Article
Comment
Eating
General Election 24
5 min read

Give us each day our daily bread

Why the political parties cannot understand farming.

James Cary is a writer of situation comedy for BBC TV (Miranda, Bluestone 42) and Radio (Think the Unthinkable, Hut 33).

A man stands looking baleful next to a row of red tractors
Jeremy Clarkson re-considering the farming life.
Amazon Studios.

Go to the Labour Party’s ten election pledges. Search for the word ‘farm’. I’ll wait. 

You’re not going to do that, are you? Fair enough. Let me tell you happens when you do. Nothing. You won’t find the word ‘farm’. That absence is revealing. 

Or is it? Am I just being parochial? I’m not a farmer, but the son of a farmer and raised on a dairy farm in Somerset. It was a relief to my parents that I didn’t want to follow them – and every other Cary throughout history – into the family business, as the good years were clearly coming to an end. My parents sold their herd of cows a few years before Mad Cow Disease. They bought sheep for a variety of slightly perverse incentives. After a few years they discovered sheep are the worst, since they find all kinds of imaginative ways to die. The only bit of luck they had on the sheep was selling them before the Foot and Mouth epidemic hit. 

Farmers in the UK have gotten used to being ignored by politicians, even though 70 per cent of the UK’s land is farmed. So what’s the plan for how over two-thirds of the country is going to be managed, given that Labour are certain to win? It’s hard to tell. 

I found a more detailed manifesto on the Labour Party website, based around five Labour policies called ‘Let’s get Britain’s future back’. Idiotic nonsensical slogans notwithstanding, I did find one mention of the word ‘farm’. But only once. And it was part of the word ‘windfarm’. Labour is more interested in the farming of wind than the farming of wheat, cattle or vegetables. That managed air might explain where their slogan came from. 

It is no wonder that the rural communities don’t trust Labour. According to FarmersGuide.co.uk, only 28 per cent said “they believe Labour understands and respects rural communities and the rural way of life”. But it’s not all bad news for Labour. The Tories are trusted even less, having dropped down to only 25 per cent. In short, the people in the countryside have no confidence in politicians. 

The reason agricultural policy gets so complicated is because we have a great deal of knowledge but no wisdom.

You need only to watch Clarkson’s Farm to understand why this is the case. Farmers have been subject to an enraging mixture of overregulation and political indifference. Some of this has been Brexit. Some has been bureaucratic incompetence. 

But there is another more fundamental problem. I discovered it when reading The National Food Strategy. This was a document courageously commissioned by the Conservatives in the hope that someone else would come up with some coherent policies for the countryside. It runs for hundreds of pages plus footnotes and sources and is an impressive piece of work. It pulls together issues around land use, food security, climate change, food inequality and obesity. 

These issues are all interconnected. In fact, they are interdependent. How can they not be? You have to consider them all together. But once you open these cans of worms you end up with all kinds of other questions about pesticides, genetic modification, food waste and the identity of the maniac canning worms in the first place. 

The reason agricultural policy gets so complicated is because we have a great deal of knowledge but no wisdom. We understand crops on a molecular level. We can design gigantic machinery to efficiently administer the correct dosage of pesticides to individual plants. We can theorise about animal bedding until the cows come home. But we can’t make decisions. That requires wisdom. 

Wisdom is discernment, choosing between two good things – or making a decision based on the lesser of two evils. We can’t do that, because we can’t decide what is very good, what is good, what is okay and what is evil. Everything is practical pragmatic politics. You do what works. Except how do you define ‘what works’? For whom? Based on what? 

Because we can’t make decisions, we end up having to balance entirely valid concerns about climate, obesity, food inequality, subsidies and the life cycles of bees. But we can’t do it. It’s too complicated. It produces anomalies and perverse incentives. The result is middle-aged men taking their own lives because TB-ridden badgers have ended up with more legal protections than tenant farmers. 

We would do well to look to our ancestors. They lacked our granular knowledge but they had wisdom which, according to the Bible, begins with ‘the fear of the Lord’. They ploughed the fields and scattered the good seed on the land. They understood that our food doesn’t come from our brains, our labs, our factories or our highly integrated just-in-time delivery systems. Our food comes from God. As the Psalmist writes: 

He makes grass grow for the cattle, 
     and plants for people to cultivate— 
     bringing forth food from the earth: 
wine that gladdens human hearts, 
     oil to make their faces shine, 
     and bread that sustains their hearts. 

Psalm 104

That’s why our predecessors ask for God’s blessing on their tools on Plough Monday in early January. It explains ‘Rogation days’ in the spring when the entire congregation would wander round the fields asking for God’s blessing. There was Lammastide when the harvest was beginning to ripen in early August. And every Sunday, the congregations prayed this central line of the Lord’s prayer: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. 

Jesus was good at bread. He was so good, he didn’t even need wheat to make it. He could feed five thousand families from a handful of loaves. It’s interesting that avowedly atheist regimes – like Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China – end up with mass starvation. 

Our own society has turned its back on God. We have made ourselves gods. And after much consultation and two hundred pages of background and policy – plus foot notes - it turns out that food is a lot harder than we thought. Omniscience and omnipotence are really handy which it comes to a coherent plan for 70 per cent of the land in the UK. Rather than another National Food Strategy, let’s just have Psalm 104. Right now, our farmers are prepared to try anything. 

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.