As one about to go on a final ministry internship and then on to ordained ministry, I see the topic of food justice with kind of a grim awe. The words, when they stand next to each other, food and justice, force me to realize that the food I enjoy each day comes at more costs than I pay in purchasing it. Then their juxtaposition causes me to wonder, as I enjoy the food available to me, who is my neighbor (in the Lukan sense)? Who is not eating and what is their story? These questions and social scientific answers have been addressed in many other places. As a student pastor, when I contemplate “food justice” I find myself most interested in the questions and answers it raises for the church. More specifically, how do our theologies and practices imply answers to the questions of food justice—and are they the answers we want to give?
If I am honest with myself, hardly a day goes by in which I do not take ‘food’ for granted. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, and my mother’s pantry was always stocked as if in preparation for the end-times. Working at a childcare center in Wilmington, Delaware, in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, I read stories to one-year-old children for whom it was an open question whether they had eaten any breakfast on any given morning. One boy – who behaved in that moody, aggressive way that makes it so tempting to call kids ‘bad’ – would eat ravenously anything offered to him in the morning. I did not understand until part way through the year that his diet (and lack thereof) played an enormous role in shaping his ‘attitude.’ It took my breath away. This was at the age of one. It’s this little child who is the face of one set of questions of food justice for me. If I am to love this one-year old, African American, hungry boy, what does justice demand from me?
We might also ask: does the church take food for granted? Again, if I am honest I would have to say: often, yes. Food most regularly appears for those who belong to the church already. Take coffee hour, for example. I am not suggesting that coffee hour is unethical, but simply that in my observation of many churches throughout Chicago it appears more regular and more central to the week-in, week-out practice of the church than any other food offering. This practice and its regularity—which I admittedly love—says something theological about what’s optional and what’s not. Does coffee hour say what we want to say about God? Does it embody the ways in which we want to live out our response to God’s grace?
I have been fortunate, in my studies, to have been directed to a conversation partner, Joseph Sittler, whose keen insight interrogates for me the concept of taking things for granted. He locates the tendency and the act of taking something for granted in a person’s and community’s theology. In the following quote from Gravity and Grace, he addresses the human destruction of this planet’s abundance with an eye to our theology.
You can’t solve the whole problem of nature’s care by stewardship. That’s a perfectly good word and a very powerful idea, but it’s not a big enough doctrine; it’s not central enough. For nothing less than the doctrine of grace would be an adequate doctrine to shape the Christian community’s mind and practice in a way appropriate to the catastrophe in the environment.
A theological concept of stewardship which implies the “maintenance” of the earth allows for us to continue to take creation for granted. Even for those who might not call themselves theologians or refrain from using technical language, Sittler contends that there is a theology implied in how we care for the Earth. No matter what we say we’re doing, when we take the care of the Earth for granted we’re practicing a theology that relegates the grace of creation to a lesser doctrine.
As I reflect upon the problem of food justice, Professor Sittler’s words offer me an expression of what these two related concepts side-by-side proclaim: care of the earth is not optional to the teaching of the church; neither is feeding the hungry. The range of theological issues pertaining to the production, growth, and ethics of sustenance, alongside the unsettling problem of availability of this most basic human need, goes beyond any doctrine of ‘stewardship’ of creation. The tendency, however, at least in my experience, has been unconsciously to regard as optional the questions and answers pertaining to both creation care and food availability.
There is some grace in those words, ‘for granted,’ because they also imply the doctrine that Sittler (and Luther before him) advocate, in which creation and, by implication, the sustenance that grows from it, are understood as gifts from God. Such an understanding of both creation and food as grace is rooted in Scripture. Consider, for example, this one of numerous passages in the Bible naming God as the author of sustenance:
The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed. And from the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, and the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.
Creation and its food are so precious precisely because of their “giftedness” and “granted-ness.” Food’s necessity for our physical survival underscores the theological claim that our existence depends upon God’s gifts; our contingency finds its expression and ground in God. If we accept food’s proper giftedness – if we take food literally ‘for granted’ rather than maintain a practiced ambivalence towards our relationship to food — how might this shift our implied theologies and the everyday practices which inform them?
When I lead a church someday, I hope that food justice will inform the questions that I ask with my congregation as we describe the theological realities of our situation. This form of questioning has been modeled for me recently in one of my local ministry contexts. As a Lutheran Campus Ministry peer minister at Augustana Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, I’ve been on the church’s ‘Setting the Table’ task force, a partnership with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois that challenges congregants to envision a ministry that crafts justice locally. Questions that act as a refrain in this context are: “who is our neighbor?” and “who do we need at the table?” Called into more just relationships with our sources of food and also our neighbors (an oft-entwined call), we have begun to ask what our weekly rituals in both worship and in the narthex say about food justice. This intentional questioning of who is our neighbor, are they hungry, where does our food come from, what structures influence the availability of food, leads us into continual conversation and action with the God who comes to us in Christ, the little one who is hungry.
All food, everything we eat, comes as a gift from God. It is a basic human need and valid moral position to strive for enough food for ourselves and our families. But we run into the problem of injustice when we slip into thinking we somehow ‘earned’ the food that we control in our pantries more than other human creatures, or when our anxiety about our own contingency propels us to store up food and tolerate cultivation practices that desecrate the land. Food justice is not a thing to be achieved; rather, it is a relationship between us creatures, the gift of the earth, the gift of food, and the God from whom all gifts come.
To live well into this relationship we’ll have to face our own contingency, the granted-ness of our very lives. When we do, we have the potential to become a church that actually makes demands on God’s people, challenging us all into more authentic relationship with one another, the earth, and our food. Such a challenge produces exactly the sort of courageous citizenship in which those both inside and outside of the church will glimpse God’s grace.
How do you see your congregation’s current practices around food answering the questions of food justice that challenge the church in today’s world?
What kinds of new questions might your congregation ask if you were to regard creation, food, and human existence as gifts of God’s grace?
- ^ Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 2.
- ^ When I say ‘theological issue’ I don’t mean to say merely ‘something worth thinking about’ – although think about it more deeply and critically is exactly what I contend we must do – but also I take the ‘theological issue’ to mean the descriptive expression of this series of threats to life before God. The lived experiences of hungry families; the ignorance that many of us have as to whether or not our neighbor is hungry; food production processes that desecrate our planet and its creatures; the haunting fact that the world contains enough food to feed all its human inhabitants yet these resources are so unequally distributed than people starve to death each day: these realities, concrete yet tragically ordinary and calling out for justice, constitute a theological issue.
- ^ Genesis 2:8-9.
- ^ See Don Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995).
- ^ Ibid.