“Food Justice”

A Sermon by Shanta Premawardhana

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago — September 19, 2011

What’s the closet grocery to store to here? Yes, 53rd and Woodlawn, Hyde Park Produce – in easy walking distance. And it’s not too hard to carry a bag of good produce from there. If you need something other than what is available there, it’s not really too far to walk over to Treasure Island. A bit more expensive and a little harder to carry a bag of groceries home, but if you had an extra two dollars you might take the number 55 bus.

But what if you lived in the west of MLK blvd. in the Washington Park neighborhood? If you need to exchange your food stamps for groceries, your best bet is a liquor store. The city of Chicago has 1372 grocery or convenience stores that are licensed as Food stamp retailers, 9% have been found to be primarily liquor stores, and 44 of them are in those communities designated as food deserts. There are 8 such convenience stores in the Washington Park community and 4 are liquor stores. All three communities west of us, Washington Park, Grand Boulevard to the north and Greater Grand Crossing to the south are designated among the worst hit communities. And then, if you’ve ever driven on Garfield Blvd, have you counted the fast food restaurants. You should do that the next time you do. And of course, you can sometimes buy a burger for a dollar. So, what’s a single mother to do — go to the liquor store, or go to McDonald’s? Are you surprised that there are a disproportionate number of poor people who are obese and have diabetes? It is estimated that those who are poor die 6 years too early because of diabetes related illnesses. And this is the community that’s about 4 blocks from where we are right now. The only bright spark in this story is that in March of this year a Sav-a-Lot store was opened on 63rd St. offering more healthy food options – vegetables and fruits.

This should not be surprising. Last week we learned from the US Census Bureau that the poverty rate in the US now stands at 15.1% or 46.2 million people.  And poverty is defined as families of four whose annual income is less than $22,314. African American and Latino communities and children suffered disproportionately from poverty. The rate for black children climbed to nearly 40% and Latinos accounted for 37% of the children in poverty.

At SCUPE we will explore this question of Food Deserts in Chicago. You might want to start with my blog site (scupe.com/blogs) on which we are putting up research and other material. Using our typical contextual method, SCUPE will have a one day urban immersion on Oct. 1 to immerse ourselves in the questions and struggles of the city, understand the assets that are already there – we will explore urban farms that are springing up as one answer to the problem — and then go to scripture and tradition to ask what it has to say about this. This October we will also have our Eco-Justice course where these issues will also be explored. Walter Brueggemann who spoke at our most recent Congress on Urban Ministry, on Peacemaking in a Culture of Violence, drove us in this direction when he spoke on Food Fights in the Bible. Indeed food is a theme that runs through the Bible and Exodus 16 is one of the primary texts.

There are two paradigms that characterize our relationship with food. One is the paradigm of scarcity where we come to believe that there is a limited supply of food, and thereby grow anxious and want to accumulate. Pharaoh, in the Exodus story is the archetypal accumulator. The other is the paradigm of abundance which believes that God who created this vast universe in all its wonder is faithful and reliable to provide enough for all of us, and in due course. Therefore we do not have to worry or grow anxious, rather we can be generous. Look at the lilies of the field said Jesus the archetype of the abundance paradigm – the ultimate Generous One. The food fight said Brueggemann, is between the two narratives, the two imaginations or ideologies. One narrative leads to the practice of accumulation which ends up with the violence of depriving people in our neighborhood with the most basic of human necessities, access to healthy food. The other narrative leads to the practice of peacemaking where the people of God, the God of abundance will be in the fore-front of the struggle to bring justice.

The people in Exodus 16, liberated from slavery in Egypt, now trekking through the wilderness must face the harsh realities of life outside the imperial system. Their first test of character, not surprisingly, is how they will sustain themselves. The ancient Israelites—like modern North Americans—couldn’t imagine an economic system apart from the Egyptian military-industrial-technological complex that enslaved them. So they complain to Moses: “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into this desert to die of famine!” (Ex. 16:3)

This is not just a feeding miracle. It’s a story that illustrates Yahweh’s alternative to the Egyptian economy. God “raining bread from heaven” symbolizes cultivation as a divine gift, a process that begins with rain and ends with bread. This is a test to see if Israel will follow instructions on how to “gather”—a symbol in traditional societies for harvesting. The people’s first lesson outside of Egypt concerns economic production!

This story gives us the three defining characteristics of this alternative economic practice. First, every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs (Exodus 16:16-18). In contrast to oppression and need they experienced in Egypt, here everyone has enough. “Those who gathered more had no surplus, and those who gathered less had no shortage.” In God’s economy there is such a thing as “too much” and “too little.” When did you ever hear that in the capitalistic economy?

Second, this bread should not be “stored up” (16:19-20). Wealth and power in Egypt was defined by surplus accumulation. You remember, when the Israelites were slaves their forced labor was to build “store cities.” When the empire went out and plundered another country or forced its people to pay tribute, they stored them in these store cities. The Bible understands that dominant regimes are good at accumulating labor, resources, and wealth into greater and greater concentrations of idolatrous power. So God’s people are told not to hoard wealth through strategies of accumulation, rather to circulate wealth through strategies of redistribution — like the Jubilee.

The third instruction introduces Sabbath discipline (Exodus 16:22-30). “On the sixth day, when they distribute what they bring in, it will be twice as much. Six days you shall gather; but on the seventh, which is a Sabbath, there will be none” I know many of us Christians tend to think of Sabbath as an arcane law from the ten commandments or some quaint little Jewish custom. The Sabbath is God’s strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon God: that land and wealth is a gift to share equitably and not a possession to hold and to exploit. It is a strategy to disrupt human attempts to control nature and maximize the forces of production.

Sabbath requires a leap of faith, a firm confidence that the world will continue to operate benevolently for a day without human labor, that God is willing and able to provide enough for the good life. Sabbath promises seven days of prosperity for six days of work. It operates on the assumption that human life and prosperity exceed human productivity.

This is one paradigmatic story in the Bible – but there are lots more. One can build the accumulation story through Pharaoh, to Solomon whose accumulations included 300 wives and 700 concubines and whose taxation of the poor caused enormous burdens in order to build among other things a temple, to the man in Jesus’ parable who built barns to store his produce and said to his soul (since he was all alone – accumulation deprives one of community) eat drink and be merry, but was called to meet his maker that night. One can also build the abundance paradigm through the Bible, all the way through the prophets (remember Amos) to the feeding of the 5000 and that most sacred of rituals where Christians come to the Thanksgiving table (Eucharistic table) to share food.

Our problem is this. The accumulation narrative is incredibly loud, persistent and ubiquitous. With few exceptions this is all you hear in the media. The abundance paradigm does not have such a megaphone. And people will hear and participate in it, may be once a week when they go to church. But they don’t hear it in church either, because we preachers are also caught up in the accumulation paradigm. Many, perhaps most of us, have lost the ability to think, speak and act prophetically.

Indeed, you and I are ourselves, caught between the two narratives – in a food fight. We are like the band of slaves running away from Pharaoh’s Egypt and like the band of disciples, clueless about how to understand the Generous One. We are caught between the two worlds. Our pilgrimage that began at baptism and is affirmed every time we receive the signs of grace offered to us at the communion table is one that must move us steadfastly from our allegiance to Pharaoh’s accumulation paradigm to Jesus’ abundance paradigm.

This, I suggest to you, is the purpose of theological education. To help all the people of God reach a place of spiritual maturity where they are able to cut through this din clearly and sharply, to look with prophetically critical eyes at the images that disguise the accumulation paradigm as the gospel and engage themselves and their world towards the Generous One, because nothing else is the gospel – the good news to the poor.

About Shanta Premawardhana

Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana was recently appointed President of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago. A Baptist pastor from Sri Lanka, he was most recently the director for the Program Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches (WCC), a worldwide fellowship of 349 Protestant and Orthodox churches based in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to moving to Geneva, Premawardhana served as the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches of Christ, based in New York. Following seminary education in Sri Lanka and India, Premawardhana arrived in the United States in 1981 for graduate study at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D, in Religion. Continuing to live in the Chicago area, he founded the Chicago Ashram of Jesus Christ, a Christian community with an outreach to South Asian immigrants from many cultural backgrounds and religious traditions and served for fourteen years as senior pastor of Ellis Avenue Church located in the south side of Chicago.
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