Hunger & Compassion – Faith’s Mission to End Famine

A few years ago George Kent and I had a conversation on compassion. George views “caring as broader than compassion, since compassion is usually viewed as a response to suffering.” Caring, George remarked has much more applicability than compassion. Compassion is only called into being when there is suffering, when things are not going well, “Caring is part of everyday common behavior.” Caring, George noted, can be developed and called into place in every moment, in every situation in life.

George Kent is a Professor Emeritus from the University of Hawaii, having retired from his position at the Department of Political Science in 2010. For over 20 years George has been writing books, lecturing and working within organizations, analyzing the conditions of child abuse in the world and the role of hunger as a major source of suffering.

Last week in the Western Sydney suburb of Merrylands, George Kent and a panel of experts co-created a Conversations on Compassion event called, ‘Caring About Hunger’. The panel was made up by Shaykh Soner Coruhlu, Reverend Father Shenouda Mansour and Michelle Brenner, conflict resolution consultant. Holistic Practices Beyond Borders, Together For Humanity and Religion of Peace, teamed up to offer an open public forum to share the space between experts and audience.

George’s presentation opened with a reflection on what it is to care. “What is the meaning of caring about inanimate objects and about people distant from us in time and space? The challenge of caring was brought into sharp focus through examination of the massive problem of hunger in the world. A sense of the scale of the problem was conveyed by George’s pointing out that over three million children under five died each year partly because of malnutrition, while armed conflict results in less than 200,000 deaths each year.

The focus then shifted to hunger; with George pointing out that “hunger occurs in a social context. The extent to which people suffer from hunger depends on how they treat one another” Hunger, George brought out, is a social concern, a structural social conflict, it is not an isolated individual problem. “Hunger is not due to an inadequate supply of food in the world. Put simply, widespread and persistent hunger in the world is not due to any deficiency in global resources. It is due to the fact that people and agencies do not care enough about one another’s wellbeing.”

This observation has been echoed by other hunger experts, such as Reverend Bill Cruise of the Exodus Foundation who told me, “George is right, the biggest problem is not the lack of food or the technology for moving it but keeping the institutions and people caring.”

Following the presentation, the panel discussed how caring about hunger was addressed in their own areas of expertise. Shaykh Soner Coruhlu offered the Islamic position on the issue, “It is a responsibility, an obligation to feed others, to give out to others. It is part of the expectation of what a person is, one who provides for others. In the Qur’an we are warned about the importance of encouraging others to feed the poor, needy, and destitute. One does not attain spiritual excellence by simply feeding the poor; one must also encourage and motivate others to do so [1]. Salvation in Islam is centered on the belief in One God and the well-being of all creatures.”

In my comments as the next speaker on the panel, I explained that I have been researching and writing about the compassion revolution that is quietly taking place in the world, an interest which is drawn through my work as a conflict resolution specialist. Referencing the work of Social Neuroscientist Tania Singer [2], I explained that there are two distinct pathways that operate within the brain, one which is responsible for feeling empathy for another and one which reflects on the perspective within the thinking of another. These two pathways work together to create a holistic picture of ‘the other’. However, when they are not working together with the intention of understanding the “being of the other” there can be a lack of caring.

I went on to explain that traditional economic theory focuses only on the motivational system of consumption, based on self-interest. However with the inclusion of social neuroscience and psychological economic research, we begin to recognize that economic theory should be much more nuanced. When care is seen as a motivational drive, this creates a society that is pro-social. This means that there is the capacity for economic modeling to shift towards including care as a motivational factor in shaping the market.

The next panelist to speak up was Revered Father Shenouda Mansour who told us “On one occasion, I pointed to a man standing in line to receive a hot meal, and said, “God loves you”. The man responded, “I know God loves me”. I respondedHow do you know?”, and the man responded, “By this food on this plate!” He then recounted another about his free food kitchen in Woolloomooloo. “A Muslim man approached me and asked, “…is it alright for me to come here, for I am a Muslim?  I responded by saying, “We are brothers!” Father Shenouda then quoted from the Christian bible, sharing multiple passages which compel Christians to show compassion for others, with a particular emphasis on feeding those who are hungry.

Midway through this talk, there was an incident which indicated how caring can take place instinctively. A large group of the audience began to file out of the room as it was a Muslim prayer time. Although this group didn’t ask for the presentation to be stopped on their account, those present in the room automatically decided to switch to a quick audience Q & A so that those who were in the room could continue to engage, while those who had left would not miss important content. This perspective taking was a real life example of the simple act of caring about others.

After Father Shenouda’s presentation, the conversation was opened up to the audience, inviting questions, thoughts and reflections. One audience member wanted to hear the Jewish perspective on these issues from our mediator Rabbi Zalman Kastel, the National Director of Together for Humanity. His response brought to light the obvious similarities between the Jewish, Muslim and Christian perspectives. While the themes of charity and compassion were common, one specific aspect of Judaism stood out as particularly relevant. There is an idea in Judaism of the importance of justice, that when a person has something in their pocket, and this something is not for the benefit and consumption of the person holding it, it is an obligation to dispense it and give it away to others who do not have it. This obligation is distinct from the perception of giving ‘left overs’. . It became clear from the language understood by all of the clergy, Rabbi Zalman Kastel, Shaykh Soner Coruhlu  and Reverend Father Shenouda, that justice means caring, that needs being met creates a form of balance. Imbalance, hunger, is experienced when needs are not met.  Balance and justice are for the human being to consider and concern oneself with.  Caring about hunger is therefore a requirement for a just society.

A question was then asked, “If religions are concerned traditionally with caring, then why when church and state was unified, which was for quite a time in our world history, why has there been and still is such a wide gap between the knowing of being caring and the actual experience of living in a caring society.”

Shaykh Soner answered by identifying a time in the Islamic history when there was no hunger in the land.  In fact it became hard to fulfill the obligation to feed the hungry, to give to the poor, so people were instructed to go beyond their homeland to find others outside the region in order to fulfill the obligation of justice.

The question however lingered on.

This Conversation on Compassion; Caring About Hunger held at Merrylands was one step on the journey of breaking down social distance. It not only brought together the expert perspectives from the study of hunger, the Jewish world, the Muslim world, the Christian world and the conflict resolution world, it brought together participants form a far afield as Canberra, the Eastern Suburbs, the Southern Shire as well as the North Shore, Western suburbs and the inner city as well as the diversity of world views from students, professionals and various areas of interests. Bringing diverse worldviews together offers an opportunity for thinking beyond the parameters of one’s own limited perspective. Hunger is a social structural conflict that is not based on not enough food, or geographical isolation, it is due to a lack of caring.  George Kent has brought this to our attention, now where to from here?

By Michelle Brenner


[1] Qur’an 69:31-33