The Scarcity of Community
As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, many of our tables overflowing with more delectable dishes than we could consume in a lifetime, I’d like to present, well, some food for thought.
We waste a staggering amount of the planet’s natural resources, especially food. Countries like the U.S. and Great Britain carelessly discard nearly 50% of all our food (World Economic Forum). The numbers are even worse in industrialized Asia. Around the world, people are starving to death for absolutely no reason. Some voices loudly proclaim that the Earth is depleted of her natural resources, so there simply isn’t enough to go around. This is a lie. There is no scarcity of resources. There is a disheartening scarcity of compassion and community.
One would think an easy solution would be to move food from the places with an overabundance to those without, but the realities of the global food chain make this impossible. Global food production and distribution is directly tied to corporate profits and government regulations.
Farmers are subsidized by federal governments to produce or not produce food. Transportation of goods is regulated by complex trade agreements. Within the European Union, countries like Greece suffer because of rules that force quotas on imports, exports, and which crops types are allowed to be grown where. It’s a ludicrous system, almost as bad as the U.S. system of subsidies for sugar and corn. These are political subsidies that have nothing to do with feeding our people.
The EU and U.S. rules sustain a system that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to eat. Moving unused food around is, well, not that easy at all. Like too much in our too bilateral world, food is political.
While we could discuss the inherent problems with Capitalist economics and its detrimental effects on the global food trade, I don’t believe Capitalism is the root of the problem. Unregulated, unfettered Capitalism isn’t helping our situation, but we will never change our economic systems unless we first change our hearts—and also the hearts of our politicians and CEOs. As long as we allow our manufacturers and distributors to concentrate solely on profit, without any sense of social conscience, we will continue to discard the precious food of life carelessly. The root of our food waste atrocity is that we have attached a value to everything we produce while simultaneously devaluing being human.
The fundamental problem causing the absurdity of simultaneous food overproduction and starvation is that products are now valued over people. Consequently, we have little or no sense of interconnectedness with human beings around the globe. Hell, we too often lack any connection within our own immediate families. This disconnectedness, ironic in a world more connected than ever, also coerces us into filling our garbage dumps with perfectly edible food that could eradicate death from malnourishment overnight.
To remedy this situation, which also affects carbon emissions and the health of our entire planet, we must change our mindset about the sharing and ownership of global resources. We need to think differently, and to do that we have a terrific example in the teachings of Jesus.
In the Second Testament, there is a miracle story about Jesus. It is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels, implying it was essential to Jesus’ early followers. It isn’t, however, a story about magic, as it has too often been misinterpreted. Instead, the story of the loaves and fishes is about community.
I’ll use the version found in John 6.1-15 (CEV) for reference:
Jesus crossed Lake Galilee, which was also known as Lake Tiberias. A large crowd had seen him work miracles to heal the sick, and those people went with him. It was almost time for the Jewish festival of Passover, and Jesus went up on a mountain with his disciples and sat down. When Jesus saw the large crowd coming toward him, he asked Philip, “Where will we get enough food to feed all these people?” He said this to test Philip, since he already knew what he was going to do. Philip answered, “Don’t you know that it would take almost a year’s wages just to buy only a little bread for each of these people?”
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the disciples. He spoke up and said, “There is a boy here who has five small loaves of barley bread and two fish. But what good is that with all these people?”
The ground was covered with grass, and Jesus told his disciples to have everyone sit down. About five thousand men were in the crowd. Jesus took the bread in his hands and gave thanks to God. Then he passed the bread to the people, and he did the same with the fish, until everyone had plenty to eat.
The people ate all they wanted, and Jesus told his disciples to gather up the leftovers, so that nothing would be wasted. The disciples gathered them up and filled twelve large baskets with what was left over from the five barley loaves.
After the people had seen Jesus work this miracle, they began saying, “This must be the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Jesus realized that they would try to force him to be their king. So he went up on a mountain, where he could be alone.
What do you think the story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with a couple of fish and some loaves of bread is about? The early church founders (at least, the orthodoxy, not the Gnostics) told people the story was about Jesus performing a miracle and revealing himself as a demigod to the audience.
However, if we dig more deeply, we discover that this parable, likely originally written by Mark based on stories circulating about Jesus, was never meant to prove that Jesus was anything other than incredibly compassionate. The parable of the loaves and fishes is intended to obliterate our human myth of scarcity.
Observe what the disciples say throughout this story: “There’s not enough to feed all these people.” “How will we afford enough to eat?” That’s the myth of scarcity. There isn’t enough! I better make sure I have what I need, and more in case we run out!
We still use those excuses today, don’t we? We hear stories all the time about the Earth’s depleting resources, so we hoard water and buy more food than we need and let it rot and spoil in our kitchens. But the idea the Earth has somehow stopped producing an abundance of food is simply not true. The Earth has plenty of resources. We just don’t use them wisely, and we certainly don’t use them as a community.
The truth, especially in industrialized societies, is that we’ve got more than enough food to feed everyone. There is no scarcity of food, which is why we’re throwing so much of it away.
What there is, however, is a scarcity of community.
We lack an expanded idea of family, especially an understanding that we are all one big global family, a community of communities, ever more reliant on one another. Community is Jesus’ point in the story of the loaves and fishes.
Those 5,000 people that showed up to see Jesus? He understood them as his brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins, because he knew that God was the source of both his and their being. Jesus understood God as a God of abundance for everyone, no exceptions. This is important—Jesus trusted in our God of abundance to provide even when other people only saw lack and limitation.
This story is not about Jesus magically creating enough food for everyone out of thin air. If that had been the case, people would have relied on him for everything. He obviously doesn’t want this—that’s why he runs away when they try to make him their king. Rather, by sharing what seemed like a little, he transformed the hearts and minds of every person there, who then revealed they also had something to share.
One by one, as people began to feel the pull of God on their heartstrings, as they began to understand that abundance is God’s way, as they began to see each other as a community, there was not only enough to feed everyone, but there was also plenty left over, which was promptly redistributed. This idea of redistribution of resources was deeply embedded in the Jewish people of the era, by the way, and Jewish people are who Jesus was speaking to at this time (and we must always remember, that Jesus was a good and faithful Jew himself).
For thousands of years before Jesus, the Jewish people understood the land and its resources as the property of God. The idea of private, personal property was anathema to them until forced on their culture by outside influencers. Yet, even in Jesus’ era, the idea that the abundance of the planet was God’s and God’s alone was prevalent. Jesus reminds them of this when he blesses what at first seems to be a couple of fish and loaves of bread.
The miracle of this story is that Jesus creates a community out of a bunch of hungry strangers by reminding them that God is abundant and that scarcity is a myth obliterated by community. There’s no need to hoard and waste; better to share what we have and let God refill us, than to let our resources rot and fester in the grotesque landfills of fear and neglect.
For as our food rots, so too does our soul.
How do we respond to this myth of scarcity and lack of community today? What can we possibly do to change a globally systemic problem that’s only worsened since Jesus’ time?
I suggest we do what Jesus demands from his followers and embrace each other as a global community—no matter our belief system, skin color, gender or sexual preference. We can support food pantries like our Food Angels program. We can support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food program here in Collier County, Florida, both of which are affecting very real changes nationwide. We can come together after natural disasters and give our food, clothing, time, talent and money to each other, as this faith community did (and continues to do) after Hurricane Irma.
But most importantly, we need to be extremely vocal about implementing and living the alternative, equitable, just and compassionate world Jesus reveals. To do that we must rely on and trust that God’s love is abundant and universal, and will fill our cups every time we empty them, especially when it’s for another divinely beloved human being.
May your Thanksgiving holidays be blessed with the universal, unconditional love of God, and may we, in turn, bless each other, now and always. Amen.