10/03/2013 04:11 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

When Winning or Losing Isn't Enough

What does a theologian have to say about the current impasse in Washington D.C.? Maybe I would say, "There's a kingdom that breaks bread and there's a kingdom that withholds bread -- our government seems to be the latter."

Maybe all earthly kingdoms run this way.

The Old Testament has very little good to say about worldly powers: They will take, take, and then take some more (1 Samuel 8:10-18).

By contrast, the community envisioned by the law and the prophets was one in which there was always an element of give.

Leave a portion of your fields, do not gather all that they produce, commands the Torah (Leviticus 19:9-10). This was not inefficiency but an ethical practice that tempered the human temptation to take, take, and continue taking without sharing.

It's a lesson worth reconsidering. Today, at least where I live, the fields of corn are vacuumed of their produce, so almost no corn stands at the end of the season. Not only are the poor excluded but so also are the animals, deer and birds, that forage for food during the winter.

In December, a cornfield in Iowa is about the most desolate place on earth.

Not so in Idaho, where my sister lived for a few years. She told me it was common knowledge that the farmers would leave some potatoes in the ground and people were encouraged harvest from the fields what was left over. They had a lot of good potato recipes.

I don't know whether this was a technical issue with harvesting potatoes or a fall back to the more ancient practice of leaving something extra to nature, to our neighbors, to the poor which you have with you always.

This does not appear, at least initially, to have much to do with the breakdown in Washington D.C. It doesn't solve the impasse within the halls of power. But it might be helpful in another way: our democracy, for worse, seems to have become a winner take all proposition. Rather like our financial system. There's a sense that if you win, you win everything. It's the language of "playing chicken" where someone has to blink, someone has to lose and, often, lose everything.

Watching the debate in congress is like watching a vast machine sucking the land (and our imaginations) dry of anything extra, leaving nothing but naked land behind, a barren landscape where no one can live, no authentic community can be formed.

Maybe the polarization of government is not so much a reflection of different viewpoints (which there are) but that there's a terrible, almost fanatic fear of failure, of losing -- anything.

What if losing is the wrong language? What if winning is the wrong language? In a profound sense? What if the language of winning and losing, the language of empires, falsifies our best human expression?

My own sense is that our system, based on aggressive and rapacious taking, is now cannibalizing itself. I don't know how long such a society can last. I pray for its welfare, but, in the end, I cannot believe in it.

What I am wondering now is how to reintroduce the practice of sharing, of breaking bread rather than withholding it.

Maybe, as Isaiah implores, I should "bring the homeless poor into [my] house" (Isaiah 58:7). Not merely as the poor, of course, but as beloved guests of the table of God's sharing.

We're not quite that far but we're trying. As a family, we live on one income. It's enough to keep a home. We have healthcare, at least for the time being. We're thankful to God for work that pays better than a living wage.

Of course, I worry about the future, about when I will no longer work. We have four children and they will have college expenses. When times were a bit leaner than they are now, my heart would sink every time we needed more diapers: our grocery bill would swell significantly.

But for the truly poor, a trip to the grocery store may expose their poverty in the most painful ways. The poor, as is often reported, will spend the majority of their income on food. So it's perhaps not surprising that we would occasionally glimpse this painful reality in, of all places, a grocery store, when the food support runs out.

It was 2011 and the country was still firmly in the grip of the Great Recession. I was making an early morning grocery store run, probably to get milk or diapers, or some such thing. I was with my son, Gabriel, who was about one and a half at the time. As we stood in the check-out line, Gabriel had his eyes on a display of balloons, to which he pointed, and laughed, and then, coyly, peeked out at the checker before burying his face in my chest.

Meanwhile, another drama unfolded: the man in front of us swiped his food support card through the scanner. And then it happened: the checker told him in the gentlest way possible, so that I almost could not hear, that he had run out of funds. The man looked numbly at his groceries, apologizing as he looked at a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, and a loaf of bread, trying to figure out what to leave.

I told the checker to pass on his bill to me, which he did. I gave a little something, not much. Maybe ten dollars. It didn't solve the substantial problems of poverty in America; of our stinginess when it comes to food support. At best, it gave a moment of relief, and just a moment.

The person who gave the most that day was Gabriel: as this drama of our collective poverty unfolded, three men, myself included, were momentarily relieved to shift our gaze from our empty wallets and bank accounts to witness the antics of a small child, a child who had nothing to give, not by the worlds standards, but gave dignity to each of us with the simplicity of his smile, a squeal of delight at a colorful bundle of balloons.

We were all a little more human that day because Gabriel shared with us the dignity and wisdom of his laughter in a field of existence that seemed bereft of not only dignity but wisdom.