My husband is big into fishing. I could wallpaper my house with all the pictures we have of him holding a fish. They all look the same to me, but he can point to it and tell you how many inches it was, what stretch of the river he got it, during what season, and using what fly. Shocking the information you can retain when you're motivated. Now if I can only get him to remember where his keys are.
So the old adage "If you give a man a fish ..." feels like it was spun right out of our household. Except that my husband does not eat his fish for a day — or at all. He snaps a picture of his fish and then returns it to the water. He doesn't take them home for a fish fry.
In any case, "If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime" is, I think, a helpful little mantra for our Christian good works (if a bit non-inclusive in its gender language). It helps us to see that there's more we can do to address hunger than just donating our almost-expired kidney beans to the food pantry; there's more we can do than just writing a check when disaster strikes Haiti. If we're serious about poverty and hunger, it's also important that we address the skills that people need so they don't have to keep coming back to the pantry to eat our cast-offs. That's why there are so many folks who are interested in teaching urban gardening, for example, or things like GED and job skills programs. We know this to be true: people deserve the dignity of providing for themselves.
But what happens when the hungry person has all the fishing skills they could ask for — but there's so much pollution in the pond, the fish have died? Or there's a fence around the pond and you have to have certain documents to enter? Or the pond-owner demands most of the fish be deposited on his front porch instead of going home in the fisherman's cooler? What happens when there is a system, or a structure, or an underlying reason that skills and fish aren't enough? What happens when some people are powerless and have been robbed of a voice to change it?
Christians need to get serious about advocacy. Proverbs 31:8-9 tells us, "Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.* Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy." The sad truth is, we were all created in the image of God, with an inherent dignity and voice. But sin has crept into our systems and structures and cultures and laws — and has robbed that voice from some, while amplifying it for others.
So what do we do when Monsanto gives Haiti a big post-earthquake "gift" of their patented and pesticide-laden seeds? What do we do when seventy percent of immigrants who harvest our food don't have access to the legal channels of immigration and are thus vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation? What do we do when our lawmakers shirk their commitment to cutting poverty in half by 2015?
I'm convinced that the Lord requires something very simple of us: "... to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8). If we are committed to this kind of life, then we must speak. The truth is, in this sin-stained world, some of us have voices that are heard, while others have voices that are silenced. I appreciate when I see faith expressed in creative ways, like buying local food and committing to pay more for a hamburger if its farmer has treated the earth with more dignity. But I am convinced that this is not enough. We must offer all we have to be used by God — our money, our time, and our power. And our power is often our voice.
Ask yourself: what voice do you have that others may not? Can you vote? Can you call your legislator? Do you have access to learn the truth about injustice? Do you have a platform — your blog, your church, your neighborhood, your family — where you can be a truth teller?
Speak out for those who cannot speak.