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Popcorn geopolitics


I LIKE TEACHING Sunday School, but this new curriculum seems to have been written by dimwits for nitwits.

To experience the feeling of being a lost sheep, my teen-agers could play hide-and-seek. Mustard seeds pasted onto paper circles might demonstrate that even a tiny faith can work wonders. The trick to making Sunday School attractive to high-schoolers, apparently, is to treat them like fourth-graders.

But if the Bible instruction is childish, the geopolitics is a mushed-over kindergarten Marxism, compounded of sentimentality, Protestant guilt and the insight that rich people are the cause of the world's problems -- well, rich people and overpopulation.

Last week was World Food Sunday. We rich people were asked to ponder our own responsibility for global famine. A game was suggested: Fill a bowl with popcorn kernels. Divide the youngsters into four groups, representing Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America/Europe. Issue 10 kernels of popcorn to each Asian, 15 to each African, 20 to each Latin American and 30 to each North America/European.

Players roll dice to determine how many children they have and their levels of health, food, housing and employment. Then they get more kernels -- or lose them. Each child costs you a kernel. Owning a business or having an employer-financed health plan gains five kernels. If you are unemployed or homeless, minus five. Homeowners win; renters lose. If you grow vegetables to supplement your diet, you keep your kernels, but don't get any more.

The game is rigged. Except for number of children, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans are not allowed to score above four. But the level-four demographic bits describe people only barely holding their own. At best they get one kernel now and then. Only North America/Europeans are allowed to roll fives and sixes, where the big popcorn payouts are. Of course the Third Worlders very quickly lose all their kernels to the West.

There is some value in this game. It is certainly true that the high-schoolers in my church started life with more popcorn than youngsters in other parts of the world. They need to be reminded of this, and that well-being is a matter of food, shelter, employment and health, rather than clothes and CDs. It is also true that, now as in Bible times, the rich will try to rig the rules to scoop up all the popcorn. Sunday School is an appropriate place to reflect on the justice of that.

Life is getting better

But in its premise, the popcorn game is ludicrously wrong. Most of the world is getting richer, not poorer. Income and education levels are rising. Diet is better. Infant mortality is down, life expectancy up. Better health, not uncontrolled breeding, is the cause of population increase; fertility rates are down almost everywhere.

Asia is booming. Visitors to China, Indonesia, Singapore, are struck by the self-confidence and optimism of people there. Pundits predict a coming "Asian century" in which the popcorn kernels will be flowing to the Orient.

So why is the Sunday School curriculum peddling an outdated picture of a wretched world in need of our succor? I think we are projecting our own fearfulness about the future -- President Clinton called it a national "funk" -- onto the rest of the world.

Rising affluence brings its own problems. I read somewhere that every Chinese drinks an extra glass of beer next year, the grain demand will wipe out world reserves. But population does not cause famine. "Teeming" Asia has no famines, nor does densely settled Europe. The one Asian country with a food problem is Myanmar (Burma), but not because rich Westerners stole their popcorn. It's because Myanmar for 35 years isolated itself, refusing to play at the global popcorn bowl.

Famines are engineered -- sometimes deliberately, as in the 1930s when Josef Stalin starved Ukrainian farmers into submission, but more often by political breakdown: Civil wars in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan; a mad "Great Leap Forward" in China that neglected agriculture. There is hunger in Baltimore, too, but not because we have too many Baltimoreans. There's food aplenty; it just doesn't get to everybody.

That popcorn bowl bothers me for another reason. In the Sunday School game, there is a finite number of kernels. Every kernel for me is one less for you. But in the world that's not true. We are creating more kernels all the time -- with new ways of growing food, new ways to use resources.

In 1492, when only a couple million people roamed the future United States, it would have been unimaginable that one day there would be 250 million Americans. There weren't enough buffalo to feed so many. That's the logic that sees in a baby a belly to be filled, not two hands to create.

Tomorrow's Sunday School lesson is Children's Sabbath/50th Anniversary of the United Nations. We can play a game where we drop 50 pennies into a mayonnaise jar. Oh brother. Maybe I'll just have the kids read the Bible.


Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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