Foodbanks are a proper Christian response to food poverty. But we also need to re-think our involvement in foodbanks and consider wider issues of social justice. Meanwhile, we will push to ensure that there is a foodbank in every town. Every parish, even. If you think that this message (which comes from the Christian church in Britain) is confusing, then that is because it is.
Foodbanks emerged in Canada in the 1980s and, like in Britain now, they were intended to provide an interim solution to what was seen as a temporary problem of food poverty. As such, foodbanks were to be subject to review as these problems passed. However foodbanks in Canada remain. And their operations continue to grow. They now form an integral part of the Canadian welfare landscape.
The reasons for this are actually straightforward. It is not rocket science. Austerity and the food poverty that it visits upon some households is not a temporary phenomenon. It is a structural phenomenon. It is a product of neo-liberal capitalism. As such it is neo-liberal capitalism itself, rather than the presenting problem of food poverty, that needs to be tackled.
Foodbanks do the latter but not the former. They tackle the presenting problem of food poverty but not the political and economic system that created it. And, in doing so, they contribute to the lie that food poverty is just a temporary phenomenon – a blip in the lives of families that have been momentarily hit by austerity and its consequences, such as unemployment and the like. All will be well when they find that next job. That is why foodbanks, in their original Canadian incarnation and in the model that has been adopted in Britain, cater as a temporary relief operation: Hungry households may have three days of food. They may even have three hand-outs of three days food to see them through their unfortunate, but thankfully temporary, period of austerity induced food poverty. But that is their lot. They will (should) have another job by then. Ultimately, capitalism will provide.
Unfortunately, the high priests of neo-liberal capitalism, which include foodbank champions such as the Trussell Trust, are blind to its real workings. An increasing number of foodbank users in Canada, and here in Britain, are working people. They already have jobs. They already have incomes. But they have very low incomes. And they have very low incomes because neo-liberal capitalism is based on evangelical faith in the market and an outright hostility towards institutions (the welfare state, trade unions etc.) that hinder its operation. The neo-liberalisation of capitalism during the last 40 years has resulted in an undermining of trade union influence (low wages, job insecurity), the breaking up of welfare systems (barely any social housing left) and the deregulation of housing markets (fueling speculation led housing booms and crises of affordability for those on low incomes). It is this that has created the current situation in which even working people cannot afford to live. This does not simply apply to the relationship between falling incomes and rising housing costs. It applies to the relationship between falling incomes and rising utility costs in the now deregulated water, gas and electricity sectors: So even if people can afford a home, they can barely afford to heat it.
It also applies to the relationship between falling incomes and rising food prices that are a product of the colonization of food production and distribution by a small number of increasingly powerful food corporations. These global corporations have kicked farmers in African and Latin American countries off their land, causing severe poverty there. Welcome to agribusiness! This involves an increasingly industrialized system of mass food production, involving the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers which damages land and the health of those that live on and off it. Moreover the poisonous food that is produced using these industrialized farming methods then ends up in the sexily packaged, processed rubbish that the food companies serve up for our consumption. And we have to pay through the nose for it because they control the market.
So now we have a different picture emerging. Food poverty is not a temporary blip – a consequence of unemployment that will be resolved by the capture of that job that lies in wait just around the corner. And capitalism does not provide. On the contrary, capitalism denies. It denies because neo-liberalization has created increasing food poverty and it is growing amongst those with the very jobs that are supposed to provide a way out of it. Foodbanks are not a solution, then. They are plugging the gap left by neo-liberal states that are strategically retreating from their role as welfare providers.
In this sense foodbanks do what the Christian church has always done best: they plug gaps and paper over the cracks whilst solving nothing. This tame and conservative approach to social intervention has formed the cornerstone of the Christian Church’s historical response to poverty and injustice in Britain. That said, the biblical justifications that Trussell Trust are currently mobilizing to justify their provision of foodbanks in every parish (“I was hungry and you fed me” Matt 25) are simply the standard stuff of an institutional religion that has long allied itself with the capitalist state rather than the justice that Jesus demanded.
This brings us to a key problem: Christian organizations such as Trussell Trust are selectively using Biblical text to justify their provision of foodbanks and, in doing so, demonstrating a strategic blindness to the context of the biblical texts used. They select small bites of biblical text which they rip out of context so that the meaning appears literal and invariant: “I was hungry and you fed me” so let’s have a foodbank in every town. That is surely what Jesus would do! But would Jesus really do this if we placed these biblical texts in their wider context?
Suffice it to say that that misrepresentation of Jesus is not the exclusive preserve of the Christian church. A favourite hobby of social scientists and political activists is also misrepresentation of Christianity. They love to attack Christians whom they associate with exactly the type of responses to poverty and injustice that we are currently seeing – Trussell Trust foodbanks. Thus they accuse the Christian Church of being reactionary and blind to the evils of capitalism. Yet, in doing so, they are also blind, in this case, to variations within the Christian tradition. They too are dismissive of the wider context of Christianity.
So what is this wider context of Christianity? Well, there is a radical tradition within Christianity that barely receives a hearing in debates about social justice. The marginality of this radical tradition in an overwhelmingly middle class institution is, of course, inevitable and assured but it nevertheless exists. And it still provides a political potential for the church. But it needs to be tapped by those within the church. Three aspects of this radical Christian tradition are of interest to us here so let us take a look at them.
The first tradition is that of a movement called ‘radical orthodoxy’ which is particularly associated with the writings of theologians such as John Milbank. Milbank’s argument is dense but an interpretation of it could be summarized thus: The problem with the Christian church is not straightforwardly internal to the church itself. That is to say, the problem does not lie with some deficiency in its own theological resources which it draws upon to work out how to respond to the problems of the world. The problem is external and lies in the field of politics.
Specifically the historical co-option of the Christian church by the state has had profound consequences for the way in which church relates to the society that surrounds it. The church has been subsumed to hegemonic political imperatives such that it finds itself endorsing what it might otherwise refuse on theological grounds. Moreover, by giving ground to political institutions, and allowing hegemonic political reasoning to predominate in the public realm, the Church has allowed its theology to be kicked off the public stage. The church is now required to stay out of politics.
The result has not simply been a church that has lost its right to explain and influence the direction of society which it has ceded to the capitalist state and the political class. Crucially, the Christian church has also lost its theology and, as such, its intellectual confidence to explain and influence society. This is why it now reaches for concepts that are external to its own theological traditions when making interventions in public debate. In a nutshell, then: As an institution that is bound to the capitalist state the church now finds itself dependent on the state and its political class to supply it with the concepts that it needs to make sense of society. An exemplar of this tendency par excellence might be the former Bishop of Liverpool’s recent conference on ‘Austerity with Fairness’: this conference shows how the myth of austerity has been uncritically accepted by the Church so the only room for manoeuvre it has left for itself is to place a Christian gloss on austerity. Let’s make austerity fairer!
So what does all of this mean for food poverty? For theologians such as Milbank, the capitalist myth of scarcity is axiomatic to understanding social problems such as food poverty. Scarcity is the mythical idea that resources are finite and, as such, require a system of cultivation that maximizes their social yield. Free market capitalism is supposed to ensure that this process of resource maximization occurs, for instance, by ensuring that the use of resources reflects the nature of demand. The other way in which free market capitalism ensures that resources are maximized, in a context of scarcity, is because it produces technological innovation. This also ensures that resources yield to their maximum potential. In a food context, then, the concept of scarcity has been used to legitimize agribusiness because it is only agribusiness that has the technology to maximize food production and thereby provide a plentiful supply of food. Agribusiness is ostensibly the ultimate in economic efficiency.
But it is not. Agribusiness has been built up at great social cost because the programme of enclosures that has been necessary to secure land for agribusiness – to produce its technological miracles – has seen peasant farmers forced from their land and into poverty. Agribusiness has also been built up at great environmental cost because the fertilizers and pesticides used by agribusiness have polluted land and the food system. As if that was not bad enough, this has been accomplished in the name of agricultural efficiency, yet, yields per hectare have plummeted as a result of the environmental damage that agribusiness has inflicted on arable land. So the result is this: Capitalism has been feeding itself on the idea of scarcity yet, in the process, it has produced more, not less, food scarcity.
The problem is that the church challenges none of this because it has nothing to say about the political economy of food. Far from formulating a critique of the political economy of food it has accepted the political economic myth of scarcity, and the corporate and industrialized system of food production that the myth is used to justify, and then merely seeks to place a Christian gloss on the current problem of food poverty. This is what leads it to the tame idea that ‘if you are hungry, I will feed you’ with my foodbank. But little more.
There are, however, a multitude of other Christian responses to this situation. Moreover, they are radical, questioning and emergent from now marginalized Christian traditions. The difference between these traditions is perhaps best captured by the Roman Catholic Archbishop and Latin American liberation theologian, Hélder Câmara, who is famously quoted as saying “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Milbank asks similar awkward questions and finds that he is led to a very different answer to the currently accepted wisdom which emphasizes scarcity. Whereas neo-liberal political economy emphasizes scarcity and the consequent need for agribusiness, Milbank argues that the Christian tradition of creation is one of abundance. This is quite the opposite. Moreover this Christian theological ‘tradition’ of abundance finds support outside of its own milieu. According to Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, there is considerable research showing that locally sensitive, agro-ecological methods of food production are far more productive than agribusiness. They also happen to be more socially just.
However, it is one thing to challenge orthodoxy but quite another to do something about it by challenging agribusiness with an alternative. But, here again, this is where (now marginal) Christian traditions can point a way forward. The Diggers, for instance, were radical Christians that challenged enclosures of common land by privileged elites as un-Christian: God’s creation, they claimed, was not for the benefit of the privileged few that claimed dominion over it. On the contrary, the Diggers pointed to how Jesus’ discourse stressed the fundamental equality of human beings (Galatians 3: 28) as well as the divine requirement of equality of treatment (Matt 26: 42-45). Jesus was also vehemently opposed to the hoarding to wealth (Luke 19: 23-27) and the exploitation of the poor by the rich (Luke 4: 17-21). For Diggers such as Gerrard Winstanley, then, the practice of colonizing land – by sword or money or any other means – represented the ‘fall’ of humans into sin. The triumph of Christianity, on the other hand, would occur when Jesus’
“… universal law of equity rises up in every man and woman, then non shall lay claim to any creature and say, ‘This is mine, and that is yours. This is my work, and that is yours’; but everyone shall put to their hands to till the earth, and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall common to all’
Winstanley and the Diggers regarded the earth as a common treasury. Unequal patterns of land ownership dishonoured the creator. The Diggers therefore set to work by growing food on common land. Their wider objective was to establish a counter culture of ‘living-in-common’ which they also sought to cultivate. Their approach was oppositional but it was directly focused on the problem of food poverty at hand, and it was non-violent. So there we are. There is a notable Christian tradition of direct action to secure adequate food for all, but mention of this tradition has not passed the lips of any senior figure in the Christian church. As a result the church remains fixated with foodbanks and late welfare payments when it would otherwise (if it were true to its own theology) be engaging in direct action to challenge the monopoly hold that neo-liberal capitalism has on food production and distribution. And therein lies the problem: A church that has nothing to say about the violent extraction of wealth from such a basic staple as food leaves itself open to the accusation that it is not a true church but, rather, a poodle of the capitalist state and the parasitical political class that feeds off it.