Make no mistake, we have some very hard months ahead of us – economically and spiritually – says Rev George Pitcher. Christians must start preparing the storehouses now, before it’s too late
This summer has been a lull before the storm. Long sunny days seem like a complacent hiatus before the reckoning to come, the final high days of peace before the outbreak of a bigger war.
I speak of the economy rather than the weather, of the metaphorical rather than the meteorological. There’s a gathering storm, the autumnal and winter winds of which are almost too hard to imagine at open-air pubs reached by jolly dog-walks, in shorts and no socks. The prospect of facing the dilemma between heating or eating, of which prophetic voices speak, seems very unreal.
It’s not melodramatic to say that these voices warn of a coming famine – a famine of fuel as well as food. Three horsemen, the war in Ukraine and the pestilence of Covid-19 sharing famine’s saddle, lead the threatened pale rider of death, visiting a hospital or food bank near you soon.
This is not to compare the lot of the northern hemisphere, whose recessions remain relatively opulent, with the south, where a fifth horseman of the apocalypse – climate collapse – has joined the posse, smiling thinly at the knowledge that it hasn’t rained properly in Madagascar for four years.
Much of the perfect economic storm that is heading our way is the consequence of failures of those who govern us
We must be careful about thinking we share a similar fate. The United Nations called out as early as March last year the need for $5.5 billion more in aid to avert a famine “of biblical proportions” for 34 million people. The West is not yet facing that kind of horror.
But famine is a useful word. It can describe not just a dearth of food, as inflation rages and supply chains buckle, but also the paucity of political will to tackle such crises – the famine of ideas, leadership and talent.
In that sense, at least, we share the mindset on the cause of famine with the ancients. Much of the perfect economic storm that is heading our way is the consequence of failures of those who govern us. The only difference is that the famines of old were ascribed to God’s judgment on immoral leaders. Our leaders today are more likely, in a secular age, to be seen to have brought this crisis on themselves and, by extension, on us.
Supply lines have been broken by Brexit; food and fuel have been disrupted by war in Ukraine, climate change by our hopeless human addictions to fossil fuels and red meats. All exacerbated by ridiculous populist leaders.
But really we’re at the same party as the Old Testament victims of famine. It’s just that instead of God being wrathful, it’s the demi-gods of late capitalism – economic growth and free markets – which have turned against us.
It’s hard to find a cloud with a silver lining. Not for those who are most vulnerable, for sure, who will suffer and die during the forthcoming (and understated) winter of discontent. But another similarity between this economic famine and the famines of the ancient world is that they share the prospect of a restart, a resetting of the clock and a resettlement of and for our people.
Old Testament lessons
Israel’s rocky Canaanite plains have always lent themselves to famine. The revered Israeli patriarch King David ruled over a three-year famine (2 Samuel 21:1), during which God conveniently told him it was all his predecessor Saul’s fault. David’s ancestor Ruth only warrants her own scriptural book because a famine forces her mother, Naomi, to flee as a refugee into Moab. As George Bernard Shaw had it some milliennia later, there’s no progress without change.
The same goes for regress, sadly. Just as David found famine a useful means through which to demonise his opponent, so droughts in the United States in the 1920s and 30s were blamed on immorality and led to alcohol prohibition. And, while not exactly in the category of famine, a natural event such as Hurricane Katrina was judged by televangelist Pat Robinson to be a divine retribution for abortion.
Such crises are manna from heaven for political opportunists, for good or ill. It is a responsibility of Christian discipleship to ensure it’s the former of those categories. Just as the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and David’s kingship would not have been possible without famine, so the passing of a time of plenty provides the focus to imagine a better future.
The gospel imperative is pretty clear in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21). The story of the wealthy grain merchant who hoarded his plentiful crops, only to die suddenly with his barns full, can quite easily be read as a failure to qualify for heaven through earthly behaviour. Alternatively, it’s the other way round – a failure to establish the values of the kingdom of heaven in this world.
Those values are unequivocal: compassion for the poor and hospitality for the stranger. Stewardship of resources ahead of and during times of famine determine our success or failure in witnessing to those values.
That’s the prospect and the opportunity for the year ahead. A time of famine is coming. There’s an old T-shirt slogan: “Jesus is coming. Look busy”. Funny, but not enough. In the coming months, we can’t just look busy – we’ll need to be very busy to make a difference.