A cynic once quipped: “What would you get if you crossed a radical liberal social justice advocate with a strongly conservative pious daily communicant?” The answer? Dorothy Day!
That’s a piece of wit which it can serve to throw some light on how one might begin, today, to live out the first corporal work of mercy, the command to feed the hungry.
How do we feed the hungry? Even if we are convinced, and perhaps even obsessed, by Jesus command to do this, how, in fact, can it be done today? The world is a big place and millions upon millions of people live in hunger. Moreover we live a situation of compounded complexity of every sort, political, social, and economic. There is no simple way to get resources from the rich to the poor, from your table to the table of someone who is hungry. How can you live out Christ’s command to feed the hungry, given the complexities of today’s world?
Generally speaking, rightly and wrongly, we look to our governments, the United Nations, relief organizations, social services, welfare, and other such agencies to do this for us. Given the scope and complexity of poverty and hunger in the world, the tendency is to look over our shoulders, to something massive, to some big government or agency, to feed the hungry. We tend to feel too small and individually over-powered in the face of hunger’s enormity.
But this can be, and invariably is, a rationalization, an abdication, a way of escaping Jesus’ command. Ultimately we cannot use the excuse that things are too complicated, that we are too small and powerless, and that only huge organizations can do anything for the hungry. The gospel call to feed the hungry is uncompromising and eminently personal. Each of us is called upon personally to do something real and this must be something beyond the normal corporate things we are involved in, paying taxes and giving charity monies to governments and big agencies to enable them to do this for us. We must do something ourselves.
But what more can we do concretely? How can you and how can I feed the hungry?
There are a couple of possible approaches: Mother Theresa takes one approach. For her, Jesus’ command is simple and clear. Each of us should personally, beyond government and other agencies, reach out concretely and touch some poor person or persons. There should be times when we are, literally, taking food to hungry people, working in soup kitchens, giving aid to individual street people, and having a poor person eat at our table. This approach is individual, personal, and concrete. Each poor person has a face and one does not, at least not all the time, ask questions regarding where this person will eat tomorrow or what social problems are causing this hunger. In this view, the demand that we feed the hungry challenges us precisely to reach out beyond ideologies and social theories and irrespective of social structures, like the Good Samaritan, person-to-person, take food to the hungry.
But there is another approach, more abstract though not less critical. In this view, it is less important to feed this or that individual person on a given day than it is to change the social, political, and economic structures that are responsible for that particular person being hungry. This approach is less personal and slower, but can, at the end of the day, be more far-reaching. In it, one attempts to feed the hungry by involving oneself in social justice groups that are trying to change the conditions that produce poverty.
Both of these approaches, in their best expressions, are predicated on some other things: Feeding the hungry, as Jesus asks us to do it, involves a reduction in our own standard of living. To feed the hungry means to consume less ourselves, to do some fasting, and to live in a simplicity that puts us in more solidarity with the poor. Feeding the hungry also means prayer. We have some bad habits that only God can cure and thus only the outside power of God can ultimately transform our world.
So which is the best approach? As Christians, our task is not to pick between being a Mother Theresa or a social justice advocate. The gospel asks us to be both. We need to work at transforming the conditions that create poverty even as we, like Mother Theresa, reach out personally, beyond the economics and social issues involved, to feed very individual poor people.
Jesus’ command to feed the hungry asks to become a Dorothy Day.