Our obsession with food in this country hits a fever pitch this week as we celebrate Thanksgiving. Yet according to the National Resources Defense Council, Americans throw away $165 billion (yes with a B) worth of food every year. Sam Wells provides a thoughtful reminder that probably won’t make the gastronomic headlines this week.
Food is Politics. The food industry is the largest manufacturing industry in this country. Anyone who disputes the description of agriculture and animal farming as an industry has not been outside lately. The reality is, the old distinction between food on the one hand, which was about the country and the soil, and industry on the other, which was about the city and the factory, has broken down. We all go to the supermarket and shop for groceries. But did you know that the average item of food in a grocery store has travelled 1500 miles? This means that putting food on our dinner plates is a global project.
It has always been so. The outer reaches of Tiberius’ Roman Empire had one central purpose in the imperial economy: and that was to be a breadbasket and source of other agricultural surpluses. If you lived in an Italian villa and your taste was fish paste, olive oil, or wine, then Galilee was your key supply base. Consider the kinds of diseases carried by those drawn to Jesus. You will find that most of them are connected in some way to malnutrition. The politics of food dominates the gospels just as much as it dominates today’s global economy. When Jesus set about transforming human reality, he went to the core of the culture: the production and consumption of food.
Most of Jesus’ talking about food comes in his parables. It is often supposed that Jesus was a simple agrarian figure telling homespun yet subversive stories of small-town folk, a kind of cross between Huckleberry Finn and John Denver. But when your eyes are opened to the politics of food, the parables take on a new dimension. When we read the story of the landowner who built bigger and bigger barns, we start to ask, “Whose land had now come into his possession and why? Was he in the Romans’ pocket or simply exploiting his fellow Jews?” In other words, it is no longer just a parable about greed but also a story about the politics of food. Think again about the parable of the sower. The stony ground and the thistles are not just figures of speech. They are agronomic reasons why peasant farmers remained in grinding poverty. And when the good soil produced a hundredfold, this is not just some kind of Middle Eastern penchant for exaggeration. This is saying at last this struggling peasant famer could pay his taxes, pay his debts, and finally buy his own land and be free of bonded oppression for good. This becomes Jesus’ image of salvation, of the kingdom of God – the ability to have more than enough food in a culture of extortion and exploitation.
How might we embody a Christian politics based on food?
- Realize that there is nothing more political than what you eat. Let us not get into a fantasy about uncontaminated food. But let us realize that the world’s economy is based on choices about agriculture. The world is what we eat.
- Ask yourself “Who am I eating with?” Food is both need and pleasure. And when those in need and those you love come together in such a way that they get all tangled up around the meal table, we call it the kingdom of God.
- If worship is food, could it be that food is worship? Could we imagine how good eating might become a sacrament of reconciliation between human beings and our planet?
The Revd Dr Sam Wells is the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. He has served as a parish priest for 15 years – 10 of those in urban priority areas. He also spent 7 years in North Carolina where he was Dean of Duke University Chapel.
Taken from Come to the Table: A Collection of Recipes celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Congregation at Duke University Chapel. Congregation at Duke University Chapel, Durham, NC