The column with Canon Rev Dr Rod Garner: ‘Food is fundamental’

By Canon Rev Dr Rod Garner

Along with my relief driver Tony, I am now in charge of collecting from the bakery most Friday afternoons.

It’s satisfying work: simple and straightforward, a bit of heavy lifting – it’s surprising how heavy the trays of food can be – and the food bank volunteers are always happy to see us.

Tony confesses that he loves the smell of pies but never gives in to temptation as we head to Shoreline Church.

My own weakness is the bread, still fresh and delicious, and positively begging to be eaten. I bite my lip and resist.

As I unload my trays, I tell the volunteer, “I am never closer to Jesus than when I am doing this particular task!

She smiled knowingly. Jesus didn’t like large crowds that followed him hungry, so he sat them down and with incredibly modest resources – you remember, a few loaves and fishes – he managed to feed them all and there were still some left. Impressive in every way. I’m still working on it.

Food is fundamental. Armies march on it and the hungry languish or die for want of it. Today we are witnessing an increase in the cost of energy and food bills that will throw thousands of lives into disarray or despair.

What a strange situation that we now have more food banks in the UK than McDonald’s outlets, and the poorest may have to choose between an extra loaf of bread or keeping warm.

It bears repeating: food is fundamental. As the German author Bertolt Brecht once said, “first food, then morals”. More often than not, human nature only cares about ethics once basic needs are met.

The inference here is that moral thinking is an afterthought or luxury that we can choose to ignore if basic needs are denied. You eat first, then pray for the soul of the man you just murdered for his roast. An extreme example but we take the point.

What I want to suggest here, however, is that sometimes doing the right thing has to take precedence over even filling our bellies. Lent begins in about a week.

To mark Ash Wednesday, March 2, many Christians will forgo food on this day and possibly Fridays in Lent. It is a spiritual discipline – both a reminder that Christ fasted in the desert at the start of his public ministry, and that across the world the pangs of hunger are a daily reality for millions of people.

Abstaining from certain basic necessities for a period of time is a small but important gesture of solidarity, especially if we donate the money that would have been spent on the table for famine relief. The continuing tragedy of Afghanistan and its starving people is worth a little self-sacrifice, and even modest pounds of money.

Going without is good for the soul. It helps to keep the conscience clear as to the priority of the principles which must sometimes take precedence over everything else, even food and cheerfulness.

The norms that bind us all have been conveniently set aside in the halls of power during the pandemic.

There is a judgment here: those who would rule us have been “weighed in the balance and found wanting”.

We need to keep this in mind when impatient or tired voices urge us to move on, leave Partygate behind and focus on the things that really matter.

We should not. Why is that?

In the movie casablanca, Rick says to Ilsa: ‘You’re going to regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life”.

Actions have consequences.

If we think what happened inside Downing Street and the attempts to cover it up isn’t a big deal, especially if there’s enough food on the table, we’ll have politics and politicians that we deserve.

And we will all be morally poorer for it.

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