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The Politics of Hunger

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In an otherwise fine piece focusing on innovative techniques used by food banks to increase efficiency, while at the same time improving service and the recognition of the dignity of those they serve, Bread for the World president David Beckmann uses the opportunity to throw a dose of pessimism into the mix.

“We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger,” said Beckmann, co-recipient of the 2010 World Food Prize. “Christian people need to change the politics of hunger as well.”

Well. So what if “we can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger”? Does that mean that we have to make governmental lobbying our primary focus? How about using the opportunity to praise best practices and improvements in the way food banks are run? How about talking about the important and indispensable role that food banks play?

It might just be that framing the problem as political by definition minimizes the role that private charity and local giving play. The emphasis all too easily becomes one of lobbying and advocacy rather than taking practical steps to address hunger in local contexts.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this. But I think we can see right where the “politics of hunger” mindset leads. Here’s an example from my local area: “West Michigan food pantries see drop in demand, but not for a good reason.”

Here in West Michigan local food bank officials point not to decrease in demand or need, but instead toward “increased state food assistance and accessibility.”

While local food banks are seeing their usage numbers decline, “We have continued to set records every month (for the food assistance program) for the past 18 months, said Edward Woods, communications director for the state Department of Human Services (DHS). “Recovery funds (federal stimulus) did increase the amount of food assistance by nearly 14 percent.”

If changing the politics of hunger means that fewer people use food banks and food pantries in favor of government welfare then I have no interest in changing the politics of hunger. Instead I want to see hunger de-politicized.

All too often discussion about charitable causes end up downplaying direct charitable giving and activity with calls for political activism and advocacy. Jim Wallis, for instance, has said “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”

Instead of talking about what food banks can’t do and what Christians can’t do, I like the observation from Ron Sider about the untapped potential of Christians to act on their own through their own institutions without resorting to government advocacy.

Sider says, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

Obviously evangelism shouldn’t be a “leftover” priority, but you get the point. Christians and churches can and should do more, and calls to change the “politics” of hunger, poverty, and a host of other issues let us off the hook too easily.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    I find Sider’s math very suspect, but assuming he is correct, what then? Should Christians provide those for the entire world from now on? If Sider is correct, such giving would not end world poverty. Sider has no clue as to what causes poverty. Christian giving would merely make poor people dependent upon Christian charity for their healthcare and education.

  • Does charity have to create dependency? Is charity an imperative for Christians? Sider’s brief quote says nothing about the means for reaching what he considers achievable goals.

  • Roger – you are against state organised relief. But now it seems you disapprove of individual charity as well. If you do not, then I would advise you to present your position more clearly.

    The poor we will always have with us, as you have pointed out on this site before. They would still be there, even if we lived in a world with the most unadulterated Austrian school capitalism – which you demand Christians accept as a point of faith (as a point of salvation ?). Some would be poor through their own fault, but plenty would not. So what should we do with them? Let me guess – eliminate state welfare relief. Then once we have done that, we must discourage private giving. After all, it is just a prop for the feckless and the idle. Then, once people have nobody but themselves to rely on, that will clearly separate the righteous from the ungodly.

    Fair representation?

  • Stephen

    Not sure where Mr. Daxon gets the idea that the author is in favor of complete eradication of state welfare or, more questionably, discouraging private giving.

    Mr. Ballor’s point is that by outsourcing charity to the state, we put an entity between giver and receiver, which is an offense to both solidarity and the personalist principle, that being that a more direct personal encounter with our brothers and sisters has an effect that cannot be replicated by a state agency. The latter is an elaboration on his argument, but is corollary with solidarity, and is point discussed often by JPII.

    Yes, there is a Christian Charitable imperative for all believers, and it cannot be outsourced to the state, particularly as we see these days a state run by corrupt and disconnected politicians.

  • Roger McKinney

    Jordan, charity doesn’t have to create dependency. I was referring specifically to Sider’s idea that American Christians could provide basic healthcare and education to all of the world’s poor. All things remaining equal, especially governments, that would necessarily create dependency because even if such a thing were possible it would not enable the poor of the world to eventually provide for their own healthcare and education. The poor would remain poor and would depend upon us from now on to provide their healthcare and education. No amount of either will lift them out of poverty. It might help a few individuals who could then immigrate to the US and use their education, but it would not get rid of poverty. To get rid of poverty the government and culture of poor countries must change.

    Luke, no, not fair at all. I favor charity as much as God does in the Bible. But charity never has and never will end poverty. Only changing the government and institutions and culture of a nation can do that.

  • I think you misunderstood me Stephen; I was not referring to the article but to the first comment made on it. Actually, I don’t find anything controversial in the article; it sounded like common sense to me.

    Roger – well I am glad that you don’t recognise yourself in what I said. But the point is that even in the richest countries, there will always be people who can scarcely look after themselves, let alone afford the things others take for granted: orphans, the dying, many of the elderly, others who are physically incapacitated and the mentally ill. No amount of reform, economic, political or social, will make them go away. They are here and they are staying with us. So we return once again to the question of how we treat the truly vulnerable.

  • Roger McKinney

    We treat them with Godly charity. I have never claimed anything else. That doesn’t make Sider correct that if Christians gave more we could provide healthcare and education for all the poor in the world; that is just bad math. Nor does it mean that doing so, even if possible, would change anything.

  • The Copenhagen Consensus, despite its limits and shortcomings, works with a number of $75 billion, which is supposed to approximate the total amount of global foreign aid.

    Beyond Sider’s numbers I’ve found another source that estimates “an additional $172 billion could be available if church members tithed 10 percent.”

    Subtract the budget of the Copenhagen Consensus (or the total amount of global foreign aid) and you’ve got more than the $60-70 billion that Sider estimates to be “left over.”

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  • Roger McKinney

    Jordan, I don’t have any evidence that those numbers are wrong, but they don’t seem logical. $70 billion will provide healthcare and education to all of the poor? Taking Europe, US and Japan out, that leaves around 5 billion poor in the world, or spending of about $14/year on each one. I guess his idea of who is poor is very different.

    The money available from 10% tithes sounds about right if you consider tithing from income before taxes, but not income after taxes. 10% of after tax income would be about half that amount. A big part of the problem with giving is the high level of taxation. Countries with high tax rates have almost no charitable giving at all.

    But getting back to my main point: the world’s poor would become dependent upon our giving for their healthcare and education. They would never be able to rise above that dependency to provide it for themselves. That requires the implementation of capitalism in their countries.

  • Roger, to your main point, that’s why I asked whether charity has to create dependency. As I said, neither Sider nor I have said anything about the ways in which implementation of addressing such needs ought to be done. There are some forms of charity that perpetuate dependency; others do not. I think you are right, though, to point to the cultural and contextual issues. The problem of poverty is not just about the lack of money or resources. If it were then the $75 billion in aid would have addressed things many times over in the developing world.

    Have you seen the trailer for the PovertyCure initiative?

  • Roger McKinney

    Jordan, I’ll have to watch the video when I get home. Meanwhile, check out this:

    “When we add the additional sources of foreign aid donations, we discover that Americans gave at least a whopping $161 billion in 2009.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Jordan, I wathed the video tonight. It’s very powerful! However, as you know entrepreneurship is a Western idea. I don’t know how well it travels. As you know from Deidre McCloskey’s work on the bourgeois values, poor countries need a major change of values before they can create effective institutions that will protect property and encourage investment. Africa, for example, doesn’t lack money. Ten years ago I saw an article that said Africans send the US and Europe $90 billion every year for safe keeping. They refuse to invest in their own countries because they are certain that someone will steal it.

    Years ago the UN tried to give oxen to farmers in Uganda to increase their productivity. They were farming with hoes. But the farmers refused the gifts of oxen because they said their neighbors would be envious of them, steal the oxen and eat them. Also, in Arab and African cultures envy by another person is considered the “evil eye” and will cause you to have really bad luck. So people try not to get ahead of others materially in order to keep the evil eye away.

  • Roger McKinney

    Still, I don’t think private aid does any harm, and it certainly does a lot of good. State-to-State aid is a different animal all together. Christians should give all they can to help the poor, especially through their church organizations. But we should not be silly enough to believe that aid will do anything more than alleviate the poverty of individuals. It will not transform societies and will not end poverty.

  • Roger, thank you for your salient points regarding the effectiveness of fighting poverty.

    I think you are right to point to the distinction between knowing what the normal means is for creating wealth and alleviating poverty (business/entrepreneurship/trade) and actually implementing those means in particular contexts. That is to say, it’s one thing to know what “cures” poverty, it’s quite another to actually “cure” poverty. On that latter score I share your skepticism, at least in terms of ushering any global era of prosperity or something along those lines.

    The interesting thing about the “changing the politics of hunger” line of thinking is that it actually thinks that if you just tweak public policy the right way, along with the other social factors, you can actually “end” poverty.

    But I think that while we may not be able to “food-bank” our way to the end of hunger, we can’t legislate our way there either.

  • This irritated me enough that I submitted a form of my complaint in 1,000 characters or less as a Letter to the Editor at Christianity Today:

    In a piece focusing on innovative techniques used by food banks (“Let People Shop,” Nov. 23, 2010), Bread for the World president David Beckmann says, “We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger” and that we “need to change the politics of hunger.” Here in West Michigan politicizing hunger has had an unfortunate unintended consequence. Fewer people are using food banks, but not because the need is lessened. Instead they are turning to the government for support. If that’s what changing the politics of hunger means then we should rather want to see hunger ‘de-politicized.’ We need to hear more about the things that churches, charities, Christians, and yes, food banks, can do to address hunger and poverty. We would be better informed by a perspective articulated by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920): “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”

  • “CNN Hero Narayanan Krishnan gave up a career as a chef to feed the homeless three meals a day in Madurai, India.” This is how it’s done:

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  • Dr. Raymond A. Blacketer

    Good Kuyper quote.Is that from The Problem of Poverty?

  • That quote is from The Problem of Poverty. Although it should also be balanced with the footnote that Kuyper adds to it: “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

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