A recent New York Times story mentions how the temple offerings of poor people in India are not what they used to be. Rising food prices makes it harder for them to buy enough milk for both themselves and the gods, or whatever food they would have ordinarily shared. In Cambodia a popular school breakfast is being phased out because the UN food program that sponsors it is now forced to make cutbacks. So many stories I’ve read over the last few weeks let me know how the rise in food prices is affecting the lives of so many in just about every part of the globe. Even in the U.S. food pantries are having a hard time keeping up with increasing demand. And yet, among the people I know the issue of food prices does not come up. None to my knowledge has had to make real adjustments. It’s not that I run around those wealthy enough to be immune to such things as food prices, it just seems that the people I talk to frequently don’t really have to worry about food. Sure, some may have to forego buying this or that item, postpone a vacation, avoid having household help or color their hair themselves, but none has had to alter his or her way of eating–unless of course they were dieting.
When I think of people in Egypt not being able to buy bread, of people in Mexico buying less tortillas, of people in India having less rice and lentils, and people in Africa sometimes not being able to buy food at all, I want to shake those I know who deign pasta because it has too many carbs, who won’t buy veggies unless they’re organic, who have the luxuries of buying carbon neutral products regardless of what they cost, who won’t eat leftovers and throw out food, who won’t eat chicken unless it’s at least free range, or who allow a caprice to let food rot in the frig because they feel like eating something else. But of course shaking them would not instill the sense of privilege we ought to feel. Sometimes we can’t help our circumstances, and the people I have in mind didn’t choose their advantages, but regardless of our advantages, large or small, those of us who have, have a responsibility to those who have not. It often hurts to remember that many go hungry while I and so many count calories not to gain weight, and it’s easy to forget about those who hunger, because frankly, sometimes bringing them into consciousness also brings pain.
It’s easy to assuage the murmurings of our principles, ethics and scruples by writing a check to whatever charity will next solicit us. But it’s not enough. We must widen the range of our conscience to deepen our understanding of what it means to share.
Until former President Carter made public his discussions with Hamas, no one,not even his parents, were sure what had happened to Corporal Gilal Shalit, the young Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian Militants in 2006. According to Carter he will, or has, been given permission to write a letter to them. Whether or not they do, or he goes ahead and writes, when I begin to think of what he has endured for some two years now, I can’t help but be as a younger generation might say, awed. For anyone who follows the news closely, the plight of the Palestinians is no longer news. Their standard of living has decreased as jobs disappear, as fuel is short and food not always easy to find, affordable or plentiful. If the average Palestinian has to undergo this kind of hardship, forgetting for a moment, the checkpoints and their consequences, what must it be like for Corporal Shalit on a day to day basis? What was he fed? Did he have enough water, were sanitary conditions at least bearable? Barry Bearak the New York Times reporter held in Zimbabwe tells of prisons without food and with trying conditions. Since young Gilal seems to be held in Gaza and one can assume he had no air-conditioner, how did he, for example, cope with the heat? Even more to the point, here is someone who was 19 when captured, and who undoubtedly had to face some difficult issues involving, principle, loyalty, honor, calling for a wisdom his young years may or may not have had. Was he tortured? Was he maltreated? Surely he is a prized prisoner since he can be exchanged and bargained for, so his death would have to be accidental and certainly not on the agenda of those holding him. But there’s a wide margin between conditions leading to death and conditions so debilitating they may make one wish for death. What is his state of mind? How is he bearing up? Is he in solitary confinement, did he have access to news, to books? Who talks to him? In many ways these answers are academic, for no matter what they are it is safe to say this young soldier has undergone an ordeal. And that’s the point, when war is looked at one by one, face to face as it were, the price is too high. Somewhere there might be a noble war, a reason so compelling it can justify death and suffering. Since WWII I haven’t seen it. When a given group wants to go to war they have become skilled at making the case for its nobility, and so far we haven’t learned how to see through their machinations, and separate the hype from the facts, their motives from what would be necessary. And so it continues, and to me Corporal Shalit becomes a symbol of our ignorance. As an old song enjoins us, “When will we ever learn?”