There is a rule of thumb in the news industry, which says that something that happens in your own back yard is ten times as news-worthy as something that happens somewhere else; something that happens in a country that’s just like ours and amongst people who are just like us is a hundred times as news-worthy as something that happens in a country that is poor and far away, where there are no modern telecommunications and people live lives that are too different for us to understand or really care about. And so it is that, bad as these things are, bushfires in Victoria or floods in Queensland, a hurricane that brings down power poles in New York make news while more terrible, slow-motion and entirely preventable humanitarian disasters in impoverished and inaccessible corners of the world unfold silently.
In the Horn of Africa, that’s the top right hand corner where the bit that sticks out defines where the Indian Ocean meets the Gulf of Aden, disaster struck this year a few months ago during the late northern spring. The countries that make up this region are Sudan – which has been embroiled in bitter ethnic and religious conflict for the last 20 years – Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti – home to about 165 million people who live in conditions that by Western standards appear medieval. Terrorism and piracy thrive, and Western aid agencies were driven out last year by the brutal Islamist group, Al Shabab, which controls the southern third of Somalia that is the epicentre of this year’s devastating drought and subsequent crop failure. Two months ago, the United Nations declared the Horn of Africa area a famine zone, which is not just a label – it means that malnutrition has affected one third of the population, and that every single day 2 out of every ten thousand people day of starvation. International aid – direct supplies of food as well as money – has been slow and insufficient, and the problems in distributing it have been understandably immense. Hundreds of thousands of victims have gathered in massive refugee camps in Ethiopia where families are guaranteed of food only for the first six days after their arrival – and as of this week the United Nations estimates that 3 million are in urgent need of aid, with over ten million at risk. Seven hundred and fifty thousand are thought to be facing death within a few weeks. This is the worst famine for 60 years in a part of the world that has known regular disasters for a century or more.
But we hear little about it on the nightly news.
Well, we are thinking about food, this month, and our reading from Romans poses us some uncomfortable questions. Perhaps we need to know a little about the context of the reading – 1 Corinthians, chapter 8, discusses the same issue - a situation in which, across most of the ancient world, butcher’s shops as we know them today didn’t exist. For most urban dwellers, the weekly grocery shop included a trip to the local temple of one or other of the bewildering array of gods, where animals that had been slaughtered as sacrifices were then sold for food. So St Paul is not considering here the virtues of a vegetarian versus a non-vegetarian diet, he is discussing the ethical dilemma for Christians, that for them to eat meat generally meant eating meat that has been offered to idols. For myself, he says, in the letter to the Corinthians, this is not a huge problem – given that the gods to which this meat has been offered are not gods at all, then I can eat it without any ethical problem. But for the sake of others – if this might give offence especially to new Christians who haven’t thought it through and arrived at the same conclusion as me – then I will refrain from eating meat. So he is a vegetarian by default, and as a long-term vegetarian myself, I think why the heck not? Considering ancient food-handling methods, he’s probably a lot better off.
But, how does this apply to us? How does it help us to think about the connection between our own consumption and the famine in the Horn of Africa, or in general the connection between our own consumption and the living and non-living systems of our fragile planet home? St Paul is certainly not making the argument that frustrated parents have tried since time immemorial: “eat your greens, people are starving in Africa you know?” His argument is more subtle, and it pivots on one thing: the giving of offence. The word Paul uses – both here and in the letter to the Corinthians is skandalon – a stumbling block. That we should not scandalise others by our lack of thought.
A way of unpacking the argument in this passage that you hear from time to time, is that St Paul is making it all relative. Nothing is clean or unclean unless you think it is, everything is kosher unless somebody else objects to it, and so we should live and let live, accept everybody’s different ideas about these things, refrain from judgement, and maybe make a few concessions for the sake of avoiding arguments. You see, I think this is way wide of the mark, I don’t think that is the effect or the intention of St Paul’s argument at all. If it was, we would have a wishy-washy faith indeed, and we do not.
Of course there are some things, for example about how we worship, the different styles of worship and different understandings in the Church of what God is like, that have the potential to divide Christians, and here we need to learn how to be clear about our own beliefs and actions, to understand how what we say and do is grounded in our beliefs about God and perhaps to be ready to give an account of that, while at the same time loving as sisters and brothers those who hold different views with equal integrity. At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter whether I am right or wrong about this doctrine, or this particular style of celebrating the sacraments – it doesn’t matter whether I am wrong or right, what matters is that God is right, and that I am loved by God, and that how I live grows out of my understanding and experience of God’s love.
Which means that the inclusion and love that should characterise Christian community isn’t an excuse for anything goes. It matters what I say, it matters what I do, and specifically St Paul’s argument is that the decisions I make about how I live do not just involve my own preferences but need to be based on an awareness of how my actions affect others and bear consequences for others. Food, of course, is one of the most personal, domestic areas of our lives – we eat at home, we eat with friends and family – and yet St Paul is saying that even in this personal sphere of our lives our choices are not just a private matter, if by that we mean that we can just suit ourselves. In how we live, in what we consume or spend on ourselves versus what we give for the need of others, even in what we eat, we owe a duty to reflect on how others are affected by our choices.
And they are affected. Those who suffer in the third world are acutely aware of the wasteful and immoral self-indulgence of citizens of the first world. We give offence when we spend money extravagantly, beyond what we really need, while millions lack even the bare minimum to preserve life. We give offence, in our wealthy country, when we suffer diseases of over-consumption. The crux of St Paul’s argument is that we must balance our own desires and preferences against the needs of others – not just in terms of food but in all of our expenditure – that we should live humbly and show mercy, that we should show solidarity with those who suffer by giving out of what – let’s face it, for every single one of us in our wealthy country – is an abundance.
Other choices also present themselves, and some of these can be complex. It matters – did you know? – what coffee you buy, because the major coffee companies historically have kept poor farmers in third world countries from receiving a fair share of the profits. But the good news is that even at the big supermarkets, you can buy Fair Trade coffee that gives third world communities a fair go. Our first world overconsumption of meat is also a justice issue, with meat production disproportionately using scarce water resources and tying up valuable land, and accounting for 20% of our country’s greenhouse gases. The same amount of land and water that can grow a kilogram of meat protein can grow ten kilograms of protein in the form of grains and legumes. In a hungry, thirsty world, our choices matter, and our choices affect others. The decision to grow your own vegetables is a political decision, because it reduces your indirect use of fossil fuel and water, your contribution to global warming. Refraining from buying exotic food that is out of season, and so has to be flown here from somewhere else in the world is also a political decision, because what food scientists call food-miles are a direct contribution to global pollution and warming. While we can’t take everything into account, and while Christians who think deeply about these issues might still arrive at different conclusions, St Paul’s argument suggests a way of living that recognises first the care and concern we should have for others and for the future of our fragile planet home. That by how we live we should reflect God’s care and concern for all creation.