Food banks, Hunger and Prophecy

The publication of report on hunger in Britain, which has much to say about food banks, raises a fascinating and important theological question about the Kingdom. Are we to relieve poverty or speak prophetically about the causes of poverty?  Or both. But what if these aims contradict each other?

The recent publication of the report of a Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in Britain brings this into sharp focus.  There is a brief summary of the report on the Evangelical Alliance website at:

http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/news/church-leaders-join-the-call-for-action-on-hunger-in-the-uk.cfm.

There is Twitter feed at #FeedingBritain and the full report is available at:

https://foodpovertyinquiry.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/food-poverty-feeding-britain-final.pdf.

It distinguishes two categories of people relying on aid: first those in temporary crisis, often due to a change in benefits, but second those who were struggling even before this current recession, often due to disabilities of one kind or another.  It contains a number of specific recommendations aimed at eliminating hunger in Britain.

Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro in his Introduction to the report wrote: “We heard stories and gained first-hand experience that led us to the conclusion that the rise in the use of food banks does indicate a deeper problem in our society; the ‘glue’ that used to be there is no longer there in many instances. It can be described as the commodification process with people seen as commodities, and the transactions between them are regarded simply as the exchanging of products rather than relationships between two human beings.”

So the question arises of what kind of society we want to live in.  One where all are treated with dignity and those who have share with those who do not, or one where community has broken down so badly that many are in hunger while others have more than plenty.  Many in all political parties find the experience of food poverty in such a wealthy country as Britain unacceptable.  Yet this is a deeply political question as the Government’s policies on welfare reform are a contributory factor (even if the precise effect is a matter of debate) and many ordinary, middle income citizens assume that many choose to live on benefits as an easier option to work.

It is also a deeply theological question.  We believe in being generous in response to the generosity of God.  We believe that the one God in Trinity, whose nature is love
(1 Jn 4:8), is the ultimate model of community as well as of self-sacrificing generosity. This kind of love goes beyond sharing via a charity our surplus food or belongings; it extends to developing community wherever we have influence.  We believe, further, that the church has a role of declaring truth and prophesying God’s perspective on the events and conditions on Earth.  This too is part of seeing the kingdom come and His will being done on earth as in heaven.

So sharing food out of compassion is good but not enough.  We need to allow God to form in us a vision for a society so influenced by the presence of God that there is work for those who can work and adequate provision for those who are ill, have a disability or just going through a bad patch.’

The history of the church suggests that speaking prophetically without the context of humility and godly character is dangerous.  It leads to bishops directing the city authorities or to misguided efforts to bring about the kingdom by force.  History also suggests that without the supernatural direction and presence of the Holy Spirit the church cannot be truly prophetic.

So what might the church need to say in response to the report on food poverty? There is no doubt that we need to encourage generosity on the part of Christians and encourage others to follow our example.  We should probably, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, urge the Government to play a part in resourcing food banks and the co-ordination of reducing food waste.  We need to go further and demonstrate what authentic community looks like, where the haves share with the have-nots e.g. Acts 4:32-35).  Godly ‘haves’ share not in a patronising way but with respect for the humanity of the ‘have-nots’.  The basis of such sharing is not just compassion, though that is important, but the fact that a community is made up of all: rich and poor have a common bond.

We probably need to go further, however, and address some root cause issues.  That is where it gets really tricky to be clear what is inspired by the Holy Spirit and what comes from prejudice or an inadequate worldview.  Should we urge Government to be compassionate and to relax the rules on how benefits can be claimed and to relax the culture in Jobcentres of suspicion that claimants are fraudulent?  Is this what Jesus would have done?  He denounced the Pharisees for observing the Law but failing to be compassionate in relation to the poor  (which really means to be just, caring for those who cannot care for themselves, so that they are not unduly disadvantaged).

This is where we tread on political ground and should not be afraid to do so.  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17) has been interpreted over the centuries as “Give to Caesar what Caesar demands” as though our faith can affect every area of life except political opinions.  The reality is more complex.  For Jesus to address Pilate, Caesar’s representative, in the manner recorded in John 19 was a direct challenge to his authority: Pilate realised “You are a King, then!”  We might disagree on some of the detail and how far to go, but where there are issues of righteousness it is our duty (not our privilege) to speak out whether it will fall on receptive, deaf or antagonistic ears.  This is a conversation that is just beginning in Christian circles but it is an important one.  And the fact that the Parliamentary Enquiry was cross-party gives some encouragement.

Chris Horton (Director & Trustee)