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With so many people still out of work and depending upon unemployment benefits, I thought I might briefly explore one particularly ancient safety net program. Republicans believe that welfare in any form swells the deficit and creates a system of entitlement, but I disagree. Pointing back to the Bible, as I so often do, I’d like to discuss the particulars and modern day application of a very ancient custom. Those who are up in arms about the very thought of welfare might benefit from a different means of framing the issue.
To wit, this past weekend I participated in a gleaning. I had no prior idea of what a gleaning was, or its function. The word itself is Biblical in origin, and has its antecedent in the Old Testament book of Ruth.
One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.” Naomi replied, “All right, my daughter, go ahead.”
In those days, Jewish farmers were required by law to leave the corners of their fields unharvested. In addition, grain that was dropped while in the process of being bundled was to be left for the poor, who then gleaned the leftover crop. The law was designed to provide food for the less fortunate and to prevent farmers from hoarding what they had. It was a kind of early welfare system. I suppose some might think of this in hyperbolic fashion as some radical wealth redistribution, though I can’t say I understand their objections or their fears.
Gleaning, in a modern context, means collecting leftover crop directly from the field. This weekend, a group of fellow Quakers and I drove out to the source and filled crate after crate with ears of corn. The American consumer is apparently very picky, insisting that whatever is purchased must be large in size and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. A more damning critique of consumerism and consumer culture could not be found. We seem to be quite adept at judging a book by its cover, whether it be what we purchase or how we perceive of ourselves. If anything is the least bit unsuitable at its face, then we’ll ignore it and in so doing fail to see the beauty and value within.
Nature seems to draw no such distinctions, else every ear of corn would be flawless and identical. The corn we harvested might not have been the most beautiful or the biggest, but it was just as edible and flavorful as that which had been collected prior. Ordinarily, the rows we worked would have plowed over or the crop left to rot on the stalk. Our hard work provided food for over a thousand underprivileged people and families, and was sufficient to feed them for a week. There was so much left over, in fact, that we were told we could take back with us as much as we could carry. This was quite telling.
The experience made me wonder how much food we waste and the ethical implications of abundance. How then can anyone claim that there is something inherently wrong with sharing what we have with those without our material advantages? As a matter of fact, two Friends who went along on the trip were unemployed, despite having multiple degrees and impressive credentials. Such is the nature of today’s sour economy. Even though their distress at being without work was evident in their topics of conversation, they still have a roof over their head and enough food to eat. Recessions affect those at the bottom much more gravely. A few weeks back I spoke with another in an discouraging series of highly educated people without a job. She quite eagerly offered her services for free to build homes for others as part of a service project. Her motives were many, but she admitted that she found it therapeutic to distract herself from her own nagging worries by doing good work for others.
To use the corn crop as an analogy, I wonder how much wealth present among us today, literally or metaphorically, has been passed over or is considered inadequate because it does not suit refined tastes. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and one wonders if we might develop our own strategies to harvest the things long discounted and taken for granted. Many of us have had to make do with less, but I’d be willing to bet that modifying previously held ways of thinking could prove most helpful. Had we gleaned in times of plenty, poverty might have been lessened and misery less profound. If we are concerned only with our own fears, we might contemplate that crime is often a response which results from desperation. Rather than shaking our head or fearing that something might be taken from us by force, we might do something to address the cause for once.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’