eat – with everything organic and no food miles. The quality of food grown per acre is greatest when a variety of plants are grown in the same place, rather than the monocultures of large-scale agribusiness.
The disgrace of the food banks
Back to Britain. The number of people driven to starvation here has shot up since 2010. Much larger numbers are being driven to starvation, homelessness and death as a result of benefit cuts and sanctions. The number of people dependent on food banks is still rising. The mass media pay precious little attention to it, but anyone who helps out at a food bank knows what is happening. Ten years ago nobody foresaw that so many people would depend on them.
On this measure – and it’s a central Christian measure – the governments we have had since 2010 have been by far the worst in my lifetime, and I’ll be 70 at the end of next year.
It is a credit to the continuing influence of Christian morality that so many churches have produced volunteers and donors to provide for the people hit by this deterioration. Others have too: on this point Islam has much in common with Christianity.
How has this come about? Why is it that, while the only things we hear about Christianity from the media is the endless debates of church leaders over same-sex partnerships and gender equality, thousands of churchgoers up and down the country set up, volunteer for, and donate to food banks?
There is good reason. Making sure everybody eats is the basis of Christianity’s central ritual. The first Christians gathered to share the limited food available to them, in the name of the Kingdom of God. That is to say, God’s justice was that everybody should have enough to eat because God had provided the food for that purpose.
They did their sharing directly and immediately. No forms to fill in. No investment schemes. No theories about economics or incentives to work.
The usual defence of the current system is that, in order to have enough food for everyone, we need economic growth. This is not true, and never has been. There is, and always has been, enough food for everyone. The reason why some go without is that others take more than their share.
So whenever someone is short of food, an act of injustice is being performed. It isn’t a technical problem that needs more research. It isn’t an economic problem that needs more growth. It’s an injustice, an immoral act by some people that deprives others.
When the first Christians gathered to share their food, it was their way of enacting the Kingdom of God. God enables the rain to fall and plants to grow. They responded by thanking God, and expressing their thanks by sharing God’s generosity with others. The original Greek word for the Communion service, ‘eucharist’, means ‘thank you’.