This short essay was included in the 2014 book, Sacred Seed, a collection of brief reflections and meditations from religious leaders, inspired by the work of Dr. Vandana Shiva, on the material and symbolic divinity of seeds in their faith traditions and about the on-going attack on seeds in the form of big agribusiness and Genetically Modified Organisms. The book is available for purchase online.
The theology of the Bible does not tolerate any disrespect for God’s creation. In the Book of Genesis and throughout the Old and New Testaments, God commissions people to be stewards of creation and protectors of life so that we may thrive, not merely survive. Therefore, any system that attempts to compete with God by controlling the means for sustaining life – seed, food, water, land, and medicine – is, by Biblical standards, idolatrous. In the Christian tradition, this is most dramatically revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus presents a radical and defining counter-narrative to the prevailing exploitative systems of power by declaring that “the last shall be first,”1 and that all life is sacred.
Thus, we ought not to be impressed with the wealth that the giants of agribusiness have amassed in the presence of poverty today. What we must pay attention to is that this wealth was acquired on the backs of the poor. The extension of intellectual property rights over seeds facilitates a concentration of the resources and wealth required to sustain human life in very few hands and is directly related to the massive debt, displacement, and dispossession of the masses. This reveals the great disregard that this system has for human life: it not only produces poverty, but relies on poverty to grow.
Forty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., channeled the same biblical call for justice and critique of the powers that be when he launched the Poor People’s Campaign. He declared:
The dispossessed of this nation…must organize a revolution…against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty…There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…Those who choose to join…this ‘freedom church’ of the poor, will…develop nonviolent action skills.2
King’s campaign continues through the Poverty Initiative’s network of Poverty Scholars – leaders and organizations in 26 states in the United States and 17 countries around the world – who are waging daily struggles against this system.3 Their fights reflect the prophetic “power, justice and courage” to call out these injustices, knitting together the fabric of a vibrant social movement that affirms the arc of God’s justice and laws. 4
This emerging “new and unsettling force” is a present-day illustration of the parable of the mustard seed, which Jesus used to teach about the unexpected places and ways that the kingdom of heaven is realized on earth.5 Together, as poor people from every race and place in America and all walks of life, we take up King’s challenge to build the new freedom church of the poor in hope and with determination. Membership is open to all.
1 Matthew 19:30, ““But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.”
2 Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break the Silence,” April 4, 1967, reprinted in A Testament of Hope.
3 Organizations we have relationships with that are working most directly in the area of food and agricultural justice include Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra or MST) who have re-envisioned what the right to food is and can be by making the explicit connections between land, livelihood, dignity and freedom; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida – an organization of nearly 4000 agricultural workers – whose struggle against poverty wages and slavery in the tomato fields explicitly raises the contradictions of wage labor in a highly mechanized food system, where men and women must compete with machines to maximize profits for corporations; Poughkeepsie Farm Project that is working to build a just and sustainable food system to address the widespread poverty and lack of healthful foods in Poughkeepsie, New York; and Restaurant Opportunities Center-NYC that organizes restaurant workers who confront wage theft and other violations in the workplace. More broadly, in his lifetime, Larry Gibson – the Keeper of the Mountain in West Virginia – fought some of the most aggressive proprietors of natural resources in the global economy as he struggled to protect both his ancestral home of Kayford Mountain from mountaintop removal and his family’s rights to health, water, air and environment; likewise, “Water Warriors” Marion Kramer and Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization are pushing back against the privatization of water in Detroit, Michigan, a process that has contributed to the rising costs of water and utilities, water shut-offs, foreclosures and broken families.
4 Micah 3:8-9, “But truly I am filled with power — with the Spirit of the Lord — and with justice and courage….Hear this, you leaders…who despise justice and distort all that is right.”
5 Mark 4:30, “And Jesus said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of heaven, or by what parables shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.’”