Feeding the multitudes

Today, in communities across the United States, we took time to remember and honor the life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Anyone who hasn’t been under a rock for the past 50 years is familiar with King’s leadership in the civil rights movement that brought about desegregation and made racial equality a matter of public policy.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King said:

… [W]e refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

Intolerance in all forms — be it on the basis of race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, weight, height, appearance, or perceived ability or intelligence — comes from an ignorant belief that God’s ability or willingness to provide for all his children is somehow limited.

Fear of insufficiency leads humans to make foolish mistakes and commit egregious acts of intolerance, hatred and even violence against one another. We operate under the mistaken belief that there is not enough to go around.

Not enough of what? Food? Water? Fortune? Fame? Success? Happiness? Love? All of the above?

More than 43 years after Dr. King gave his famous speech in Washington, D.C., Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota — the first Muslim elected to Congress — invoked the idea of sufficiency in a written response to critics who questioned his decision to place his hand on a Koran rather than a Bible in a private swearing-in ceremony.

In his essay, which can be read in its entirety here, Ellison invokes the story of the loaves and fishes as he cautions us against using faith as an excuse for intolerance, exclusion, and the “stinginess of spirit” that come from a selfish, material view of the world:

In America today, we are encouraged to believe in the myth of scarcity — that there just isn’t enough — of anything. But in the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus, who the Muslims call Isa, found himself preaching to 5000 (not including the women by the way) at dinner time, and there didn’t appear to be enough food. The disciples said that there were only five barley loaves and two fish. We just have to send them away hungry. We simply don’t have enough. But Jesus took the loaves and the fish and started sharing food. There was enough for everyone. There was more than enough. What was perceived as scarcity was illusory as long as there was sharing, and not hoarding.

The idea here is not that there is a boundless supply of everything. Such an idea leads to waste and dispensability of everything. But the idea is that there is enough.

If scarcity is a myth, then poverty is not necessary. America need not have 37 million Americans living below the poverty line. It is a choice. Hunger is a choice. Exclusion of the stranger, the immigrant, or the darker other is a choice. … We can choose generosity.

Ellison’s point is well-taken. When we share, we cannot lack. We only get into trouble when we hoard the resources with which we have been entrusted.

More than 100 years ago, in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, another deep spiritual thinker, Mary Baker Eddy, put it like this:

Giving does not impoverish us in the service of our Maker, neither does withholding enrich us.

Mrs. Eddy also wrote:

Let us reassure ourselves with the law of Love. God never punishes man for doing right, for honest labor, or for deeds of kindness, though they expose him to fatigue, cold, heat, contagion.

In other words: You can’t lose by giving, and you can’t be hurt by helping. If we give of ourselves, we are blessed. We can’t help it — it is, as Mrs. Eddy puts it, “the law of Love.”

I can’t begin to recall all the opportunities I’ve had to prove this for myself in the past couple of years. I have never found myself lacking what I needed to accomplish a good work. More than once, I’ve faced situations in which money, time, energy, or all of the above seemed to be in short supply, yet I’ve never run out. Every time I’ve taken a step motivated by love, I’ve been supported, and my needs have been met.

All we have to do is reach out in love, without regard to race, creed, color, or any of the dozen other hangups that try to dissuade us from loving our neighbor, and we find that loaves and fishes are as plentiful here and now as they were on that long-ago evening in the desert. When we allow fear and intolerance to hamper our work, we miss out on the opportunity to live the kind of life in which a “miracle” is just another day at the office.

Go seize the opportunity to make some sparks in the dark.