Every time the violence of racial injustice splashes across the headlines of my newsfeed, I weep. I read story after story of my close friends, men and women of color living in a world that I cannot understand. Facing injustice that has never been aimed towards me.
Last week, like so many times before, I was once again filled with deep sorrow and righteous anger at the murder of two more unarmed black men. With horror that a presidential party would compare thousands of suffering human beings to a handful of artificially colored candies. With shame that we could so easily see brothers and sisters, made in God’s image, as less than human, objects to be feared.
Last week, like so many times before, I shook my head at the state of things, I cried many tears, and I questioned what kind of God could be actively present in the midst of such injustice. I questioned what I could do beyond lament, or protest, or write.
But last week, unlike other times before, I was also given the opportunity to sit for two full days listening to black leaders speak of God’s power to turn weapons of warfare into weapons of life, to transform the soil from the space of oppression to the space of freedom, and I was reminded of my early hope in my food studies degree – that I might learn how to use food as a tool for peacemaking and reconciliation.
Princeton Theological Seminary’s 2nd annual Just Food conference opened on Thursday evening with a worship service that held together the brokenness and the freedom of tending the earth. Open our eyes to the victims of violence, to the plight of the poor, to the ones who seek justice, to the ones who seek peace, teach us compassion and love, we sang in prayer.
During my train ride to New Jersey that morning, I read the latest article on the FoodAnthro blog: Blackness, Food, and State-Sanctioned Violence. In short, it explained that violence against low-income black communities occurs in two ways – the swift, graphic violence of police brutality, but also the “slow, walking, everyday deaths: the lack of access to healthy, affordable foods; the continuous expansion of multinational food corporations that not only control access but also wages of folks who produce food; the cutting (and erasure) of social services.”
Both of these forms of state-sanctioned violence normalize death and inequalities, “point[ing] to outcomes (lack of food access, individual choice, etc) but often obscur[ing] processes (systematic racism, increased suburbanization, etc.).”
Similarly, NPR’s The Salt recently published a piece outlining the ways that lack of food access drives teens to gang activity. Hungry teens who have grown out of elementary free meal programs seek to help themselves and their families in whatever ways possible. Sometimes this means resorting to petty theft, gang activity, or trading sex for a meal.
Food injustice is a violence that begets further violence, normalizing inequality and death.
I entered into this conference weekend reminded that no attempt to address food injustice or racial injustice is viable without taking into consideration the other. To turn swords into plowshares is not just a metaphor for seeking peace, a goal that we can pray for but assume to be unattainable. Working towards food justice – crafting plowshares – is the very method of dismantling the soft and the graphic violence of food injustice.
To care about food is to care about race.
Social justice is soil justice.
This theme of food and peace continued throughout the weekend long conference. In his opening keynote session, Wake Forest Divinity School’s Fred Bahnson spoke of planting gardens and seeking peace as symbiotic actions, the primary work of the Church. “Shalom is harmony between people, the land, and God,” he said.
The climax of this theme came through the story of Reverend Richard Joyner. The son of sharecroppers, Joyner grew up with a disdain for farming. “To grow up sharecropping inflicts more childhood trauma than an education can overcome,” he shared, as he told tales of his father’s tireless work on another man’s land. His father would work hours every day, only to be told he had never even met rent for the land. Exhausted, blistered, he would day after day face his fourteen children without any more money than the day before – every penny made paid to the wealthy white man who sat beside him in church on Sunday morning.
For Joyner’s family, like so many black families throughout the majority of American history, the land has primarily been a medium wielding oppression. Thus freedom from the land signaled the first step of freedom from the oppressor.
And yet Joyner shared that even as he separated himself from the land, he remained captive to anger aimed at the oppression inflicted by the owners of that land. Until one day he felt God urging him to return to the dirt.
Joyner began a children’s gardening program at his church. As he watched children run and play and find joy in the soil that he and his own brothers could never bear to touch, the ground transitioned for him from a place of injustice to a place of health and wholeness. Through this inter-racial and inter-religious project, the land has become a place of joy, of hope, of reconciliation. The very medium that previously wielded oppression became the medium wielding hope. Weapons of warfare forged into tools of hope.
Though I had to cut my own conference stay short, I had the pleasure of attending one workshop focused on new visions for the church. We learned about multiple different churches using farming and gardening to reconcile communities across generational, racial, and socioeconomic lines. The leader of the group, pastor Derrick Wilson, ended with a strong word of hope for the future of the church: God is at work, bringing His people back to the work originally assigned to us.
Tending the garden, bringing forth new life.
Seeking soil justice, turning swords into plowshares.
Similarly, I am infused with hope, with a new vigor for my own work. Whether discussing the soil, the stove, or a seat at the table, I am encouraged at the reminder that food – the process of growing it, of cooking it, and of eating it – is absolutely central to the work of reconciliation. That food is a medium that can wield either oppression or bring freedom, and that it is my call to reveal its potential for the latter.
Social justice is soil justice.
Lord, open our eyes once again.
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