A Solstice Sermon

In past years, I’ve used the occasion of the winter solstice to deliver a brief homily on an issue of moral importance. This year, I’d like to do so again.

Although nearly every society has put its own religious or cultural gloss on it, the solstice is an event marked and commemorated by all of humanity. In Japan, the solstice festival is Amaterasu, the reemergence of the sun goddess. To ancient Romans, it was Brumalia, the feast of the wine god Bacchus, and to Germanic pagans, it was Yule. To modern Christians, of course, it became Christmas. In every case, though, and accounting for calendrical drift, what this day really celebrates is the knowledge that winter has reached its darkest ebb and that warmth and sunlight will be returning (granted, I’m betraying my northern-hemisphere bias). In many cultures, this rebirth marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

The date of the solstice was no small thing to the agrarian societies of the past, where understanding the cycle of the seasons and knowing when to plant crops was a matter of life or death. Today, a fossil-fuel-powered global economy can grow food wherever it’s warm and ship it wherever it’s needed, buffering us First Worlders from the vicissitudes of climate. Nevertheless, there are millions of people even today for whom getting enough food is a very real and pressing dilemma.

The numbers are heart-wrenching: this year, the USDA estimates that 36 million Americans will experience “food insecurity”, a euphemism for not having enough to eat. This means that an astonishing one in ten Americans, sometime in this past year, have gone to bed hungry, or skipped meals to make ends meet, or haven’t known where their next meal would come from. One in ten – and this not in some destitute, drought-ridden Third World society, but in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.

Could it be your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers among that hungry throng? Statistically, it’s very likely. Hunger is a silent problem, because so many people are ashamed to admit that they get food stamps or rely on a food pantry. In our Puritan, capitalist society, being poor still carries a great stigma, as if being hungry is a sign of laziness or lack of motivation. In reality, many of the hungry are people who have a job, or two jobs, or even three; but in an America that’s increasingly stratified, where wealth and opportunity are becoming more and more concentrated at the top, and where the social safety net is becoming worn and threadbare, even having a job is no guarantee of earning enough to support a family. And the kinds of food that are cheapest tend to be highly processed, high-calorie, low-nutrition – the kind that nourishes only at the cost of causing other kinds of long-term damage. It’s no coincidence that obesity and diabetes are most common among the poor, as well as hunger.

It’s not as if America is unable to feed all her sons and daughters. We could do it if we wanted to. Where do the money and resources go? An honest accounting must certainly begin with the half-trillion-dollar defense budget, which very nearly equals the military spending of every other nation in the world combined. Most of this is being spent on weapons programs to prepare for wars we will never have to fight; urban combat and counterinsurgency, not massive conventional conflicts between great powers, is almost certainly the face of war in the future.

It was Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president and former supreme commander of allied forces in World War II Europe, who famously said that every gun made and every warship launched signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed. In our time, that speech more starkly than ever outlines the choices that are available to us. We can continue to spend our future on looking back at the past, making ourselves ever more able to deal death to those we name enemies. Or we could use that money to put an end to hunger and poverty not just in the United States, but around the world as well. We could use our wealth and superpower status to mend the world and sow the seeds of a lasting peace and goodwill, one that would do far more to protect us from terrorism than any number of high-tech weapons systems ever have or will.

For the foreseeable future, though, this outcome is inconceivable. Our politicians and leaders, even the greatest, are enmeshed in the mire of conventional wisdom which holds that spending more on defense is always courageous and patriotic, while spending to feed the hungry is a sign of weakness and foolishness. For the immediate future, the burden to act rests not on the government, but with us, the grass roots. Where the social safety net has failed, we must fill the gaps. (In the medium-range future, I hope that all Daylight Atheism readers are willing to push their own governments to invest more wisely.) There are worthy charities like Oxfam or Feeding America, as well as local food banks, that are taking part in this effort. We, the well-off and comfortable citizens of the First World, have a moral obligation to lend a hand to those to whom our assistance might mean so much. What are you willing to do to help?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jormungundr

    The way I see it we could cut our defense budget in half and still have the greatest military on Earth. And that quarter trillion dollars per year could be spent on a lot of different things (food for the hungry, increased school funding, infrastructure programs, etc). But of course, any attempt to reduce defense spending to reasonable levels will result in shrill cries that you are disarming us and making us helpless. I suppose that we could also save money by not assaulting foreign countries that have not attacked us (Iraq and Vietnam come to mind), but then again the shrill cries of the war hawks will be heard denouncing politicians that suggest that.

  • http://journalnous.wordpress.com journalnous

    Very well said. That military spending is seen as so vital and, as you pointed out, ‘patriotic’, is truly shameful.

  • KiwiInOz

    Winter?! It’s 30 degrees C out there at the moment! Happy solstice everyone.

  • Tom

    An honest accounting must certainly begin with the half-trillion-dollar defense budget, which very nearly equals the military spending of every other nation in the world combined.

    It’s hard to see how anyone could argue that that isn’t overkill (assuming the figures used are adjusted according to the quantity of land, materiel, people and other interests that each respective country needs to defend, of course) – I don’t think even George Bush could manage to screw things up to the point that America would have to fight every other country on the planet at the same time. That’s also assuming everyone makes equally efficient use of what they spend, of course, which is unlikely – apart from the general rule of thumb that any consumer of resources will generally expand to use everything allocated to it regardless of actual necessity, which applies pretty much to the whole of humanity, it seems to be a particularly American trait not to bother to carefully solve a problem if you can just overwhelm it and efficiency be damned; and as long as the colossal amounts of money being funnelled into the US military hold out, that option will probably always present itself.

  • Alex Siyer

    He he.

    In my country 25 dec. is more likely the change from spring to summer. It wasn`t an important date before the arrival of the Catholic Faith. and for the christians disappointment we didn`t have the idea of a supreme god at that time. Christmas and the Christian God came together.

    The winter solstice always will be my favorite celebration. despite all gifts, despite all the turkeys

  • Alex Weaver

    I wonder how Christians reconcile this with their Bible. “For I have come not to s[p]end [on] peace, but a sword,” I guess.

  • DemonHype

    @Jormungundr:

    Don’t forget that to spend that money on the poor would be “redistribution of wealth”, tantamount to Communism to this type, and therefore evil. You have to break through not only the unwarranted ultra-militarist paranoia but the almost religious devotion to pure (read: predatory) Capitalism. It’s deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness. The rich get richer = good people get rewarded. The poor get dinner = feeding moochers. There’s no way to get through to them, and there’s always some reason that Jesus wasn’t actually talking about this or to them when he made those comments about camels and needles. Their lives are entirely based on spin.

    It seems impossible to me that we can de-fuse these psychological triggers in the minds of the people before all hell breaks loose. In fact, when I think back through history, it seems that the majority of people are unable to see this sort of thing until it hits the point of no return.

    I guess it’s possible, but it’s hard for me to be optimistic when I listen to most Americans talk.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Feeding the poor of any country does not necessarily mean handouts. Development programs and back to work support put food in peoples mouths ultimately. Even putting the defence budget into infrastructure or non military research would create useful jobs that help people pull themselves out of the welfare trap. The U.S in particular could help by using its aid budget more rationally, for example stop promoting abstinence as a solution to the aids epidemic and provide reliable prophylactics instead.

  • velkyn

    Oxfam is my favorite, as well as some of the micro-loan programs, like FINCA, that help people to get their feet under them.

    Here, in lovely central Pennsylvania, I saw an ad from a local homeless “mission” that they were “desperate” for food to help the homeless and poor. Now, looking in the phone book there is at least 6 pages of churches in my area. Why is this Christian charity so “desperate”? Do no other Christian groups help them? Are they not on the right “team”? Just recently a church opened up a $3.5 million “center” here, to spread Randy Clark’s nonsensical claims of being able to heal people (evidently Mr. Clark thinks that God turns teeth gold “God turns teeth gold as “a sign that causes people to wonder,” he says. “It’s really good advertising.” http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2008/12/post_8.html). So, we have magic God gold teeth and hungry people. Funny how God can’t make manna anymore but can make the bling.

  • terrence
  • Leum

    The screw the poor attitude was perhaps best shown recently by Dr. Thomas Sowell:

    Working in a homeless shelter is widely regarded as “community service”– as if aiding and abetting vagrancy is necessarily a service, rather than a disservice, to the community.

    Is a community better off with more people not working, hanging out on the streets, aggressively panhandling people on the sidewalks, urinating in the street, leaving narcotics needles in the parks where children play?

  • http://redmolly.typepad.com RedMolly

    And the kinds of food that are cheapest tend to be highly processed, high-calorie, low-nutrition – the kind that nourishes only at the cost of causing other kinds of long-term damage. It’s no coincidence that obesity and diabetes are most common among the poor, as well as hunger.

    This is absolutely a key point. And in a society that views obesity, as well as poverty, as a moral failing, the poor who rely on cheap low-nutrition high-calorie food to survive are doubly cursed.

    I would love to be involved with an organization that works to bring *healthy* food to poor and homeless people, whether through collaboration with farmers and farmers’ markets, nutrition and cooking education or lobbying for real grocery stores in poor urban neighborhoods. Does anyone know of such a group?

  • Alex Weaver

    Working in a homeless shelter is widely regarded as “community service”– as if aiding and abetting vagrancy is necessarily a service, rather than a disservice, to the community.

    Is a community better off with more people not working, hanging out on the streets, aggressively panhandling people on the sidewalks, urinating in the street, leaving narcotics needles in the parks where children play?

    This reminds me of an argument I had with a classmate who was under the impression that 1) Obama’s healthcare plan would in context mean a net tax increase for him, 2) that a stable society and a healthy, well-educated workforce were not a significant benefit to the rich that said rich should be okay with paying for in a manner proportional to the benefit they derived from these resources as measured in dollars, 3) that old canard about the rich “giving” everyone else jobs, 4) that jobs are easy to get and find and that people who are on welfare “just don’t want to do the kinds of work that they can get” (as opposed to him, who worked as a janitor and was grateful for it, uphill both ways in the snow, blah blah blah), and 5) that “every job offers benefits” (speaking of health insurance and the like).

    In my view, the second most problematic category of people are those whose ideas are formed by reasoning correctly from very, very wrong premises, and who have internalized the idea that subjecting one’s fundamental assumptions to serious critical examination is a betrayal of one’s ideals/upbringing/self, or otherwise Just Not Done. (The most problematic are the subset of these who are violent).

    As a side note, anti-social welfare bias is incredibly insidious. I remember my American Government textbook characterizing the major argument for progressive taxation as “the wealthy can afford to pay more” and social justice policies like Affirmative Action as “promoting ‘equality of outcome’ rather than ‘equality of opportunity’” (quotes approximate) in spite of the absence of overt right-wing sentiment in most of its sections.

  • Tom

    that jobs are easy to get and find and that people who are on welfare “just don’t want to do the kinds of work that they can get”

    The big problem is, society is still structured so that everyone is required to work in order to survive, despite the fact that with constant increases in efficiency and automation, the point will eventually come, if it hasn’t already, when significantly less than the whole of humanity will be needed to do enough work to support all of it – what, then, is to be done about those who aren’t needed to produce enough resources to support everyone but need to be able to claim a share? Makework? Go the way of the luddites and deliberately stall or even reverse trends in efficiency and automation? You almost certainly can’t just have the current system of handouts, welfare and shelters for those potential workers who are superfluous to requirements; it fosters such resentment and opposition among so many of the employed who support it with taxes that, even today, it constantly struggles against cutbacks or the prospect of being shut down altogether – as the problem gets more acute, more and more unemployed being fed by fewer and fewer workers, increases in this sentiment will very likely make it collapse. What does that leave? Staggered shifts of workers, perhaps, several people assigned to the same post and working only a couple of days a week each, yet all on enough pay to make a living? It sounds workable in the long term, and after a few centuries of inequality and hardship society might eventually evolve towards that equilibrium point, but you’d never persuade any employer to accept such a scheme any sooner than when ponderous social change ushers it in gradually enough to be unnoticed, and avoid all that suffering and dysfuntionality in the meantime.

    If humanity doesn’t actually self-destruct, I’m quite confident our societies will eventually evolve towards something approaching a utopia, where sufficient resources can be made for so little work that money itself may become obsolete, but I reckon we’re talking tens of thousands more years at least via mindless evolution alone, and the mechanism of that evolution would require constant weakening and collapse of many societies and systems as they are superseded, with all the human suffering that would entail – the crucial question, then, is is there any way to speed that process up, or make it less painful?

  • Jormungundr

    DemonHype:
    Don’t get me wrong, I would rather slash defense funding and taxes equally. But if we have to tax as this rate we could at least spend the money on more useful things. I would much rather prefer a purer form of capitalism. Seeing as we don’t have that kind of economic system and are not likely to get it soon, I would make do with merely spending our excessively high amounts of taxed money on useful things rather than wasting in on a bloated defense budget and the war on drugs.

  • nfpendleton

    Nothing But Nets is great, too. ( http://www.nothingbutnets.net/ ) You know exactly where the money goes: Each donation buys a mosquito net that is distributed for free to a family in need. Programs to get nets to people (and adequate medical treatment) have seen in some cases mortality rates HALVED. That’s worth a “Happy Holidays,” I think.

    Considering WarResisters.org claims that 36% of our annual income tax is spent on military (other than veterans benefits and services), this seems like a small penance each American owes its fellow humans. But what do I know?

    I’m just a godless, anti-war, wealth redistribution advocate. I should be at Gitmo.

  • Valhar2000

    Well, as Jormungundr has hinted, what si in effect in the US nowadays is not really a very free form of capitalism. For all the talk about free market, governmental intervention is enormous and constant, but it serves in many cases to promote the interest of a wealñthy few who are well connected, rather than the interests of the destitute, which is what welfare programs purport to do.

    If corporate welfare were nto so widespread, the results might not necessarily be much better than what we have now, but they woudl certianly be different. I do, however, strongly suspect that many companies that have landed us in the current hot water would have reformed or died off long ago if not for the unfair support from their political cronies.

  • bestonnet

    Tom:

    The big problem is, society is still structured so that everyone is required to work in order to survive, despite the fact that with constant increases in efficiency and automation, the point will eventually come, if it hasn’t already, when significantly less than the whole of humanity will be needed to do enough work to support all of it

    I’m pretty sure it hasn’t come already, whilst we’ve made a lot of progress on automation there are a lot of things that we just can’t automate well and which have to be done by humans. Although eventually we will develop the technology we need to automate almost everything so that only a few humans will have to do work.

    Of course if you want a low standard of living then our technology is sufficient to allow for it with very few people working, just that pretty much no one actually wants a low standard of living (though plenty of people support policies that would give us that (including some people involved in ‘helping’ with poverty) but that’s due to ignorance).

    Tom:

    what, then, is to be done about those who aren’t needed to produce enough resources to support everyone but need to be able to claim a share?

    A sufficiently wealthy society could provide everyone with the basic needs (food, water, shelter, health care, etc) or enough money to buy them and if there’s still work to be done then those who do that work would get extra money to buy luxuries (this may actually be something that could be implemented now, not when work dies).

    Tom:

    Makework? Go the way of the luddites and deliberately stall or even reverse trends in efficiency and automation?

    I would say no, the failure of the Luddites whilst bad for them was good for the rest of society as it resulted in a very big downward trend in the price of clothes making them more affordable and thereby allowing people to spend some of the money they saved on other needs.

    Though it should be noted that the Luddites along with most other anti-technology movements (including the big ones of this day) had economic motivations (i.e. didn’t want to lose their jobs), the violence of the Luddites was largely due to there being no social welfare back then so that those who lost their job to the frame and the new mode of production it made available would likely have trouble affording food.

    The good news is that so far anti-technology groups have tended to lose out in the end (even if they get a temporary victory in some places).

    Tom:

    but I reckon we’re talking tens of thousands more years at least via mindless evolution alone,

    Cultural evolution happens must faster than biological evolution.

  • Tom

    Sorry, I really goofed on the “tens of thousands” thing – two to five thousand is probably nearer the mark, maybe even less, assuming no cataclysmic setbacks.

  • bestonnet

    Even thousands is probably overestimating the time it’ll take, especially when you factor exponential growth into it (and if we can get AI to work well enough it might only take seconds).

  • Tom

    Well, I always tend to estimate pessimistically – it increases the odds of being pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed.

  • Julia

    RedMolly:

    I would love to be involved with an organization that works to bring *healthy* food to poor and homeless people, whether through collaboration with farmers and farmers’ markets, nutrition and cooking education or lobbying for real grocery stores in poor urban neighborhoods. Does anyone know of such a group?

    I bet your local food bank has something in place already. I know here in Vancouver (BC, Can.) the food bank has multiple programs to help bring healthy, fresh food to people, including the Fruit Tree Project, Plant-A-Row, and Community Kitchens. I believe these programs are fairly common. (www.foodbank.bc.ca)