My two oldest daughters, 10 and 12, accompanied me to last night’s Hunger Banquet. This was their first time. Before we entered the ballroom in the Wilkinson Center for the meal itself, we spent 30 minutes visiting the various booths of NGOs and other non-profits set up outside, learning about the important work that so many organizations are doing around the world in helping to lift brothers and sisters trapped in poverty and improve their lives. I enjoyed chatting with the people at the booth for the Liahona Children’s Foundation. At the Mothers Without Borders booth, one zealous volunteer asked my 12 year old daughter if she wanted to head out to Zambia this summer to help out! It is wonderful to see the energy of the BYU Students and their non-profit partners as they tackle these issues.
As we entered the ballroom for the Hunger Banquet itself, we received our random assignment (they treated the three of us as a group) for the evening. Consistent with probability, we ended up in the 70% of people allocated to the “developing world” who would have to sit on a blanket on the floor and eat simple fare compared to those who were assigned to the “middle class” who sat on chairs around the edges of the ballroom and ate more expensive food, or to those assigned to the “upper class” who sat at finely set tables at the front of the ballroom, conspicuously eating a multiple course meal served by waiters and waitresses.
A group of seven high school girls was put together with me and my daughters so that we formed a larger group for purposes of receiving our allocation of food. Then we were coupled with another group of about 10, and a woman from our combined groups was given the responsibility of being the “water carrier” for our two groups. She had to go to a separate location in the ballroom and grab a gallon of water for each group. When the tray with rice, black beans, and tortillas arrived (a much more lavish spread than I’ve received as part of the “developing world” at past Hunger Banquets, usually consisting of simply rice and perhaps a piece of bread), everyone in our group started to dig in. (We were hungry after listening to announcements and watching the “upper class” people being served their salads and then their main course.)
As my daughters and the seven high school girls grouped with us started to grab for the tortillas, I quickly noticed that we had received only nine tortillas though there were ten of us in our group. We had also received only nine water cups for use with the gallon of water. I surreptitiously went without so that each of my daughters and the seven others with us could each have a tortilla with the black beans and rice on the tray. This seemed realistic and appropriate for the activity, though I do not think it was necessarily planned this way because I don’t think they counted out each group that precisely.
Having resolved myself to go without, I was very touched when, in the spirit of the event, my 10 year old daughter noticed I hadn’t grabbed anything and tore off a third of her tortilla filled with rice and beans and gave it to me! This really invited some pondering about the ties that bind within families and that can sustain us regardless of material circumstances. I realized that my relationship to her was more valuable than what I own or even than my capacity to acquire things to own. It also reminded me of the myriad threats, dangers, and risks that would be a part of her everyday life if she really had been born in the developing world.
As I reflected on this during the keynote speaker’s talk (about the hundreds of millions of women in India dealing with anemia), my heart broke for the billions of people who face such threats, dangers, and risks on a daily basis. At the same time, I almost subconsciously offered a silent prayer of gratitude in that breaking heart that my specific ten year old had come to our family and that for whatever inexplicable reason our family had been so lucky to be the beneficiary of the strong institutions, robust political philosophies including the heritage of the European Enlightenment, and vibrant democratic society (with the corresponding robust and reliable rule of law) that we enjoy in the United States and in developed Western European countries. The disparity between the security and plenty that we enjoy and the plight of hunger and poverty faced by a majority of people around the world came into very stark relief. And all of this was accompanied by the chilling realization that there, but for the grace of God, go we all in our societies that we smugly consider superior to “them” because of our current circumstances. And in recent decades, as income inequality has increased dramatically between the richest and poorest segments of society, with the accompanying shrinking of the middle class at the same time that the richest have profited from the conditions that have contributed to the demise of the relatively egalitarian American dream, it seems we have indeed moved closer to such circumstances ourselves.
My mind turned to The Book of Mormon, a book that describes itself as, and which we collectively understand to be, written specifically for our use in these “latter days” of Biblical prophecy. This guidebook “for our day” describes the downfall of several civilizations that were also rooted in strong Judeo-Christian values, benefiting from strong, traditional political and religious institutions. (In my mind, however, there is little if any practical comparison between the hereditary political judgeships existing in The Book of Mormon after Mosiah’s reforms — or the monarchies preceding them — and our republican or parliamentary political institutions in Western developed countries in the Modern Era aside from the general shared Judeo-Christian background that arguably contributed to the development of our institutions as well.)
One of the central themes of The Book of Mormon, after the centrality of the message of Christ’s universally applicable Atonement and our need — the need of the “natural man” — for his saving grace, is how such disregard for the poor, such failure of equality and equitable dealing, all in contradiction of the Gospel’s message, self-destructed the societies described in the book. From the very foundation of his society, Nephi appropriated Isaiah to teach his people that they should not oppress or “grind the faces of the poor” (2 Ne. 13:15). As the various societies depicted in The Book of Mormon begin to prosper, they immediately begin to ignore this injunction, dividing into pronounced classes distinguished by all the evil hallmarks of class or caste societies. For example, approaching one such cataclysmic, societal destruction, “they began again to prosper and to wax great . . . and there was great order in the land; and they had formed their laws according to equity and justice” (3 Ne. 6:4), but they then “began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches” (3 Ne. 6:12).
The lack of access to or opportunity for education accelerated the growing income inequality and other class disparities as “there became a great inequality in all the land” by which their society was defined (3 Ne. 6:14). The “iniquity” plaguing their society — in a cautionary tale specifically meant for our warning in the “latter days” — was in their prosperity “puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world” (3 Ne. 6:15). In fostering this “great inequality in all the land”, in thus grinding the faces of the poor contrary to the Lord’s injunction through Nephi’s repurposing of Isaiah, the people of this society “did not sin ignorantly, for they knew the will of God concerning them, for it had been taught unto them; therefore they did wilfully rebel against God” (3 Ne. 6:18). Ultimately, this evil class system, the vast and wicked income inequality, and the resulting iniquitous lack of opportunity for education and thus calcification of the castes, led to rampant corruption among the political elites (the hereditary judges) who entered into “secret combinations” or, rather, conspiracies, to assassinate the governor/chief judge and undermine the political and religious institutions that could still stand in the way of their continued pursuit of power and wealth (3 Ne. 6:25-29). The end result of this state of affairs — this widespread political corruption, power seeking and influence peddling, assassination, income inequality, and suppression of voices raised in opposition to these societal evils (see 3 Ne. 6:20) — was the entire collapse of civil society into tribes along ethnic lines, each vying only for its own success and protection, a hellish scenario of corruption, intimidation, oppression, and violence not unlike the situation on the ground in many places in the developing world today (3 Ne. 7:1-7).
* * *Nearly a decade ago I was serving as Young Men’s President in my ward in an area with a high concentration of Latter-day Saints. These issues weighed on my mind as heavily then as now (and this was before the collapse of a number of key economies worldwide in 2008 and the ensuing “Great Recession”), and I proposed an Oxfam Hunger Banquet as an outreach activity for our ward’s youth — perhaps an activity that could have involved the youth and members of the whole stake working together with the youth and members of other churches in the area. (See the Hunger Banquet Memo I prepared for my bishop at the time, explaining the activity and the benefits I hoped it would provide members and non-members in our area alike.) Unfortunately, the idea did not gain any traction in my ward’s leadership at the time and we did not stage our own community Hunger Banquet. Despite this disappointment, I have returned again and again to the idea and last night’s experiences and reflections have renewed my interest in this activity. I might very well be proposing this again soon in my current ward/stake — how wonderful would 2014 be if all of you did too!