The Works of Mercy: Feed the Hungry

Norman Borlaug is not the sort of name you think of when it comes to world-historical heroism. A Norwegian Lutheran son of Iowa, he grew up on the prairie, went to college during the Depression where he studied the thoroughly unglamorous subject of agriculture, enjoyed wrestling, met his wife while waiting tables at a university Dinkytown coffee shop where they both worked, and had three kids. He never starred in a movie, never ran for office, never led men into battle, would not have been noticeable to you if you saw him in the street.

Oh yeah, and he saved the lives of a billion people.

Norman Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution, an awesome scientific undertaking of 20th Century American agricultural science resulting in the breeding of fantastically fruitful strains of food plants that kept the burgeoning population of the world (especially the Third World) from starving to death. Almost nobody has heard of him due to the characteristic modesty of his generation and cultural background, but without him we could well be living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

That nightmare was sketched for us in 1968 by a self-anointed prophet named Paul Erlich, who knew everything except what he was talking about. In his book The Population Bomb, Erlich set the pace still followed by our lazy Chattering Classes when he embraced the Malthusian/Scrooge approach to the problem of feeding the human race by curling up in a ball, proclaiming defeat, and saying “If the poor be like to die, they had better do it and help decrease the surplus population.” As Erlich put it, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over… In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He added, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971,” and “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

Turns out the Prophet of Doom didn’t reckon on Norman Borlaug, whose new strains of plants produced enormous yields that doubled India’s food production, made Mexico a grain exporter and saved the lives of a billion people all over the Third World.

When he dies, I sincerely hope that Erlich, the apostle of defeat and contraception will not hear the words spoken to the servant who hid his one talent in the ground (Matthew 25:14-30). But I am confident that if anybody stands a good chance of hearing from Jesus, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat” it will be Norman Borlaug, who goes down in history, without any possible comparison, as the guy who gave more food to the Least of These than anybody who ever lived. We can certainly pray with hope that when he died on September 9, 2009 he heard (perhaps with the same surprise as the Sheep in the Parable), “Come into the kingdom which my Father has prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Borlaug stands as a sort of symbol of one pole of a dynamic tension that tends to always exist in the Catholic faith. It is the tension between practical results and good intentions. The woman at the temple treasury who put in two small copper coins is at the other pole. In terms of “results”, they couldn’t be further apart. The woman could barely feed herself, much less the world. Nonetheless, the two have something in common: they did the most they could with what they had. Borlaug used his gifts and exploited his opportunities in order to feed a billion people. The woman at the treasury put in “all she had to live on” said Jesus—and it counted more in God’s sight than all the gifts of the rich from their excess.

Most of us live somewhere between these two great heros, but all of us are called to do the best with what we have. For us average Catholics, this usually means we schlep along and do what we can, supporting charities, making sure that company is fed when they visit, perhaps working in our parish soup kitchen—trying to give a little bit extra. That’s not a thing to be sneezed at. Not all of us have the gift and calling to found some gigantic ministry that feeds the poor. But lots of us can (and do) give our tithe and then some to those who do. Mercy CorpsBread for the WorldFeed the Hungry, and a boatload of other organizations would not exist if everybody was a visionary inspired to create some multinational organization to help the starving masses. Such organizations all require ordinary folk like you and me to pour our little copper coins in faithfully according to our means.

Result: American charitable giving in 2009 was $307.65 billion. That’s the second year in a row that charitable giving has exceeded 300 billion dollars—during the worst economic downturn since the Depression. This is but one of the ways that the ordinary, run-of-the-mill, commonplace ethic of charity and gift to neighbor that the Christian faith has always encouraged is one of the most vital lubricants to the smooth running of our civilization. Getting rid of the Faith and expecting its fruits to continue is but one of the many lunatic ideas our anti-Christian Chattering Classes embrace as they look forward to a culture running on efficiency and reason alone. But anybody can see that charity is not according to reason. It is according to love, which is a higher thing than mere reason and addresses human beings as higher things than mere beasts or ingredients in an economic formula. Lord alone knows how many social upheavals have been prevented simply due to the fact that ordinary schlubs have taken it upon themselves to do such incredibly simple things as buy a down-and-out guy a cup of coffee or help an unwed mother move into her apartment or just spend an hour on a park bench listening to a lonely bore. It is quite literally impossible to calculate the good that has been done by the works of charity the Christian tradition has encouraged. And, in a certain sense, all of them could be seen as “feeding the hungry.”

For, of course, “feeding the hungry” is not simply concerned with feeding the belly. Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God. At this very hour, billions are starving for meaning as much as, indeed more than, they starve for bread. Whole societies and civilizations that have the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid pretty well taken care of are nonetheless empty to the core because, as the sacred writer says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). Our McDonaldized culture largely has the problem of hunger licked (with a few exceptions). Indeed, the poor in our culture have much more to fear from obesity and diabetes than from dying in the snows like the Little Match Girl.

We will talk of that more anon, particularly when we get to discussing the spiritual works of mercy. But before we rush off to spiritualize things safely into the realm of the metaphorical and non-economic, let’s stick, for the time being, with feeding the hungry with real, actual, organic food. While the poor domestically are struggling with their weight, abroad it is another story. There are still millions who are in literal danger of starving to death. In virtually every case, this is due, not to there being just enough of us white people, but way too many brown ones (as First World Population Planners continually tell us). It’s because the starving people live in crappy manmade socio-economic and political systems that do not get the more-than-enough-food this planet produces to their hungry bellies but instead keep it bottled up somewhere or turn it into a source of unjust profit for some despot who cares more for gold than human souls. The solution is not to tell the poor person to kill his child so that rich people can have carbon credits, but to demand that the rich one or Lefty ideologue running the African despotism or corporate system of exploitation to give the poor man what is rightly his: enough food to eat. This is not Marxism. Indeed, it is not even a “work of mercy.” This is Church teaching on mere justice:

St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”:

When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.

Perhaps a better way to phrase that is “Less than performing works of mercy, we are paying debt of justice.” For of course, mere acts of justice are not superabundant works of mercy: they are the bare minimum expected of us as functional moral beings. Obeying the Ten Commandments is not heroism or sanctity; it’s the very least that can reasonably be expected of the human person. The Ten Commandments essentially say, “If you can’t love your neighbor, at least don’t beat him to death with a baseball bat, steal his stuff, or run off with his wife.” Similarly, Jesus tells us, “If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-47). Merely doing the just thing, while well and good and preferable to being a crook and a dirtbag, is not really the goal. Merely making certain that our economic arrangements don’t screw the poor out of what is rightfully theirs, while fine, is not really heroic sanctity. What is called for is not mere fairness, but love that goes above and beyond.

I don’t like hearing that any more than you do. I feel the economic pinch too. The awesome power, solid gold Cadillacs, Swedish bikini massage teams, and glittering, cloud-topped spires of corporate wealth that some folk imagine to bedeck the life of a lower middle-class freelance Catholic writer turn out not to be all that the fevered imagination has rumored. I live, like many folk, wondering how to meet the bills each month. So the general advice to tithe, to remember the “preferential option for the poor” and so forth leave me, as much as thee, with the odd sensation of being pressed to death some days. I fret, as do you, about how much I can afford to “feed the hungry” and go the extra mile and give generously, as does everybody else. And truth be told, I sometimes cut corners. Moreover, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to observe my girth and realize that gluttony—one of the seven deadly sins and a contributor to the starvation of others—has been a lifelong struggle and a leading subject of many a confession over the years.

But for all my faults and hypocrisy, I do not doubt for a moment that the obligation nonetheless exists that we do our bit to feed the poor, whatever our sins and failures. For the simple fact is, I’m not making this stuff up. I didn’t invent the Tradition. I merely report it. And the Tradition has always been emphatic: feed the hungry to the best of your ability.

Don’t make much? Feed the hungry anyway, even if it’s just a bit.

Battling the temptation to eat like a pig and mostly find yourself losing ground? Feed the hungry and kick yourself for your failures afterward.

Resentful of the shiftless poor? Jesus didn’t say, “Feed the deserving.” He just said, “Feed the hungry.”

Peter, do you love me? Then feed the hungry! If your name is not Peter, do it anyway.

We are to feed the hungry for two basic reasons that I can detect in the Catholic tradition. First, because the hungry are Jesus in one of his distressing disguises and second because the hungry are hungry. The medievals noted we could know lesser truths more surely and greater truths less surely, just as we can see a candle clearly but not the sun. Similarly, the way we know we have fed the hungry is when they burp and pat their tummies. The way we know we have fed Jesus is purely because he tells us it is so. It is a classic example of the way supernatural revelation tells us things we could not possibly know on our own. The presence of Jesus Christ in the poor is no more evident to the senses that the presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. It is purely a matter of faith in what he tells us. And indeed, one of the ironies of our present culture of New Atheist hostility to the Faith is that the same people who routinely sneer at the Real Presence in the Eucharist actually imagine that once the Faith is gone, we will see the dignity of the poor all the more clearly apart from religious dogma.

This purely sentimental delusion will, in fact, vanish like a dream should the Faith really take the pounding that people like Christopher Hitchens pray (sic) it gets. Without the dignity which Jesus gives the poor, the first response of a truly rationalist culture will be to judge the poor purely on the empirical evidence: the smell of alcohol, pot, urine and vomit, the schizophrenic rambling, the addictions, the violence, the ignorance, the ratty clothes, the toothlessness, the appalling hygiene, the clusters of social, economic and psychological pathologies that swarm around the poor like maggots—these will be the “facts” about them. Their dignity will be a mere superstitious projection: a holdover from the bad old days when people believed all that superstitious Jesus junk. And the quick, easy, and rational response of a society that has been carefully instructed to dismiss the presence of Christ from its mind will be, not charity, but the same solution that cowards like Paul Erlich always propose: cull the herd of the untermenschen and eliminate the contagion from the breed.

Against this, the Faith has always proposed the wildly impractical fact that Jesus really is present in the poor as (in a different mode) he is present in the Eucharist. Therefore we must feed the hungry or face the doom, “Depart from me into the everlasting fires prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat.”

The demand of Our Lord to feed the hungry is aggravatingly open-ended. In a world full of starving people, we are taught by our Tradition to live within our means and take care of our families… but we are also taught to be as generous as God—a terrifying prospect. “Love your enemies.” “Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect”. In a word, we are to act, not from some Minimum Daily Adult Requirement that asks, “What’s the least generosity I can get away with and still make the cut?” but “How can I give my life away in love for God?” I have no clear program for that any more than most people do, so I… schlep along and toss in my little copper coins as I can. I have my little charities I support, as do you. I pray that when I give something or share my worldly goods or give somebody something, that it will be enough to help them and that Jesus will receive it as his own. I ask for light and, when our Lord sees fit, he gives it.

But I’m also aware that there can be no resting on laurels when it comes to this or any work of mercy. God’s project of salvation is so crazy and huge that only God could attempt it. We puny mortals chip in our two bits and help a family here and there with a gift and, now and then, some bright meteor like Norman Borlaug pitches in with some dramatic act that rescues a billion souls. Meanwhile, I live in the hope that, like the woman at the Temple with her two little copper coins, my faith will be honored where my ability to save a billion lives is lacking. After all, Jesus was able to do a lot with five loaves and two fish.

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email