Food Sovereignty and the Bible: Preliminary Reflections on Biblical Models of Power and Charity in Western Culture
by Mikey Sandford
We cannot necessarily expect biblical texts to speak to contemporary ethical issues in a straightforward manner. Certainly, some issues that we might frame today as ‘moral’ (whether or not they were seen as such by biblical writers) come up repeatedly in human history – retribution and justice, fair allocation of resources, war and peace, and sexual ethics, to name a few. But some modern ethical questions, whilst potentially rooted in more ancient and universal problems, have very particular and contemporary dimensions to them, which may not have been envisaged by the biblical writers.
Food sovereignty is one of these issues. At its core, it is concerned with a universal and primal human need. But fulfilling even the most basic of human needs can quickly become a political issue; indeed, political struggles often find their roots in human desire to fulfil certain perceived needs. Arguably, we need not look much further than two children quibbling over a packet of sweets to see that an instinctive quest for quick calories can quickly become a power struggle.
There are certainly some issues that food politics in the contemporary world have in common with food politics in, say, first century Galilee in Palestine. It is clear that the Roman Empire exerted an economic burden on this region – as it did across the Mediterranean world – although the precise extent of this burden is disputed. In this period much of the Mediterranean world increasingly witnessed peasants being dispossessed of their land, and forced to pay rent to a landlord, as well as imperial and temple taxes. Food was not just for survival or pleasure, but was a resource that could be used, by landlords, to build personal wealth at the expense of peasant farmers.
There are, however, certain differences between first century Galilee and the world today. The food sovereignty campaign is concerned, for instance, with the role of modern technologies like genetic engineering, which may undermine farmers’ abilities to develop and pass on knowledge and skills necessary for localised food systems. While agricultural technology has been in more-or-less constant development for centuries, we are seemingly at a new stage in history in which farmers are at risk of economic failure when there is a lack of instruction, or funds, to enable them to actually benefit from certain technologies that they are forced to use. To give another example, while the food sovereignty campaign is forced to make an explicit point of the need to work ‘with nature’, ancient agriculturalists – perhaps all pre-industrial agriculturalists – had little choice but to work with nature. They were hardly in the same situation that we see today, in which many farmers are forced to damage the land that they work on by growing the same crop that the market demands year after year, and by boosting yields with harmful chemicals. Further, the issue of localisation was less pressing in ancient Galilee, for whilst trade existed, it clearly did not occur on quite the grand scale that it does today with modern transportation technology; and transport in ancient trade clearly did not entail the emission of green house gasses in the way it does today with our reliance on oil-based fuels.
While it may be helpful to consider the similarities and differences between the biblical world and the contemporary world, to me a more pressing question concerns the role of the Bible in determining Western attitudes towards food and power; for the food sovereignty campaign, in a fairly definite sense, has a lot to do with redistributing power from the consumers to the producers. What does the Bible say, if anything, about giving people power over their own food? And has the Bible, as (arguably) a cornerstone of Western culture, already informed popular views about food and power?
The feeding miracles are an interesting case, with God’s miraculous provision of Manna for the Israelites being one of the most obvious examples. The Israelites, living as nomads in the desert at the time, were basically unable to produce their own crops, and dependent upon God to provide for their basic needs; they were, effectively, powerless over their food supplies, and dependent on a third, power-wielding, party. Jesus’ feeding miracles, such as the feeding of the four thousand and the feeding of the five thousand in the gospels, follow on in a similar tradition. They present a similar model of dependency on the divine for food. And, of course, the famous line in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, once again places hope on the divine to provide sustenance. Such narratives no doubt reflect deep-seated and ancient notions of food insecurity, which find their root in humankind’s ultimate dependency on nature for sustenance. Leaving climate change and its effects aside, humans are often more-or-less powerless when it comes to droughts, floods, and the forces of nature. It is for this reason that humans across the planet have long petitioned God to protect and provide for them, and this is seemingly reflected in certain biblical narratives.
Turning to other models, the almsgiving model, which finds expression all over the biblical canon, also does not readdress issues of power. Models of ‘giving to the poor’ maintain a dynamic in which those who already possess wealth are entitled to choose whether or not to redistribute whatever fraction they desire, regardless of whether or not their contribution will necessarily satisfy the recipient’s long term needs. Such charity also entails the pitfall of becoming self-glorifying, as Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees with their trumpets illustrates (Mt ??). It could be asked, as the Greeks asked, whom the practice of almsgiving serves the most: the giver, the recipient, or society broadly.
Some of John the Baptist and Jesus’ sayings, however, offer a significantly alternative model. John the Baptist’s teachings pointed towards absolute material equality – the one with two cloaks should give away one, and the one who has food must share it (Lk 3). And for Jesus, almsgiving was clearly insufficient. In the story of the so-called rich young ruler, Jesus called not only for giving to the poor, but for the selling of all possessions, effectively placing the giver on a very similar economic level as the destitute. And, of course, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for neglecting justice in spite of their fastidious tithing (Lk 23?); a fairly concrete critique, I would suggest, of the shortcomings of almsgiving. But to be clear, John and Jesus were not talking about food sovereignty, nor were they talking explicitly about power. These sayings of John and Jesus emphasise divestment, or the abandonment of possessions, and redistribution of wealth; or, put simply, sharing.
Arguably, such a sentiment is envisaged, on occasion, within the biblical canon. Famously, 1 Kings 4:25 describes a period of Israelite prosperity under King Solomon’s rule, in which ‘Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan to Beer-sheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree’. This text, however, is clearly not presenting a moral imperative, as helpful as that would be for justifying the food sovereignty campaign from a biblical text, for whoever would wish to do such a thing.
The tithing-charity-almsgiving-aid model with which we are all familiar has offered short term solutions to the fundamental human need for food since ancient times. But such a model has always been profoundly limited, for it does not address issues of power and self-determination. In this respect, it is fundamentally different to the notion of food sovereignty. For food sovereignty is not about care for the poor or provision for the poor, but about shifting the locus of power so that it is restored to those who produce food, and not Western market forces. Further, food sovereignty de-emphasises the piety and renunciation of the giver, in order to emphasise the self-determination of the producers. Whether an imperative to this effect can be found in a biblical text or not, I am unsure.
Read the original working paper here.
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Mikey Sandford is from the Sheffield Uni SPEAK group, and a member of the Campaigns Petal in Flower Model
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