The Moral Scandal of Hunger

“We shall awaken dullness and rise vigorously toward Justice” – Hildegard of Bingen

Hunger is a human reality that impacts lives in every corner of the world. All humans need food to live, and all societies struggle to make sure that the right to food is extended to all people within their care. One of the powerful forces that helps to bring food to people all across the world is the Church.

The central concern for feeding the hungry is rooted in the ministry of Jesus himself. On the hills of the Holy Land nearly 2,000 years ago, as Jesus first gathered his disciples who noted that those around him were hungry, he had compassion on them and sent his followers to “give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). In fact the table became one of the central settings for Christ’s own ministry. Around the table, Jesus taught others (Luke 14). Around the table, Jesus served (John 13). Around the table, Jesus offered grace (Matt. 26). Around the table, Jesus healed (Luke 14). Around the table, Jesus was revealed as risen (Luke 24).

The table was a central place for Jesus’ life and ministry and has remained a central place for the life and ministry of the Church. In the New Testament, we see that the Church would gather weekly to break bread (Acts 20:7). They appointed leaders dedicated to feeding those in need (Acts 6:1-7). They even fed their enemies (Romans 12:20).

Generation after generation, leaders in the Church would call the people back to find their ministry rooted anew in gathering around the table to be fed and to share the life they had found together by feeding the hungry. One of my favorite examples of this is seen in the preaching of John Chrysostom, who teaches:

“Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? …. Apply this to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter… Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all” (On the Gospel of Matthew, Hom. 50).

Similarly, Basil offers following wisdom: “The bread that you store up belongs to the hungry” (Homilies). In these words, the fathers instructed the Church to view what they hold as given to be gifted. The Christian’s bread is always to be broken and shared. The hungry are always to be viewed as icons of Christ, to be cared for. Over and over, the fathers of the Church raised their voices, declaring:

  • To ignore the hungry is to ignore Christ.
  • To withhold food from those who need it is to steal from God.
  • To feed hungry people is an act of high worship and a participation in Divine Liturgy in the holy of holies.

This teaching has continued into our current age, and has gained new gravity as the Church of the 21st century has had to wrestle with a world that now has the resources to feed every person, yet still allows million to die each year from starvation. In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, this moral crisis is laid out:

“‘Feed the hungry’ is an ethical imperative for the universal Church, as she responds to the teachings of her Founder, the Lord Jesus, concerning solidarity and the sharing of goods. Moreover, the elimination of world hunger has also, in the global era, become a requirement for safeguarding the peace and stability of the planet. Hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional.

The issue of ending hunger is no longer an issue of scarcity—it is an issue of justice. There is more than enough food; actually, there is much more than enough. The Church now is faced with addressing what Benedict calls the “institutional” shortages which keep people hungry. Pope Francis has called this situation a scandal, asserting:

“It is well known that present production is sufficient, and yet millions of persons continue to suffer and die from hunger, and this is a real scandal…. In this regard I would like to remind everyone of that necessary universal destination of all goods which is one of the fundamental principles of the Church’s social teaching. Respect for this principle is the essential condition for facilitating an effective and fair access to those essential and primary goods which every person needs and to which he or she has a right.”

In short, we are in the midst of a grave moral crisis. The world produces enough food for all people to eat, but people still starve. Christ is hungry all around the world, but our institutions withhold our food from his hands. Every time a child dies from malnutrition, it is a sacrilege. Each mother who cries out for food but finds no relief testifies against us.

I am guilty of this grave sin.

I am a member of one of the world’s richest nations and have a voice that can influence policy, yet too often I am silent. The effort of picking up the phone or a pen to let my elected policy-makers know that hunger is a priority that matters to me is an inconvenience, and so I remain inaudible and ineffective.

However in the midst of this grave sin, there is also great hope.

In 1990, 2 out of every 5 people suffered from serious malnutrition. Today that number is 1 in 5. Hunger has been halved. This amazing progress has been due, in large part, to faithful Christians who have taken the time to let leaders know that feeding the hungry is an essential value that should be perused.

We are living in an unprecedented point in history. Experts now believe that if we can make ending hunger a priority for world leaders in the next year, we can actually see an END TO WORLD HUNGER BY 2030! All it would take is for the Church to cast off the drowsiness of complacency and to lift her voice toward justice. I pray you will consider lifting your voice for the hungry as a spiritual discipline and an element of your discipleship this year, so that we might live in a world where, for the first time in history, all are fed.