Who Is My Neighbor? Faith & Global Hunger Part 1

"And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). It is a defining question for Christians and non-Christians alike.  So, too, is its twin among moral imperatives:  Am I my brother's keeper?

In a world of six billion people, both are daunting questions.  Most of us know only a few hundred people at all well in a lifetime; we directly encounter people in their thousands, but not in their millions and most certainly not in their billions.

No matter.  Today, as throughout time, we are called upon to answer.  Today, in our here and now, we have an opportunity to respond in ways that can make a dramatic difference for hundreds of millions of people.

The opportunity arises in the eight points of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDG, adopted ten years ago by 189 nations in solemn conclave.  They pledged to fulfill them in fifteen years.  Five years ago speaking for the United States, President Bush reaffirmed that pledge before the UN.  This fall, two-thirds of the way toward the deadline, there will be a Millennium Development Goals summit to review progress and recommit to the original goals.

The eight points touch on some of the chief scourges of humanity in the early 21st century.  Despite criticism that they overreach, or that they are both too precise and too vague, they, in fact, are eminently doable from first to last. They are also uncomfortably obvious--reading them, you know they are an agenda that reflects lost opportunities in the past as well as absolute necessities in the here and now.

What do they promise?  First, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, a subject to which I'll return in a moment.  The second is to achieve universal primary education, the third, to promote gender equality and empower women.  The fourth through sixth are to reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.  The final two are to ensure environmental sustainability and develop a global partnership for development.

What about that first goal, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger?  As with the recognition that we humans are tending inexorably from a population base of six billion today toward more than nine billion in my grandchildren's lifetime, the size of the hunger problem in 2010 can seem daunting.

One billion men, women and children go to bed hungry every night.  One billion.  Despite real progress over the past decade, interrupted and then reversed by the world economic crisis of the past few years, it is now estimated there will be one billion who still live in hunger in 2015, barring dramatic new efforts by the 189 MDG partners.

But let's pull back from the complexities of facts and figures for a moment to reset our perspective.  For me, the reset button is located in family.

Easter this year was a day of extra hallelujahs in our North Carolina household, thanks to the arrival of our Maine-based son along with his wife and four children.  Being a grandparent is a thing of special joy, and watching those sturdy, generous youngsters interact with each other and the older folk around them evoked waves of love and delight.  It also reminded me that family is at the root of every culture and that the nurturing and protection of family is the first order of business for every parent.  It is an instinctive thing.  Whenever danger threatens, we waste no time in responding.  When special need afflicts this child or that, we act. There are no ifs and buts, no prolonged discussion about responsibility.

Nor do we mutter about the unfairness or inconvenience of having to share food and shelter with each family member, no matter how lean the budget or constricted the quarters.  And even after our children go out into the world on their own, often to turn back toward us for assistance through difficulties and tragedy, we do what we can when they call for help.

Which of us asks, "Who is my neighbor?"

There are other ties that bind.  I and my college classmates wave signs proclaiming that "we are family" when we go back to reunions.  A casual onlooker could be forgiven for a slightly cynical reaction to what might easily be no more than warm and fuzzy sentimentality.  No matter.  In our case, we are family.  It is also expressed by a classmates fund to assist those of our old friends who need it most.

Let me not gild the lily.  I know of no one who contributes sacrificially to the fund.  But the effort speaks to and from a shared past and a shared destination.  It emphasizes the ties that bind rather than dwelling on the obvious fact that, despite common undergraduate life 55 years ago, we are people of contending politics, dissimilar backgrounds, many faiths and unequal achievements.

Who is my neighbor?

Is family a matter of flesh and blood?  Are our neighbors simply people we have known in a physical place we inhabited at the same time?  Or are they only of our nationality or race or religion?

On this, as on so much, Jesus speaks directly to our time, our world, our obligation.  We are all children of one God, one people bound by shared paternity.  Not Samaritan and Jew, not Christian and Muslim.  At the end of day, at the end of time, distinctions wither in the face of the overriding reality:  One God, one world, one folk.  One obligation inspired by God's love for us and our love of God.

There are times that this is more obvious than others.  The far distant can suddenly become up close and personal. The stranger, the other, becomes as close as the family next door and you never see hunger and suffering in the same way again.

Forty-three years ago, Robert Kennedy came to the Mississippi Delta--my home--on a fact-finding mission, probing the reality of hunger in America.  He had done it elsewhere and he would do it again in other places, but his arrival infuriated a number of Mississippians who felt they were being held up to national scorn.  More than one local politician bitterly complained.  There was no hunger and malnutrition here, they said.  But Bobby Kennedy had not come alone, and the television pictures and news articles that his journey through this part of the Delta inspired changed the nature of the debate.  

In my eyes, tagging along as a local reporter, the defining moment arose while Kennedy was talking with a handful of bedraggled, emaciated children outside a tenant shack set in the middle of some of the richest farm land in the world.  A local newspaper editor came rushing up, all but shouting as he came.  "What the hell do you think you're doing here?  Why don't you stay in New York and do it there?"  "I do it there," Bobby evenly replied.  "Why don't you do it here?"  Red-faced and stuttering, his interrogator turned away.

Why don't you do it here?

In 1985, working on a documentary, I flew into the southern Sudan where the still festering civil war had erupted and famine was widespread.  Cameras rolling, we moved through a feeding station to which thousands of refugees had fled for shelter and food.  Their eyes were dulled by hunger, their bodies that distinctive contrast of distended bellies and stick-like limbs.  Little children approached us, hands upraised, begging for whatever we might have in food and drink.  Others, however, turned away in fear and stunned despair.  There were piles of foodstuffs, but they had only recently arrived.

And then, as we watched and moved through that camp, first one and then another of the children simply closed their eyes and died--and there was nothing we could do.  It was too late.  We came out with the first film of what was to become an enduring disaster.  We hoped that what we had seen and recorded would help change things.  Twenty-five years later, the horror in the Sudan continues, regularly recorded, regularly met by promises of relief and change, regularly neglected as other crises erupt and other priorities intervene.  And I have never been able to forget what I saw, as life was lost in the midst of late-arriving relief.

Hear the opening words of an editorial in "The Economist" magazine last November.  I quote:

In 1974 Henry Kissinger, then America's secretary of state, told the first world food conference in Rome that no child would go to bed hungry within 10 years.  Just 35 years later...one billion people will go to bed hungry.

That cannot, it must not, be the fate of the solemn promises of the Millennium Development Goals.  Ours is a world of extraordinary abundance conjoined with abject poverty.  It is an abundance of such magnitude that it could easily feed all those who share earth's air and water and land.  On this there is no real argument.

The responsibility for making good on the goals, for ending poverty and hunger, rests with governments, legally speaking.  The real responsibility is ours, however, arising from the answer to all the familiar questions.

Who is my neighbor?  Am I my neighbor's keeper? Why don't you do it here?

There are no surprises about the nature and existence of widespread suffering.  The stories have been written repeatedly.  Cameras have rolled, images have flooded our television sets; impassioned pleas have been made in the councils of the mighty.  There is no excuse for failure, no real reason why the goal cannot be achieved.  We have the resources, the know-how and the delivery systems that can literally all but eliminate world hunger.  Now. Not pie in the sky, by and by.  Now.

This we must demand.  We are family.

Who is my neighbor'? In this context, it's the wrong question.  Ask instead, "Who is not my neighbor?"  God's answer on this is also clear.  We are family.  Right here, right now.



Crosstalk--Opening Interview:

Peter Wallace: Today we are proud to bring you part 1 of Faith & Global Hunger: A Special Day1 Series in support of the Millennium Development Goals. And we're honored to have with us noted statesman, journalist and educator, Hodding Carter, who currently serves as professor of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Hodding was assistant secretary of state for public affairs and spokesperson for the Department of State. The author of two books and contributor to many others, he has been a frequent commentator on PBS, CNN, ABC, NBC, and the BBC, among others, and was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal for 10 years. He earlier taught at the University of Maryland, American University, and Duke University. Hodding, thank you for being with us.

Hodding Carter: It's great to be with you.

Wallace:  You started out as a journalist, and throughout your very distinguished career it  seems you've continued to seek the truth and make it known in one way or another. How would you characterize your life's mission?

Carter:  I grew up in the most fortunate of places, which was the son of a man who made a long progress of his own from a starting point which was pretty steadily deep Southern, racist, segregationist, proudly so, toward a distant goal which he always understood was a reflection of both religious faith and the political principles of this country. It was not an easy journey, but it made a lot easier for me--that he had gone through it and had to pay many penalties for trying to change and to have others change. Mine was to try as best I could to reach the next plateau in what is that neverending search for a better world for most people around. And that sounds corny, but that's the way it was.

Wallace: You spoke of your faith and you're an active member of the Episcopal church, in which you've served as vestry member, Sunday school teacher, and delegate to various church convocations over the years. How, more specifically, has your faith influenced your priorities in life?

Carter:  Well, what faith has taught me is at one level the most basic, which is that if you're looking for the final answer in anything in your human environment, then you're doomed to failure. Second, that if you don't understand that there are some very real, enduring, and clear imperatives which have been given to you to through faith, through Jesus Christ's ministry, through the enduring love of God, then the entire rest of the business is going to collapse around you. It has taught me that you're going to have to think often in terms of being the minority, for the sake of what you think to be true and to accept that that is going to carry some consequences. It also teaches you a little bit of humility, which I could use, which is that however bright you think you are, the likelihood is that you are going to get it wrong, and that one of the things understood by the God who is master of us all, is that he understands that you're going to get it wrong and when you do, you don't have to try to go hide in the closet about it.

Wallace:  This series on Faith & Global Hunger was developed after one of our loyal listeners in Chapel Hill, Charlie Browning, heard a Day1 sermon by Barbara Lundblad--and she'll be back with us next week--in which she said we have everything we need to end world hunger now. Charlie and his wife Margaret Knoerr were inspired by that to do something and have worked with us to develop this series. Why did you agree to be involved in this series?

Carter:  Well, the first thing you have to say about Charlie is that he is persistent, consistent, and unrelenting, and second, because what he is trying to do is, of course, what many of us think we're about. But here's Charlie actually doing it, he's putting up his money, his time, his effort, his dedication, his passion, and his persuasiveness. I think it's fantastic what he's done. I think it's a glorious testimony to faith, but also to a wider idea of what you do with it-it's not something you hoard for yourself, but you try to get out there.

Wallace:  Hodding, do you think the media is doing a good job of informing the public about the current situation regarding hunger and poverty?

Carter:  I think the media in this situation, as in most, is sporadic. It comes, it goes. It's like a flea on a dog. It jumps from one to another of the issues that confront us. Sustaining any major issue for long is almost utterly alien and I say that as a guy who did print and television [journalism] and loved the business, but it is a fact. The only way that you can expect media to stay with something is if you stay with it unrelentingly--like Charlie--and just simply going in there, not screaming, calmly, repeating over and over again, "They're dying there. There's oppression there. You can't just turn your face around from it and say, 'I'm sorry. That's old news."' It's never old news.  It is the bad news to which we're supposed to be bringing the good news, and as journalists, we're supposed to bringing the spotlight. I just put on three different hats in that answer. But I mean it is a fact that we do not. Walter Lippman, that great analyst, once said that journalism was a moving spotlight. It could illuminate quickly but it could never hold still. And it's important that we grab ahold of that spotlight and say, "Steady! Look at it clearly. Don't let folk walk away from it."

Wallace:  All the denominations that Day1 works with support the Millennium Development Goals, the eight historic and transformative goals developed by leaders from 189 countries and the United Nations, and you will talk about them in your message today. Some have called the MDGs a "Marshall Plan for the poor of the world." But one of the key problems they face is awareness, especially as we approach the final five years of this 15-year plan. Should people of faith be doing a better job getting the word out about these goals?

Carter:  Those people of faith who care about it are doing a stunning job. The problem is that within the faith community, they are a minority. There are many other objectives out there for many people; and at this point, what is required is the mobilization of the entire community behind these goals.  There's only five years to go. It requires persistence, consistency--everything I just said about Charlie has to be what we all bring to bear on this question. And frankly, if we really want to make good on these pledges, we have to be talking about it all the time, because governments themselves will be constantly distracted by other emergencies, other requirements, other pressures. It's only if you keep up the pressure that this can be brought about.

Wallace:  And it's disconcerting that between 1990 and 2005 we made tremendous progress toward fulfilling these goals; and now with the global economic crisis of recent years, we've kind of backtracked. We need to get back on track. But are you hopeful? Do you think these goals are still achievable?

Carter:  I believe that the goals are achievable; that I've never doubted. Do I believe they will be achieved? That is the crucial question toward which I will not pretend to have an absolute answer. I know the answer is yes--if we can on a sustained basis maintain the  pressure and the concern and the publicity to go to the practical answer as opposed to the theoretical. I do not think there is a single one of these goals which is not, practically speaking, susceptible to accomplishment. Look, we no longer have smallpox in this world except in isolated places. The commonplace of human existence which was slavery, commonplace through all the centuries, is gone except in some isolated incidences. Tuberculosis should be gone; it's only been a failure of follow through of public health that it's not gone. Scourges that were supposed to be with mankind forever--gone or radically controlled. There's no reason why these are something greater than those problems. I mean, the falling away into the notion that "the poor shall always be with you" makes people say it's not possible. That's nonsense. We have the capacity.

Wallace:  Hodding, your message today, the first in our series on "Faith & Global Hunger," is entitled, "Who Is My Neighbor?" Thank you for being with us.

Carter:  Good to be with you.


Wallace:  Hodding, you really helped us get to the basic questions that those of us who claim to follow Christ must answer: who is my neighbor? And, am I my neighbor's keeper? In light of Jesus' clear teachings about helping the poor, do we really have any excuse for not doing what we can to help?

Carter:  None. Zero. There is nothing within the New Testament that says anything other than our direct responsibility to our neighbor in the here and now, and it is what we are supposed to do with faith, which is expressed by what Jesus says about God's love here on this earth.

Wallace:  There are numerous ways each of us can get involved, as we'll see in coming weeks, and not only by sharing our thoughts about our government's foreign policy with our representatives, but participating in church and organizational efforts, as well as through our own personal efforts in helping the poor and hungry in our own midst. How would you suggest we figure out how each one of us can get more involved?

Carter:  One of the nice things is that in most of the churches I know anything about the offering, the variety, in this field is rather extraordinary. You have multiple opportunities to find avenues, which may be the most congenial to you, for helping others. Beyond all that, of course, we live in a world of networked organizations which are about the business of trying to relieve the suffering, the hunger, the homelessness, whatever it may be, of others. I would say, in fact, you almost have to do a very determined job of averting your gaze to miss the opportunities that are there. Of course, if you don't have any other way to go at it, go talk to your minister, talk to your rector, talk to your pastor, and say, "I don't know which way to turn." And here again, the guidance is usually quite immediate. There's not one of our churches, for that matter, that doesn't have world service in one form or another to go with right here and now, beyond the walls of the church but within the walls of the community.

Wallace:  One good thing to do early on, I would think, would be to become more knowledgeable about the scope of the problem of world hunger, the desperate need for nourishing food and drinking water, and ways to meet the need, particularly through the Millennium Development Goals. What are some ways you would suggest that we can stay well informed on these issues?

Carter:  Well, I hardly know which way to start with first. But you spoke of the drinking water question--there alone folks ought to be about the business of saying, how can the absolute basics of life be in question? And if that's in question, then everything else must be.  Looking for material, there are organizations right now whose entire function is to provide a running analysis of where we stand toward the Millennium Development Goals. There are organizations running through the UN which do nothing but detail the basic nature of needs, from education to disease to whatever. I'm sitting here in Atlanta and I think about what President Carter has got going in so many different ways dealing with the needs of the world and how close at hand that information is and that leadership is. I'm not going to presume to name a place to go, but I would just say there are many, and it requires not much more effort than getting up and tuning in.

Wallace:  Hodding Carter, thank you for being with us.

Carter:  It was good being with you and thank you.