Will America make eradicating global hunger a policy priority?

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The celebration of Easter Sunday brings the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth into sharp focus for Christians around the globe. One of the biblical stories that, to me, defines the essence of the teachings of Jesus and Christianity, and one with relevance for the debate about American global food security policy, is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In this lesson, Jesus described a traveler lying half dead by the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, when three individuals came upon the injured man. The first two were a priest and a Levite from Jewish society as Jesus was, and they avoided him. The third, a person from Samaria, whose tribe had antagonistic relations with Judea, however, stopped to bind the wounds of the injured man and take him to a nearby inn where he paid for his upkeep until he recovered.

{mosads}In the biblical era in the Middle East, obligations were seen as existing within tribes or ethnic groups. Those sharing a common religion and living together in communities, often within walled villages or towns, viewed themselves as having a relationship with and commitment to each other. Judeans shared this common bond with each other, as would Samaritans. But they would not have any felt need to assist anyone outside their circle of obligations.

The Good Samaritan was thus an exception to the common practice of the time. He reacted out of his empathy for a suffering human being who was outside his group. Jesus told his followers that it was thus the Samaritan who would have the higher standing in the eyes of God, because he assisted a person to whom he had no obligation. This was at the heart of the revolutionary transformation by Jesus of the ethical norms which shaped traditional societies and still reflects the essence of the Christian religions, which now have over two billion adherents.

I came face to face with this issue on a night in 1969 in the village of Hoa Long in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, when a severely wounded young Viet Cong soldier was brought to the village center. He had been shot in ambush and was now being held in the arms of his mother, who was pleading for help to save her dying son. The road to the provincial town where a hospital was located was very dangerous. One by one the onlookers and other Vietnamese turned their backs and walked away, feeling no obligation to assist this man who was their enemy.

Soon I was one of the few people left, and I too started to turn away, but some powerful force within me made me hesitate. That scene reminded me of the sculpture of the Pieta, of Mary holding the body of Jesus when he was taken down from the cross. The young Viet Cong soldier was no longer an enemy, but a fellow human being. I said that I would drive him down that road to medical help. Suddenly, others were stepping forward to offer their help.

The story does not have a happy ending. The soldier died before help could be provided. But the moral lesson was clear: As individuals, as institutions and as countries, we all need to decide to whom we have an obligation. In a world with close to one billion people chronically food insecure and millions facing acute hunger and malnutrition, the United States and other developed countries will face the political questions about whether we will see eradicating global hunger as an overriding obligation surpassing other internal policy objectives.

In my home state of Iowa, three of our humanitarian heroes have all answered this question in the same way. Herbert Hoover, while working for a Democratic president, would deliver food from America to hundreds of millions of starving Europeans following World War I. In 1979, Robert Ray became the first governor official in the world to offer to accept Vietnamese refugees after the war, thus providing the political support to allow President Carter to reopen America’s doors to one million refugees to live in freedom. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and World Food Prize founder Norman Borlaug delivered new seeds to India and Pakistan averting mass starvation and inaugurating the Green Revolution. On the base of his statue in the U.S. Capitol is inscribed “the man who saved a billion lives.”

In every instance, each man had to make that same ethical decision: To whom do I, does my state, does my country have an obligation? You do not need to be Christian to appreciate and see the relevance of the biblical story of the Good Samaritan for 21st century food and agricultural policy decisions.

Kenneth Quinn is president of the World Food Prize Foundation. He is a former American diplomat who spent more than 30 years as a career foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.

Tags Diplomacy Global Affairs Government hunger Poverty Religion United States

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