First, it’s complicated. Speculations on green commodities, the use of corn for biofuel, climate changes, and the meatier diet of the world’s middle class have been just a few of the causes. Coming up with a solution isn’t easy. Second, those who suffer most from the crisis are at least an ocean away from the relatively well-fed North American continent. Nor will the average American household fall into crisis if the cost of a box of Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes goes up few cents. Consequently, we initially want to leave the problem in the hands of international politics and focus on more relevant topics, like presidential elections.
Beyond the complexity and remoteness of the issue is a very simple principle at stake that touches the heart of not only the hungry man’s human dignity, but ours as well. This principle is the Universal Destination of Goods: all the goods of the earth are for the benefit of all of humanity. Genesis one speaks of the earth as a gift from God to man. No one is an absolute patron of our planet or any part of it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is more explicit by referring to the duty of solidarity that we all have to each other, “Respect for human dignity requires…the practice of solidarity, in accordance with the golden rule and in keeping with the generosity of the Lord, who "though he was rich, yet for your sake…became poor so that by his poverty, you might become rich” (2407 CCC).
This doesn’t undermine the idea of private property. Someone may legitimately acquire and possess material goods, but his possession becomes truly human when he doesn’t limit their use exclusively to his own benefit. Though possession itself may be private the way we use our possessions should be in some way help others, as well (CCC 2404).
Though this principle of the Universal Destination of Goods and its expression in solidarity have Christian roots, they certainly aren’t limited to just believers. Both the Church and secular thinkers throughout the history of Western culture have recognized that it’s also a reasonable principle, one which doesn’t depend on revelation. Even John Locke, an 18th century political philosopher, had his formulation of it: “As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise.” Everyone has a right to the basic necessities of life and basic charity demands that those how have should come to the aid of those who have not. For many reasons and not just this, Locke was an early inspiration for the American ideal as expressed by the Founders.
The principle encourages solidarity at all levels of need but is particularly strong in the cases of “extreme want”. The global food crisis, whatever its causes and consequences, boils down to this: there are people in great need while there are others who live in comparative surplus. We can’t look upon it with indifference, since conflict inevitably arises when a human crisis is ignored. Especially since the right of self-preservation eventually justifies an individual in taking what he needs for life if it’s not freely granted.
Further, the right to self-preservation in a Third World situation is also related to the same right to private property cherished by more-developed nations. When a small business owner protests the demolition of his shop to make room for an interstate highway, he essentially appeals to the same argument. He needs his shop to live and without a just compensation by which he can continue fulfilling life’s needs, the government can’t justly expropriate it. The right to live and not die of hunger is intimately linked to our right to possess the property we need for life.
The international community certainly hasn’t ignored these problems. Although economic structures of solidarity are still weak, emergency aid has been continually pouring in. These can only be part of the solution, however. Underlying the concrete actions of solidarity is the even more fragile “culture of solidarity”. That is, when people adjust their lifestyles to benefit the world’s needy. This is more the task of individuals than of government institutions. And so the crisis becomes an opportunity when people make this step of expressing their own human dignity by remembering and reaching out to those who suffer.
Aristotle, speaking of society, once said that a man alone is either a beast or a god. Complete isolation from society is inhuman. Conversely, living in solidarity with the greater part of our globalized society makes us more human.
Some choose to do so by the monthly child-in-Africa contributions. An even more challenging option is to adjust our lifestyles to the needs of others by rethinking our own use of the earth’s resources. It means streamlining our living habits; our use of fuel, food, and utilities. Doing so allows us to truly live our humanity by living it within humanity, since the sufferings of others are intricately interwoven with our own human identity. A personal budget may not demand this thriftiness and solidarity; but a sense of rationality and good Christian living do. In this sense, the global food crisis isn’t so complicated or remote; and our response to it says a lot about who we are and what we believe.
John Antonio, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.
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