Food Justice as God’s Justice

THANKS TO WRITERS like Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan, people are learning that eating is an agricultural act. Of course, it is also more than that: the moment any one of us takes a bite, we also chew into ecological, social, political, and economic realities as well. To consume a slice of bruschetta is to be in touch with the soils, farm fields, and sunshine that produce the grain that is ground into flour. It is to taste the skill and sweat of those who grow and pick the basil and tomato, and to wonder if farmers and farmworkers are being paid a just wage. It is to savor the cheese that began its life in the soil, made its way through plants and cows and goats, and now has been warmed into the flavors that delight our taste buds. And if one believes that life is a gift and a miracle, it is to taste God as the source of life’s animation and health. This means that eating is also, and ultimately, a deeply spiritual act.

Eating is so profound and all-encompassing because it takes us deeply and intimately into the world. I say “intimately” because with each bite we literally take the life and death of other beings into our bodies. This is both a wonderful and a terrifying thing. Eating brings us as near to another creature as is possible—so close that we become one flesh—while also bringing that creature’s life to an end. And it’s not just us. Everything that lives eats, which means that the whole world is a place of membership and intimacy, but also life and death. Which raises the question: How do we become worthy of receiving the life and death of the creatures that become our food? Or put a slightly different way, if eating is the embodied action of intimacy with other creatures, how do we stand before these creatures without shame? I ask this because one of the most helpful ways to talk about justice is to say that we are in just relation with others when we can stand before them without shame, knowing that in our action we have sought their well-being.

Today’s dominant, industrial mode of food production is saturated with shame. Soils are pummeled with poison, plants are genetically designed to be infertile, animals are brutalized in confinement operations, farmworkers are often consigned to slave-like work conditions, minorities and the poor are deprived of access to nutritious food, unhealthy food is served and promoted to children, and people around the world are being subjected to diets that put corporate profits ahead of social and ecological well-being. 

Do faith traditions have anything to say to this? I believe they do. Their responses are varied, and we have much to learn from them. In this short essay I will give one response—one that grows out of Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Intimacy with Creation

Vilmorin Andrieux / Olivia Wise

The Bible is not a manual for the soul’s escape to some heavenly realm. It is instead an extended meditation on God coming near to be with creatures in this world. God wants to be intimate with this world so that all life can participate in the love that God is and that sustains the universe. It all begins in a garden where God is presented as the Essential Gardener who holds soil so close as to kiss it and breathe into it the life that creates people, plants, and animals. The first human is an earthling, adam, fromadamah (the Hebrew word for soil), who is charged with taking care of the garden. This is important because it signals that humans are called to join with God in the nurture of all creatures. Doing so, they can learn what creative love requires (practically speaking), and that all life is precious. They can discover that savoring life requires that people learn the skills of attention, care, and celebration. Gardening is the foundational human vocation that puts people in the flow of God’s gardening ways with the world.

This foundational story sets the stage for so much of what follows in the Bible. It signals, for instance, that one of the most important ways that God shows God’s love for creatures is by feeding them. Food is not a commodity or a fuel. It is, instead, God’s way of communicating something like, “Receive this food as an expression of my love for you.” Food is God’s love made nutritious and delicious. And the work of growing food is not a curse, but rather an ongoing invitation to explore and appreciate the mysteries and the blessings of life. The whole of the material world is God’s love variously made visible, fragrant, auditory, tactile, and nutritious. There is not one element in it that is superfluous or unworthy of respect and care.

God’s love for all creatures is further communicated when God establishes a covenant with them, promising that never again will creatures be destroyed by God (Gen. 9:9–10); it is expressed when God extends Sabbath rest to the land and its creatures (Lev. 25); and it is revealed in the prophetic promise to end the languishing of the earth and its creatures by creating a new heaven and earth (Isa. 65:17), a peaceable kingdom in which violence between creatures has come to an end (Isa. 11:1–9). These passages reinforce again and again that the flourishing of human life goes hand in hand with the flourishing of all creatures. It makes no sense, theologically speaking, to exempt people from caring for other creatures.

In the Christian scriptures, this trajectory continues with God proclaiming that, through the ministries of Jesus and in his self-offering life on the cross, “all things in heaven and on earth” are being reconciled (Col. 1:15–20). As the earliest Christian communities tried to make sense of Jesus, they realized that his significance extended to every creature in the universe. Jesus was not presented as the savior of individual souls, but as the one who brings nurture and healing and companionship to everyone and everything. In him, it was said, the whole universe holds together. And last, at scripture’s end, we are presented a startling image of God descending to live among mortals (Rev. 21). There is no escape to another world. Instead there is the healing and redemption of all creation, because God’s love now suffuses and animates everything that moves. 

Love and Liberation

It is important to rehearse, however briefly, this biblical trajectory, because it is the basis upon which God’s justice stands. God’s justice is not confined to the human realm. It extends to the whole universe and is applicable to every creature. To live rightly before others and without shame is, therefore, to want to extend God’s love to them, love that does not coerce but instead liberates them into the fullness of their lives. God’s love is at root hospitable because it makes room for others to be welcomed, nurtured, and then empowered to realize all the potential that is uniquely theirs.

The growing, preparing, and sharing of food are among the most practical and regular ways in which people can discover and exercise this divine love. The question to constantly bear in mind is this: How does our growing of food, our gathering, distribution, preparation, and sharing of it bear witness to God’s hospitable ways with all life? God’s love goes to work when we cultivate soil by feeding it plant and animal manures rather than poison, and when we respect animals by enabling them to exercise their God-given traits and eat the food that is appropriate for their nutritional systems. God’s love becomes manifest when the producers of food are valued as the workers who are closest to God’s own gardening work in the world. And this love bears healthy fruit in lives that are fed nutritious food, food that enables them to live their lives with all the vigor that is uniquely theirs.

None of this is easy, especially when we recognize that to live we must consume the lives of others. All creatures must. Our only option is to figure out ways to do this mercifully and with grace and gratitude. And the way to do that is to stop reducing food to a commodity that is strictly subject to market demands for low cost, convenience, and maximum yield. Going forward, it is crucial that we name and remember food for what it really is: a precious gift, the embodiment of God’s love, meant to be cherished and shared. 

(To return to the Spring 2016 Table of Contents, click here.)

Norman Wirzba is Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke University’s Divinity School. He is the author of several books, including Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating and From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World.

Source Citation

Tikkun 2016 Volume 31, Number 2: 13-14

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