Food and Justice

For as often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

This beloved phrase from the Eucharistic liturgy reminds us that God’s word is present at the heart of our actions and rituals. As Lutherans, we teach that Christ’s death intersects with all the pain of human suffering as well as the beauty of redemption. Similarly, as people of relative privilege, we understand that our practices of eating and drinking (both in and out of worship) have the potential to deal out death as well as life. While we enjoy coffee hour on a Sunday morning, nearly 800,000 people in Cook County are unsure of when they will be able to eat their next meal.1 Across the world, ELCA World Hunger estimates, over 860 million people [1 in 8!] are so chronically hungry that they are unable to lead active daily lives.2

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

We know that we are complicit in the problem of hunger that surrounds us. And yet, when we gather each week to ingest the body and blood of Christ we are given the experience of food as pure grace. How might this grace extend into our attitudes and actions regarding all of the complex issues that form around hunger and justice — agriculture, shopping, baking, eating, economic programs for those in need, the composition of our neighborhoods, the vocation of our congregations? How might we live out the radical hospitality of the Eucharistic table in our everyday eating and drinking? How might food enact resurrection as well as injustice? These are the questions that our writers address in this issue of Let’s Talk.

Chicago food blogger Julie Vassilatos diagnoses one aspect of the problem of hunger in our local communities, noting the loss of neighborhood presence that results within food deserts. Our next two writers, Ben Dueholm and Sonia Harper, illumine the ways in which nonprofit organizations address hunger locally: The Night Ministry, which offers to those in need food, shelter, health care, and relationship; and Growing Home, which uses community gardens to provide both food for the community and job training for formerly incarcerated individuals.

We next look at two models of food justice outside of Chicago. Pastor Meggan Manlove describes her Idaho church’s journey from community gardening to teaching food preservation and cooking among those who are hungriest, with the help of an ELCA Domestic Hunger Grant and the local extension agents. Monica McCarthy writes about the life-giving opportunities that responsible fair trade coffee presents for a group of businesswomen in Nicaragua.

Henry Martinez and Chris Hanley, both training to be pastors, challenge our congregations to become more directly involved in the difficult questions and answers surrounding hunger and justice. Martinez does so through an historic analysis of Martin Luther’s recommendations regarding the church’s Common Chest in the town of Leisnig. Hanley does so through a reflection on the relationship between the gifts that we take for granted and the grace through which God grants us food, creation, and our very lives.

Our next two writers, Bailey Pickens and Andrew Stevens, reflect on specific ways God might be calling us, as people of faith, to live more ethically in light of the complexity of food production and distribution. Pickens makes the case for abstaining from meat, eggs, and dairy in order to approximate right relationships in our broken world. Stevens makes a compelling argument about the church’s responsibility to speak out in economic policy debates and the limits of such speech, particularly in the current discussions regarding SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

We close the issue with two reflections on Eucharist. Frank Senn traces the “food fights” that have happened throughout history regarding the elements to be used at the Lord’s Supper, with an eye toward current debates about offering non-alcoholic wine and gluten-free wafers as options at the table. And Julie Vassilatos illustrates the baking of the communion bread as an offering of ourselves to God, in all of our brokenness and imperfections, just as we can be confident that God offers to make us continually new at the table.

As always, we invite you to reflect on these articles, both in your congregations and with our other readers. At the end of each article you will find questions to prompt discussion, and we invite you to participate in conversation with us through our website or our Facebook page. Let’s talk!

Mary Emily Duba
Elizabeth Palmer