You Are What You Don't Eat: A Rationed Theology of Eating


[1] When you think about the book of Daniel, do vegetables come to mind? Not Veggie Tales-although you wouldn't be faulted for suddenly bursting forth into song at mention of this cartoon-but vegetables, or even vegetarianism. If not, you should, because vegetables play a crucial role in the opening narrative of this book. Daniel-renamed Beltashazzar by King Nebuchadnezzer after King Jehoiakim of Judah is defeated by him-is taken captive, and enrolled in a strict regimen of learning, in preparation for becoming a member of King Nebuchadnezzer's court. 

[2] He is also given a daily ration of food and wine by the king, but this he rejects, worried that the diet will defile him. He asks his guard to test him and the others by giving them vegetables to eat and water to drink instead of the royal rations. If after ten days he is worse off than the others receiving the king's rations, then so be it, the guards can do with him as they will. At the end of this time, true to his faith and his word, Daniel presents himself fatter and stronger than the rest, and as a result throughout his three years of training, continues to receive vegetables in place of the royal rations and wine.

[3] Many of us probably find this story reassuring. We were told as a child, "Eat your vegetables, they're good for you." And more recently, we've learned that diets too high in wine and other fatty foods may weaken rather than strengthen us. 

[4] But this story isn't about eating vegetables. It isn't a dietary lesson. No, it is a lesson in faith. Notice what Daniel doesn't do. He doesn't reject the lessons and learning the king has prepared for him. He even learns the Chaldean language. For whatever reason, these things are not the things he believes risk defiling him and corrupting his trust and reliance on the God of Israel. Instead, it is the food. Daniel's faithfulness to God and reliance on God is grounded in what he firmly requests not to eat.

[5] We could mention other such narratives in Scripture. Adam and Eve not eating and then eating the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. The Israelites not eating more than their daily share of manna. The Israelites no longer eating from the fleshpots of Egypt. Jesus not eating for forty days, and then not turning stones into bread. In each case, a person or a people is defined by what they don't eat, and this not eating is a sign of faith. 

[6] Since I published an article here several months ago entitled Eating Theology, a lot has happened. Suddenly, the ethics of eating became the issue du jour. The New York Times ran an article by Michael Pollan, excerpted from his book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, that has brought to light more issues of food and its origins than any other recent piece of journalism of which I'm aware. At about the same time, Sojourners magazine devoted an entire issue to food.

[7] If it had only been the publishing industry that was bringing the issue to a new level of attention, I wouldn't be writing this follow-up piece. But two events, one at the local and one at the national level, made me realize that eating (and not eating) has a certain cachet these days. 

[8] First, Wal-mart announced that it would begin carrying organic produce. Most authorities in the organic industry see this as a mixed blessing. It will mean, on the one hand, more plentiful organic produce at lower prices. On the other hand, it will likely result in small local organic producers being priced slowly out the market. However things pan out, what is most striking is that organic food is the fastest growing category in all of food. Wal-mart, aware of this fact, wants in on the market.

[9] Which brings me to the local level. I picked up our first box of vegetables at our CSA two weeks ago. There was a new and larger walk-in refrigerator on premises, and I asked Robb, the owner of the CSA, if they had gotten more members for the CSA this year. He said, "Yes, oh my, yes. We've doubled our numbers." There are probably many reasons for this marked increase, including word of mouth publicity, and a popular movie, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, that made the circuit of small theatres last year. But Robb thinks the main reason for the increase is simply that more and more people are looking for local, fresh organic produce. 

[10] What does all of this mean? Well, for starters, it simply means that many people around the country are paying more attention to their food and where it comes from. They may be doing this for a host of reasons. Some may simply wish to ensure that the things they eat or serve their children are healthy. Last time I checked, almost half the baby food in my local grocery store was organic. Others may be thinking about the justice issues involved, hoping that those who harvest bananas, for example, aren't exposed to the harmful chemicals often used to produce them. Still others may be thinking about it simply at the level of quality and taste. CSA vegetables are definitely more flavorful than anything picked, crated, and shipped half way around the country or world.

[11] But it seems to me that Christians need to be able to articulate and confess why it is they choose to eat what they eat, or more importantly, why they choose not to eat certain things. Somehow along the way, the ethics of eating was co-opted by more secular communities, and at least some Christian groups, fearing that practicing things similar to these groups would imply agreement with their fundamental beliefs, stubbornly entrenched themselves in dietary practices contrary to their good health and probably their faith. The animal rights movement and the "Christian" backlash against it would be a case in point.

[12] This trend has been slowly reversing in recent years. Many faith communities have led the way through their participation in fair trade organizations. A local church in our area was featured on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal, and the headline featured a stellar neo-logism, Christecology Christian communities are coming to realize that care of creation and love of neighbor, both vocations God has called us to, are intimately linked to what we eat, where it comes from, who harvests it, how the land is tended, and all the other intermediary steps from seed to table.

[13] This is why a book like Michael Pollan's is so important. Christians, in order to bear witness to the gospel, need to be attentive. We need to know enough about the things we put into our mouth to be able to speak wisely about why we do so. 

[14] Jesus famously remarked that it is not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out (Mark 7:15). At first glance, this seems to contradict the Daniel narrative outlined above. But upon closer scrutiny, we can see how Jesus' remark strengthens rather than supersedes the lesson. Daniel does not believe that the foods themselves are what will defile him. Daniel's diet does not become a model for all readers of Scripture. What is set forth as a model is Daniel's attention to the way in which the provision of the king might weaken him, so that his faithfulness to the God of Israel might be undermined by his reliance on, and subjection to, this king. What comes out of Daniel's mouth-faithful and daring witness-is what results in his being set apart and strengthened by God. The vegetable diet is simply the result of what is first of all Daniel's confession.

[15] If we were to take Daniel's actions as a model for our time, it wouldn't be the particulars of his diet that we would emulate, but rather his unwillingness to simply eat what the regime set before him. Our entire food complex has been set up in an incredibly complicated and robust manner, to such a degree that most of us simply assume the foods we eat are all there are, they are givens of our economy. In fact, a lot of food in the store is no longer food to us. It is now a commodity, the idea of a vegetable rather than a particular vegetable lovingly grown. We are being handed rations by a monarchical, some might even say tyrannical, process, and the question is, will we have the strength, moral courage, and faith, to ask for water and vegetables? Have we even given sufficient thought to what the water and vegetables of today might be?

[16] Michael Pollan, in his natural history of four meals, helps us at least begin this inquiry. He traces each of the food chains in which we typically participate-industrially produced food, organic foods, and foods we forage-from origin to table. Reading it, or doing our own homework of learning where our food comes from and how it is processed, would be the first step in a truly ruminative theology of eating.


[17] The second step would be testifying to what we will not eat. Remember that Luther in his Small Catechism said, "Fasting and other outward preparations serve a good purpose." A person of faith receives the forgiveness of sins even without these kinds of preparations, but we forget that the fasting and other outward preparations still are of good service. In the end, the dietary practices of Christians may look strikingly similar to the practices of other social or religious groups. It is not what goes in that defiles, remember. But our attentive intentionality will be articulable in expressly ethical terms that bear witness to the gospel, and this is what will be a credible witness in the world, just as Daniel was an in-credible witness in Babylon.


© January 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 1