Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Ethics & Morality of Land, Eating, and Consumption

I used to be 'religious' in the sense that I went to church every time the doors opened, I sang the songs, and did the expected things a Christian is thought to do.  However, in the last 5 years or so, church really hasn't done much for me, so, on the whole, I stopped going.  I've had to find spiritual sustenance in other places, seek Sabbath where you can find it.  And when you work in the area of church, theology, etc. that can be harder to find than one might expect.

Since I'm a theologian by vocation, certain things appeal to me.  I love stuff that makes me think, that invites me to look at issues of God, faith, ethics and morality in a different way.  I love theological concepts which challenge me.

Not surprisingly, American Public Media's program Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett is one of those outlets for me.  And recently, two shows have aired which have made me think deeply about the ethics and morality of land, eating and consumption:


I highly recommend going and listening to the shows if you haven't heard them (the podcasts are an hour long, but you can also find the unedited conversations if you want the full monty).

In the first program, Ellen Davis, a practical theologian and biblical scholar (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) at Duke Divinity School, is "helping to shape a new imagination about the human relationship to the natural world" and wrote the 2009 book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.

"You can't go through more than a few chapters in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament without seeing some reference to land, water, its health, its lack of health, the absence of fertile soil and water", she said.  What I found fascinating was her discussion of the creation story in Genesis 1, which can be read in a variety of ways.  She highlights that the King James version of God's blessing and imperative to humanity: "be fruitful and multiply; and replenish the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air and over everything that moveth over the earth" has been used by politicans, entrepreneurs, colonizers, missionaries, etc to form and shape the modern West in a way that has been marked by destruction, abuse, patriarchy and exploitation.  With such a reading, there is no acknowledgement that the creatures were blessed with the same blessing and admonition that they are to be fruitful and multiply before humanity ever came into existence.  The words that have been translated as "having dominion, rule, subdue" Davis translates as "exercise skilled mastery over" which suggests an artfulness to being human.  She understands it as an imperative that does not negate the blessings that were given beforehand and calls into account humanity's awareness that everyone (animals, plants, etc) has to eat and that food has been provided for all if mastered and administered correctly.

Davis also writes/talks about "eating as practical theology" in that eating has been separated from our life with God in the modern context in an almost Gnostic sense. She says that "for a very long time we've had a highly spiritualized notion of religion in the West - our bodies did not [bring us into connection with God], with the exception to sexuality....but nothing else about our physical being does..." but that, in reality, even the most visceral creaturely act of eating has theological implications "because it gives us an opportunity to honor God with our bodies."

Similarly, Davis shared on the program:
"I think at the root of it is the notion that we are part of an intricate web of physical relations which are at the same time moral relations, how we eat and drink, how we sow our land, how we get food to our plate, how we use other bodies - other human bodies - in getting food and drink to sustain us.  These are moral issues which cannot be separated from very basic physical questions....I think that being conscious of where our food comes from and who grows it and at what cost is something that all of us can do and must do."

Likewise, Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle explores the journey she and her family took where they ate 95% of  what they could grow or raise themselves (with the recognition that some things like coffee and flour may not be possible to get locally).  I have to admit that I haven't read the book yet and it is on my list to read in the coming months.

Most of the time in the podcast, Kingsolver spent a lot of time talking about the local food movement, relying upon food that has been grown within 30 miles of one's home and therefore eating what grows in particular seasons.  Until WWII, humans ate locally and organically but since then (60 years - 2 generations!), such realities seem almost completely foreign to most people in Westernized, industrialized cultures.

I'm all for the local food movement - one of my favorite things to do is to get fresh, local produce that still has the leaves and the dirt on it from where it was picked.  Eating tomatoes that a neighbor brought over to share is the best.  And Kingsolver talks about giving up bananas because of the environmental impact shipping them to rural Virginia has.  I understand that and appreciate it.

But it does make me wonder: what about the mango farmers in Haiti?  what about the banana farmers in Ecuador and Brazil?  what about the shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico?  If everyone went local, what would happen to their livlihood?  They depend on exporting those products for their income and when something happens to damage that (the earthquake in Haiti, the oil disaster in the Gulf), we see the impact that can have.  Similarly, local food is a great idea - and one I heartily promote, so don't hear me pooh-poohing it - but in a globalized economy, moving toward local will have implications beyond the 30 mile radius.

Furthermore, tomatoes grown in an open field in Spain and shipped in bulk to the US or the UK has less environmental impact than local tomatoes who have been reared in a greenhouse heated with fossil fuels for months.  It's an intricate web and being aware of these issues requires being able to hold and understand the complexity.  There's some who have written about this; check them out by going here and here and here.

For now, what sticks out to me is that while it may not be possible to eat locally for everything we consume, the ethical decision is to buy our non-local products fairtrade whenever possible and to at least be aware of where your food is coming from.  A question to keep in mind: "Are my choices helping others?"  Also, Kingsolver talks of the year's journey as "a long exercise in gratitude" - to recover an awareness and appreciation for what we have; that strawberries in January is an indulgence - not a necessity - even though they may be less-than-desirable in taste since they're out of season.

Kingsolver also noted our relationship to eating and food by saying:

"We seem to be a little at sea...when it comes to food rules.  We're behaving as if we're in search of some Food Leviticus to save us from this sinful royale of cheap fats and carbohydrates...."
 and she talks about using the language of sin by saying:
"[It's] as if we are afraid of our food, which is reasonable enough because we don't know it!  I'm in favor of throwing out this language of sin and being bad when you're sitting down to a good meal because the ethical choice of supporting your local farmer also tastes better and it does involve cooking, but it's such a beautiful thing to come home to.  I think that the planning of beautiful meals and investing one's heart and time in their preparation is the opposite of self-indulgence." 

I've found myself using this 'good' and 'bad' language - moralistic, sin-related terms - to describe my eating habits.  "I've been good today" or "I've not eaten anything bad for me today" are familiar phrases to anyone who has been watching what they eat.  How do I get away from this?  In light of all of the above, is it still appropriate to use such terms?  Are the terms "healthy" and "unhealthy" a better choice?  How does this language shape my relationship to food, how its prepared, where it's grown and my relationip to/with God?

I am on a journey of awareness.  More reflections to come as these questions continue to be hashed out in my head and life.

1 comment:

  1. Can't but agree - they are also two of my favourites. I'd also recommend her interviews with the late John O'donohue and with Jean Vanier of the L'arche community. Some of the most compelling radio I've heard in a long time. It makes me believe that God made people so there could be stories. Good luck with your project - I'm inspired to join you and make the time to cook more healthily. Mark