the weight of the world

I just finished lecturing on food in my ethics class. Food is a big problem, both for those who don’t have enough and for those who have plenty. The ways in which it is problematic for those who don’t have enough are well known, and well documented. Charities raise funds to fight world hunger; the UN has pledged to eradicate world hunger by 2030. So far, hunger is winning: from 2015 to 2016 the number of hungry people in the world increased by 5%. Have we forgotten about world hunger with all the crises of various kinds happening around the world? I wonder how much the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit campaign (and the aftermath of both) have distracted us all from the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The other food problem I spoke about today, though, was obesity. In the past three decades rates of obesity among adults and children have risen across the globe. Those increases bring in their train an increase in hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. This subject causes uncomfortable squirming amongst the college-age set (and probably the rest of us as well). We have been busy pushing back–and rightly so–against the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to conform our bodies to an unrealistic ideal. I grew up in Southern California, spending my summer days on its beautiful beaches, and lifeguard towerlearning to hate my body with a deep and abiding passion. I push back as hard as I can, for the sake of my daughters. I’m not sure my body-loathing will ever go away, but I’ll be damned if I let my girls grow up hating theirs.

Addressing the health crisis might well make for trimmer citizens. But I’d like to uncouple the body’s health from the body’s image. Good luck with that, says the other half of my brain: plenty of people have been trying to do that for years. Everyone who has been trying to do that ought to keep on trying, and the rest of us ought to join in, because this matters for the whole world. If we are ever going to tackle this problem, the very first thing we need to do is de-stigmatize obesity. The reason for the tension I felt in the classroom today? The phenomenon of fat-shaming. To begin with, that’s got to stop. Right now.

As a society, we have had some practice at de-stigmatizing. Alcoholism and mental illness are two diseases that, like obesity, are noncommunicable. But we no longer lay the blame for the illness squarely at the feet of the sufferer. It’s complicated. Getting better is hard work, but it isn’t self-flagellation. Some of us have health issues, and we need treatment and support to recover. Obesity is no different, except that we haven’t yet had the conversion that we have had with alcoholism and mental illness (which is still underway in both cases). We need to stop thinking of obesity as just ‘getting fat’ and begin to think of it as a complex phenomenon rather than something people inflict on themselves.

We also need to address the rise in obesity in the developing world. This global health crisis is being driven in part by the expansion of fast, processed food and sugary postobondrinks into new markets in the developing world. As US consumers drink less soda pop, new consumers need to be found to keep profits up. Fast food chains are popping up all over the world, and changing the way people see food. Packaged foods compete with healthier local food, and seem to be winning. The results of this corporate growth are devastating: rates of obesity are soaring in the developing world, and the health systems in developing nations are often having to address both malnutrition and obesity-related conditions.

I fear that the wealthy are preying on the poor. So it has always been, has it not? Did Amos not write of the Israelites, ‘they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals’? I fear that we don’t see it that way, if we see it at all.

Here’s what I would like to see: no more advertising ’empty calories’ as if it were food. Back in the 1970’s, the Marlborough man disappeared. Tobacco companies were banned from advertising, because smoking is bad for you. We know just as surely that processed food and sugary drinks contribute to obesity. Sure, not everyone who ever has a Coke or a McDonald’s cheeseburger becomes morbidly obese. But not everyone who ever smokes a cigarette gets cancer. Not everyone who ever has a drink becomes an alcoholic, yet we are warned about the health risks, and TV advertising is regulated or banned.

If we know about the health risks, and we surely do, then are we not negligent if we fail to inform consumers? The real risk here is doing nothing and seeing the global health crisis escalate. The alcohol and tobacco industries have survived taxation, regulation, and advertising bans. So would Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and all the rest.  Isn’t the health of the world worth it?

 

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Notes for the 22nd of January

The 22nd of January (in the US) and that Sunday in October designated ‘pro-life’ (ditto) always get under my skin a bit. Why? My suspicion is that beneath my frustration and anger, there is a point about Christian faith and practice. Too often, Christianity is reduced to a program or an issue. The checklist of what to do and what to believe is a lot easier than the command of Jesus to be perfect, or the command to love God completely, and your neighbour as yourself. It is easier, that is, to slap a pro-life sticker on your bumper, participate in the relevant activities every January (and October), and think that you are pro-life.

But being for life, if it is to be a true expression of Catholic faith, must involve a whole lot more than that. It goes without saying that abortion is a tragedy in every case, and more often than not, an avoidable tragedy. Abortion is not, however, the sum of all evil. It is rather, a symptom of the corruption of our hearts–all of our hearts–and of a world in which scarcity and death threaten us. I wonder sometimes whether the energy expended to protect the unborn is really an effort to protect ourselves. Babies are loveable; it is not difficult to evoke sympathy for the children who are threatened by the practice of abortion. it is hard to imagine a person in our culture (or any culture, really) who wouldn’t mourn at the suffering of an infant, wouldn’t extend him- or herself on that child’s behalf. And so it should be.

I wonder, though, whether that isn’t like loving those who love you. The point there seems to be that loving those who love you is not terribly difficult. There is a reciprocity that makes the love you give less costly. What does it cost you to love those who love you? What does it cost you to be concerned for the unborn? Time, perhaps, and prayer–and that isn’t a bad thing. But if the heart of Christian love is forgiveness (see Matthew 18 and John 20: 22-23, e.g.), how can protesting abortion take center stage?

Abortion is an evil that happens in a world in which evil things happen all the time. Is it a worse evil than child abuse? than malnutrition? than the soul-destroying conditions in which thousands of children live? I’m not convinced it is. I think there is a peculiarly self-serving form of human sinfulness that operates when the choice to terminate a pregnancy is made for convenience, or because of disabling conditions. In such cases, I think the word ‘murder’ is not too strong, and I would rank those decisions at the top of the list of godless human judgments. (I say I think.)

What it boils down to, for me, is this: (1) I firmly believe abortion is wrong. (2) At the same time, I view the law legalising abortion in a similar light to the law permitting divorce; Jesus qualified that law as having been given because of our ‘hardness of heart’–though I appreciate the differences between the two. (3) I look around the world and see sin and need and lack of love everywhere. There are children who live in conditions of abject poverty and desperate need–of material goods and also of the love and affirmation they need to grow up healthy and strong. (4) I see plenty of grown-ups with the same sorts of needs. (5) I am concerned that focusing so narrowly on one evil–abortion–allows us to avoid evils more difficult to confront, and commands more difficult to obey. ‘Love your enemies…’; ‘forgive…seventy times seven’; ‘feed my sheep’; ‘make disciples…’; ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.’ Obeying these commands requires us to be pro-life until it hurts us, to extend ourselves for life, to confess our faith in the Giver of Life in all that we think, say, and do. We have to be conscious of the darkness and sin in our own hearts that prevents us from being the bearers of God’s light and life to others. We have to oppose practices that threaten, demean, or undermine life–like torture, slavery, the death penalty, the drug trade. We have to resist hatred, fear, indifference, unforgiveness and the temptation to leave undone the good we can do. We have to put on love and humility, letting our pride and self-sufficiency be crucified with Christ.

Being pro-life is being for Jesus–the Way, the Truth, and the Life–always and consistently. To follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to be about the business of making disciples, that is what it means to be pro-life. Praying with others for the unborn is good; mourning the loss of those children who never will be because of abortion is good; protesting a practice that allows us to exercise heartless power over the most vulnerable is right and proper. But if we stop there, we cannot call ourselves pro-life. Unless we get up on the morning of January 23rd ready to reach out to the poor, the unwanted, the unloved, the seemingly unlovable and unforgivable, unless we take seriously the call to be witnesses and make disciples, we have missed the point. Jesus came that we might have life abundantly, and to follow him means bearing that life and giving it away every day of every year, in all that we say and do.

So I get angry when the topic of abortion is the litmus test for Christian faithfulness. Of course we ought to oppose abortion–but that isn’t the cutting edge of our faith. If we are growing into the likeness of Christ, we have to have bigger hearts and a broader vision. Jesus was not speaking about ‘the issues’; he was declaring ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. Jesus came bearing love, and forgiveness, and grace, and life, and he was and is the light that shines in the darkness–and our hope is and will ever be that the darkness cannot overcome Him.

Sadness and truth

It’s worth noting that the weather outside is miserable: cold, wet, and windy. Maybe that contributes to my sense of the overwhelming sadness in the world today. But I usually like the rain, even the cold and the wind, and I love the winter-bare trees against a pale and greyish sky. So I think it’s not the weather. It’s not even my own sadness, really. It’s these two things. 

The first is the work so beautifully presented on upworthy (which a friend posted to Facebook) on the difficulties boys face as they try to achieve an unrealistic and hurtful masculinity. Boys don’t have to be tough. It also made me think again about the way I am with my boys, and that’s good. But the video made me really sad, sad that there are so many stories of pain and loneliness. The second might seem completely unconnected: a project exploring poverty in the UK. They overlap, though, in the stories of tough times and pain. 

And just yesterday, I was engaged in a lively conversation with my students, a conversation about the Incarnation. Of course the question of suffering somehow always comes up, one way or another, as soon as the questions begin. So it did. There isn’t an answer, as I have said before, here on this neglected blog. There is suffering, and there is redemption; we endure the former and hope for the latter…and it is a mystery. It’s no less true today than it was yesterday, but the question is more poignant. The answer is less comforting. And so it should be. It is one thing to say in front of the lecture hall that you don’t have all the answers. It is another thing entirely to face the questions out there, in the world where they arise out of raw disappointment and agony–whether the pain is mine or another’s. 

And so I will try to be grateful for the sadness I found today. I heard somewhere that joy comes in the morning. 

Deo gratias.