“When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist” Dom Helder Camara

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, but we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

If I could collect R100 for every time a conversation about a Christian’s responsibility towards the poor have been ‘hijacked’ by the saying ‘if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, when you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime” then I would have been well away towards the money needed to eradicate malaria in Africa (just a joke).

At the outset I want to say that I agree with the initial logic of the cliché. There is a difference between charity and development, between welfare and job creation. In the long run I also think that it would be better to teach people life-skills that will enable them to participate in our nuanced capitalistic ‘free’ market system.

Unfortunately, usually when I’ve heard this statement it wasn’t made in order to show a commitment towards ‘teaching a man to fish’; it was rather used to delegitimize the conversation. It’s a tactic of shifting the focus away from the ‘small attainable steps’ towards the huge and impossible task of ‘big steps’. These days when people interject with the comment, I seriously commend them for their sustainable logic and then ask them how they are ‘teaching a man to fish’. It usually produces a blank stare and a shrug.

If I were to use a rationalization for not becoming involved with the poor then I would not choose this line of argument – it asks for too much commitment. By making the statement you show an introductory aptness in the varied dialogues of sustainable development and falls under James’ injunction to ‘do the good that you know to do’ (4:17). Also as has been noted by others before [1], some people can’t fish because the river they are fishing in have been polluted somewhere upstream and one has to ask who owns the water?(this signifies the challenging of systemic injustices).

A few additional thoughts:

– The truism implies having a relationship with someone who doesn’t have fish and cannot fish; so there is a relational opportunity.

– It also implies that someone can fish (have a skill) and that they can teach (reproduce that skill).

– If someone is so fatigued that they can hardly survive, then it would be wise to first give fish (a lot over a significant period of time).

– The maxim further implies sharing or divesting of unused resources. To teach to fish you will have to provide a rod, reel, tackle and the precious commodity of time! Also knives, freezer boxes/fridges and a host of other things …

So all in all I like the witty little proverb IF people actually follow thru on its implications. If it is used to destabilize a conversation … then … ? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

[1] Claiborne, Shane “The Irresistible Revolution” p.150-151 has a very stimulating conversation on these explosive issues.