Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pharoah's dream and hungers physical & spiritual

The Rev. Dr. Sabina Alkire kicks off the re-launch of the EGR blog with a reflection on the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream in Genesis 41 and God's mission of global reconciliation.

It was diplomacy from the soul and diplomacy at its best. By a single encounter Joseph comforted a troubled Pharoah, averted a national famine, and provoked his stellar professional rise. Yet it was all, somehow, so inadvertent. Almost accidental. Particular to that occasion amongst those people. What of God – or of a holy response to hunger – can we glean?

The story involves Joseph – Joseph of the coat of many colours, whose brothers sell him into slavery because he is their father’s favourite, who rises to head his slavemaster Potiphar’s household only to be imprisoned when Potiphar’s wife tries unsuccessfully to seduce him. It might be worth mentioning that Joseph alone of Old Testament males is described as having the double accolades of a “fine figure and a handsome face.”

In the story, Pharoah has a troubling dream. His butler hears of it, remembers Joseph, and fetches him from prison. Joseph has time only to shave his beard and change his outer clothes before rushing to the Pharoah, who mentions Joseph’s reputation for interpreting dreams. With considerable insensitivity, Joseph’s first words are to correct the Supreme Ruler of Egypt, protesting that God alone interprets dreams. Such effrontery is overlooked, and the discussion proceeds.

Having interpreted the dreams as predicting seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of drought, Joseph then suggests a constructive response. In the sentence that follows today’s reading, Pharoah appoints Joseph to oversee famine prevention throughout Egypt because of his wisdom and discernment. Thus Joseph’s fate changes from prisoner to prime minister. He is given a signet ring, dressed in fine linen, paraded through the streets in a chariot, and given the daughter of an Egyptian priest as his wife – all within three verses, and at the age of thirty. Just a tiny bit surreal.

But two aspects of this story are real and relevant to us – one is the issue of physical hunger. The other is the need for us to become so attuned to God that God can summon us suddenly - at a whim or whisper - to do holy work.

Biblical concern for hunger was real. In the drought-prone geography out of which our faiths came, food insecurity was part of people’s stories and lived experience. The Iraqi father of our faith, Abraham, had voluntarily moved from Iraq to Canaan, but it was famine that drove Abram and Sarah on into Egypt. Wide-ranging hunger appears in the biblical stories of Isaac, David, Ruth’s father-in-law, Elijah and Elisha. Poor Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern when there was no bread in Jerusalem, shortly before the city fell. In Jesus’ parables, it was famine that drove the prodigal son back to work when he had used up his inheritance. Given people’s experience, it was natural that addressing physical hunger was part of faithfulness, part of loving your neighbours. Indeed not only did Jesus feed the hungry, and the early Church send food aid, but from the earliest Christian writers – Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria – to the present, the Church addresses destitution.

It may be a bit odd that at present spiritual people and the Church are not engaging this task with the even a fraction of the enthusiasm with which we swarm to other topics. A good number of our brothers and sisters across the Anglican communion are deeply affected by hunger and destitution, yet it is not this that we discuss with them. In 2004, we have 6 billion of God’s children on our planet. Around 842 million of us – one in seven – are hungry today and every day. If we temporarily suspended ourselves from the British isles and invited hungry people into our homes and hotel rooms, they would fill Britain thirteen times over. Put differently, the hungry outnumber three Europes. In fact, if you combine all the high income countries in the world our total population is 830 million. The population of those who hunger – 842 million – is greater. Although ten million of the hungry live in high income countries. And, what many people do not realize is that although some countries have dramatically improved nutrition, world hunger has been rising since 1995.

However ancient hunger’s history, it still aches. Ethiopians call the ones who are always hungry, Wuha Anfari – those who cook water. If you sit by kitchen fires in India, which alone has more hungry people than the continent of Africa, you will notice women and girls carefully spooning minute portions onto their plates so that their husbands and sons have a bit more to eat. And hunger entails tragic choices. In Zambia, a widow and mother of two entered the sex trade in order to feed her children. When interviewed, she observed a sobering truth, “I find hunger more deadly than AIDS. AIDS kills in years. But hunger kills within days."

We cannot hear these stories and watch these cold numerical trends, as food-secure Christians, without being somewhat unsettled. Perhaps that is apt. For even the soft spoken Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen wrote that he wished that informed people like us would be less “coolly accustomed” to hunger, and would “rage and holler” a little bit more, because reducing hunger, though complex, is not rocket science. It requires a basic set of capabilities in agriculture, school, health care, social protection, and political stability. In fact the United Nations, the US, the UK, indeed 189 governments have pledged to achieve eight millennium development goals to reduce poverty and halve hunger by 2015. Why? Because, perhaps for the first time in history, we actually could.

As many outside the Church now recognise, if a few million persons of good will did our bit as individuals and citizens – and what we will do be different for each of us but we can each do something – then in this age where we are globally connected and democratically empowered, our momentum would make a real, unprecedented impact on poverty and hunger.

But will we? Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of … individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”
The story of Joseph and Pharoah has a further theme, which is attentiveness to God.

Joseph’s first words to Pharoah were: “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” Joseph’s actions were not at all beyond reproach – just as ours will not be beyond reproach to future generation. Nor did he act singlehandedly – one presumes hundreds of women and men were involved. But the moment of diplomacy in this story did set in motion a chain of events, such as we need today in Darfur, or in our corporate world, or indeed in the WTO. How can we become so attuned to God that God can summon us at a whim or whisper to do holy work?

The Welch poet R.S. Thomas refers to, “the empty silence within” - where God dwells. And when we act from that place, our actions are mingled with God’s action, our fragile love with God’s love.

Oddly, or perhaps aptly, a common metaphor for this empty silence, this holy listening, is hunger. And such spiritual hunger is greatly to be cherished. As John of the Cross wrote, “if the person is seeking God, much more is her believed seeking her.” In the Psalms, God yearns for his people to be hungry and to open their mouths.“Prove your love…in actual deeds”. But we cannot neglect the interior hunger either. For eventually, gradually, we may be transformed into people God can use in ways we do not now anticipate.
The Rev. Dr. Sabina Alkire is an Anglican priest, development economist,
EGR board member, founder of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative and co-author of What Can One Person Do: Faith to Heal a Broken World. Her writing appears on this blog on the first of each month.

Tomorrow: Abbie Coburn.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wars in Africa wipe out aid gains

Thanks to Jan Burroughs (EGR contact in Missouri) for sending this article from the BBC our way. Food for thought about how our work and the work of organizations like Episcopal Peace Fellowship is bound together.

A report on armed conflict in Africa has shown that the cost to the continent's development over a 15-year period was nearly $300bn (£146bn).

The research was undertaken by a number of non-governmental organisations, including Oxfam.

It says the cost of conflict was equal to the amount of money received in aid during the same period.

This is the first time analysts have calculated the overall effects of armed violence on development.

The report says that between 1990 and 2005, 23 African nations were involved in conflict, and on average this cost African economies $18bn a year.

It concludes that African governments have taken encouraging steps at a regional level to control arms transfers, but that what is needed is a global, legally-binding arms trade treaty.

The president of Liberia, which is just starting to recover from a long civil war, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, also wrote the preface to the report.

She told the BBC "the proliferation of weapons is a key driver in armed conflicts".

"We need to restrict the supply of guns to African conflict zones - and an arms trade treaty is a vital way to do this", she said.

Read the whole story here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Fair Trade in Bloom

By Andrew Downie of The New York Times

VARGINHA, Brazil — Rafael de Paiva was skeptical at first. If he wanted a “fair trade” certification for his coffee crop, the Brazilian farmer would have to adhere to a long list of rules on pesticides, farming techniques, recycling and other matters. He even had to show that his children were enrolled in school.

“I thought, ‘This is difficult,’” recalled the humble farmer. But the 20 percent premium he recently received for his first fair trade harvest made the effort worthwhile, Mr. Paiva said, adding, it “helped us create a decent living.”

More farmers are likely to receive such offers, as importers and retailers rush to meet a growing demand from consumers and activists to adhere to stricter environmental and social standards.

Mr. Paiva’s beans will be in the store-brand coffee sold by Sam’s Club, the warehouse chain of Wal-Mart Stores. Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Starbucks already sell some fair trade coffee.

“We see a real momentum now with big companies and institutions switching to fair trade,” said Paul Rice, president and chief executive of TransFair USA, the only independent fair trade certifier in the United States.

The International Fair Trade Association, an umbrella group of organizations in more than 70 countries, defines fair trade as reflecting “concern for the social, economic and environmental well-being of marginalized small producers” and does “not maximize profit at their expense.”

According to Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, a group of fair trade certifiers, consumers spent approximately $2.2 billion on certified products in 2006, a 42 percent increase over the previous year, benefiting over seven million people in developing countries.

Read the whole article here.