Taking Responsibility for the Root Causes of World Hunger: The Challenge Facing Religious Communities

By: Michel Desjardins

October 16, 2018

Responding to: Food and Faith: How Can Religious Organizations Help End World Hunger?

Taking Responsibility for the Root Causes of World Hunger: The Challenge Facing Religious Communities

North American societies on the whole socialize their citizens into feeling warm and fuzzy about religious groups “helping the poor.” These groups, we’re told, engage in charitable food practices, including the management of local food banks, and when disasters strike they are often portrayed helping those in need. This is positive internal and external marketing on the part of religious groups themselves, government agencies, and the media.

It’s a message, to be sure, that helps keep our societies functioning. We need to believe, for the stability of our society, that politicians work for the common good, that the courts are neutral, and that religions are fundamentally good forces (or at least “ours” is). It’s not surprising that the media focuses on religious groups cooking Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor or providing earthquake relief in Mexico. 

A complicating factor for critics of the charity model is that, for anyone who has been on the front lines of those soup kitchens, or in disaster zones, the presence of dedicated religious volunteers can be inspiring. One can’t just wave a magic wand over problems like this to make them go away. 

But we can, and should, openly say that religious groups, on the whole (there are exceptions), are part of the problem far more than they are part of the solution. The way forward is not more charity, but a clear-eyed examination of exactly how religious groups contribute to world poverty so that significant actions can be taken to address these problems. Let me identify four areas in which constructive steps could be taken.

The first area is war. Wars directly lead to hunger, and many are generated and supported by religion. One wants to shout “Stop it already!” but those of us who have studied these issues know that as long as there are religions there will be religiously-grounded wars. What needs to be acknowledged by these religious groups, though, is the significant impact that this sort of violence continues to have on hunger. In the short term, religious groups might consider a variation of the “carbon offset/credit” model: for every act of aggression in which they’re involved, they should put aside a certain sum of money to help alleviate poverty. Imagine for a moment a situation where every military drone launched in the world would come with an additional $100,000 cost to be paid to a UN agency in support of poverty reduction.

Second, religious groups should stand shoulder to shoulder with environmental groups, not over against them. This is not a “Right” versus “Left” issue. Environmental degradation drives food scarcity, in the present and in the future. There’s something perverse about religious groups caring for the “poor” while supporting the destruction of the very land that produces the food. I’d love to see those “poor boxes” one finds at the back of churches replaced by charts noting the support given to local environmental groups. 

Third, imagine a parallel set of charts showing how many permanent jobs a religious group helped to create in its community. Work, after all, helps create dignity, and good work certainly makes it easier for people to purchase the food they need. Religious communities should promote the creation of jobs with good wages and openly criticize the obscene amounts of money made by CEOs and large corporations (sometimes including their own). 

Fourth, religious groups should put more power back in the hands of women. This recalibration involves control over their own bodies and full sexual equality. Traditional religions, however progressive they may have been at one time in history, continue to represent the worst of modern humanity when it comes to sexism and various other abuses directed at women. These attitudes and actions are directly related to poverty. On the whole women are still responsible for buying/gathering and preparing food, and for having and raising children (the “mouths” to feed). Religious dogma that restricts or demonizes birth control and abortion, and allows for the treatment of women as second-class citizens, directly enhances poverty. Acts of food charity that complement this type of dogma do little to address the core problems that generate hunger. 

In short, charity is not the way forward. Religious groups could help significantly reduce world hunger if they took a long hard look in the mirror, then addressed some of the causes of poverty for which they are directly responsible.

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