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July 19, 2014

In the State of the Union Address, delivered to the 77th United States Congress on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enumerated four fundamental freedoms that should be the rights of human beings everywhere in the world:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom for  every person to worship in his or her own way
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

“The Four Freedoms” speech inspired a set of four paintings by Norman Rockwell. They were printed in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, accompanied by essays on the Four Freedoms.

Every freedom carries with it certain responsibilities. Perhaps the Bill of Rights should include a companion Bill of Responsibility.

During the month of July, this column will feature the Four Freedoms and the responsibilities that accompany them. This is the third in the series:

Freedom from Want

“Eat your vegetables,” my grandmother would say. “Just think of the starving children in China.”

Though I usually enjoyed vegetables, I would have been quite willing to share my broccoli, asparagus, or cauliflower to keep children in China, or anywhere else, from starving. Since I was told that was not possible, I habitually became a member of the clean plate club.

I am certain that cleaning my plate did nothing to stave off the pangs of world hunger. In fact, overconsumption as a part of our American way of life does much to contribute to the problem of world hunger. If the grain, used to fatten livestock so we can enjoy a tender marbled steak, was converted to food for the world and distributed equally, there would be no world hunger. If the grain, used in our country to manufacture alcoholic beverages, was converted to food for the malnourished, the world could be free from hunger. The amount of pet food sold in the United States exceeds the quantity of food eaten by humans in many third world countries.

While much of the world is malnourished, the number one health problem in America is obesity. Only on American television can audiences view a reality show entitled “The Biggest Loser,” a show in which overweight people compete to see who can drop the most pounds. The simple truth is that we consume far more than our fair share.

Classical Christianity developed the idea of seven mortal transgressions. Many conservative Christian churches would quickly defrock a priest or dismiss a pastor for violating six of those seven deadly sins. But the one that is often encouraged by churches for their clergy – the sin of gluttony.

I preached a revival at a country church in the lower part of the county several years ago.  On the final night of services, we enjoyed a church picnic. An alarmingly large man, carrying a dinner-size paper plate, sat beside me.  His plate sagged under a heaping portion of strawberry shortcake. I thought for a moment that the folding chair beneath him would buckle under his weight.  The shortcake might have become the proverbial last straw.

When the last morsel of the dessert disappeared, the man turned to me and said, “Now, preacher, that’s the way we’re gonna’ eat in heaven.”

I thought, probably sooner than later.

Years ago, I attended a church dinner designed to raise awareness about the problem of world hunger. Tickets to the dinner were priced at five dollars each. As we entered the room, an arrangement of tables formed a large square around the perimeter of the room. We were all seated at the table facing the center of the room. After we were seated, each of us was served a small bowl of steamed brown rice and a cup of tepid water. There were no napkins or utensils. We used our fingers to eat the rice.

In the center of the room was a table for four. It was set with a fine linen tablecloth and napkins and place settings of sterling silver and fine china. A family was seated at the table and served a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, and dessert. The family of four was offered a second helping as the rest of us watched.

When the meal was over, each of us had an opportunity to reflect on the experience. Each of us felt that our consciousness had certainly been raised. All but four of us were still hungry. The most significant comment came from the mother of the well-fed family. “I felt ashamed and embarrassed,” she said.

For most of us the problem of world hunger is not a concern. Even when we see pictures of malnourished and starving children from the region of Darfur in the Sudan, our attention is quickly diverted to a commercial for fast food. For most of us, the problem of world hunger is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We just don’t think about it. In fact, we prefer not to.

Perhaps the best way to grasp the magnitude of the problem was presented by a physician friend who had returned from a medical mission trip to Chad, the western neighbor of Sudan in Northern Africa.  Imagine that the morning news headlined the chilling story that the entire population of Anderson, South Carolina, had been wiped out overnight by a frightening plague. The next morning we learned that the entire city of Greenwood was blotted out by the same virulent strain. The third morning brought news that all the residents of Mauldin had died. The fourth day, the entire population of Greer was lost. Imagine our horror at the advancing pestilence.

The number of people who die from hunger each day is equivalent to the population of a medium-sized city, about 24,000 people. The gravity of the problem is discouraging and makes us wonder if there is anything we can do. Cleaning our plates has not helped.

Some time ago, a young minister was invited to lead a revival in the mountains of Kentucky. He and his wife traveled to the community and were greeted with warm hospitality by the pastor and the congregation. Following the Sunday evening service, they went to the humble home of an elderly couple, their host family for the week.

As supper was finished and dark approached, the old man said, “We’re going to bed now. You young folks can sit by the fire as long as you’d like. If you need something, please just make yourselves at home and get whatever you need. If you need something, and you can’t find it, please wake us up, and we’ll get it for you.  If you need something, and you can’t find it, and you wake us up, and we don’t have it, well, then, we’ll just teach you how to get along without it.”

Freedom from want, everywhere in the world, can only be realized when people in our part of the world learn to simplify.

We have to learn to get along without some of the things we think we need, so that there will be enough to go around for those who need so much.

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