May - C. Wess Daniels

posted Oct 15, 2009, 7:59 AM by Rob Pollock   [ updated Jul 5, 2011, 2:41 PM ]

Urban Abundance:

What does abundance mean to you?

What does an urban landscape filled with abundance look like?

C. Wess Daniels says:

Abundance surrounds us. It fills our closets, drawers, backpacks and our garbage cans. And for many of us who are connected to a wide variety of privileges our abundance often translates into waste.

A friend of mine recently made a documentary called Dive! It poignantly addresses the connection between garbage and hunger, excess and waste. The film tracks a number of young white urbanites who have a new found joy in ‘rescuing’ food from the dumpster. This joy is challenged as they become aware of other, less privileged folks, also coming to the dumpsters for food.  The majority of the film dives into the connection between what lays as waste in our dumpsters and the great disparity and hunger both in our own society and around the world.

The film was documented during the growing global food crisis of 2008 and covers well the impact that this had on many low-income families in the US. The contrast between the amount of food found in dumpsters like Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles and the growing lack of food at LA food banks shocked the filmmakers. Filmmaker Jeremy Seifert notes, “In the physical act of jumping in a dumpster and eating waste something happens, the reality strikes you of what is taking place.

And the reality is stark. Every year 96 billion pounds of food are thrown away in America, 11 million pounds a day, and a good majority of that food is fresh or days away from its expiration date. Recovering just some of this would make a huge difference. “The Department of Agriculture estimated in 1996 that recovering just 5 percent of the food that is wasted could feed four million people a day; recovering 25 percent would feed 20 million people. Today we recover less than 2.5 percent” (Dive Website).

The problem is not so much that we don’t have enough, but that some people have too much. Abundance is not the main issue at stake here, the abundance of the few is.

We live in a society of trash and are okay with this as long as it is our own excess we are throwing out. We forget that many in America (let alone other places in the world) do not have access to this excess. Thus, the poor among us end up eating our trash. The earth and all its creatures have for us become simply something to hoard, consume and then throw away. Excess and abundance counter our deep-seated fears of scarcity. As Abraham  Joshua Heschel said, “Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you.” To take this one step further, when we lose that sense of awe, we lose that sense of right sharing and just distribution and in doing so we lose our sense of responsibility to one another.

We then turn this question back on ourselves and consider the ways in which our own fears of scarcity and desire for abundance can actually create a vacuum of resources for others. While we may want to foster and nurture abundance, how are we participating, implicitly or explicitly, in a system of unjust distribution? Who is and is not showing up to eat what is available? Are there ways that we can get “abundance” into the right hands, into the hands of the people who need it? Abundance is excess unless it leads to just distribution.

In our day, the Bible has been misused to mark out a theology of waste and excess. Yet, I am constantly drawn back to Jesus’ radical prayer where he teaches his disciples to pray for “daily bread,” to “forgive debts” and to “rescue us from temptation” (Mt 6). In these petitions, there is a recognition of our constant temptation to take more than we need, to hoard and build up debt, and to focus in on abundance rather than right sharing. I think Jesus’ intentions were to help form a community of sharers rather than takers. This community is based on the conviction that God has given enough for all people and a rightly ordered community will live in a way that makes part of its mission to actually be givers of daily bread. It will be a community that seeks to cancel debts and live in a way that frees from temptation to take more than is needed so that there is enough to go around. Otherwise this community might become people who pray to God for daily bread on the one hand, while on the other hand they take in excess so that their neighbors go hungry.

In the Quaker tradition, of which I am part, we have worked to limit what we take out of  a desire to be better distributors or sharers. We recognize that greed and hoarding, or a desire for our own abundance, are actually at the heart of a lot of evil in the world. John Woolman, the Quaker abolitionist and 17th century advocate for human rights, wrote in his journal after visiting slaveholder’s homes to challenge them on their practice, “The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves.”

Some of the faces have changed (ever so slightly) but our own love of ease and gain still keeps our dumpsters full and many bellies hungry.

Questions for reflection:

●  How is our own love of ease and gain actually implicated in enslaving others?

●  What do we desire in excess? And how does this actually create a vacuum somewhere else, whether in our own lives or in the lives of others?

●  What forms of “abundance” do I participate in that may be coded in a way that I do not recognize that I am actually being a taker rather than a giver of daily bread?