The Bible has quite a lot to say about food – who has it and who hasn’t, who deserves it and who doesn’t.
The Bible, that most political collection of books, history, letters, speeches, prayers, prophetic oracles and stories, is positively stuffed with food and people who need it.
From Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau embodying the colliding interests of hunters and cultivators, to Pharaoh’s feast and famine, boost and bust economics.
From Moses with his hungry tribes with their mutterings and manna, to laws about clean and unclean to laws about land care, justice and compassion for the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
And when the production and distribution of food is controlled by the powerful, and the poor increase and go hungry and the social machinery runs in the interests of the rich who are stuffed and sated and able to dismiss the hunger of the poor, then the Bible is even more political.
Micah, Amos and Isaiah do not read like paid-up members of the benefits sanctions culture or the food bank society.
When they talk the talk of austerity, it isn’t the poor and hungry, the vulnerable and the widows and orphans that they have in mind.
It’s the rich, powerful and well fed. It’s those who are so full of themselves, food, money and importance that they become dismissive and willfully ignorant of what it means to be a human being de-humanized by power, government, systems and structures.
I’ve reflected on some prophetic phrases in the light of recent exchanges in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons about benefit sanctions, food banks, death and suicide figures.
Amos would have been brilliant in this setting. “You sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. You trample on the heads of the poor.” That’s as good a description of ideological austerity consequences as you’ll find.
As for the self-righteous pomposity and uninformed argument that there is no connection between benefit sanctions and food banks, Micah reduces it to three criteria for good government: “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”
My problem with those who speak for the U.K. government and its Department of Work and Pensions is that none of these criteria carries any political weight or moral authority.
Instead, I hear self-serving rhetoric about “doing the right thing,” the mantra repetition of “fairness,” as if life could ever be fair.
A welfare system is precisely for those who have found life weighted against them, whose circumstances make life a struggle.
The original welfare vision is of a society where welfare is a moral and mutual obligation, in which compassion and generosity have purchasing power.
We accept that there will be some who cheat and lie and don’t pull their weight, but we do not hurt and harry all who need help because some people play the system.
So when a straightforward question is asked in the House of Commons, an institution filled with people voted there by an electorate who want to know, about how many of those who have been sanctioned have since died, it should be able to be answered.
Indeed, it should be required that those in power answer it.
And when a government minister says, “There is no robust evidence” of the link between benefit sanctions and increased use of food banks, I hear Amos again, “You deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”
To my knowledge, no one has successfully overturned a benefits sanction through the courts – maybe because the courts are increasingly restricted to those who can pay for the legal help.
When, though, did it become acceptable for a minister to so summarily, and arrogantly, dismiss widespread evidence from responsible charities that deal with hungry people every day?
Jesus told a parable about a rich man who walked out of his big house every day and didn’t notice, or willfully ignored, a poor man named Lazarus who was on the only kind of benefits on offer in his day.
Power not only corrupts, it blinds, it desensitizes, it gives the false impression that you deserve all you get and all you’ve got. Power causes moral amnesia and social complacency.
Power does all these things unless it is constrained by other forces of social capital – compassion not blame, wisdom not bullying, generosity not ridicule, respect not demonizing, care not caricature.
A welfare state does not have to become steel wool in order to avoid being a sponge.
Nor do government spokespersons, who are appointed by the people, have the right to avoid answering questions as the only way to sustain the manufactured credibility of their own claimed truth.
“Give us this day our daily bread” is not the privileged prayer of the well off; it is the prayer of the human heart, and it has no place for me, my, mine.
Us, our and we are the pronouns of shared communal responsibility for and to each other.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.