by Anne Basye—
When you were planning your Easter menu, did you consider the possibility that the meat, vegetables and staples you needed might not be available? That store shelves might be emptied by crop failure, drought, guerilla fighting or a natural disaster?
I didn’t either. Prices rise and fall, a Florida freeze might damage a citrus crop, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario that would bring the entire U.S. food system to its knees.
Sure, we see need around us. We give to food pantries and take a turn cooking for the soup kitchen. But blinded by abundance—an abundance that, ahem, you can see on our waistlines and hips—we find real, honest-to-goodness famine hard to imagine. If we’re eating, and we’re supporting the food pantry, and we give regularly to ELCA World Hunger, everybody else must be eating too, right?
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m a “famine forgetter.” This term, coined by theologian Mark Allan Powell (see Bible study, p. 20), describes readers who don’t notice this line of the Prodigal Son story: “When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.”
Asking dozens of people to read the Luke 15:11-32 story and retell it to a partner, Powell realized that nearly all the famine forgetters are American Christians. It’s not that our eyes miss the word “famine,” but that lacking firsthand experience, we don’t understand the implications.
I certainly don’t. Triggered by emotions raised by the family dynamics of the story, I don’t connect the dots between the challenges famine created for the prodigal son and his decision to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy.
But famine rememberers—readers from places like Tanzania and Russia, with severe hunger in the not-too-distant past—get it.
What aren’t we famine forgetters seeing?
Growing hunter, conflict
Not long ago, the number of hungry people in the world was shrinking. Incomes were increasing in the Asia-Pacific region; food prices were on their way down. That’s no longer true. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of “food insecure” people jumped from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016. About 11 percent of the world went hungry every day last year.
In South Sudan, 7.5 million people are hungry—1.4 million more than in 2016. Six million people in Somalia depend on humanitarian aid to survive, and another 2 million are beyond the reach of aid agencies. In Yemen, 18 million people—two-thirds of the population—are “food insecure.” They don’t have access to enough affordable, nutritious food.
Rebecca Duerst, director for diakonia for ELCA Global Mission, says one reason we don’t hear much about severe hunger and famine is that it’s a slow disaster. “The media and our own attention tend to focus on things like hurricanes and typhoons,” she says. “Drought and food insecurity happen over seasons and years. It doesn’t pop [up] all of a sudden.”
Lurking behind hunger are slow-brewing issues like farmland quality, land use practices, water supply, and competition for land between farmers and pastoralists who graze herds. As our planet heats up, scientists predict more desertification, more drought and more hunger in vulnerable places, especially in Africa.
But the number one cause for hunger today is something that can pop up all of a sudden: conflict. The stories we hear from South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and 16 other countries are about battles between armed groups and gruesome details of death and dismemberment. Lost in the telling are people who can’t eat due to blockades, checkpoints, confiscated or destroyed aid shipments, and violence.
Violence against aid workers. Violence against women. Violence against everybody. In Yemen, conflict and violence keep aid agencies from reaching about 2 million people. In South Sudan, “people are starving to death, and it’s a manmade situation,” says Frezar Mangeango, a member of Unity Lutheran Church in Chicago.
“Most people are farmers, but they are unable to cultivate because of the insecurity,” he says. “In my home state, you need to go three miles out of town to reach your farm. But if you go, you will be shot and killed or raped because they think you will pass information to the rebels or the government.”
Frezar, his wife, Ester, and their children left South Sudan many years ago but stay in touch with family who still live in Western Equatoria State. When South Sudan declared its independence, “we were excited too, and very grateful for the international community, especially the United States, which worked so hard…in the hope that [South Sudan] would live in peace,” he says.
Peace didn’t last long, and today the country is collapsing, he says. “There is no money; there is no school; and 1.5 million internally displaced people are living under the protection of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.” Another 2.5 million are living in Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Eritrea. Frezar’s mother, father-in-law, sister-in-law, aunts and uncles in South Sudan “are just surviving, not living,” he says.
The United Nations is doing its best to get food to people behind conflict lines—but with 60 percent of hungry people living in conflict areas and 80 percent of the U.N. World Food Program’s funds going to conflict regions, Executive Director David Beasley says that ending conflict is the only way to end hunger.
With “more conflict than we’ve ever had,” he told the Associated Press that money from donor countries is “just being poured down the tube and nothing to show for it. We’re keeping people alive, and that’s a wonderful thing, but how long can you sustain that?”
Beasley says new U.N. goals calling for the eradication of extreme poverty (people living on less than $1.25 a day) by 2030 are “a joke without ending conflicts” in order to free up billions to build infrastructure and promote economic growth in developing countries.
Frezar Mangeango agrees. “Peace is what South Sudanese people need,” he says. “With good security, the people will be able to feed themselves.”
Seeing and responding
“When famine is conflict driven, there’s a tendency to blame the people themselves for the disaster when it is really not most people’s fault,” Rebecca Duerst says.
In other words, too many of us North American famine forgetters make no distinction between people caught up by the conflict and the leaders who use food as a weapon. You’ve heard that in comments like, “Let ‘em sort it out.” “They deserve it.” Or one I saw last year in a Facebook thread: “We have to harden our hearts.”
Lutherans don’t do that. Our recently concluded demi-millennial Reformation party reminded the whole world of the theology that Martin Luther left us. It’s not isolationist or “America First.” It’s all about the neighbor. As in: “We are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.”
Anne Bayse is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author of Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA, 2007).
This article is excerpted from the April 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.