Conundrums (Thinking Theologically About Food #3)

December 2, 2012

bible questionmarkA farmer came to talk with me after the service at the church I was preaching at last Sunday. I always like talking with farmers, not least because they always bring me up short. Here I’m forced to bring my theoretical thoughts and musings into contact with the realities as experienced by those who are actually at the front-end of growing and rearing our food and dealing with the supermarkets. Talking with farmers always reminds me of how little I know.

One of the things that hit me again (as it did when I talked with some potato farmers a month or so ago, who had just ploughed a whole season’s worth of potatoes back into the ground) was just how much we are at the mercy of the weather. The weather this year in the UK (and elsewhere too) has been bad for growing crops, to say the least. Too little rain, too much rain, too little sun, too much sun… And things will be tough next Spring because our current wet weather is meaning that farmers can’t get their seed in the ground.

We live in a very complicated world and our global food system reflects that, as it spins its tangled web around us. As I’ve been thinking about food and this mini-series that I’m doing here, there are five questions that I keep coming back to and I want to share them here to get your thoughts. We need to pool our wisdom if we are to find the most helpful ways to live in our beautiful and abused world.

  1. Proverbs 12:10 says, literally, that ‘a righteous person knows the soul of their animal’ (a much nicer version than the bland NIV translation). Issues of what today we would call ‘animal welfare’ are an integral part of being in a right relationship with God. Such issues can’t be ignored by all those who wish to call themselves Christians, let alone by anyone else. How can we say that we worship the Lord of all Creation and then buy meat, eggs or dairy products that have directly abused a part of that creation? What a difference it would make to our food system if the millions of Christians in the UK, let alone the many millions around the world, determined only to buy animal products that had been reared well.
  2. There is a real conundrum in how we balance human needs with those of the wider creation. The idealist says that it is possible to have outcomes that benefit both and that we needn’t play off one against the other. And of course that is what we should work for. Theologically speaking, the human and the non-human creation are intricately linked and what benefits one benefits the other. Theologically speaking as well, though, we live with the impacts of the Fall and so we will not always be able to find such ideal solutions. When that is the case and we are forced to choose, who or what comes first?
  3. Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 makes the wonderful statement that there is, ‘nothing better than to be happy and to do good; that everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in their work: that is the gift of God’. I am constantly aware of just what a good diet my family and I are able to enjoy (healthy, varied, colourful, tasty) whilst millions elsewhere don’t eat and drink nearly enough. In that situation, what is an appropriate level for me to eat and drink at? What is ‘enough’?
  4. Science and technology bring out the best and the worst in us. They do an awful lot of harm, but also a wonderful amount of good. Things such as GM crops have the potential for both. How do we discern between the good and the bad of technology. How far are we to be co-creators with God?
  5. Finally, when we think about food, what does it mean to affirm that Jesus is Lord? If we believe that Jesus is Lord of all, then that presumably also means that he is Lord over our food too. I wonder how much we think of it in that way. I sometimes think that I can trace my theological development as an adult by tracing the sort of food I was eating at any given point along that line. Our food betrays our theology. What does what you’ve been eating this week say about what you believe?

One final question: what do you think??

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  • Reply simplepastor December 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Hi Ruth
    Great to be reading your thoughts. Not sure how number 3 works out, in that it is impossible to share my food with the hungry effectively. ie it makes no difference to the starving of eastern africa if I buy more than I need. I’m no saying I should, I’m just saying in our global distribution systems that food will just go to waste in the UK rather than getting to those who might need it.
    So while I think that limiting our food intake in some ways is helpful for a variety of reasons the connection between that and how we share our bread with the hungry is not straightforward. Does that make sense?

    • Reply ruthvalerio December 2, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      Hi Phil, nice to see you here. It reminds me of the comment I used to hear made in the ’80s when parents would say, ‘don’t waste that food – think of all the starving children in Africa’! Of course, you’re right. If there are three sausages and I only eat two, the third one won’t magically find its way to Africa. An dyes, the connections aren’t that straightforward. But what would happen if we all changed the way we ate so that we did eat a bit less, and particularly all ate less meat? If we all ate along some basic ethical lines (less meat, more local, fairtrade when from abroad, as unprocessed as reasonable, not from intensive systems etc) I wonder what difference that would make? Big questions… huge changes… massive challenges…

      • Reply lindsey December 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm

        ” If we all ate along some basic ethical lines (less meat, more local, fairtrade when from abroad, as unprocessed as reasonable, not from intensive systems etc) I wonder what difference that would make? Big questions… huge changes… massive challenges…” —Ruth, i completely agree! and i’m not perfect at it by any means, but i’m trying. 🙂

    • Reply Júlio Reis December 4, 2012 at 11:53 am

      Here’s a thought: instead of sharing our surplus food with the hungry, how about we stop making them hungry in the first place?

      Some of our food is grown in Eastern Africa. The lesser the demand for wealthy foreign appetites, the lesser the pressure on East African governments to lease huge tracts of land to grow food for foreign countries. And do we think that 40,000 hectares of land are just there, waiting to be put to good use? Nature and humans will be evicted from their own lands. Example at hand is Qatar and Kenya: – and just look at that picture of idyllic Lamu island which Qataris “offered” to turn into a major port… so they can export their food. Truly there ain’t such a thing as a free lunch; too bad the price is sometimes paid by others.

  • Reply drjeff7 December 2, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    WOW, great thoughts. I ponder a lot of these as well, but have never really put it into intentional words and thoughts. We struggled this year with the weather in the “corn belt” of the United States of America. I believe that we should care for the land that we are given as God challenges Adam to care for the earth and the animals. So how do we produce food to feed the world, yet care for the earth in the proper manner? That seems to be the struggle as many people concentrate in the urban areas of the world. I could perhaps produce enough here for four families if needed, but not enough to counter the balance of people in the city versus people in the country. Anyway, you have inspired some thought that I will hopefully pursue on our website soon.

    • Reply ruthvalerio December 2, 2012 at 8:56 pm

      Thanks so much for your comments (and for the re-blog). The urban setting does indeed pose us with big challenges. There is lots of good and stuff happening in this context though that can inspire us into the future. I wonder if you’re aware of Casa da Videira? they’re doing some very good stuff. ‘a day in the life of an urban farmer’ on youtube gives you a bit of an idea of what they’re doing, although there’s more to them than it shows. Take a look though.

  • Reply drjeff7 December 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Reblogged this on heritagebreedsfarm and commented:
    I will hopeful

  • Reply Ben Niblett December 2, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    Great blog Ruth. You put it so well that I can’t thing of any thoughts to add.

    Instead here’s what I had for lunch – free range chicken with Fairtrade spices and then Christmas pudding sold in aid of our infant school. I’m trying to eat biblically with justice, climate change, and animal welfare in mind without being a food Pharisee, or being smug, or being greedy, or letting it distract me from more important things, with a bit of hospitality and an occasional feast. I remember being unemployed and usually just having to eat the cheapest things I could find, and I’m very grateful for enough to eat and a varied diet now.

    • Reply ruthvalerio December 5, 2012 at 9:59 am

      I love that, Ben, thank you. Very nice.

  • Reply Joanna December 4, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    I think these questions are so important and am so aware that I and many other Christians have been slow to engage with them. Increasingly I think one of the key things is to shop as local as possible and consume food that is grown as near to home as possible. I know that raises a whole other set of questions but I find it a useful rule of thumb when I am making decisions about day to day spending.

  • Reply Júlio Reis December 5, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    We had question #5 for supper on Monday. (We also had locally caught fish bought from the fishmonger, and nationally-made noodles.) The two adults and the two older children (ages 10 and 8 – the 2-year-old was on a conversation of her own), began by establishing that God is indeed interested in everything we do all week long, and that eating should be an act of showing love to God (i.e. worship).

    So after laying the theological groundwork, I popped the question: “When we think about food, what does it mean to affirm that Jesus is Lord?” – I rephrased it, “So, how can we show we love God when we are eating?” They chewed on that for a while and came up with the following:

    * “By considering all types of food good – because God made them all.” Very relevant because none of them are very keen on trying new food, and we’re trying to raise them to be less picky than average.

    * “Not leaving food on the plate.” Also very relevant, particularly in view of the aforementioned hurdle which is to eat stuff which they had never seen before (like fennel soup), and some known enemies (e.g. boiled carrot).

    We really enjoyed the children’s answers and dug a little deeper with them. Then we approached the second part of #5, which was “What does what you’ve been eating this week say about what you believe?”. For this we took a trip down memory lane and began comparing what we eat now with, say, 4 years ago. A few changes came to mind:

    1) Food shopping at the farmers’ market (which also has fishmongers and butcher). We very rarely purchase food ingredients in the supermarket, because the fruit and vegetables from the farmers’ market are cheaper, they taste better, and they last longer (lettuce being an incredible example: a lettuce from the supermarket kept in the fridge will rot in three days, whereas the farmers’ lettuce lasts a week). The fish is cheaper too; we’re not so sure about the meat, but the butcher is our friend anyway.

    2) Eating soup. Something we ate as children, but we had lost the habit. The kids still remember (fondly!) when we did not have soup… 🙂 But at a certain point we thought we should reeducate our tastebuds and get back to a cheap, healthy, more sustainable type of food. Now soup in Portugal is almost invariably vegetable soup – just vegetables, water, a pinch of salt and a dash of olive oil. All good stuff!

    3) Reducing the intake of meat, fish and eggs. We cook smaller portions of meat and fish now; we still eat more as a family now because we’re 5 and the kids are growing, but we feel the amount of animal protein we eat is more sensible now, in terms of human health. We skip fish and meat maybe once a week, we don’t have steadfast rules but it happens.

    4) We’re less picky about food now. We eat greater variety, and don’t demand from each other any special kinds of food (say steak).

    Now there can be lots of good reasons why we’re doing the above mentioned, but our main motivation (for us adults) was really God and his creation, human and non-human. We feel drawn closer to God’s creation and to other human beings. We long to see the faces of real people who plough the soil and ply the sea. We want our food to travel as little as it has to. We feel a part of our town and all its people.

    I can come up with a lot of things we’re not doing, so don’t take us as a prime example, but we know we’re on a sanctification process which naturally encompasses our mealtimes.

  • Reply lindsey December 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Good thoughts, Ruth! I’m glad you brought up this discussion. As a “converted vegetarian” in the last year, i have been really wrestling with how my theology lines up with the food i eat, etc. and have actually gotten a lot of flack from my family (who are Christians) for not eating meat! I’m don’t condemn those who eat meat, but i try to live in a conscious way of how what i eat has effects on the rest of the planet (if that makes sense). –Romans 14 talks about the danger or criticizing others convictions (in particular with what we eat).

    Also, I especially like this quote of yours, “How can we say that we worship the Lord of all Creation and then buy meat, eggs or dairy products that have directly abused a part of that creation?”! I know i’m definitely guilty of this, but i so appreciate your thoughts on it.

    bless you!

    • Reply ruthvalerio December 14, 2012 at 9:20 am

      Thanks Lindsey. I think the vegetarian/meat-eating debate is a big one for Christians that we ignore. Maybe I should write something on it and see what people think… All the best to you.

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