Christ's Bread for the World

Christ's Bread for the World

"And in this matter . . . who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have."
2 Corinthians 8:10-11, ESV


“They need not go away; you give them something to eat” were instructions that Jesus gave to his disciples prior to the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:16). His words were leavened with moral obligation. The level of “oughtness” challenges Christians in every generation when we are faced with limited resources and extraordinary need. Poverty and hunger are a perennial moral concern and, as Jesus’ disciples learned, there is much more to the ethical obligation than providing fish and bread!

The recent pandemic, for example, exacerbated the long-standing global issue that is closely related to poverty; namely, hunger and food insecurity. Tens of millions of people in America who had never missed a meal found themselves confronted by food insecurity and the problem has persisted. In recent days, the nightly news also called attention to the Horn of Africa and the extraordinary extended drought there that has led to human suffering and death.

How could any one of us forget the long food lines of desperate families here at home and pictures of severely malnourished children in Africa!? Few in the wealthy Western Christian world are so calloused as not to be aware on some level of a moral obligation to help! Without intending to be clichéd, “What would Jesus do?” Most of us would immediately reply, “You give them something to eat.” The verbal response is ingrained into our moral psyches, but responsible action is not always the result.
Framing the Moral Issue of Food Insecurity
Here is the bald truth, as we say: We see the pictures of poverty and hunger and recognize the need, but never quite get around to providing help (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-11, esp. 10-11, “Who a year ago started not only to do it. So now finish doing it well”). Or if we do help, it is in response to an acute crisis and not the chronic need. How may we recognize what is morally incumbent upon us and “finish it well”?

Here are two moral rules (i.e., normative standards) that will enable us to examine the specific moral concern of food insecurity and our obligation to become involved in resolving the issue. Christ's own example of care and personal sacrifice is our bridge between the "is" (fact) of hunger and the "ought" (responsibility) to do something about it (2 Corinthians 8:9).

First, Christ-followers may all agree on the intrinsic badness of human suffering. Therefore, it is wrong to let an innocent person die, in this case, from malnourishment, when we can prevent that death with minimal effort and sacrifice on our part. For example, we can all agree that long food lines and weakened children with distended stomachs is bad.

Secondly, morally good Christians will take steps to make the world a better place by striving to reduce the amount of unnecessary pain, suffering, and death from malnourishment in the world. For example, with minimal effort and limited financial sacrifice I can take steps to reduce human suffering and unnecessary deaths by donating pennies a day toward famine-relief organizations. They will feed hungry children and treat otherwise attendant diseases like chronic diarrhea, chronic fatigue, and impaired brain development. We also can commit to assist those who suffer by volunteering in a humanitarian organization.

We surely recognize that we have a moral obligation to respond to human suffering like hunger and malnutrition, but we also admit that we are confused by the terminology. We will need precise definitions of hunger, food security, and food insecurity.
What Precisely is Hunger, Food Security, and Food Insecurity?
Hunger is “a feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food, coupled with the desire to eat” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “hunger”). The “hungry” are “those who lack enough calories for an active, healthy lifestyle.” (Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 7). The definitions of these terms seem simple enough; however, there are important distinctions to be made.

Terms like hunger and food insecurity lacked pinpoint accuracy, so the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced a new description in 2006 to define “very low food security.” Hunger is related to food insecurity, but it is a different phenomenon (Economic Research Service (ERS), of the USDA). The former refers to a personal physiological condition that may result from food insecurity, but food insecurity is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food.” Here are the ways that food security and insecurity are further classified.

Food security may be sub-classified as high food security where “there are no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.” Marginal food security is defined as “one or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. There is “little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.”

Food insecurity, in contrast, may be sub-classified as low food security and very low food security. Low food security indicates “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.” There is “little or no indication of reduced food intake.” Very low food security refers to “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.” There are reports of “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”
A Summary
The main and sub-classifications stated above provide a basic picture of what being hungry and food insecure mean. There is the psychological distress that leads to anxiety. We should also notice that there is a downward slope of food “quality, variety, and desirability” as a person or family experiences lowering levels of food security. The lowest level of food security also includes multiple occurrences of reduced food intake and skipped meals. This begs the question of how we may recognize signs of food insecurity.
How to Recognize Symptoms of Food Insecurity
Surveys are used to help determine the level of food security that a family may have. I will use a simple acronym that will help us to evaluate food insecurity in a child—E.A.T.

First, examine the physical appearance of a child. Low body weight is not necessarily a tell-tale sign; however, you may look for physical indicators like “swollen or puffy skin, chronically cracked lips, or chronically dry, itchy eyes.” If a child demonstrates this symptom, it is also likely that the adults at home are prioritizing the feeding of their children and missing meals themselves as well.

Secondly, anxiety may be evident in food insecure children. The chronically hungry may well be anxious about where the next meal is. School-aged children may complain frequently of excessive hunger, go to school early to get breakfast or rush to get to the head of the school lunch line. They may eat quickly and completely, and some may linger around the table for more food or frequently ask for another portion. Adults may engage in binge eating and overeating or, in contrast, food restriction like skipping meals. Adults in food insecure households may display weight/body shape concerns due to weight stigma.

Thirdly, talk to people who you may suspect are not getting enough to eat. Engage them in discussion and ask questions like: “What did you eat for dinner last night or breakfast this morning?” “Do you ever worry that you won’t have enough to eat?” Or “Has your family run out of food?”

The above-stated definitions and examples provide us with helpful descriptions, but we need to know what we may actively do to fulfill the obligation to “to give them something to eat.” Many Christian church traditions will soon observe Pentecost. Its rich historical and theological meaning will provide us with a way forward as we seek to fulfill Christ’s instructions in a sustained way.
Biblical Principles of Care for the Hungry
Gratitude was a creation principle of thanksgiving as Israel reflected upon God’s past acts of goodness in their behalf. He fed them in the wilderness after they left Egypt, and they were to do the same for the poor around them. Moses states God’s requirements for the celebration of festivals in Leviticus 23 where the religious calendar coincided with the agricultural year. Chapter 23 is divided in half with festivals that correspond to the spring (23:1-22) and celebrations around the time of fall harvests (23:23-43).

These feasts were “sacred assemblies” and times for national celebration where Israel renewed its allegiance to God and deepened national unity. In the Old Testament, the Feast of Weeks (23:15-22; Pentecost) was observed always on Sunday and fell seven full weeks after the beginning of Passover. This pilgrimage was observed on a single day, and worshipers offered two loaves of bread along with burnt (23:16b-18), sin, and fellowship offerings (23:19-20).

The principle of doing good to others by caring for the poor was taken seriously. God’s command to care for the poor leaps off the page at me because it provides the single example of external, hands-on, social witness in Leviticus 23. Without over-emphasizing the point, caring for the needs of the poor balances the scales of worship and justice in this chapter. In preacher-speak, God be praised for feeding Israel and God be praised for using Israel to feed the world! There is a harvest of theological insight to be drawn from this and similar Bible passages.
A Biblical Theology of Concern for Those who Hunger and Thirst
How do we begin to change the circumstance of hunger and food insecurity? We need to consume better bread! Look again at Leviticus 23 and also at Acts 2. This was the last festival for four months until the Feast of Trumpets in the fall. We might say that God wanted the Israelites to pour out of the mountain-top moment in worship and descend into the valley of despair to provide for the needs of His people everywhere. They were to give witness to God’s goodness—He gives us our daily bread (Matthew 6:11).

But there is more to be gleaned from this passage. Passover, Firstfruits, and Weeks correspond well with Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost! They are preparatory events that signal the coming of Christ and His work in our behalf. Christ, our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7), and by His resurrection, is the firstfruits of those that have died (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). The Day of Pentecost was the “first harvest” of the “new age inaugurated by Christ” (Acts 2) and it fell at the time of the Old Testament wheat festival. So, I believe that the first church knew this connection, and they also knew how important it was to feed, if I may, this “whole-wheat bread” to a hungry world—Good News and good food (cf. also Acts 6:1; 11:29; 24:17; 1 Tim 4:9–10)!
A Christian Way Forward
We may step toward fulfilling our moral obligation to feed the world when we change our perception. Food insecurity may happen to virtually anyone on this planet. Love for one’s neighbor means that we will choose to act neighborly when there is a need (Luke 10:29-37, esp. 36-37). As recent as March of this year, 21.7 million American households reported food scarcity, including 10.7 million households with children under the age of eighteen.

The pandemic introduced millions of Americans to first-time food insecurity where they joined millions of others, such as the disabled, families of color, and those within the LGBTQ community. The spark that has caused the flame of food insecurity to remain burning has been food inflation. Inflation rose by 7.9% in February of this year to a 40-year high and impacted meat, poultry, fish, and eggs all of which increased in price by 13 percent.

We may step forward to fulfilling our moral obligation to feed our planet when we strive to level out the peaks and valleys with our response to human suffering. A monsoon in Nagaland or a hurricane along the Gulf Coast can create acute food crises overnight. We do well to respond to widespread acute needs following natural catastrophes. However, there are also the longer-term calamities caused by human structural injustices and a natural phenomenon like a drought. Christians need to provide consistent human response to moral need until hunger and food insecurity are eradicated.

We may step forward to fulfill our moral obligation to feed our world when we strive to purge our own wasteful consumptive lifestyles. This type of moral obligation may never come to our minds, but it is indeed an important one. Both under-nutrition and over-nutrition lead to preventable disease, unnecessary suffering, and early deaths. Few of us are unfamiliar with under-nutrition because we most often see photos of poor starving children wasting away in undeveloped countries. Americans, in contrast, consume too many calories when we overeat, which leads to excess fat, excess saturated fat, excess protein, excess cholesterol, excess refined sugar, and excess sodium! What we do not consider is over-nutrition that leads to obesity and maladies like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. And what we do not eat, we often throw away while it is still good.

We are also notorious for over purchasing, then disposing of the extra food when it is no longer fresh. I will use an illustration of fresh baked bread (Engel, “Hunger, Duty, and Ecology: On What We Owe to Starving Humans”). Consider a bakery that does not want to run out of bread for its paying customers, so they will bake extra loaves each day. A nearby homeless shelter makes it a practice to purchase any leftover, day-old bread at a reduced and more affordable rate.

Fresh bread smells good, as we all know, so let’s say that I buy my normal loaf of bread and the extra bread right before closing time at the bakery. Of course, I cannot consume that much bread and when the fresh smell is gone, I simply throw it in the trash. Somewhere between thirty to forty percent of America’s food supply is wasted every year. Nearly 146 million tons of food wind up in landfills every year. Americans, sadly, may be accused of being “multi-squanderers!”

Conclusion: Pennies a day makes the hunger go away

The lingering sound of Jesus’ words “You give them something to eat” and the aroma of freshly broken bread in the Master’s hands should begin to impact us in a new and meaningful way. Our Mary’s Table® food ministry for food insecure women comes directly to my mind along with other worthy ministries like Mission Arlington, Loaves and Fishes at Lakeside Baptist Church in Granbury, Texas, the North Texas Food Bank, and global humanitarian organizations like OXFAM and Samaritan’s Purse.

Two dollars and five cents set aside each day, an amount that is less than the cost of a Venti coffee at Starbucks, will feed ten families an evening meal for one year! A consistent simple $75 donation per month (roughly $2.05 per day), which is hardly a painful sacrifice for most of us, will be an important first step toward fulfilling our moral obligation to give the hungry world something to eat. We should follow this minimal sacrifice with sustained efforts to become more alert to the hunger that surrounds us and to consume only what we truly need.

Larry C. Ashlock