“And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went through all the land of Egypt. During the seven plenteous years the earth produced abundantly. He gathered up all the food of the seven years when there was plenty in the land of Egypt, and stored up food in the cities; he stored up in every city the food from the fields around it. So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance – like the sand of the sea – that he stopped measuring it; it was beyond measure. . . The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every country, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread. When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread, Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.’ And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.” Genesis 41: 46-49, 53-57, NRSV
What is the proper role of government? In this season of presidential primaries, we are hearing a lot about that. One of the things I liked about early candidate Rand Paul was that he was consistently for small government. Other candidates seem to want small or no government on some things, but then they want to insert the government into people’s lives in other ways that many think should be private, personal matters. So we think about what is the appropriate role of government? In viewing many of the films at the Eckerd College Environmental Film Festival this week, this issue came up repeatedly relative to global climate change. What is the proper role of government?
In the story of Joseph, we see the government of Egypt very much in control of the food situation in the time of fertility and drought. If the people were left to themselves, even with warning about the drought, would they have stored the grain they would need? Would they take the situation seriously? Would they have the wherewithal as individuals to make provision for seven years of drought? Could they stock pile so much grain? It’s hard to know. And what about people who were poor or underfed during the time of plenty. You know they are going to be in an even worse situation during the drought.
Government stepping in on behalf of the welfare of the population regarding something as basic as food seems to be a proper role for the government. Our Constitution protects our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You can’t enjoy those rights if you are starving to death and there is no food to be obtained. Seeing that all citizens have access to safe shelter, food, healthcare, and the other basic necessities of life seems a reasonable expectation of government. Overseeing a safe and plentiful food supply seems a proper role for government. Ensuring access to safe potable water seems to be a proper activity of government. Making sure there is clean air to breathe also appears to be a reasonable function for government. These are basic needs for life and people should expect their government to protect these life sustaining rights.
Given the state of global climate change, a case can be made that our government is falling severely short on these responsibilities. There are issues with food additives and pesticides, land usage, subsidies, and consumption of meat that are contributing to agricultural problems and an unhealthy food supply. There are already water wars and water shortage issues in the US, which again relates to agriculture and food supply as well as to drinking water. Sea level rise is also continuing apace and will wipe out many coastal cities potentially within our lifetime. And air quality, while it is better here than in, say, China, is deteriorating as the significant rise in asthma and other respiratory ailments shows.
In this election season, we must ask ourselves, what is the proper role of government and is our government really protecting our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
Separation of church and state in America has led to a rich and thriving religious landscape in this country. We are grateful for our freedom to worship as we choose. As people of faith, we pray for our government and our leaders that they may protect not only our freedom of religious expression but also our freedom to breathe clean air, drink safe water, eat healthy food, and live safely in these beautiful United States. Amen.