Some Thoughts on Food in the News: Hunger, Judgment and Forgiveness in the Approach to Lent

Food has figured prominently in this week’s deluge of news coverage from around the world. Three features of the food thread especially caught my attention—most probably because I am a parent concerned with the problematic food-health connection for all children in American and around the world, and because I participated in two academic events this past week that involved intense debates about the ethical imperatives of development policy and humanitarian relief. 

In effort to avoid the post-modern paradox whereby the daily data-dump of real-time access to global reportage allows little time for reflection and understanding, I paused to try to make sense of all the food news, and discovered remarkable insights in the themes of judgment and forgiveness that are presented to Orthodox Christians as we move through this final week of preparation for the commencement of Holy and Great Lent on March 3rd.  Turning to the messages of last week’s Sunday of Final Judgment and tomorrow’s Sunday of Forgiveness, I came to a simple, yet critical, conclusion: the “food news” was really not about food, but was actually a repetitive thread dealing with the tragedy and travesty of hunger, both physical and spiritual.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of three main “food stories” circling through this past week’s news cycle.

First, the US Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration announced complementary plans to overhaul nutrition labels and serving sizes on 700,000 food products, as well as to prohibit corporate advertising logos and junk-food marketing on America’s public schools.  These changes were trotted to coincide with the four-year anniversary of US First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity in America. 

Second, a report in the European press on the humanitarian catastrophe of the Syrian Crisis appeared under the tagline of “Syria’s Starving Hordes,” and included gut-wrenching videos and photos showing Palestinians in the Yarmuk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, where residents have had no access to food or water for eight months.  This latest treatment of starvation in Syria follows on earlier reports of Syrian Christians turning to grass and tree-leaves for food survival, and of a Muslim cleric permitting Syria’s Muslims to eat cats and dogs in order to avoid starvation. 

Third, the World Bank released its February issue of Food Price Watch, noting that “millions of people around the world go to bed hungry every night,” even though “astonishing figures indicate that the world loses or wastes about one-quarter to one-third of the food it produces for consumption.” The World Bank bulletin was a reminder that hunger transcends geography and seeps into both developing and advanced, industrial countries.  On the one hand, the report emphasized that food insecurity is most extreme in Africa and South Asia.  On the other hand, the charity Feeding America reports that nearly 16 million children lived in food insecure households in America in 2012; similarly, non-governmental and state data from Greece concur that the country’s six-year economic blight has produced food shortages within the borders of the European Union.

Returning to this final week of preparation for next week’s journey into Great and Holy Lent, we Orthodox Christians are presented with some outstanding tools for analyzing and reframing the food news as an urgent call to acknowledge the pervasiveness of hunger in our world and, therefore, to take action to end the human calamity of physical hunger and its inevitable twin of spiritual hunger.

Last week, the "Sunday of the Last Judgment" reminded us that Christ, in all His infinite love and patience, is also a righteous God who, as we affirm in the faith-statement of the 4th-century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."  The Gospel reading (Matthew 25: 31-46) for Judgment Sunday is an unmistakable declaration by Christ that each of us will be judged for either "salvation..., inheriting the kingdom," or "...cursed...into eternal punishment," on the basis of how we treat our fellow human beings, whether neighbor or stranger. 

Similarly, the approaching "Sunday of Forgiveness" clarifies that humanity's liberation from our fallen state depends on our free choice of reconciliation with our fellow human beings.  Just as we entreat God, in the Lord's Prayer, to "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," Christ declares unequivocally to us, in the Gospel reading (Matthew 6: 14-21) on Forgiveness Sunday, that, "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

If we are willing to see with our heart and listen with our mind, there are some compelling and instructive take-aways from the Church’s messages about judgment and forgiveness when applied to our own responsibility, both to acknowledge and try to alleviate, the calamity of hunger displayed in this week’s news cycle. 

Significantly, the final week of “the Lenten Prologue” foregrounds food—as a window into the connections between physical hunger and spiritual hunger and as a connection between judgment and forgiveness.  Judgment Sunday is also known as Meatfare Sunday, marking the last time that Orthodox Christians eat meat until the conclusion of the fast with Pascha; Forgiveness Sunday is also called Cheesefare Sunday, because it’s the last day that Orthodox Christians are permitted to consume cheese and other dairy products before commencing the strict fast of Great and Holy Lent. 

Our pre-Lenten ruminations on food and fasting illustrate beautifully why we should be concerned with the physical hunger of mankind, which is itself an expression of the deeper spiritual hunger caused by indifference to the plight of our fellow human beings.  We have two options when it comes to our response to conditions of hunger and the associated conditions of privation captured in Christ’s statement: “…for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”

We can recognize that, while fasting is a free choice for us, for those cases in this week’s news reports, hunger and its attendant privations, is not a choice.  We can recognize that, while our choice to fast is an expression of personal freedom, hunger caused by poverty and war is the negation of personal freedom.

Furthermore, in our response to hunger, our actions, we also face choices, and the consequences of our choices are explored in the messages of judgment and forgiveness.  Once again, Christ’s words are instructive:  “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  Christ is categorical and clear, telling us that we will be judged by our actions, and Christ is equally definitive and emphatic.  Forgiveness is, ultimately, a choice for reconciliation and communion, and it grows out of our choice for compassion and our rejection of indifference, rupture, and fragmentation.

What’s the tipping point that helps us to choose communion and forgiveness, that allows us to fill our life’s book of judgment with works that respond to physical hunger and to spiritual hunger?  In his seminal work, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, renown Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemman discusses Christian Love as the “’possible impossibility’ to see Christ in another man, whoever he is.”

If we can see the image and likeness of God in the American child who is mal-nourished, the Syrian Christians and Muslims who are starving, the Africans who are starving; if we can recognize that physical hunger and its correlates of poverty and under-development and conflict and insecurity are not choices, but are afflictions that deprive humans of their dignity; then, we will make a conscious choice to act out of love and compassion and humility, and in our actions, we will be healing physical and spiritual hunger.  In short, by applying the messages of judgment and forgiveness to how we think about food, we will enter Lent with new resolve to do everything possible to resolve the problems of physical and spiritual hunger that plague our world today.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs Study Groups on Southeastern Europe and on Muslims and Democratic Politics.