Right now, I’m thinking about food. And people.
As I post this column, I’ve just ended the Five-Day Food and Water Challenge. Some of my fellow congregants at Veritas Church are participants; the annual event started at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.
The rules are simple: Try to eat no more than does the average person in the world’s bottom economic half. It’s not the diet of the very poorest, but it’s still a shock to the average American’s system: Just three (cooked) cups of rice or beans each day. Only a handful of alternatives are allowed — plain oatmeal or a tortilla, very little fruit or vegetables, no more than a chicken nugget’s worth of meat per day. And no drinks besides tap water.
Let me confess first that I haven’t been perfect. I’ve allowed myself one cup of coffee a day; a years-long habit is hard to drop immediately. On the third night I caved in and ate a supplemental bagel — OK, a bagel and a half — but I still went to bed quite hungry. Otherwise, I was pretty much faithful to the exercise.
But if the point is less to feel hunger pangs than to feel others’ pain, the challenge was a success.
I’ll claim no great new insight into the lives and minds of the impoverished, no more so than when I’ve seen kids swimming in the filthy waters of Bangkok’s canals or running shoeless in rural Tanzania. No more so than when I’ve seen gypsy women holding (allegedly drugged) babies as they begged in Brussels, or the same long-haired man wearing the same clothes standing in the same spot of downtown Atlanta whispering the same plea for spare change from passers-by.
Five days of experiencing a bit of their reality hardly equals their lifetimes of want. But my pastor, David Slagle, described well what it means to me:
“I’ve just gotta be shaken loose from my comfort zone, on a fairly regular basis. And this [challenge] does that for me. It’s easy for me to put these people out of my mind — distressingly easy. After an exercise like this, I can’t walk to the sink now and turn the water on without thinking, ‘Wow, this is a privilege.’”
On these pages, we debate what to do about problems like hunger. Every now and then, all of us, regardless of our perspective, “gotta be shaken loose” to remember why, and on whose behalf, we have these arguments in the first place.
In his book “A New Kind of Christian,” emerging-church thinker Brian McLaren argues the futility of pinning down moral authority on a philosophical spectrum, through the fictional character Neil Oliver:
“‘Now, almost all debate in the church takes place on this line. The issue is where the right point on the line is. So people pick and defend their points. Each person’s point becomes the point in his or her mind. Here’s what I’m suggesting: What if the point-defending approach is, pardon the pun, pointless? In other words, what if the position God wants us to take isn’t on that line at all but somewhere up here?’ He was moving his hand in a small circle, palm down, about a foot above the line he had drawn in the dust.”
I don’t agree with everything McLaren writes, and I don’t think “point-defending” is pointless; some solutions help more people than others.
I do, however, see a circle above the line. For me, it’s the compassion we all start from in trying to solve problems. And if it takes five days of meager meals to return to that place, it’s a small price to pay.