Seeking a Holistic Christian Food Ethic by Thomas Turner

Part of the modern church’s liturgy is drinking coffee. Coffee is ubiquitous with fellowship. It’s the focal point around which orbits conversation, discipleship and friendship. As social justice has directed the church toward reforming some of its buying practices, fair trade coffee has become the standard at many churches. This is good. These churches want to use their dollars to ensure fair wages are paid to the people who grew and picked their coffee.

Again, this is good.

Good, but not great.

The social justice mindset many Christians have has sometimes been co-opted by branding and a sense of complacency. When a cause like the ill treatment of coffee growers and pickers is brought to the Church’s attention, the Church reacts. Yet, the tendency is for an isolated reaction that never develops into a full Christian ethic. Why does it seem to always stop with coffee? When will the Church use wisdom to see that the fair trade ethic should be expanded to the other sustenance and condiments that center around coffee?

Imagine if you will, a regular member of the church taking her cup of fair trade coffee and stirring in two packets of sugar that were harvested by slaves. Slavery is rampant in the sugar cane industry. Thankfully, fair trade sugar is available for purchase at many grocery stores. Further imagine that as the sugar is dissolving, the congregant pours some half & half into her coffee that is not organic. This should lead to an ethical dilemma for the Christian: How was the cow treated? How much medication was given to the cow? How does rampant chemical and antibiotic drug use affect our families, our water, our soil and our neighborhoods?

As a whole, the Church has reacted to isolated justice issues around food and has not developed an ethic that governs all food choices, from coffee to sugar to milk to donuts to communion bread. “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food” was a popular saying in Corinth during the early church, yet St. Paul urges the Corinthian church to see all things through the lens of the body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Through this lens, fair trade coffee is not enough. The church needs an ethic that governs the way food is procured and joyfully consumed within the church. This community ethic will naturally begin to affect the way the local church views food at home and in smaller group settings. If the local church begins to embrace a food ethic that permeates all of its food-related decisions, the church would be modeling a way to live for its community. Namely, this food ethic would be a form of discipleship.

Our broader culture is distorted when it comes to food. We live in a society where the following occur simultaneously:

• 15 percent of the US population receives supplemental nutritional assistance (e.g. food stamps)

• Over 35 percent of the US population is obese

• Almost 50 percent of all food grown in the US is wasted

• 10 million females and 1 million males are struggling with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia (1)

The Church, with its isolated food decisions, has not done anything to be a counter-cultural model for how Christ’s kingdom responds to the question of food. If the Church is going to make disciples, one of the key aspects of discipleship should be a Christian view of food, something that is absolutely essential to our livelihoods, like sleeping or breathing.

The early church did have a food ethic that was central to their corporate worship, and it’s a model the American Church can look toward to make holistic food decisions:

“You, Master Almighty, have created all things for your name’s sake. You gave food and drink to all people for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to you; but to us you freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Jesus, your servant.” – Didache 10.3

In this early Christian prayer we find a food ethic that rejoices in the integral connection between God’s creation, the food we eat and our spiritual lives. The importance of creation care and our spiritual lives is often discounted within American Christianity today, mostly because the Church’s food ethic mirrors the food ethics of American culture. We have isolated food as being utilitarian, which is precisely how the Corinthians viewed it (“food is for the stomach”). Yet, just as Paul admonishes the Corinthians for having a reductionist ethic when they should have a holistic one, it’s high time today’s Church begin to form a holistic ethic of eating based on Christian values. This holistic ethic would not reduce food to an act of consumption as the broader culture does. Instead, a holistic ethic of eating would view the act of eating as inseparable from both God’s creation and from discipleship.

The most common example of a holistic ethic is buying food that has been ethically treated or grown without the use of pesticides. This practice, which has been catching on in the broader culture, is an example of a more holistic Christian ethic of eating because it takes the treatment of God’s creation into consideration when purchasing food (note that the Didache says “for your name’s sake,” not “for our sake,” a big difference). God meant for creation to be healthy and for animals to be treated well, so considering this in our food buying is a practice that cultivates a more holistic ethic of eating.

Pushing this dynamic further, a holistic ethic of eating would begin to view the very act of eating and our relationship with food as a way Christians can grow as disciples. This has broad ramifications, and should caution Christians to carefully discern how our eating habits and body images reflect those of the broader culture in ways that do not align with the view of the body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Paul saw the physical body and our spiritual lives as interconnected, and since eating is what sustains our physical bodies, our eating habits have spiritual ramifications. Often, this sort of pronouncement leads to legalistic views of what to eat and what not to eat. The legalistic route never works. This type of legalism has sprung up in many Christian circles in the form of religious themed diet books and weight loss fads. The prayer from the Didache referenced above offers a remedy for this sort of logic by making “enjoyment” the chief end of eating, not body image. Joyful consumption reverses the norms of our culture toward eating as a form of diet or weight control and views eating as part of glorifying God.

At the same time, a Christian food ethic holds joyful consumption in tension with the prevalence of obesity and of distorted body image, which often manifests itself in eating disorders, and provides a counter to the wrong perspectives we have learned from the broader culture. The fact that eating disorders are as prevalent among Christian young adults as they are among the general population should grieve us as much as similar statistics about divorce.

A truly Christian food ethic would do more than respond to isolated notions of justice. A truly Christian food ethic views creation, eating and spiritual disciplines as interconnected. In today’s world, Christians’ view and use of food should be a joyful response to injustice within our agricultural systems, to the pollution of creation through agricultural practices, to the distorted eating habits and body image, to the problem of food waste and to the large-scale problem of food insecurity in the church and the world. Through our words, actions and eating habits, we can look toward a world where the act of eating helps put our world back to rights.
(1) Walters, Peter and John Byl. Christian Paths to Health and Wellness. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2008. Page 41.