Our Response to Famine and Suffering

With all the concern about Ukraine (well placed), I have tended to forget some other areas of suffering–Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, the Rohingya–and more recently, folks who live in West Africa have expressed concern to me about impending famine. It reminds one of the Sahel famine of the 1980s, when millions of people and animals died. The following article breaks my heart. Is there anyone who recommends a given charity for this area? Does anyone know anyone working there? Some of my family are there, though I think I can’t give the location exactly. I appreciate prayer for the folks there.

When I lived there in the '80s as a child, I remember people asking to pick weeds around our house, and that they would dig up anthills to find seeds to eat. The missionaries arranged for food distribution, but I think that there were many that suffered.

Somalia drought: ‘Act now or 350,000 children will die’ - BBC News

I hesitated to post this on the main discourse, as it’s not directly related to science and theology. However, someone pointed out that "It touches on many issues we discuss on faith and science, including climate change, loving our neighbors, racial discrimination and bias.

What is the best, Christlike approach here? What can we learn from the recent disasters in how best to serve our brothers and sisters across the world (I’m referring to the human family)?



Randy, thanks for this post and wake up shake. I have not been paying attention to the news (much like the eyes in @MarkD ‘s poem yesterday), trying not to be overwhelmed by it all…as I sit in my nice, comfortable house with all the clutter that comes with excess disposable income…
I need to be exercising my faith and practicing obedience instead.


We need to be doing it in an intelligent, efficient, co-ordinated, collective manner only @Kendel. This is a Church responsibility, and yes, we are the Church, but we cannot go it alone. When billionaires are philanthropic they are extremely astute; they want to see the maximum return on their investment. Even they can’t fix Haiti.

Thanks for sharing, Randy. And I really do mean that - and feel compelled to emphasize how I mean that, given what I’m about to say. Which in itself (I suppose?) is a morally tragic failure, because notice how with that opening, I make it all about me, and my conscience instead of about the 350,000 children in Somalia who will likely die of starvation.

Dale brought up a link in the earlier private version of this thread for a work titled “The Hole in our Gospel” (thanks, @Dale), with a reference to an analogy: What sort of sensational news and reactionary panic would it cause if 100 Jetliners all crashed today? And yet the equivalent in preventable deaths is happening every day. I presume this is the analogy or “the hole” that Dale sees being referred to. Along with the very callous news equivalents of “one American fireman = 5 English bobbies = 50 Arabs = 500 Africans” in terms of our thresholds of concern. Terrible. Very terrible we tell ourselves, shaking our heads sadly and disapprovingly. And then we go about our day.

There is an answer to this of course: That callous equation was addressed to an American audience who is expected to identify more closely with the fireman. But that equation doesn’t work at all if you’re the Englishman, or the citizen of Yemen, or the Somalian parent whose village is dying of starvation. For them that same equation (in terms of care and concern if not in terms of power) is reversed, and they won’t know anything of thousands of automobile fatalities in the U.S., but they do see their own children dying. So it’s a bit unrealistic to expect anybody to be able to somehow “globally contextualize” all the world’s suffering as somehow all worthy of their same personal concern as what they see immediately around them. Yes - I know, our media strives (rightly or wrongly) to help us feel that all suffering must have our immediate attention as being ‘immediately around us’.

But I’m not so sure this is a “hole” in our gospel. Let me suggest that there is a “the poor you will always have with you” principle in play. And that is this: Even if you were a powerful billionaire, you won’t be keeping all these world tragedies from happening. And violence, starvation, and death will still remain ever alarmingly present despite you’re grandest (even successful) efforts to slow down some of it. Believers here might say that Jesus was in a position to miraculously stop all suffering worldwide if he chose to do so. And yet he focused instead on those immediately around him. In fact, among the gospel narratives, one of the examples we see a generally abstracted ‘concern’ for giving to the poor is the obligatory indignation put into the mouth of Judas that “this expensive perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor!” And the narrator goes on to inform us that Judas really cared nothing for all those poor. One gets the idea that this seemed like a proper caring thing to say, and that is the only reason Judas said it. We agonize for a bit about all the death in the world because it temporarily salves our consciences that we ourselves are in such pains about it … and then we go on about our day. Jesus, in contrast, doesn’t seem to want to let even a single good deed (of dubious effect against the mountain of need that yet remains) get lost in all this. The worldwide poor are always there - yes. But can you bless this poor person that you personally encountered today? Or … you can’t give enough to come close to making a dent in the war torn suffering or famine-induced starvation abroad. But can you give $10 or $100 toward a reputable charity that is at least helping with some of it? Our individual acts of environmental awareness won’t make a blip of difference on climate change, but can you make one loving choice that shows [because] you care about God’s creation today, and perhaps try to start making a habit of these things? Perfection (solving the problem of the poor who will always still be there) is forever out of your reach, but can you bless the one poor or suffering person who is within your reach to bless today? In that way, we might make it less about us and our own so-called ‘suffering’ of conscience, and make it more about at least obediently addressing what God puts in front of us to address.


Also just a quick additional response about the crashing airliners analogy: It is very understandable why one induces panic, but not the other. We understand starvation and death, why and how it happens, and if we are fortunate enough to live in wealthier areas of the world, we have power to prevent any such starvation for ourselves and our loved ones.

Not so with mysteriously large bunches of crashing airliners. Such a happening, if it really happened would make us feel very threatened indeed, because our ignorance about what would cause this means that even as affluent (and usually powerful and resourceful) people, we don’t know what to do about this (other than to stop flying - that is - to stop living as so many are accustomed to living), and a vague or unknown but deadly threat or attack on us is very alarming to us indeed!


I found this article on the difference between empathy and compassion helpful… Empathy in the wrong way can lead to exclusiveness of interest in one’s own group, for example, whereas compassion is more oriented to others’ wellbeing.


Yes, you are right. We as a collective, need to do all those things. In the U.S. these days, though I just roll my eyes; our collective is busted to bits. We have lost our collective minds. Any “collective” action is widely labeled as Socialistic (bad) or Communistic (downright evil). Of course, all in Jesus’s name; we’re merely protecting our God-given (stolen) wealth. You watch the news. You know the score here.

And when the collective has turned to cannibalism? What then? We eat our own and then all the others, I guess. And when “the church” righteously participates in the orgy? [Geeze. I sound just like my mother for all the opposite reasons.] Sorry to take you to the darker places in my mind these days. They’re hard to avoid, when thinking, though.

I’m inclined to Randy’s way of thinking (as I understand it) – what purposeful action can I take, even if all I have to give is small? What is doable, if not entirely reasonable? For example, there are refuges from Afghanistan in the larger city near me. Good heavens! If we brought a family to our house, there may be burning crosses on our lawn or a different manner of calling cards from our subtle neighbors in the Michigan Militia or the Posse Comitatus. Bringing a brown-skinned family to my neighborhood is not so reasonable these days, I worry. “Everybody isn’t like that.” For sure. But the ones who are are evil and dangerous. Is anyone they know helping to stop them?

A coworker and his wife are functioning as middlemen to help an Afghan family deal with “the system” and navigate life in America, etc. It doesn’t really save anyone, but it helps a family survive for the next day. That’s something. My coworker and his wife go to where the family is living in the city. That’s something I could do. There is plenty of volunteer work I am capable of doing. It doesn’t save people from famine/war. The people here are the group that is out of that frying pan and trying to stay out of the next fire. Still it’s something.

As I’ve seen in the last two years, sometimes we need to find coordinators who are doing what we want to be doing, too. Or take the role on ourselves. The ones we’re used to relying on are either overwhelmed or have incompatible priorities.


The contrast between the death in Somalia and death in Ukraine involves both the cause and the potential remedy. In Somalia the cause seems to be too little resources for too many people where any fluctuation in those scarce resources has immediate and catastrophic consequences. In Ukraine the cause is an external, malevolent human with immense personal power to do harm, willing to throw the lives of those in his control along with the resources he squeezes from his own oppressed masses against the Ukrainian people for his own evil reasons. To directly aid Somalia would simply require the infusion of resources, a great deal of resources from outside the area. To directly aid Ukraine requires that the bad actor from Russia be stopped. Neither would be easily accomplished and it could be our best concerted effort would fall short for all I know. Both are tragic situations for the common people there just trying to survive circumstances they did not choose. Of the two situations only the one in Ukraine offers a potentially quicker resolution since one does not know how much will there would be in the oppressor nation to carry on against Ukraine once the head of that state passes away as all men must. Is it acceptable for Christians to pray for the death of one man to come sooner rather than later? By contrast, in Somalia one must hope for both an increase in capacity and a decline in reproduction, or else continue to watch the population ebb and flow with the fluctuations in its resources. Ultimately there is a limit to how much we can ask the earth to produce even if we seek to bring it in from elsewhere, and we simply must reduce the demands we make of it. But we do feel survivor’s guilt to live where the resources are currently sufficient and no villain threatens our borders. I’m not sure what a person of average means can effectively do to alleviate the suffering of the many unfortunate in harm’s way.

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Dear God Kendel. It’s that bad. At least you’re networking and making a difference.


I need to be. I know where some networks are.


On a related note of the poor whom we will always have…

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We’ll always have the poor because we’ll never have social justice.

Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe, but the war is also exacerbating food shortages in Africa.
War in Ukraine Compounds Hunger in East Africa (free access to this article)

What to do?

  • Stop supporting political candidates who demonize refugees and don’t want to do anything about global warming.

  • Give as you are able

  • Try to limit the amount of carbon dioxide and methane you put in the atmosphere


That’s too subjective – how about graduated giving with a 10% minimum. I remember when my younger son started working while he was in high school and I told him that tithing was on the gross, not the net after withholding, and his eyes kind of got big. :flushed: :slightly_smiling_face: Well, maybe he just raised his eyebrows a little.

I believe that God honors tithing and additional giving à la Malachi 3, no matter how poor one is.


ETA: (But has anyone ever heard a sermon on Deuteronomy 14:22-29, especially verse 26? :laughing: )

I would go even further Dale for clarities sake and say it is not the act of tithing that makes it acceptable but the spirit in which it is done as seen in the story of the Pharisees who give to the poor so everyone sees. The response is they already received their reward.

If someone did something nice for us out of spite, do they deserve a reward because of the deed, or do they deserve scorn because of their intent?

If someone illegally jaywalks to save a child, do they deserve punishment for breaking the law, or thanks and gratitude in spite of breaking the law?

If our kid angrily cleaned his room as we asked, are we proud because he did a good thing, or disappointed because of his attitude.

Proverbs 16:2
All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.

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I would still contend for a 10% minimum, just like we would all should contend for the seventh and eighth of the Ten Commandments, for example. We can fool ourselves too easily when it comes to money and how much we “need.”

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Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome.
1 John 5:3

He who is having my commands, and is keeping them, that one it is who is loving me, and he who is loving me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.
John 14:21

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Matthew 13:44-46

Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist

Some things are fundamental.

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Well spoken.

On the other hand, I’d like to learn what you think of this one

I know some folks that can’t afford to eat; so a tithe, in that respect, is perhaps more like the song from St Francis:

Brother, let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I might have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.

In the ministry of giving, we sometimes have to learn grace to accept from others, giving them the give of giving–something that’s really hard for me to grasp!

I think that in the OT, the very poor could give a pigeon (I think that we less than a tithe for some of them); and there were beggars, too, who I suspect could only give in certain times.

Quoted from “Fiddler on the Roof” Finding the Tzedek in Tzedakah | Reform Judaism

Imagine a more familiar memory of the Jewish value of tzedakah in the old country. Do you remember that moment in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye walks by the town beggar and hands him a kopek. “One kopek?” says the beggar. “Last week you gave me two kopeks.” “I am sorry,” says Tevye, “I had a bad week.” “So,” says the beggar, “if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”

There is a chutzpah in his response that makes us laugh, but at the same time there is a truth beneath the laughter that can lead us to wisdom. The Hebrew word tzedakah comes from the root word tzedek , which means, not charity, but “justice.” Tzedakah is justice in action. The beggar has a right to his alms and we have a responsibility to give them: not because we are, or ought to be, “kind”; not because we are all part of a social compact in this golden land; not because we feel guilty because we have achieved whatever we may have achieved; not because crime and disease might otherwise spread from the lower classes. Giving tzedakah is the right thing to do, the righteous thing to do. From a Jewish perspective, it is as simple as that.

I found this passage particularly relevant, as the “justice” is also in Arabic, and in the Muslim country I grew up in, in West Africa, the beggar’s cry is similar: “sadaka”!


If I were a beggar (and I may be yet ; - ), I would still tithe, maybe by giving it to another beggar. It’s about loving obedience to the Giver.

(No one has answered my question from earlier though.)…

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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