November 1, 2011
Today, Presbyterian Women is All Saints Day. It is time to remember the saints who went before us, women like Dr. Wangari Maathai who planted trees to respond to deforestation and won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Planting trees may seem to have little to do with those who hunger and thirst either for food or for justice, but for the rural people of Kenya, the repairing of the ecosystem of the forest meant food, fuel and other resources on which they depended for life, resources that were being cut down and not replaced by rich companies and the governement. At the risk of her life and at the cost of her marriage, Dr. Maathai started a movement to plant trees that began to rebuild the forests and restore the livelihoods, particularly for the women of rural Kenya.
The late Dr. Maathai reminds us that there is a connection in the Beatitudes of Matthew and Luke between those who hunger and thirst, and those who hunger and thirst for δικαιοσυνη (dikaiosyne) that word that we usually translate as "righteousness" but in Greek means "justice."
On this plentiful planet, hunger and thirst can often be a matter of injustice, governmental or corporate or both. Hunger and thirst in populations from Appalachia to Somalia can point to the reality that God's gifts of the earth are not distributed to all who have need, or are being taken from some for the benefit of others. This was not the way of the very first church, the church in the Acts of the Apostles. According to Acts 2:44-45:
All who believed were together and had all things in common;they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (NRSV)
It is tempting to think of "hunger and thirst" in Matthew's gospel as metaphors for deep longing. But if we do so, we have to ignore two things. First, the witness of Luke 6 is that Jesus' other teaching of the beatitudes was specifically good news to the hungry and chastisement of the stuffed. (Luke 6:20, 25)
Second, we have to ignore the context in which Jesus was speaking. Hunger and thirst were well known problems in Jesus' day. Scholars estimate that 50% of the calories of the ancient world were consumed by about 2% of the population. For the vast majority, their food was that "daily bread" for which Jesus taught his disciples to pray.
Indeed, it is no accident that the Lord's supper many of us will celebrate on November 6 is not a symposium feast, but a poor laborer's daily meal: bread and wine. Clearly, Jesus and his disciples would have eaten well on Passover night. But the simple elements that Jesus commanded we should use to remember him, bread and wine, would have been the daily food for which people of his day would hunger and would thirst.
November is an important month to think about hunger and thirst, both for food and for justice. As we celebrate the great reformers of the church and our call to be always reforming, we are called again to stand for those who yearn not only for grace but also for justice. As we remember the saints who have died, we are called to remember those who will hear from Jesus, "I was hungry and you gave me food." As we move toward the winter, here in the north, our food banks and our shelters will feel the need for our help as they care for those who hunger and thirst. As our nation continues to be embroiled in conversations about wealth and poverty, about hunger and thirst for food and for justice, our voice, the voice of the church, will need to be lifted up.
Perhaps learning more about this new initiative from the General Assembly Committee on Social Witness Policy is one response we might take. They have put online a new version of what used to be Church and Society. It is now called Unbound: A Christian Journal of Social Witness.