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?