The Christian who wants to understand the complex problem of world hunger is confronted by a confusing barrage of data and opinions. Some maintain, for example, that “every person has a right to an adequate diet.” Others hold that this principle is applicable in short-term and emergency conditions but cannot be extended into the future indefinitely. There are voices demanding that aid be given to hungry nations with no strings attached. Others denounce current “strings” but propose the attachment of others. Some speak of the ability of the earth to support (say) 15 or 20 or 35 billion inhabitants. Others heartily disagree.

To the statement that “every person has a right to an adequate diet” there is placed the parallel “right” of every nation’s people to produce with dignity adequate food for themselves (or marketable goods that will enable them to buy adequate food). This requires a level of development adequate to stave off crisis conditions. But liberation theologians decry any attempt by affluent nations to help raise, e.g., agricultural production (by “development”); they think it only delays the revolutions that they consider to be the only way out for poor nations.

There are those who insist that in some cases generosity is actually hurtful and wrong. They maintain that in some parts of the earth, food relief will serve only to keep the starving alive long enough to beget more people to starve. This would leave development in food production as the only merciful policy, but increased production in many cases would require quick abandonment of old taboos and methods in agriculture.

When human fertility goes unrestrained and any gains in food production are thus quickly offset, the problems of both affluent and poor nations become extremely sensitive. Shall the nations of the Fourth World impose rigorous methods for the control of conception? And should aid to these lands be conditioned upon effective measures to reduce birth rates?

To this latter question, some people in religious circles reply with a ringing “No!” And some societies, because of long-standing taboos against birth control or a misguided feeling that a large population makes for greatness, will agree. But the sensitive Christian may with much justification think that the receiving of food by needy societies should be accompanied by actions directly aimed at decreasing the need for donated food.

It goes without saying that the policies of donating nations are today far from the Christian ideal. Aid has all too often been allotted to governments that now act (or may be influenced to act) in a manner favorable to the policies of the giver. For instance, sales of grain may be denied to one nation whose government is trying sincerely to effect a just distribution of vital resources and granted to another nation whose favor the selling nation seeks to curry. This may have the effect of propping up repressive regimes by bailing them out of failures in their agricultural methods.

Such are the food policies of our time, in which more attention is given to political considerations than to the needs of the hungry. Three metaphors are sometimes used as rationalizations for these actions, or for no action at all.

The Spaceship Earth metaphor suggests that our planet is a spacecraft loaded nearly to the point of saturation, struggling to survive. The element of truth here is that our planet is experiencing exponential (geometric rather than arithmatic) growth. This is occurring not only in population but also in man’s demand upon the earth’s resources and in the level of environmental pollution.

The Lifeboat metaphor suggests that mankind is loaded into lifeboats, struggling to survive in a hostile sea. Most boats are filled with hungry, impoverished people, while a few contain well-fed, satisfied people whose resources the others envy. The poor threaten to overload the boats of the well-to-do and thus threaten the survival of all.

The elements of truth here are these: first, have-not nations might conceivably rise in a sense of envious outrage and possibly attempt to blackmail the affluent; and second, demands upon the developed nations might reduce all to poverty. Yet both of these possibilities seem remote at the moment.

The principle of Triage was first employed by the medical service of the French army. Wounded persons were sorted into three categories: those who would survive without special care, those who would in no case survive, and those who would survive if given care. If medical resources were limited, only the third group would receive attention.

This principle has at best limited validity when taken from the medical scene and translated into social policy. The element of truth embodied is that should a hunger crisis of world-wide scope arise, some selective decisions might have to be made by donor nations.

But what has all this to do with the biblical mandates, “Give to him who asks from you,” “As you did it to one of the least of these my [hungry or ill-clad] brethren, you did it to me,” and “If your enemy is hungry, feed him”? Without surrendering the field to the situationists, we can agree that wherever needs are immense and resources limited, some discriminating judgments have to be made.

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Further, the thrust of New Testament teaching seems clearly to be that when ambiguous situations exist, agape dictates doing more rather than less. This involves risks—of encouraging unworthy attitudes, of possibly increasing some ills, and certainly of being exploited. But the claims of the hungry world upon Christians in the favored nations are strong, the more so when viewed in the light of the clear mandates of our Lord.

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