Thanksgiving and a Billion Hungry Neighbors

It's Thanksgiving, which means time to stuff ourselves with Turkey, watch some football and hang out with the family. No doubt along the way we'll see the traditional pictures of original Thanksgiving, complete with Pilgrims feasting with Native Americans. While we now know that this Norman Rockwell image is far from accurate, the general idea of people facing a cold winter and being thankful to have enough food is correct. Sometimes we forget that the happy images we imagine from the 1621 Plymouth, (MA) European settlers are in stark contrast to the Jamestown (VA) settlers who preceded them a few decades earlier. Both of them impact who we are today and what Thanksgiving means to us.

Though it may test our American sensibilities to admit it, the truth is the group of Christians who founded America's first colony in 1607 in Jamestown did so under communist principles. Those of us who are not fans of communism hopefully take no glee in noting that the initial communist experiment on our turf unfortunately ended in starvation. The desperate times prompted their leader, Capt. John Smith (the one of Pocahontas fame) to post a sign in the middle of the public square that said, "He who does not work shall not eat." This epiphany of right-headedness was not original with him, it was a quotation pulled directly from Paul's writings in the Bible from First Thessalonians 3:10.

Captain Smith's sign said:

"Countrymen, the long experience of our late miseries I hope is sufficient to persuade everyone to a present correction of himself, And think not that either my pains nor the adventurers' purses will ever maintain you in idleness and sloth...the greater part must be more industrious, or starve...You must obey this now for a law, that he that will not work shall not eat ..."

Captain Smith set forth what would become a fundamental American belief. If you don't work, you won't eat." Today this statement has political undertones, but in their case it was a pragmatic rule, not a pithy philosophical statement. The starvation that resulted from their previous efforts at organizing themselves made it evident that working and eating were inextricably tied.

Speaking of communist experiments, Vladimir Lenin also quoted this verse from Paul and referred to it as a founding principle of his ideology. The phrase first appears in his 1917 work, The State and Revolution. Lenin's vision was that in socialist states, only productive individuals could be allowed access to the "articles of consumption." He saw it as a necessary principle under socialism, the preliminary phase of the evolution towards communist society. Later, article twelve of the 1936 Soviet Constitution would state:

In the USSR work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: "He who does not work, neither shall he eat."

They make for strange bedfellows, Lenin and Smith, and though their experiments in community ended up on the wildly divergent paths, it appears they started in the same place in regards to how to best fight off hunger. Namely, "If you're going to eat you better work for it." Or as economist Milton Friedman would later say: "there's no such thing as a free lunch"

Maybe it is this Lenin-Friedman-Smithian-Pauline influence on our world-view explains in part why Americans seem so untroubled by hunger in our world today. I tend to think this not because we don't care, but because we suspend our sympathy partly due to assumptions about how industrious these people are. We may not actually say it, but either consciously or subconsciously we tend to think that being hungry and laziness are always connected both in our own country and abroad.

While Paul, Smith, Lenin and Friedman were right that humans must work for food, the facts show that the vast majority of the hungry people in our world are not lazy at all. They are caught in circumstances, trapped, if you will, by a host of largely unrelated happenstance: bad governments, bad weather, bad neighbors, and bad luck dealt to them by the geographical birth lottery. In most places where hunger abounds, people work their tails off and still don't have enough food to go around. I think we would all agree that not having enough food to go around would be unacceptable at our family Thanksgiving table. Such a reality stands in stark contrast to the very notion and purpose of the Thanksgiving story we all love.

Most of us learned the basics of that Thanksgiving story when we were in grade school and many of us have fading pictures in a shoebox somewhere of ourselves dressed like happy pilgrims, friendly Indians, or (fatal casting) turkeys. The original Thanksgiving, at least the one historians date to the Plymouth Plantation in 1621, marked a good harvest following a long year of awful suffering not too different from the one experienced more than a decade earlier by the failed Jamestown settlers in Virginia. Historians tell us that before that first successful harvest, before the turkey and the corn and the bonhomie with the natives, the colonists had lost about half their numbers to starvation, disease and exposure to the elements.

But for the generosity of the natives, the entire colony might have perished. The Wikipedia entry says, "While initially, the Plymouth colony did not have enough food to feed half of the 102 colonists, the Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish." The Wampanoags had plenty, their new uninvited neighbors had little. They shared. We know that relations between settlers and Native Americans did not end well, but we forget that that first mutually beneficial peace treaty lasted more than 50 years. The treaty established trade and set up the mutual protection of both sides. They enjoyed half a century of peace because one clan in the great human family was willing to reach out and help another. They realized, at least one generation of their leaders anyway, that their fates were mutually connected. They may have been different tribes with different languages, but like it or not, their two world's had collided and shrunk to make them one community, dependent on one another for their survival.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year there are a billion hungry people on our globe. It's one thing to feel bad about that and quite another to actually do something about it. It's just as true today as it was in 1621 that one neighbor who has plenty should do the right thing and do what it takes to help a neighbor in need. This was apparently common sense to the Wampanoags, as was the realization that the globe had shrunk and widened their definition of neighbor. I'm sure part of it was the Wampanoags were being "nice humanitarians", but we should also recognize their savviness in realizing more quickly than their new European neighbors that there was huge value in mutually beneficial peace. As a Christian myself I have to pause and admit that luckily the Wampanoags did not have a copy of First Thessalonians to quote to their new Christian neighbors. Accordingly I feel some tension being too quick to quote it out of context myself to my hungry neighbors today.

We are fortunate that it is much easier and cost effective to preserve, purchase, transport, trade and share our food than ever before in human history. So this year as we feast and pause to give thanks for our blessings, let's do so with both the generosity and shrewdness of the Wampanoags. If we Americans step up the generosity from our government, churches and individuals to feed a hungry world and we get 50 years of peace out of the deal, it's not only the right thing to do, it's not a bad trade.

Contributor Mark Moore is the CEO and Founder of MANA Nutrition. MANA makes Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) for UNICEF and USAID. RUTF is a vitamin enriched peanut butter product that is the frontline defense in treating severe acute malnutrition.