Every Autumn, up and down the country, small children with sweet smiles totter up to the front of the church or school hall, clutching their tins of Value Chilli Con Carne, and present them as an offering.
We thank God for all He has given us, and talk about the poor people in Africa, and the problem of poor people in our country too, sing a round of ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’ and everyone goes home feeling good. Children, charity and a bit of thanksgiving - what’s not to love about Harvest Festival, right?
But amongst the garnered fruits there is a rotten apple souring the air.
Last year, I was at a very slick and well-produced school Harvest Festival. The children read out a script from their teachers that explained the cause of world poverty. It went something like this:
'There are some unfortunate people in the world who don’t have much food. They grow crops, but sometimes the weather is bad, and ruins the crops.'
That was the explanation of world hunger to this group of congregated 4-7 year olds: the weather.
After two songs about weather and what a pesky, fickle beast it can be, we were told that we are lucky to live in our country, with our good weather. So we, with our bounty, can generously donate to those who have had their poverty brought upon them by a few bad thunder storms.
'The weather,' I ranted to my husband when I got home, 'is not the cause of five million children per year dying of hunger.'
In this scenario, the developing countries are the Unfortunates; we Westerners are the beatific rescuers. We thank God that he has especially blessed us, and pat ourselves on the back for our generosity.
It is, in short, colonialism with a Christian sheen. If this is the only thing we tell children about world hunger we mislead them.
An alternative assembly
My husband pointed out that the children were very young. 'Come on,' he said. 'What would you do instead?'
I considered it for the briefest second before ploughing on.
'We could tell them about how, many years ago, our country invaded poorer countries, and got them to turn over huge areas of their land to grow tobacco instead of food, so that we would have the luxury of slowly killing ourselves with tar in our lungs. Tobacco quickly depletes the soil and ruins the land. (Put your hand up if you knew that, children!)
'Or we could say that most of what we buy in the supermarkets is not grown in this country, it’s come from those countries with the Unfortunate Weather, and we get them cheaply because we underpay the people who’ve grown the food, so that they then don’t have enough money to buy their own food.
'Then, as a prop, I could light a cigarette and explain, "This cigarette is part the reason there isn’t enough food in Africa. That smell should remind us of the smell of death of children in poorer countries, the same age as you, who don’t have enough to eat."'
Jon stared at me, eyebrows raised.
'And then we sing,' (and I sang sweetly), "We plough the fields and scatter…"'
'I think perhaps your infant assembly needs a bit of work on it,' Jon said.
A festival of repentance
Despite my rant to my husband, I fully admit I don't know the best way to communicate the complexities of world poverty to children.
But there is some truth here, and it highlights something ugly that we would rather not think about as our children clutch our leftover tins. Yes, we need God to provide our daily bread, and we should thank Him. But what message are we communicating - that God blesses us with food and not the swollen-bellied children of Burkina Faso?
We cannot ignore the fact that our communal sin is the cause of poverty, and still claim our Festival as an act of worship. As Newell Hendricks pointed out: 'We have, because they have not. We are rich because they are poor.' We are all implicated in this national, international, communal sin.
We are not Santa Claus or Superman in this scenario; we are thieves, handing back only some of what we stole.
I wonder if in our Western schools and churches, Harvest Festival should be a festival of repentance, not thanksgiving. We should be weeping for the gluttonous plenty we have while workers around the world die in unsafe factories making our bargain clothes, and children are deprived of schooling because they are growing crops for our under-priced food.
We should be giving, certainly, both locally and globally, but not with our value leftovers. We should be giving abundantly, repentantly, like Zaccheus who had gave back four times as much as he had stolen.
Next Harvest Festival, maybe I will volunteer to come into school, armed with a packet of cigarettes. Maybe the children would cry. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.