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Fighting Hunger - A Matter of Faith

 IPS 19 May 2019

(Originally published: 02/2010) The world's major religions might disagree on theology and matters like the foods we ought to eat and the days we should rest on, but when it comes to fighting hunger, they see eye to eye. Today 1.02 billion people are undernourished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and believers are not the only ones to have allowed this to happen - the whole world has, agnostics and atheists included.  - By Paul Virgo

ROME, Italy - The world's major religions might disagree on theology and matters like the foods we ought to eat and the days we should rest on, but when it comes to fighting hunger, they see eye to eye.

The holy books say that those who do not have enough to eat must be helped, which, if you are a believer, makes food insecurity a spiritual issue, not just a political or economic one.

"In every religion I know, the first or second most talked about issue [in their scriptures] is the number of verses that deal with the poor, the sick, the hungry," Tony P. Hall, director of the Alliance to End Hunger and former United States ambassador to the United Nations food agencies in Rome, told IPS.

"Over 2,500 Christian verses deal with this issue. Hunger is an issue that belongs to people of faith. God is very clear on this - we are supposed to take action."

Muslims agree.

"How can your spiritual state be in comfort when those around you are in need? Being a good Muslim is not just about locking yourself in a mosque in prayer," Mostafa Mahboob of the U.S. section of Islamic Relief told IPS.

"You also have responsibilities as a member of your community to those around you. There is definitely a connection between spirituality and hunger. By working to fight hunger, you are putting religious and spiritual teaching into practise."

Today 1.02 billion people are undernourished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and believers are not the only ones to have allowed this to happen - the whole world has, agnostics and atheists included.

Furthermore, religious organisations are in the frontline in fighting hunger. The Catholic umbrella group Caritas International is one of the world's biggest aid agencies. Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs all have important organisations similar to Caritas and Islamic Relief.

Nevertheless, some commentators have reached the conclusion that, if the scourge of hunger now affects almost one in six in a world of adequate food supplies, millions of people of faith must be neglecting the religious principles they claim to adhere to.

"How high must be the pile of statistics of hungry people? How high must be the pile of dead people? How high must be the pile of Bible verses? What will awaken the people of God from their comatose state?," asked Craig L Nessan in his book 'Give Us This Day, A Lutheran Proposal For Ending World Hunger'.

Prof. Shannon Jung of the Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City agrees that many believers frequently ignore an issue that should be a priority for them.

"I would say that people of faith are remarkably disposed to respond to crises such as that which Haiti is undergoing right now, but that we people of faith tend to miss a joyful opportunity to address systemic issues in the food supply system," Jung told IPS.

"Sharing with others is a gift that we can give, and one from which we also receive. God created human beings to share and we have a real need to share. We remain spiritually stunted if we do not."

Jung believes some religious leaders have a share of the blame because they give hunger less attention than other issues such as abortion or homosexuality.

"I do think hunger is a more immediate, obvious and demanding issue than abortion or homosexuality. Hunger penetrates every other issue and impacts the human family far more than abortion or homosexuality," he said.

"Sometimes I think churches in affluent nations deal with abortion and homosexuality as a way of avoiding the more serious and challenging issue of their complicity in hunger and poverty - a complicity that we the affluent all share in."

Similarly, Richard H. Schwartz, an emeritus mathematics professor of the College of Staten Island and a commentator on Judaism and social affairs, believes many of his fellow Jews are ignoring God's will by not doing more about hunger.

"Jews rightfully condemn the silence of the world when six million Jews and millions of other people were murdered by the Nazis," he commented in an essay on Judaism and Hunger. "Can we be silent when millions die agonising deaths because of lack of food? Can we acquiesce to the apathy of the world toward the fate of starving people?"

The religious exponents are also in sync about how people of faith should combat hunger, with three main forms of response advocated.

The first is financial support for, and personal involvement in, agencies and campaigns seeking to alleviate hunger.

"I think that Jews should be supporting a global Marshall-type plan to alleviate hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease, pollution and other societal ills, by using some of the money now going for military purposes for this initiative," Schwartz told IPS.

George McGovern proposed that "every church member, every synagogue member, every Muslim, every Buddhist, ought to make sure that their church has an overseas arm and a domestic arm that reaches out to the hungry" in 'Ending Hunger Now', a book he wrote with Methodist theologian Donald Messer and fellow former U.S. Senator Bob Dole.

The second suggested way of responding is political activism to try to pressure decision-makers into doing more to promote food security.

"They (churches) can be very effective in lobbying - they could have a special section where they would organize and petition Congress or petition the state legislatures," said Dole. "It is pretty easy (for politicians) to forget about domestic or world hunger. I know from experience… but we've just got to keep pestering people until they get the message."

Mahboob backs this position.

"Hunger is a human rights issue and any peaceful means to promote it is good, so we should take advantage of political or advocacy channels," he said. "It's reasonable to say that greater pressure from constituencies could help remedy the lack of political force in addressing this issue."

The final form of response is via the individual believer's lifestyle - simpler living with less consumerism and waste.

"One of the things that Islam teaches us is to only put on your plate what you can finish. It's not good to waste food. It's disrespectful to God," said Mahboob.

"We should respect what we have and be thankful. We are always trying to catch up with what our neighbours have, what car they drive and so on. But Islam says we should not be excessive in our everyday lives and we should share with our neighbours, our fellow humans… If we cut down on waste, we would spend less and have more to devote to those in need."

Schwartz even encourages people of faith to convert to vegetarianism, arguing this would free up agricultural resources to feed the hungry because breeding livestock is an inefficient way of producing food.

"I believe it is scandalous that the world is currently feeding about 40 percent of its grain to animals, while so many people are chronically hungry and malnourished," he said.

"It is urgent that religious communities and individuals scrutinise their life style and turn from habits of waste, over-consumption and thoughtless acceptance of the standards propagated by advertisements and social pressures.

"God - reality itself - calls us to respond to the cry for food. And we hear it as a cry not only for aid but also for justice."

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