“One would be mistaken to approach the table without perceiving both its abundance and its demand that we share that abundance justly…having tasted God’s abundance, we are sent from the Eucharistic table to ensure the distribution of God’s gifts in the world. This sacred work necessarily entangles us in social, economic, and political realities” (60).
I recently spent an afternoon discussing with a close friend my ache over Christians who do not understand social justice work as an integral part of living out their faith. I’ve touched on my own belief as to how this division came to be (I understand it as a result of the bifurcation between “spiritual wellness” and “physical wellness”, with the spiritual being viewed as more holy and the physical, a temporary hindrance to life in full communion with God – as well as a lack of understanding of the systems of brokenness embedded in culture).
Still, it grieves me that Christians can study the life of Jesus without sensing the urgency with which he cares for the physical needs of the poor and the marginalized. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8) – to care about the physical injustices in this world – is to follow what Christ calls the highest of all commandments, loving God and loving neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:34-40).
While a message of compassion for the poor might be readily preached, without catalyzing Christians to work towards systemic change this Gospel is incomplete. To quote MLK Jr., “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar…It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars need restructuring.” (105)
“I think a lot of people see the real work of the Gospel as telling people about salvation – the social justice stuff is like a little extra,” my friend noted. “Ignoring injustice isn’t really understood as a sin of omission.”
But the Gospel Jesus spread is not merely one of spiritual salvation, as the physical and spiritual cannot be dissected from one another. It is a message of physical and spiritual freedom – of overturning systems of oppression, of empowering the societal outcasts, of loving the unlovable. There is no Gospel message outside of the context of social justice – of dismantling systems of oppression, setting captives free – because these very systems, and our inability to act outside of them, is the brokenness from which Christ came to set us free. The Gospel message is God’s promise to restore, restore, restore – to restore us not only to God’s self, but to the earth, to one another, and to our own physical bodies.
In Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology, Candler School of Theology’s Jennifer Ayres understands the Eucharistic table as a space where the spiritual and physical interdependence of the Gospel is both a point of celebration and a catalyst for social action.
Exploring the role of Christians in the work of food justice, Ayres develops what she refers to as a “grounded practical theology”; grounded, as she says, in two meanings of the word – in a materiel sense, “a quest for good food necessarily brings to the fore questions about agriculture,” as well as in a theoretical sense, “grounded practical theology” like methods of grounded social theory, “emerges from intimate and close observations of everyday life” (x).
The book is divided into two parts:
In part one, she shares a primer on the global food system, outlining the grim reality of America’s role in perpetuating brokenness. She then creates a theology and ethic of food, articulating why it is necessary for American Christians to participate in efforts to improve the global system.
In part two, Ayres shares the stories of several organizations – both secular and religiously affiliated – that challenge the status quo of American involvement in the global food system.
While she is focused on the specific impact of America on the global scale, her theology of food extends to Christians around the world.
“Patterns of growing, sharing, and eating food are a means of revelation: they reveal something about the brokenness of humanity and its social and ecological arrangements” (54).
Ayres bases her theology on what she calls the Four Eucharistic Moral Commitments:
1. Prioritizing the hungry
2. Seeking justice and dignity for those who work the land
3. Caring gently for the earth
4. Re-establishing bonds of interdependence with the sources of food
She asks, “What does it mean to work for justice in this world, even as we hope for a new creation?”
This is after all the question at the heart of the Eucharist, is it not? To ground ourselves in the tangible, taste-able remembrance of the work Christ accomplished on the cross while striving for the reconciliation yet to come.
Ayres’ ideal understanding of a Eucharist-honoring food system looks much like that of Norman Wirzba and Michael Pollan. Like with Wirzba and Pollan, I fear that this stems from a nostalgic imaginary of food systems of past. While they rightly acknowledge that our present system thrives on unfair treatment of farm workers and harmful use of land, idealizing a system that necessitates time and physical commitments many people cannot afford limits the creative development of practical methods to enact change.
Ayres rightly identifies that the commodification of food in industrial systems alienates consumers from the sources of their production. “The mere fact that human beings become ‘consumers’ by obtaining and eating food means that this gap is not a benign fact of life, but presents moral questions about the commodification of food, human relationship with the sources of food, and economic self-interest.” (82).
However, in this too she veers away from an appreciation for some of the more positive aspects of the division of labor in food production. To eliminate the layers of separation that alienate consumers from the source of their production need not be the same as shirking away from an economy that allows those working at each level of food production to focus on one particular area of his or her craft – from the farm to the table need not happen at the hands of a single farmer/chef. Yet wistful longings for the ways of generations before tends to result in the under-appreciation of these intermediaries.
Social progression occurs like the swing of a pendulum – as one generation reacts to the mistakes of the generation before, they swing a bit too far opposite to right what’s been previously wronged.
Rather than idealize production methods of the past while vilifying the modern system, it would behoove those engaged in conversations of food justice today to acknowledge the downfalls of the earlier system which industrialization attempted to solve. Only in so doing can we reasonably move forward in a system that recognizes both the benefits and the mistakes of the past in order to create a more just system of food production for the future.
While Ayres’ vision of an ideal food system might be a bit less practical than her theology assumes, the bulk of her book shares the stories of men and women at work implementing their ideas of just food. It is in these stories that her theology returns to solid ground.
One such character that I greatly admired for her engagement in the many nuances of healing a broken system is Clare Butterfield of Faith in Place, who dreams of ways that Christian communities can financially support farmers who take the risk of moving into sustainable methods of agriculture – providing alternative forms of “crop insurance” to farmers who want a way out of the limitations of government subsidies (85). It is through creative visionaries like Butterfield – who dream of unique ways to engage with the system as it presently is – that positive change can come to be.
Good Food is a great book for those in need of a primer on the present state of the food system along with an accessible theology of food and eating. It is simpler to read than Wirzba’s Food and Faith, and the stories of those engaging their faith in creative ways should encourage readers whose aim is to practice food justice themselves. If you are already well read on the present state of the food system, skipping from the Introduction to Chapter 3 will assist you in remaining engaged throughout the rest of the book.
Looking to purchase Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology? Find it here: Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology