In our churches recently we have been celebrating Harvest Thanksgiving. It’s four down and one to go. In lots of ways harvest appears anachronistic. Even in rural parishes like ours few people work the land today. Most working people commute to nearby towns and some even further to our cities. Most of us are hardly affected by the success or otherwise of the harvest.
So why do we keep on with Harvest Thanksgiving? Is it just that it’s an opportunity to get more people into church than we would normally have? And why do people who otherwise hardly ever come to church come for the harvest service? Does the harvest celebration just make us feel good, or is there something deeper, perhaps something only half acknowledged?
Not so very many years ago communities like the villages where our churches are to be found would have been dependent on the harvest for their prosperity. Before that the people who lived here would have needed the harvest to be successful simply to be able to put enough food on their tables. A good harvest would have been one in which you had enough to feed your family and your livestock, enough seed to sow for next year’s harvest and perhaps a little to spare that could be sold at market. A poor harvest could devastate the community. The same remains true today for subsistence farmers throughout the world. And without wishing to
ignore the questions in our own society about whether our farmers are receiving a just price for their produce, today the success or failure of the harvest has little impact on most of us. There will still be food on the table and those who go hungry in Britain do not go hungry because the harvest fails; they go hungry because their income is too small to afford to buy sufficient food for their families.
So the harvest raises issues of justice at home and abroad. Are our farmers receiving a just price for their produce? Why do children in twenty-first century Britain go to bed hungry? What should we in the wealthy west do about those who starve because of drought and famine in the developing world? Do we use the term developing world to try and convince ourselves that things are getting better in the world’s poorest countries? Are subsistence farmers and other farmers in the developing world being exploited to protect us, because we have the wealth to buy up what they produce, from the vagaries of the harvest?
And there are other issues that we can no longer ignore. Will climate change mean that even the wealthy nations will struggle to feed their populations? What about the world’s growing population – what will we do about that? Are the solutions to these problems that science is seeking likely to raise more issues? As more and more people move into the cities are we getting out of touch with the world and its needs? How do we manage the world’s limited resources effectively for the good of all?
I don’t claim to have answers to these questions and others like them, although I suspect that honest answers would make us all feel uncomfortable about our place in, and effect on, the world.
If I’m honest the harvest celebrations in our churches glossed over these issues. We didn’t ignore them completely but neither did we give them the attention they deserve. But perhaps somehow the harvest is serving to keep alive our connection with the land. Celebrating the harvest compels us to consider how our food is produced, where it comes from and who is labouring to grow it. Celebrating the harvest forces us to acknowledge the changing of the seasons, the vulnerability of our lives to nature and our need to act responsibly towards the earth and with justice towards other people.
At its worst harvest is a sentimental celebration of a past that never really existed; at its best it is a prophetic word from God to be active in protecting our environment and in seeking justice for all people.