The church’s involvement in ending world hunger is hardly a recent occurrence; ever since its inception at Pentecost, Christians have shared their possessions in order to feed the hungry. This too is the goal of ‘food security’, more precisely, to ensure that all have “sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle” (World Food Summit 1996). Surely this is in keeping with the teachings of the Bible and Jesus?
Of this I have no doubt. Yet, a more recent movement has come to challenge the dominant ‘food security’ model, namely, the ‘food sovereignty movement’. It differs because of its defence of ‘the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture’ and ‘to determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant’ (Nyeleni Declaration 2007). While many may be food ‘secure’ through the receiving of aid packages, they may remain with ‘food sovereignty’ because they continue to have access to their own food production restricted or completely compromised.
The question is, does the Bible simply command us to make sure everyone has enough food to eat, regardless of where it’s from? I would suggest that the Bible has distinct principles pointing towards a world where everyone has the right to produce their own food and be self-reliant.
Where better to look than ‘in the beginning’, where God’s creation demonstrates human’s basic right to produce food. In Genesis, God gives Adam the instruction to work and keep the land (2:18) but also gives him the creative task of naming all the livestock, the beasts of the land and the birds of the heavens (2:20). Through these instructions, food and nature is given a whole new significance to humankind; food is not only a source of health and substance, but an integral part of humankind’s relationship to creation and God. It is simply not enough to be given food, God desired for us to know its source and be part of its production.
What is overwhelmingly clear – and binds the sovereignty versus security debate in union – is God’s intention to ensure His people had enough. Genesis, whatever you may think of it, creatively describes the beautiful diversity and abundance with which the world was created and all that is within. Genesis 2:16 describes God’s instruction to Adam that He may eat of any tree (bar one of course) and yet greed led Adam and Eve to want more than a more than fair share. More than ever, the story of the fall reflects humankind’s desire to be more like God and own a greater share than is possible.
The second principle highlighted in scripture is God’s denouncement of slavery. The Bible is full of stark contrasts between good and evil and one such contrast which demonstrates God’s desire for (something along the lines of) food sovereignty is that of Israel’s enslavement to Egypt and the establishment of His covenant with them.
Exodus is the story of how God responds to one group of people being oppressed by another; it says that the ruling Egyptians set ‘taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens’, ‘made their lives bitter with hard service’ and ‘all kinds of work in the field’ (Exodus 1:11, 14). Essentially, one nation was using another for economic profit. What is interesting here is that the Israelites were clearly fed during their service as slaves; they clearly remonstrate with Moses upon escaping slavery that they’d prefer being back in bondage due to having enough food (Exodus 16:3). Obviously, the Israelites had food security, but did they have authority to choose their own food production and protection from external powers? No.
God’s reaction to this was to literally stoop down and rescue his people from oppression and tyranny (Exodus 3:7-8). Of course this story is so much more than just food; but God was mighty in His response against one group of people being subordinated in order to build the gross riches of another. In today’s situation, many peasant farmers live in a situation not too unlike those of pre-Exodus Israel, with their means of self-sustenance, freedom and living taken away by a foreign power. Surely, like those enslaved in Egypt, this is not fair or enough to ensure real freedom for so many?
Hence the alternative and just system of ethics which is established as part of God’s covenant with Israel, where the actions of the Israelite people were to ensure fairness for all. Deuteronomy 8:12-14 forms the cornerstone of a simple covenant principle; you shall not over-accumulate; furthermore, the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10) ensured that unfair accumulation of land would not last. Reading through scripture, you can almost glide from the Exodus story to the law of the covenant, where you can keenly observe the radical difference between a people who are food secure but in slavery, and the same people who are commanded to live in a way that promotes self-reliance (whilst also remembering God’s saving power).
Despite all this, there are, of course, some strong arguments to suggest that food security, as we know it, is reflected in the Bible too. Firstly, the simple act of giving a tithe is surely an ancient predecessor to the aid giving model of the present day? After all, In Deuteronomy 26, the Israelite is instructed to take the sum of three years tithe and spread it amongst the sojourners, widows and fatherless of their town so that all may ‘be filled’. This just goes to show the pragmatism of God’s ethics; a just law must strive to give these people power and hope, but must also deliver their basic needs. In short, people must be food secure while they are being made food sovereign.
The supernatural providence of God also appears to contradict the bible’s support for food sovereignty. Take the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years who were miraculously provided with manna from the heavens; there are no signs in this story of people being empowered to self-sustain, just a group of helpless nomads being made secure by the will of a higher power (i.e. God). Yet this story must be understood in light of the fact that the Israelites were transitioning from slavery to the covenant community discussed earlier. The providence of manna was a form of emergency miracle aid, given to sustain its beneficiaries while self-sustenance was not a reality. The providence of manna was a short term grace, not the intended model for food justice upon reaching the ‘Promised land’.
Having said all this, the time spent in the wilderness demonstrates that God responds mercifully to people in need and so we too must ensure that people are fed at their point of need. We should ensure that people are food ‘secure’, but we need to ask serious questions as to why people are food ‘insecure’ in the first place. Like Jesus, we must respond to the poor with compassion and generosity, but also challenge vested interests. The bible is for ‘food security’, because God cares about people going hungry, but on it’s own it is simply not enough.