Saturday, July 18, 2009

Our Daily Bread

Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11). I think most people who read this see it as saying, "Ask the Lord to give you and your family food if you are hungry." Of course, Jesus says nothing about being hungry. In the Ideal Prayer, it is simply the first petition that he tells us to speak after we have honored God in our prayer first. But it is not only a prayer to be prayed by the poor--it is a prayer everyone of us should pray.

Jesus uses extreme brevity in outlining the nature of kingdom praying. Three "You" lines addressed to God--his honor, his kingdom, and his will--, and three "us" lines detailing what we should pray for ourselves--food, forgiveness, and freedom from overpowering temptations. He leaves it to us to think through the implications of all of this. Give us our bread. Just what is involved in that? I like Luther's comment on this line. He wrote, “When we pray for bread we are praying for everything necessary for the preservation of this life, like food, a healthy body, good weather, house, home, wife, children, good government, and peace—that God may preserve us from all sorts of calamities, sickness, pestilence, hard times, war, revolution, and the like." That is exactly right. But notice the little word, "our." This is not to be an individualistic prayer, but a prayer addressed to God about our families, our neighborhoods, our nation, and our world. "Give all of us this day our daily bread." What we pray for, we intercede for, and what we intercede for we are to be engaged with. If we pray for bread for all, then we ought to be engaged at some level in seeing to it that such a thing happens. But how?

If we take Luther's words seriously, many of us will need to expand our understanding, not merely of this simple prayer, but of our role in longing for justice in the world. So, what does "give us this day our daily bread" mean practically? It means that those of us who can ought to give bread, or give the wherewithal to obtain bread to those who have none. But Luther rightly recognized that most people who will get bread will get it, not as a gift, but through work. So, we need to pray that God will open doors of labor so that we may earn our bread. Pray that we can find ways to prepare ourselves through training to be employed in our chosen fields. Pray that he will give us good health, so that we will have the ability to work. We need to pray for a good government that will afford people equal opportunities to find work and to be employed--and not to make it easier for some parts of the work force to profit and more difficult for others to do so by its own policies. We ought to pray for a good business environment and for the freedom for companies to pursue the profit advantage. After all, bread comes from profit. No profit, no bread, or perhaps little bread, or maybe unhealthy bread. We need to pray for a good labor force so that workers will be as efficient and hard-working as possible, since bread comes from hard-working and efficient people. We need to pray for a good economy, since it is only in that context that bread will be available to as many as possible, and that as many as possible will be employed in order to do everything we have outlined above.

Remember that our prayer for bread is for all of us to have bread--my family, my church, my neighborhood, but also the entire world. This makes it more complex, obviously, for lots of reasons. Those of us in the West surely realize that we have more bread, better bread, tastier bread, and healthier bread than many in the rest of the world. And we also ought to recognize that we ought to do something to make the field more level. The question is, what do we do? At one level we give bread. We give bread to Darfur and hope it does not wind up in the hands of pirates. But is giving bread the long term solution for most of the world? No. Agriculture experts tell us that we have the ability in terms of production to feed twelve billion people right now. That is more than twice the world population. So, if there were no distribution problem (and there is a huge one), it is possible that we could feed the world as it is. But is that the right way? No. The solution is to find a way to carry out the process I outlined above globally. To give bread, but then to help people find work so that they can buy their own bread, and to pray for and work for improved health so that people can stay employed, and to pray and work for government policies that will allow businesses to work free from over-regulation or interference, and to pray that companies will profit so that all who work there will have more bread, better bread, and so on.

The barriers to this are enormous. Most governments around the world do not want such a free marketplace, since they prefer to curry favor with parts of the economy that will support them, give to them, not oppose them, and so on. But if those barriers could, over time, be addressed, how could such a venture be successful? In their book, On Kingdom Business, Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth Eldred show how it is possible for the gospel to advance and for people to have more bread, not merely by receiving gifts, but by becoming entrepreneurs, if American and other Christians who have been successful in business will simply hear the call of the gospel to bring both the Bread of life, and the bread of the table to Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, South Asia, and the rest of the world. Scores of Christian entrepreneurs are now busy taking the story of the gospel and the story of business success to the world. These are people who have taken time out of their own business success stories to give time to helping others figure out how to make bread. Some took early retirement, hearing the call to do just this as their life's calling in their retirement years. It seems to me that this is the kind of thing that will make a substantial difference in the lives and lifestyles of people around the world asking, Give us this day our daily bread.

There is, however, an irony. At a time when American business leaders might have the opportunity to do more than at any other time in history to help lift up the economies of countries around the world, our own country is going backwards in its commitment to the economic models that have made us such an industrial powerhouse. Recent legislation and potential future legislation, if it is all passed, will hinder the very American entrepreneurs I have been discussing from being as helpful as they can be, since this legislation would take away much of their wealth. I have been hearing a lot of rhetoric about "We tried capitalism, and it didn't work. Look at the recent economic crisis." There are several things wrong with that statement. First, as economist Mark Skousen says, "We have never really tried capitalism." Just as the American industrial engine was firing up in the first decade of the twentieth century, politicians, listening to muck-raking journalists, imposed taxes, regulation, and anti-trust legislation that hindered industry from being efficient. During the 'thirties the federal government gave special favors to certain industries and corporations because it benefited the federal government to do so. It was those policies that prolonged the Great Depression, which probably would only have been known as The Significant Recession, if not for federal policies that kept us in economic downturn for eight years. Toward the end of the century much of that regulation was removed, but now, here we have it coming back--in spades. And why? Because of a bad economy, a bad economy largely foisted on us because of government policies changing on a variety of fiscal issues. Second, it was not capitalism, laissez-faire policies, that got us into the current pickle. It was the opposite--government tinkering in the economy. And now, we are moving in a direction that pretty closely follows Karl Marx's recommendations in his 1848 volume co-authored with Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

Let me make one thing clear. I am not placing one political party over the other. Both sides voted for the recent legislation, and both will likely vote for future legislation that could take us further into this pit. There is a part of me that wants to say, "A pox on both your houses." I love E. V. Hill's statement, "I don't go for the left wing and I don't go for the right wing, because they both flap off the same sick bird." Now everyone who knows me knows that I identify with traditional conservative views in the political sphere, but parties don't mean what they once meant. So, our task is to appeal to traditional American values on some issues, but especially to appeal to the Bible. If we are going to pray, "Give us our daily bread," we ought to support the type of economic and political model that can make that the most doable.

Well, I guess you know what I am preaching on Sunday, July 19.

Chad Brand

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