Food is on my mind a lot. Besides simply deciding what we might like to eat for dinner, my wife and I give careful thought to where our food comes from. We try to buy organic and local and seasonal produce whenever we can. We do this for a number of reasons, but mostly because we feel we ought to be more thoughtful about our food related decisions. On one side we feel the steady pressure applied by secular leaders and commentators urging Americans to rethink food. Often termed the "food movement," this increasing food-related advocacy has a host of loosely related goals, as food writer Michael Pollan explained in The New York Review of Books. A few things he mentions are:
-school lunch reform
-the campaign for animal rights and welfare and against genetically modified crops
-the rise of organic and locally produced food
-efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes
-farm bill reform
-food safety regulation
-promotion of urban agriculture
-farm worker rights
-various efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to kids.
Christian leaders are weighing in on these issues, too. Not only are good food decisions a matter of good citizenship, some argue; they are central to good discipleship too. In Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation (IVP 2012), for example, coauthor Fred Bahnson daydreams:
What if we planted church-supported community gardens, permaculture parishes … and apostolic farms that fed entire neighborhoods? … What if we created infrastructures of holiness, where God's kingdom of shalom could flourish on earth as in heaven?
It's a dazzling vision for some. And it raises the stakes in the food debate, as it casts it in eternal terms. It's all a bit overwhelming. (And we've only scratched the surface.) The critical question at this point is how are Christians supposed to think about these issues? Is buying and eating a certain kind of food a Christian imperative?
The Biblical Evidence
The biblical teaching on food can be a bit confusing. On the one hand, the Old Testament is full of food rules prescribing both what to eat and how to prepare it. There are commandments against eating meat with the blood still in it (Lev. 19:26; Deut. 12:23) and various kinds of seafood (Lev. 11:12), and against certain cooking techniques (Ex. 23:19). On the other hand, many—perhaps most—Christians believe that these dietary restrictions, which some Jews still observe, were abolished by the New Covenant. Jesus taught, "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them" (Matt. 15:11). After the Resurrection, God commanded Peter in a vision to "kill and eat" a variety of unclean animals (Acts 10:9-22). When Peter objected, God replied, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (v. 15). Christians have traditionally interpreted this to mean that we can eat whatever we like.
In other words, the data is inconclusive. At the very least, we can probably say with confidence that the Bible doesn't address eating local, organic, or fair-trade food explicitly. That said, the current food issues do relate to several important biblical themes that most Christians consider central to the Christian life, and about which the Bible has quite a lot to say: stewardship, care of creation, and justice.
At its simplest, stewardship has to do with being responsible with our resources. Of course this means our finances. But it can also be applied to things like our bodies. When it comes to our physical healthiness, our food choices become particularly important. If we want to protect our health, we need to eat healthily. Many advocates argue that organic foods are healthier for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are grown without the use of inorganic pesticides. Local honey is said to help combat seasonal allergies. So eating local and organic might do a body good.
That said, organic and local food is often more expensive than mass-produced food items. You pay for the small business owners' expertise and long hours. If, when you think of stewardship, you think primarily of the bottom line of your bank statement, then the organic local fare doesn't make a lot of sense.
And yet the category of stewardship is a bit broader than the bottom line. The first command God gave humans was to "fill the earth and subdue it" and rule over its creatures (Gen. 1:28). With this responsibility, God gave humans a role in maintaining the tender balance God created. Besides being stewards of our own resources and bodies, then, we are charged with being stewards of God's creation.
Advocates of the so-called food movement will point to modern "factory farming" as irresponsible in its treatment of the land and inhumane in its treatment of animals. These growing and production practices release carbon dioxide, pesticides, and animal waste into the atmosphere and water supply. Because volume and efficiency are primary concerns, these sorts of operations are charged with cruelty for the ways they feed, house, and slaughter animals for food. Interestingly, the Bible addresses both of these points. A number of Old Testament laws address the responsible treatment of the earth (Lev. 25:1-5, for example) and the fair treatment of animals (Deut. 5:14; 25:4).
All of this should factor into how we understand our duty to be good stewards. If treating the earth and its creatures fairly and responsibly costs a few extra cents per pound, it might be worth it.
The Bible also has a bit to say about justice related to labor—how we treat human workers. The price we pay for food reflects the wages paid to the workers who cultivate and harvest it. In some cases, the less we pay, the less someone somewhere makes. According to Scripture, those who work should enjoy the benefits of their labor (Ecc. 3:13). Everyone should have the opportunity to work for their livelihood (Lev. 19:9-10). Perhaps most important, we should not take advantage of laborers who work hard for their living (Deut. 24:14-15).
Many advocates argue that eating organic, local, and fair-trade food enables each of us to participate in this aspect of biblical justice. Paying a little more for our produce puts a little more in the pockets of deserving laborers.
Viewed through the categories of stewardship, creation care, and justice, then, the "food movement" clearly shares important points of contact with faithful Christian living.
The Dark Side of the Food Movement
Although the current emphasis on food in the media and Christian conversations touches on important aspects of Christian discipleship, it nevertheless poses subtle dangers for Christians.
For one, it's possible for all this philosophizing about food to become a clever cover for good old-fashioned gluttony. It is helpful to remember that the human appetite is a popular metaphor in the Bible for righteousness and self-control. Paul describes those who oppose the gospel as ones whose "god is their stomach" (Phil. 3:19), for their minds are set on earthly things. The earliest Christian monks associated food and righteousness so closely that they ate only what they needed to survive; anything more was considered unholy indulgence. They surely took things too far. But our cultural context tempts us to err in the other direction. Nearly every time I turn on the television, a different celebrity chef is encouraging me to celebrate food for food's sake. The growing attention to food can tempt some (it tempts me!) to indulge in the succulent and decadent delicacies the world's cuisine has to offer. It's not wrong to enjoy food, of course. But it is easy for us to baptize a concept that has always had a negative connotation—indulgence—so that it has a positive connotation. We may enjoy the fruit of the earth that God deemed "good." But we shouldn't forget that physical discipline is a crucial part of Christian discipleship (1 Cor. 9:27).
There is another threat. For those who adopt the values of the food movement and very carefully eat local, organic, and seasonal fare, there is a risk of doing so self-righteously. One commentator has noted that in some ways food choices are becoming the new class distinctions, with (typically) upper and upper-middle class folks becoming more concerned with organic and local cuisine than lower income folks. Essentially, then, you can now "rank" someone based not on the clothes they wear or the car they drive but on the food they eat. There is a risk that we might likewise rank Christians in the same way. Those committed to the values of the food movement are "serious Christians" while those who aren't, are not. Jesus condemned religious leaders of his day because "you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry" (Luke 11:46). Arguing that certain eating and purchasing habits are central to Christian discipleship can likewise place an unnecessary burden on believers, especially those who don't have the economic resources to change their food habits. We should be very careful before we add requirements for Christian faithfulness.
Finally, focusing too narrowly on food and "food justice" can distract us from other important aspects of Christian service. Some who talk about the justice aspects of food choices give the impression that eating mindfully is the most important decision a person can make for the cause of justice or God's kingdom today. As important as it might be, we shouldn't be deceived into believing that drinking fair-trade coffee and eating locally grown grapefruit for breakfast constitutes our good deed for the day. It is always dangerous to make an important thing into an ultimate thing.
We will all do well to distinguish clearly between choices we make because we are Christians and choices we make because they make good sense. Often these are the same. Just as often they are not. In other words, it is one thing to decide you want to eat local produce in order to support the local economy. Totally legitimate. It's quite another to say everyone who claims to be a Christian must do the same because the Bible says so. It is likely true that Christians today could and should be more thoughtful about their food choices. But we must keep those choices in the proper perspective. They are not ends in themselves; they are means of fulfilling our Christian responsibilities for worship, proclamation, and stewardship.
Brandon J. O'Brien is a writer and teacher whose most recent book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012) is forthcoming. He lives with his wife and son in the Chicago suburbs.
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