Dirty Politics

Rulers have held conferences about food, hunger and health since the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was farmed 11,000 years ago. Now every five years the United States Congress passes a comprehensive Farm Bill in that great tradition of balancing complicated and conflicting ideas about how to feed another generation. Governments have usually gotten their citizens enough calories in the short run, but screwed up the long run, turning farms turning into deserts. Mesopotamia, now Iraq, was “the fertile crescent,” just as northern Africa was the grainery of the Romans, just as Iowa is for us. Doesn’t bode well for Iowa.

At Joe Biden’s White House Conference on Food, Hunger and Health last week I sat behind Dr. Dean Ornish, the cardiologist who was derided for showing that one could reverse heart disease with nutrition, exercise and, even more controversially, social/spiritual support. On my left was the President of American Soybean Association, which has so successfully lobbied for their bean that it is second only to corn syrup as the most common ingredient in the American diet, including many products that are only barely identifiable as food. There were many such ironies in the room: food bankers munching on lunch provided by Google. Hospitals like mine highlighting community food initiatives in the shadow of our massive surgical towers that Dr. Ornish proved unnecessary decades ago. Meals on Wheels executives jostling with Instacart lobbyists. Organic farmers next to pesticide people. Chef José Andrés, the electrifying Puerto Rican Chef sounded the call to simply feed everybody…now; just do it.

The last time food rated a White House conference was under President Nixon 53 years ago when I was in high school. He opened the door to China, just as he opened the kitchen cupboards to food stamps, now called WIC and school lunch programs. He also had Earl Butts as Secretary of Agriculture who considered small farmers a silly distraction in favor of industrial behemoths. The mishmash of noble and industrial programs had all sorts of unintended consequences that their advocates understand need to be corrected. New York Mayor Eric Adams (sitting next to Dr. Ornish) wanted the health experts to be responsible for designed school lunches to be about nutrition, not calories: “we’re just feeding the next health crisis.” Donna Martin, The head of Burke County Georgia school kitchens asked for the same thing: “come to school, work in our kitchens, feed our kids.”

Food doesn’t come from a warehouse or even a kitchen; it comes from soil. The kitchen just links two astonishing complexities, the soil biome and the one in our gut where food turns into…us. We know now that the human gut biome determines much of our resilience and lifespan health. Many even speak of the “gut brain” to describe how the biome shapes our choices, emotions, patterns of behavior. The only thing more complex is soil itself. Bad dirt, bad gut, bad health.

Those complexities of soil and gut are largely shaped by the third, politics. Perhaps as complex as food and soil is the social biome; how the 8 billion of us love, fear and choose over our lifespans. Our social choices emerge from our social soil, not surprisingly these days producing poorly nourished decisions. Our civil society, Congress and courts are like children raised on Twinkies and Red Bull; our democratic process staggers in puff and bluster.

It is easy to be cynical about events like the White House Food, Hunger and Health Conference. But this is how democracies muddle our our way, and nearly infinitely smarter than letting the rich royalty dither. The day before the Conference, the White House released a thoughtful national food strategy with 5 pillars—the first one focusing on economic stability. This thoughtful document is only paper until it gets translated into the 2024 budget and the $1.1 trillion Farm Bill. That legislation will determine how many soybeans get subsidized, what kids get free lunches, what moms watch their kids grow healthy or smaller. As President Joe said, “if a mother can’t feed her child, what the hell else matters?” A handful of contested house seats will decide whether that legislation will will be shaped by the people who put together the White House food strategy or people with no strategy at all. Food policy shapes generations; Wendell Berry thought we should enact 50-year Farm Bill’s to break the dangerously short-term thinking. ( Jackson, Wes; Berry, Wendell (January 5, 2009). “A 50-Year Farm Bill”. The New York Times.)

The food conference should make everyone uncomfortable a half century after the last one. Different decisions could help our community systems produce much more health. But we have to include capital investments on the screen, which is especially sensitive for hospitals and industries such as soybeans and food chemicals. Once you’ve built something, you have to pay for it. Better scientific critique would prevent us making extravagant and unfounded investments that produce little real gain in health. Our non-profit industry has shielded our capital investment side from visibility to the community benefit legislation, so I don’t sense we have a lot of moral high ground on the soybean people. Like fixing the food stamp and school lunch programs, the hungry would have us fix community benefit legislation, too.

President Joe Biden bringing the word: “if a mother

Most politics is mostly projected out of the past, not the future. The arguments focus on keeping privileges, not getting new ones. That’s how the 3/5th of a citizen idea got into our founding documents: it kept slavery and made inevitable the Civil War. This is also how the subsidies for cotton, sugar, soybean and petrochemical industries end up the Farm Bill cycle after cycle. I was representing Stakeholder Health which has dozens of healthcare non-profits, so I was not comfortable about our illogical privileges, too. We give away a lot of free care. But we could be way more scientific about our investments, including the vast sunk cost of buildings. If we stacked all our bed towers next to all the soybean silos, I think ours would be higher, more expensive and harder to defend.

The day before the White House Conference I was part of a workshop convened by the Stand Together Foundation—a child of the Koch Brothers Foundation. It would have been easy to be cynical about this one, too. But the invitation was just as hard to turn down as the White House Conference, as the subject was just as fundamental: “social dynamics of health.” The two were windows on opposite side of the house peering into the same phenomenon.

The link between the tiny San Diego workshop and massive WH Conference is hard to miss as both events raise fundamental issues of how to achieve fundamental public good. One of the big changes since the last WH Conference is the huge expansion in the non-governmental non-profit sector, especially in healthcare. Neither meeting was about more charity. Rather, the issue is how to appropriately recognize our part of the community systems that create the population scale patterns of health. Whether we are big hospitals or soybean farmers, we should thoughtfully subjecting all of our community-facing policies to basic science critique, especially procurement and capital planning.

The place to start is the same place as doctors do, “first, do no harm.” Wendell Berry was a young man during the Nixon Conference. He was already famous for taking on the agro-industrial machinery that found small farmers so inconvenient and illogical. “What I wish to speak for here is the discipline in the Human character that makes him able to forebear and restrain himself when he’s doing obvious damage to other people.”

Bad food and bad food policy comes from ravaged social soil. Ours is worse than depleted; actively poisoned. Carpet bomb spraying of pesticides makes it impossible for bees to fly or think. Anyone who would do that has drunk their own poison. Dirty politics? I only wish that politics were as healthy, resilient and self-cleansing as dirt.

The maven at the heart of the San Diego meeting was Tom Romeo, VP of the Charles Koch Foundation. Tom had gathered a group of thinker-doers working with the homeless, in public housing developments, with police and troubled kids and two surprisingly cheerful economists. Tom gifted the participants with copies of Ivan Illich’s 1973 book, Nemesis and Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. The third hand-out was a paper TC, Jim Cochrane and I wrote for the National Academies of Sciences about “the health of complex human systems.” These are not what you’d expect of a Koch workshop; a signal that something very basic is changing in the idea soil out of which grows the social dynamics.

Illich, McKibben and my team argue that we have to see human health as the fruit of nested complex systems, just related as soil and gut. This is not a metaphor; this is why things happen as they do. It is why the planet is melting, bees dying and neighborhoods go hungry. If we do not think, analyze and dialogue in the complexity of the nested systems, we will break those systems. The farms will turn to desert and our children will grow small, theirs smaller still.

The data say that we are well beyond the tipping point and that we should despair. However, the natural systems testify that they rebound once the poisoning stops. The ozone hole we thought our doom two decades ago, is already half healed. The Monarch and the Honeybees will thrive too, as will all that comes from healthy soil, meadow and forest. The only question is whether our grandchildren will be here to enjoy it.

Winston Churchill used to say that you can on Americans to do the right thing…after we have exhausted all possible alternatives. Surely we have arrived at that place now since there is still a chance for the children. Bill McKibben, in his latest book, The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon notes that there aren’t many things an old person can do better than a young one, except getting arrested on behalf of their grandchildren. We have to try, take risks, be bold for those we love.

Trying in complex human systems means grown-ups talking to each other, especially those expecting to disagree. That’s why I reluctantly went to the San Diego conference and found myself among new friends. Trying means thousands of committees, some dealing with the trillion-dollar Farm Bill, some about the neighborhood school kitchen, some with the homeowners’ association figuring out how to stop spraying dumb chemicals.

Complex human systems seem overwhelming. But they invite us to be part of the complexity because everything matters. Just as every quart of poison spray matters, just as does every choice, every vote, every conversation with someone you thought opposite. Every kindness is honored; no love wasted, no healing intention lost. Chef Andreas is right; we have all the ingredients; we just have to try.

Two citizens, Dr David Beckman who led Bread for the World. And me, from Precinct 601 in Winston-Salem NC.

What the Past Gets Wrong

These days I tend to forget how much we know about finding our way through really difficult, depressing, anxiety-fomenting, soul-sucking, hope-chilling stuff. I wrote Speak Life: Crafting Mercy in a Hard-hearted Time in 2018 before COVID, Ukraine, the 2020 election and insurrection and falling glaciers. This section, from pages 182-3, 196 helped me today.

The past deceives us by asking us not to take the possibilities of our one life seriously.

In anxious times, we listen too carefully to all that the past teaches us about what has not worked. The past hides the most important things in plain sight, including the simple fact that history doesn’t repeat. It happened, but it isn’t destiny. It circles, as does the hawk above me as I type this; once, twice, then another six times, but never in quite exactly the same way. Finally, having seen enough, it lets the breeze over the ridge carry it down and away into another life. History is not a circle but a spiral, never quite repeating.

The challenge for us short-lived ones is that some life les- sons take more than one lifetime to clarify. This is especially true for the bad things. Wrong can triumph for a long, long time, far beyond what you’d think possible. Bad people often get away with things for pretty much their entire lifetimes. Sometime their kids pick right up where the parents left off and they get away with bad things, too. But Dr. King wasn’t delusional when he saw the arc of history bending toward justice.

Sometimes it takes more than one lifetime for even the most obvious good things to mature. All my life it seemed obvious that the sun was giving us plenty of energy every day, beyond any possible amount that could ever be needed. That could be enough for billions of trees to grow and trillions of plankton to feed all the fish in the swirling oceans. Or surely enough to warm our little human houses and to allow us to move around without bothering the horses. It was always out of reach, the iconic tree- huggers’ folly. Until in a blink it wasn’t. And in another blink the Peabody coal train was the folly. China—no country of tree huggers—cancelled a hundred coal-burning power plants and started covering desert sands with silicon wafers. Some dreams long deferred are just waiting for the converse to emerge.

This is not just true of technology, which is created by small groups of people acting ahead of what seems possible at any given time. In recent decades millions of wholly new organizations have been invented for the purpose of doing something new, usually intended for some sort of good. These groups compete with each other in some sense, always prompting someone to complain about innovation clutter. But mostly they compete with the past and almost always win.

Love sees most clearly in the aftermath of loss, betrayal and pain, when the cynical smirk seems most appropriate. Love does not always see how to restore that which is broken, but it always has eyes for how life can find a way. Love in the aftermath of loss is tuned with the sensitivity of a bruise.

I tend to hang around with groups of people with hopes verging on grandiosity. On many days we actually do think about world peace, saving the planet, and about the least of these. This is good; what else should grownups think about? The challenge is that we are deceived into thinking that the hero of the story always tends to be…us…because we can see the possibilities and those possibilities tend to be extrapolated from our kinds of skills. We can see the future and it looks like more of us at an even larger scale: Health insurance for all (so that everybody could come to our great hospitals!), public health unleashed to prevent everything possible to prevent, education so wide- spread and enlightened that nobody would ever do anything dumb again.

History exaggerates what has happened and undervalues what could have happened just as easily. And it says little about what is possible, what has not yet happened. Emmanuel Kant insisted that the possibilities are just as real as the actualities (McGaughey & Cochrane, 2017). The possibilities are all we can do anything about.

The point is to give our life to the possibilities that allow life to emerge with the most mercy and justice possible. History also exaggerates the power of boundaries and differences, projecting today’s identities inappropriately backward across time, giving them far more power than they deserve. The actual testimony of life is all about dissolving boundaries, especially the ones in our head.

Love sees the unpredictable consequences of life more accurately than history because it knows that the future is not determined yet. The most important thing about the future is that it comes out of the utterly unpredictable expression of collective creative imagination.

 Nothing ignites the imagination like love.



I rocked back in my chair as Becky brought the prayer to life in her voice. I actually heard my own prayer as if for the first time. We had gathered on a gorgeous Connecticut afternoon at Round Hill UCC using my book God and the People as a magnet. A dozen of us had convened to talk about “prayer as if for the first time.” Although mostly life-long church folks, everyone was more than a bit curious and wary of this talking to God thing. Becky read my prayer, “between clarities,” which in her voice was like opening a Springtime window: “Ever unfolding one, We live between clarities about the most important things. It makes it hard to pray. We are not clear if You invented us to have some to talk to or if we invented you for the same reason.”

That’s not something that would happen with a bowling team. Probably not many of the ten million “nonprofit organizations” in the world, either. Congregations are different social beasts. Their DNA holds distinctive strengths to find, form and express Spirit. Staggering out of COVID amid a European war, with dozens of other countries including our own simmering at the civil boiling point… we need prayer. Not religious chatter. No abstractions. Certainly not just about certainties. Prayer as honest dialogue, listening more than talking. Together.

Congregations have eight strengths which have long held my interest and kept hope alive in my life. I wrote about this nearly a quarter century ago at The Carter Center in Deeply Woven Roots, still in print and used in multiple seminaries. I name the eras of my life by the names of the congregations that held me: Milford Mill, Knollwood, Oakhurst, St John’s and Green Street. I usually sat near the door with friends outside wondering what I was doing within; and those inside wondering why I was not further in. My best thoughts grew here as doubts matured into commitments that have endured woven like threads into fabric.

Ed, Shannon, TC and Gary in the sanctuary of Round Hill Community Church

The idea that congregations have strengths is surprising to some (especially clergy!). On this side of COVID we are remembering that we have more than Zoom and social media to work with. We have things that bring humans together, woven like roots too hold us up and find nurture. We—together—have strengths. And those strengths are adequate to the vast challenges of our melting contentious planet.

These eight strengths have been tested for nearly a quarter century in many communities and congregations of many varieties and traditions. They are there for hard work, built for heavy lifting of entire neighborhoods. The National Academies of Sciences Roundtable on Population Health used this model to help grasp the role of faith-based health assets in communities. The logic of strengths is the taproot of the Memphis Model, which is about congregations, not the hospital. The strengths are the foundation of the large scale faithhealth ground game growing in the Carolinas. They are the positive power of the social determinants.

The strengths of congregations mainly function on the other side of the sidewalk from the hospital. This is why the FaithHealth Division of Atrium Wake Forest Baptist Health is part of the population health group, not solely in the clinical hospital group. We have superb chaplains who are there in the radical crises of the hospital and the poignant times of transition. But most of the time, Spirit and the congregations that nurture and express Spirit flex their social strengths in the neighborhoods where life is happening. This is why the videos based on those strengths are on the FaithHealth.org website that drives our broad “ground game” improving health.

A quarter century after discovering the framework of the eight strengths and writing Deeply Woven Roots, we’ve put up a short set of videos to help you discover your strengths and your roots. The videos are edited so you can take in the logic, or focus on each strength that seems most relevant. Prayers strengthen Spirit; the strengths give the Spirit form, sinew, muscle.

Round Hill Community Church on strong Greenwich Connecticut rock

My experience has mostly been among those trying to follow the Way of Jesus, but it turns out that the strengths are present in any temple, mosque or ashram. They are, I think, the way God has made us strong when we are humble enough to gather as we understand ourselves in the presence of the Ultimate.

We—together—are strong enough. Let me know how your strengths are expressing in the neighborhoods you love. Drop me a note at gary.gunderson@gmail.com

Good Hatch Trouble

Tuesday marks the sixth year a highly interdisciplinary group has gathered to honor and reflect on the ever-new intellectual witness of Dr. John Hatch.

John Hatch Lecture Series, Register HERE!

My role is frame the occasion, which is supposed to be the opposite of giving a sermon, or worse a lecture. But Dr. Hatch leads a quietly radical life not unlike the good troublesome life of Reverend John Lewis, so I am speaking about Hatch Trouble.

I’m claiming a triple exemption as reverend, writer and academic. Which is to say that I haven’t cleared the comments with our corporate communications office. If one has not risked one’s job, the words are probably not worth speaking or listening to.

I was once asked by a suspicious Board member where this FaithHealth thing came from. I had not expected the question over breakfast, so I said, “Jesus?” And pointed out that Jesus got it from Micah and, for that matter, Genesis. The modern movement began when germs were discovered in the late 1800’s. And the great missionary hospitals around the world–including our own happy to be part of Atrium Health but still often called The Baptist.

Then in Chicago Granger Westerberg invented Faith Community Nursing about the same time Dr. Jack Geiger and Dr. John Hatch invented the first of now more than 1,400 Community Health Centers.

The movement of faithhealth has long had a awkwardly close relationship with the power of biomedical institutions and technology. My paycheck has a hospital logo on it, as have many thousands of missionary doctors and nurses. But I fear we have been too successful at integration into the biomedical institutions and not radical enough about the science of healthy human life. Dr. James Bruckner’s wrote a book by that title. A scholar of the Jewish scriptures, he notes many ways the science and ancient witness is an inconvenient truth: that life and health do not stay within the billable containers of healthcare. When the World Health Organization commissioned us to understand and then map the religious health assets relevant to HIV/AIDS in southern Africa, the villagers taught us that we can’t connect what is impossible to separate. We learned the word “Bophelo,” which we awkwardly translate into FaithHealth—no separation, one word.

The FaithHealth movement was fundamental in creating the mission of the World Health Organization–health for all, which echoes in the mission of Atrium Health, too. The Christian Medical Commission and the writings of Carl and Daniel Taylor laid down the intellectual framework which ended up captured by the clinicians and sidelining the liberators. Today, you can find this true taproot in the pedagogy of Future Generations University up in Franklin, WV, which systematically plants seeds of liberation that can grow to scale as sustained health.

We’re especially interested in the social side of the innovation, the one John Hatch learned with the men, women and children picking cotton in Mississippi. He had picked cotton in Kentucky but humbled himself to learn again from and with those on the other side of the sidewalk from the clinic.

But to call it the “social” side is to fall into the intellectual ditch of “social determinants” which conveniently but fatally strip out the psychological and spiritual dynamics that are woven into the social. This is not just impolite, but egregious intellectual malpractice.

Tepid social determinants tempt us to just do mercy with little titrate bits of social stuff, increasingly dispensed by computer algorithms. Yikes!

If they are social at all, the witness of Dr. John Hatch-—and in this year’s series Chief Health Equity Officer Victor Armstrong—the intelligence found on the other side of the sidewalk from the clinic pulls us toward trouble. Good trouble, the work of liberation in what are usually called underserved neighborhoods are under liberated.

Equity, the opposite of disparity, is not just having computers spit out the same pile of stuff. Equity is power and liberation, not just after-you-have-the-condition treatment.

John Hatch 101. Why the white Mississippi legislators tried to prevent the community health center from opening at all.

And why it did anyway, in the parsonage of a nearby church.

And why Dr. Geiger justified buying land and a tractor as part of the prescription against the travesty of malnutrition on the richest soil on the planet.

It is now common to tweak our hospital computers to keep track of social factors of our patients at the same moment insurance companies are hiring many community health workers. This is happening across the country, just as only weeks ago North Carolina inaugurated our state association of community health workers. This is very positive but could be captured by more powerful interests. Platoons of low-wage, but no power, community health workers do not honor this intellectual taproot. Not unless they own their work, share in the gain their work achieves in better outcomes and lower costs. They set people free; literally release the captives.

“Do you want to be healed?” asked Jesus at the pool? “Do you want to be healed,” asked Dr Hatch on the Delta and here at the end of Carolina clay roads. Do the work—community work—that liberates, not just titrates bits of help.

There are those who want religion protected, removed off to the side where it is safe and can chat among itself about whatever. Some claim faith institutions should receive special dispensation even removed from the basics of quarantine law, taking us back before germ theory entirely. Some would use religious freedom as a weapon to undermine the rule of civilized law that allow us to protect ourselves. The Supreme Court, made up of justices who have not picked cotton anywhere, needs to be healed. It is rare for the fullness of faith to be expressed at social scale without a working relationship with the public assets of good government. Nowhere is this more vivid than in the work of many community health centers.

You won’t hear about the privilege of faith today, not standing in the light of Dr. John Hatch. You’ll hear and be invited to listen to the voice already within you calling us to trouble, hatch trouble, good trouble. How to give ourselves away, not accumulate privileges.

When Covid came home two years ago, we all went to time out. I found myself writing, of all things, a book of prayers. When the Reverend John Lewis passed on July last year I went to my knees. On this occasion, that’s probably where we should all be.

Amicus Prayer

Painting by Lisa Lumb

Public health and faith are on the side. When they grow distant, demagogues delight and virus clap their little hands. Good people die.

This week a man who gave his life to others every day as an EMS driver lost his life because he wasn’t vaccinated. No religion opposes vaccination, so he didn’t die because of a particular creed; rather from a mutant heresy that grew like an invasive species in the space public health and religious ethics. Some of that space was part of postmodern drift; some grew from weirdly displaced anger and some was cynically provoked. A good man died for no reason.

Normal religious practice created most of the local health departments in the US. If you go and look in the minutes of their founding meeting, you’ll see they opened in prayer with clergy on their Board. Today in Norway a very secular government funds deacons and deaconesses who practice proactive community health by tending to the neighbors with an intelligence and spirit with deep roots in the norms of Norwegian life. They are funded out of the health budget. In the US we are now seeing a rapid emergence of “community health workers” projected out of a more simplistic biomedical model with a bit of “social” sprinkled on top. But most CHW’s are just like their Norwegian peers at the intersection of public health and the religious virtues of kindness and empathy.

You could see this if you had attended even the first 30 minutes of the first meeting of the North Carolina Community Health Worker Association this past week as two Enrique Catana and June Britt, electrified the audience/congregation with their witness to the brilliance of community health work and in the process, high FaithHealth art. It is one word because in normal community there is no space between the two facets of humanity. Normal.

Thousands of public health people and practitioners will gather in Denver (virtually) to advance their science, practice and, yes, spirit. Some will gather to worship in an artful mingling of the prayers of many faiths, this year in lament for those lost to COVID. These are especially painful prayers as this profession knows how preventable so many of those deaths were.

You can pray with us and even light a candle by Zoom (details below).

This isn’t something created out of COVID emergency. It’s normal. The faith caucus has quietly been convening for about a quarter century since Dr. Cass Evans and Dr David Satcher lent their support as presidents of the APHA. Maybe we should have been less quiet.

Just before the prayers, a group of public health lawyers will be talking in another Zoom about how to counter the groups cynically using “religious freedom” as a tool to undermine the basic legal foundations of public health. The Supreme Court seems to be fishing for these aberrant cases that will leave more bodies left behind. So some people of faith are preparing “amicus briefs” to advise the highest courts in the land against falling for this most deadly failure of logic, history and faith.

I wonder if the Justices of the Supreme Court would join the interfaith worship and offer up an amicus prayer for saints of public health, those who love the whole:

God who loves every little bit of every little thing of the ragged gaggle called public,

Light our way with what both You and science see as sacred, blessed, honorable, worthy of praise and sacrifice. Thank You for the amazing array of practices, behaviors, choices that lead to life; that protect, enhance, extend and spread its blessings widely across the people.

Stop us from holding on to ourselves anything that You intend for “all.” We see that You are not done because we can see science is not done. Every day You reveal new possibilities worth doing together, as we can see how your science is a friend of humans and shows how much mercy and justice is possible.

Never let your public health servants stop talking about facts, analytics, determinants, vectors, patterns and predictors. Nurture their crazy love for the people—the public. Feed our hope for better, more and broader health. Even when those with smaller hopes take our money, put us in the dumpy offices, and cut our staff. Even when those afraid of your vision treat us badly. Do not let us quit. Keep us in our lovers quarrel with the public.

Protect us from those who have lost their love for the public. Release them to them less consequential work not played for life and death stakes. Move them someplace they will not endanger the people.

Do not make us proud of our righteousness but give us delight in being part of your messy, disappointing, ever-muddling humans called “the public.” Thank You for placing us in just the right work at just the right time.

Never let us speak out of pride; love first, last, and in between, especially in public, especially with the public, the people You so love.


The prayer is from God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening, available here.

Join the Interfaith Celebration by Zoom

Sunday October 24 at 5-6:30 p.m Mountain Time


Meeting ID: 485 508 5889 Passcode: aLbq1a