It is Sunday and as usual there was a yellow food bin at the back of my church. It was full to overflowing with food brought in by parishioners to be donated to our city’s food bank.
People will go to the food bank this coming Friday. They will hand over a food voucher, given to them by their housing association, or social services, or the Citizens Advice Bureau, or a women’s refuge – any number of organisations who deal with the most needy in our society- and in turn, they will be given enough food to tide them over for 3 days. It may include shower gel and shampoo, after one mother admitted feeling bad that she washed her baby in cheap washing up liquid.
This is great. It is fantastic that people in our city care about others. I am glad to bring some food or nice shower gel with me to mass – it makes sense when I believe in a God who cares for the Poor, who self-identifies with the poor and actually says ‘in as much as you did this to the least of these, you did it to me.’
But there is a problem.
As Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999), a Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop and Liberation Theologian is quoted as saying:
When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.
There is a golden rule which says ‘Treat others as you would have them treat you’. It is found as a saying by Jesus in the Christian gospels of Matthew and Luke, but also in other cultures and religions, and is something that many atheists and agnostics live by too.
The Golden Rule has to be applied sensibly – in both senses of the word – that is with common sense and sensitivity. If I treated my husband as I would like to be treated I would buy him lots of chocolate and children’s books and bring him breakfast in bed. I did in fact do this in the early months of our relationship, but after nearly 18 years of marriage I have learnt that he doesn’t like breakfast in bed, would prefer to have a few squares of my chocolate than a whole bar, and (amazingly) would rather be given a valve amplifier or a bottle of ‘Goose Island’ beer than a children’s book. (He did however read the whole of Clara Vulliamy & Shirley Hughes’ ‘Dixie O’Day‘ book because he was very impressed by the cars!)
Nevertheless, I believe most people understand the basic principles. It is good to feel kind and unselfish. I like the thought of the food I put in the food bank helping others. But I remember that the person who came to talk to our church about giving to the food bank told us about a lady she brought to it who said it was the worst day of her life. And I wonder how I would feel if I were dependent on others’ charity.
I would like to live in a society where food banks aren’t needed. Where people are paid a decent wage for a decent day’s work, where pay day loan companies are not allowed to charge exorbitant interest on loans to the most needy, where people do not have to rely on zero hour contracts, and where the sick and disabled are not put through demeaning tests to prove that they are unfit for work. I would like to live in a society where those who receive from food banks, the unemployed, immigrants, asylum seekers and disabled are not frequently described by our press and politicians as lazy and disorganised, scroungers or liars. Because I believe in the Golden Rule, and were I unemployed, or disabled, or on a low wage, or a person fleeing from an oppressive regime, or just trying to escape from poverty and make a better life for my family, I would hate to have to receive food from others when I would rather earn it for myself, and I would dread becoming the subject of censure, derision and hate.
I wrote ‘A Girl with a White Dog’ to help children realise that others are just like them – if we adults take the Golden Rule seriously we should remember that too, and act accordingly.