Eating Theology

[1] All Christians think about eating. I'm contemplating the preparation of a mid-morning snack even as I write this. Many Christians say grace before they eat, in this way locating the act of eating doxologically. And some may practice certain vestigial forms of fasting, like eating fish (fry!) on Fridays, or foregoing chocolate during Lent. But I believe it is safe to say that most of us-with the exception of some vegetarians-do not reflect theologically and in detail on the ethics of eating itself.

[2] A quick review of the social statements of my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reveals that our church has adopted several excellent statements on sustainability and livelihood (so that people can eat) and care of creation and "the land" (which is the source of all that we eventually eat), but no social statement on food and eating per se. A glance at the list of Bishops' Statements from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops re-affirms this observation. At least one statement is on "Food Policy in a Hungry World" but here again the focus of the social statement is on distribution and production, aiming towards the alleviation of hunger and malnutrition. I have not been able to locate social statements from these bodies that address the ethics of eating itself. Neither of our churches has turned the conversation around quite in the way Wendell Berry did when he said, "Eating is an agricultural act."

[3] To find more sustained reflection on eating, one would need to read literature in biblical exegesis and sacramental theology, especially material related to the Eucharist. Our continuing concern for ritualized forms of eating has its origins in the Scriptural witness. What we eat, how we eat it, and how it is prepared, all are important concerns in the history of Israel. Think of the Passover, or the number of mitzvot in the Torah related to diet and the ritual preparation of food. These laws were of no small concern to the early Christian community, because historically they had been some of the defining marks of the people of God. When Jesus eats grain gleaned from a field with his disciples on the Sabbath, his actions bring the community back to fundamental questions of the law, especially who and what the law is for (Matthew 12). He later proceeds to re-define what defiles a person, proclaiming that it is not what goes into the mouth as food and into the stomach that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth (words) and proceeds from the heart (Matthew 15).

[4] The Christian community's new position vis-à-vis food is recapitulated in Peter's vision in Acts 10-11. Jesus' new command regarding purity is stated directly by God to Peter in a dream-"What God has made clean you must not call profane." Clearly, something new is happening. Peter is encouraged to eat these foods in his dream not simply for the sake of reconfiguring Jewish dietary law, but because it is a way forward for full table fellowship with the Gentiles. What God calls clean (certain heretofore forbidden foods) Peter hears as a gospel message freeing him to relate to the "unclean" Gentile Cornelius. The consistent theme, beginning in the gospels and the witness of Jesus, continuing in Acts through the actions of the early Christian community, and then reaffirmed by Paul in his epistles, is that the Christian community is subject to new dietary laws and freedoms precisely because the Christian community now embraces people groups previously excluded under the "old" covenant.

[5] The most exacting text on this is Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth. His is a complicated argument, and I hope readers will refer to a good commentary to explore the issue further (see, for example, Gordon Fee's commentary in New International Commentaries on the New Testament). For our purposes, it is sufficient to point out the two fundamental questions that occupy Paul. First, in chapter 8, Paul asks: Can Christians eat food sacrifice to idols? His answer is clear, if also indicative of the paradox of Christian freedom. Yes, Christians can eat food sacrificed to idols, but if it wounds the conscience of others, then the Christian who is free to eat such food will not and should not for the sake of those who are weak.

[6] The second question related to food comes later, in chapter 11. Here, the question is: Is the Lord's table truly the Lord's table if there are divisions among those who gather? In the case of the Corinthians, apparently some were going hungry, while others ate sumptuously. Paul says that those who eat and drink at this table without discerning the body (in this case taken as the body of believers, not the real presence), eat and drink condemnation against themselves.

[7] These two basic questions remind us that the issues of food, idolatry, and community run close together. The early Christians needed to know when they could eat with non-Christians, some of whom routinely ate food sacrifice to idols. They needed to know about the ethical ramifications of the source and handling of the food they ate. They also needed to know how to eat together in such a way that they were faithful through their meal to the one who had established the meal.

[8] These are our contemporary questions as well. Granted, the cultural contexts are quite different. I don't know anyone who believes that the food they purchase at the grocery store was offered as sacrifice to idols. Nor do I know any churches where a certain group within the congregation drinks fine wine during worship while the poorer members go without.

[9] Nevertheless, resonances exist. If we take the concept of idol sacrifice and translate it into our 21st century worldview, it is apparent that we offer up sacrifices to certain "idols" all the time. We agree with Paul that "no idol in the world really exists" (1 Cor. 8:4). But we acknowledge as a faith community that there are many false gods in our life of which we are frequently unrepentant or unaware. These idols may include things like the free market economy, or the nation state, or the particular brand or consumer product that we trust to bring us healing, satisfaction, and joy. They might also include our own desire for comfort, or even more subtle and damning, our desire not to have to reflect ethically on our consumer choices. The false god of the present age may be the god of indifference.

[10] Furthermore, we know that when we buy and consume certain foods, we have purchased food that was grown and harvested through the underpaid labor of fellow Christians. It is ethically untenable to underpay anybody for their work, but if we follow the logic of Paul's argument in the 11th chapter of 1st Corinthians, it is especially sinful for us to eat abundant and lush foods while those who partake of the same body (Christ) go without. Indeed, it may be why there is sickness and dis-ease in our communities.

[11] These rudimentary reflections should establish sufficiently in our minds that the ethics of eating are considered frequently and in some detail in the biblical witness. This being the case, we can turn to our own context and life together to reflect further on how and what we are called to eat.

[12] Most Christians or churches do have a latent or unspoken theology of food. Witness the potluck, or the traditions maintained in churches across the country of bake sales, food pantries, lefse fests, lutefisk dinners, barbecues, pancake breakfasts, world hunger appeal Sundays. Christian people the world over know that it is good to eat together, it is good and right to celebrate the kinds of food we eat together, and it is especially good and important to help provide food for those who otherwise would go hungry. They also believe, ostensibly, that it is good to invite those from outside the church to eat with them, at least at certain times.

[13] Some Christian communities have also emphasized fasting as an important practice in the Christian life. Interestingly, though, this fasting has, by and large, been an outgrowth of the penitential disciplines of the community and individual believers, rather than in the service of those who produce or prepare the foods. A great case in point is 30 Hour Famine ( This international youth movement is designed to raise awareness of world hunger issues. Youth participants raise money to give away to hunger-related charities. I have yet to see a 30 Hour Feast, where participants eat exclusively fairly traded, locally grown, and organically produced food, and give no money away because they actually paid the right price for what they were eating.

[14] I believe that at least one reason for this situation is that, although much has been written on the ethics of land and crop stewardship and the fair distribution of food to those who lack it, there is little theological reflection in the church on the act of eating itself. Take for example the hard sell fair trade coffee and chocolate has been in many congregations. Although by some measures fairly traded coffee has been a success, this has been due in large part to steady (some might even say persistent or nagging) teaching and preaching on the part of lay leaders and clergy in congregations. I've had the experience of trying to introduce fairly traded coffee in three different congregations, and each time, there was considerable resistance to the idea, primarily because of the cost. The same people who give money to Lutheran World Relief prefer to purchase Folgers coffee in bulk because it costs less than fairly traded coffee from Equal Exchange ( or the Mt. Meru Coffee Project ( We have been conditioned so long to think of care of the neighbor in terms of benevolence rather than fair and just dealings that we are actually inured to the idea that our purchasing is a moral action. We assume buying is morally neutral.

[15] In fact, because so many of us have taken the availability of cheap and abundant food for granted for so long, we have turned it into a moral responsibility to buy the cheapest things we can find. It is for many an example of moral uprightness and thrift to cut every coupon, shop for the lowest price, shop at the lowest priced stores, etc.

[16] As a result, any alternative to the free market economy is looked at as itself morally suspect. Because we have gorged ourselves on freely traded products, fair trade is a difficult pill to swallow. We have so structured our spending habits around the assumption that abundant and inexpensive food, always present in diversity at any time of year, is a good thing and an inalienable right. The same people who happily give money away to world hunger organizations stumble on the idea that their own purchasing and consumption is a moral decision with theological implications. I myself am still a potential target for this complaint.

[17] Furthermore, and more to the point of an actual ethic of eating, cheapest is not always best, or even that good. This is certainly true of coffee. The demand for cheap coffee beans was so rampant in the 20th century United States that few Americans even knew what a quality cup of coffee tasted like. The same is true of fresh produce. Our economy is so focused on keeping tomatoes present in the store year round that we have abandoned any concern for whether the tomatoes actually taste good. The recent proliferation of small batch coffee roasters, farmers' markets, chocolatiers, and organic gardening, is an indication of a slight reversal of this trend towards cheap mediocrity.

[18] This past summer, my wife and I joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) just outside of Stoughton, Wisconsin. We spent many summer afternoons visiting with the farmer and his staff, and socialized with other members of the CSA when we picked up our fresh box of organic produce each week. Sometimes we even stopped out to pick our own vegetables, thereby getting dirt under our nails. The food we did receive, when it was in season, was delightful. I learned, for example, how to cook using green garlic.

[19] For the most part, participating in the CSA was enlivening, but there were some downsides. Since our investment in a share with the CSA was substantial, we chose not to purchase non-local, non-organic produce from the grocery store. So we had to go without some of our favorite vegetables if they weren't in season. It was especially difficult when we wanted broccoli for our stir-fry to remember that the purchasing of broccoli out of season shipped from who-knows-where is an ethical choice with theological implications. Sometimes you just get a hankering for broccoli.

[20] So we had to decide how much of a sacrifice we were willing to endure in order to bring our eating habits more closely in line with our ideals. I confess, many times each week we still fail to eat food that supports our ideals. Sometimes we don't even know where our food came from or who cooked it! Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is practices like membership in a local CSA, and being attentive to where our food is from, who grew it, how the workers were paid, how they care for the land, how they grow and care for that which they produce, that should be at the heart of any theology of eating, and it is incumbent on our churches and bishops to help us be attentive.

[21] This kind of attentiveness will make us better eaters in two ways. First of all, it will bring the Christian tradition to bear on our eating habits. Second, it will help us actually taste our food, and the food, because it is lovingly grown and prepared, will indeed taste better!

[22] Since the theology of eating is such a fledgling science, it would be impossible to provide any kind of systematic or exhaustive account. Instead, I will conclude this article by simply pointing you in the direction of three resources I myself have found helpful in exploring the ethics and theology of food.

[23] Shannon Jung, in his recent book, Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating, has helped me begin a journey of greater attention to the spirituality of eating. He begins his book with the assertion that those who read his book will enjoy their lives more. That's quite a claim. But he is right, because mindfulness and enjoyment of our food-as opposed to the mindless consumption of forgettable meals-discipline us in encountering God's goodness, giving thanks, and enjoying God. Jung is not unaware that on a personal and global level, our relationship to food is disordered. He takes time in the book to reflect theologically on personal eating disorders like anorexia, as well as global disorders like rampant and pervasive hunger. These disorders arise, according to Jung, out of a lack of theological imagination, where theology gets disconnected from the body. They arise also out of our interconnected sinfulness, which affects us on a corporate as well as a personal level.

[24] His solution is, in a way homeopathic. Take the very thing that ails you. After your awareness has been raised regarding the many ways your relationship to food is disordered, then confess it, and enter into means whereby it can be transformed. The two activities for transformation recommended by Jung are gardening and cooking.

[25] The Slow Food movement (, though secular in its origins, is a great resource for examining some of the practices that may be at the heart of a Christian theology of eating. Some examples from the organization's web site include the encouragement to: join a local convivium (a convivial small group); trace your food sources; visit a local farmers' market; join a CSA; invite a friend over to share a meal; visit a farm in your area; create a new food memory for a child; start a kitchen garden; and learn your local food history.

[26] I am convinced that food is not only an ethical justice issue, it is also an ethical enjoyment issue. God cares about the good, the true, and the beautiful. We are responsible for the land, for our neighbors, for just economic policies, and so on. But we are also called to enjoy the gifts we have been given, and to do so graciously. This means first of all that we are called always to say grace before we eat, because God has graciously given to us, and the food graciously becomes gift to us. But we are also called, like Babette in Babette's Feast, to graciously and abundantly enjoy the gifts we have been given, even to gratuitously bestow possibly unrecognized and under-appreciated abundance on others. Food is one simple yet beautiful way to do this.

[27] Finally, although I am not (yet) a practicing vegetarian, some of the most thoughtful literature on the ethics of eating does argue compellingly for the vegetarian option. J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals is a fictional account of a series of lectures given by Elizabeth Costello (a fascinating fictional persona created by Coetzee, and the namesake of one of his more recent novels) on the issue of animal rights and the moral obligation of vegetarianism. No book of which I am aware better portrays the complexity (should I say awkwardness?) of the conversation that ensues when omnivores and vegetarians sit down together to eat. Why don't they eat this? Should I eat this? What should we talk about?

[28] A more expressly theological work on the same topic, making similar arguments explicitly from the Christian tradition, is Stephen H. Webb's Good Eating. He has famously remarked that "the unexamined meal is not worth eating," and he constructs a doctrine of Christian vegetarianism in eschatological perspective, grounded in Scripture and the early church fathers. If you are hoping to avoid reading such books because you want to keep eating and enjoying meat, I sympathize. Nevertheless, to disregard the argument is a sign of a lack of our grace and gratefulness for what has been given to us to eat, and care for, by God. Consider reading one or both books as your Lenten discipline, thereby freeing yourself to enjoy chocolate throughout the forty days.

Books mentioned in this article: Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating, By L. Shannon Jung. Fortress Press, 2004. The Lives of Animals, by J.M. Coetzee, Princeton University Press, 2001. Good Eating, Stephen H. Webb, Brazos Press, 2001.
© April 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 6, Issue 4