But even if we meet farmers at the farmers market, urban consumers are still largely divorced from the people who grow, pick and package our food. And we may even willfully ignore their suffering, argues Seth Holmes, a medical anthropologist and professor of health and social behavior at the University of California, Berkeley, in his provocative new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.
For two summers between 2003 and 2005, Holmes lived on a farm in the Skagit Valley of Washington state. The farm produces strawberries, apples, raspberries and blueberries to sell to berry companies like Driscoll and dairy companies like Häagen-Dazs. He traveled there with a group of Triqui Indians, across the border from their hometown of San Miguel in Oaxaca, Mexico. As Holmes soon learned, the Triquis make up the very bottom rung of the agricultural labor ladder and earn between $5,000 to $8,000 a year.
Leviticus 17:11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.
Many people are squeamish about blood in general. The sight of blood makes them nauseous or faint. Some people also get a kind of theological nausea when blood is mentioned in the context of the Bible and especially in terms of Jesus and atonement. Homebrewed Christianity did a great series of interviews on Christology and two of the theologians wanted to reclaim blood imagery as important and even vital to a proper understanding of Jesus and the cross. There is a desire to sanitize the cross on both the right and left end of the spectrum (whatever those terms mean). On one end the violence of the cross only has to do with my individual personal sin and the blood is a magic spiritual talisman that takes away our guilt without having to lift a finger. On the other end the violence of the cross is described as “divine child abuse”. All blood language is therefore shunned as some kind of sadistic and/or masochistic way of understanding Jesus. Is there a better way to understand and incorporate blood imagery and symbolism into our theology? And what might all of this have to do with food?
Leviticus 17 is primarily concerned with blood. God forbids the Israelites to eat blood. Verse 11 (quoted above) sums up the reasoning for this prohibition. The assumption of any prohibition is that there are some people who are doing that which is being prohibited. There were likely other cultures and religions around them that consumed blood as part of their religious rituals. Lines were not as neatly drawn between Israelites and others as we often think. Clearly there was a lot of mixing between peoples, perhaps in marriage and certainly through commerce. As today cross-cultural relationships can be tricky. There’s a temptation to just accommodate to what’s around you. The opposite impulse is to erect barriers and isolate yourself to maintain a distinct identity. We see both things happen in the Bible and both are cautioned against.
Let us consider the meaning of the first phrase, “For the life of a creature is in the blood”. Perhaps other groups consumed blood for exactly this reason, believing that consuming the life would give them strength and more life. I don’t know specifics about which cultures believed or practiced these things, but it seems plausible and common in many different cultures. Maybe it was the Aztecs who believed eating the heart or other organs of their enemies or even heroic members of the tribe would transfer the characteristics to the eater. In this kind of practice the emphasis is on taking. By contrast God is portrayed as the giver of life and that life should be preserved and respected, not taken for self-aggrandizement. The sacrificial system in which the blood of creatures was spilled was intended to maintain, nurture and reconcile the relationship between the Israelites and God.
Nothing But The Blood
This brings us to the second part of the reason given for this prohibition. Blood is an essential part of the sacrificial system. The purpose of spilling blood is to make atonement, to reconcile the relationship between God and Israel as it was inevitably broken. For those who have not butchered an animal this seems pretty foreign, abstract and detached from experience. When done with the proper respect, care and mindfulness, killing an animal for food can be a holy act. You have probably heard that Native Americans would pray to the spirit of the animal they killed, thanking it for the sustenance it provided. Derrick Jensen points out that when you kill something for food you must then take responsibility for the care of that species on which you depend.
My experience of butchering animals for meat is profoundly sacred and sacramental while also very earthy, ordinary and mundane. The hardest part of butchering is certainly that knife’s edge between life and death when one way or another you spill the blood and take life from the animal. The prohibition against consuming the blood recognizes the sacredness of the life that is taken and gives it an honored role in the divine-human relationship.
It also recognizes that redemption and reconciliation do not come without struggle, suffering and violence. We desperately want to sanitize this process, but it is simply not possible. The law is written into nature herself. We cannot pretend that nature is all warm and fuzzy nature preserves and petting zoos. The reality of nature is that things die constantly so that other things can live. Without glorifying the violence present in nature, we must account for its reality in the scheme of things.
There Is Power In The Blood
So, blood then becomes a sign of the reality that change, transformation and even the maintenance of natural relationships involves suffering, death and a degree of violence. Thus the idea that God would fix the brokenness of the world with a wave of God’s magic wand detaches God and ourselves from the reality of the world God intends to redeem, reconcile and renew. Yet, we certainly do not want to condone the violence of the cross as in any way “natural”. So, we must recognize that there is a temptation, or possibility, to allow the theology of the cross to be absorbed and incorporated by Empire in a way that ends up condoning the same violence that killed Jesus.
The blood is what makes the sacrifice meaningful and gives it its substance. Blood prevents the cross from becoming “cheap grace”. This sacrifice stands in contrast to the Empire that claims to take the same life that is freely offered. Thus the blood is a sign both of the suffering and sacrifice involved in the reconciliation and transformation of relationships as well as the brokenness and violence of our relationships to each other and to the earth. Jesus words at the Passover with his disciples, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28) incorporate this understanding in the Eucharistic practice central to following and understanding Jesus.
I have a final thought that is a bit of a left turn. The Maori people live on a diet of which blood is a large part. I think they actually bleed living animals to make a blood and milk drink that is one of their staples. How would this prohibition and the consequent connections to our understanding of the cross and atonement be understood in the context of people who consume blood as part of their culture? I am always interested in real world examples that challenge theology to recognize some of our cultural prejudices in our doctrines and attempt to rethink them within new contexts that call some of our assumptions into question.
Lev 10:10-11 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.
Leviticus 11 details the dietary laws given to the Israelites. When someone says “food in the Bible” this is probably what first comes to mind for most people, rules about what to eat and what not to eat. This is really answering the question “What Would Jesus Eat?” concretely, because as a Jew he would have observed these dietary laws. The question most people have is…Why? We’ll get there, but the first thing is to understand what exactly the rules are, then how they functioned.
What’s On The Menu?
Leviticus 3-8 explains that among land animals the rule is: split hoof + chews cud = OK. That means ruminants are in (cows, sheep and goats), but rabbits camels, pigs and rock badgers are out. Verses 9-12 concern seafood where the formula is: fins + scales = OK. So, trout, perch, etc. are a go, while eels, dolphins and catfish are off limits. Among birds (13-19) they were mainly concerned with what not to eat: eagles, vultures, owls, kites, osprey, hawks, storks, herons, hoopoes, and bats. Everything else is just fine. The section on insects (20-23) starts off strong, “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you”, and then sighs and says if they have jointed legs for hopping and fly you can eat them. This includes locusts, katydids, crickets and grasshoppers. Finally, verses 29-30 and 41-42 make sure all of our bases are covered and declare unclean “Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming thing that swarms on the ground” (42). This includes snakes, weasels, rats, great lizards, geckos, monitor lizards, wall lizards, skinks or chameleons.
Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?
For most North Americans, after pigs, we haven’t even thought about eating any of the animals that are forbidden here. So, what is going on? I don’t have access to a stack of commentaries here, but even John Wesley understands that these rules functioned “To keep up the wall of partition between the Jews and other nations, which was very necessary for many great and wise purposes” (quoted from free version available for MacSword). Clearly other nations, tribes and peoples around them did not keep these dietary laws and therefore clearly set the Israelites apart as a different people. Verse 45 gives a typical formula in the Torah for why these commands must be followed, “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
Others have also pointed out the wisdom in many of these laws, which may have something to do with their origin. Pork easily transmits diseases like trichinosis and it was probably safer given conditions for slaughter, cooking, storage, etc. to avoid unnecessary risks. Most of the forbidden birds are scavengers (including the beloved symbol of the United States) which would primarily feed on the carcasses of other animals, creating another possibly dangerous vector for disease (not to mention that carcasses were unclean in general thus tainting those who feed on them). Likewise some of the fish that are forbidden would have been bottom-feeders and considered less sanitary, another way of saying “unclean”. Perhaps in some ways blanket rules are easier to follow. So, eels and dolphins get swept up with bottom-feeders to make things easy (Wesley points out there isn’t a lot of water and fish where the Israelites lived anyway). It’s certainly not because the Israelites pioneered their own “Dolphin-Safe Tuna” brand. So, there may be some biological and epidemiological basis for these laws as well.
Bugs…They’re What’s For Dinner
When it comes to insects it seems obvious to North Americans that you shouldn’t eat them. Yet most of the world includes insects as part of their diet in some way. We have friends working with MCC in Zambia where their 18 month-old son loved to stuff his cheeks full of fried termites. I listened to a TED talk recently by a guy who was a big proponent of eating insects. He pointed out that they are extremely efficient at converting their food into protein, especially when compared with the large animals that we eat for protein, primarily chickens, cows and pigs. I think they produce almost one pound of protein for maybe one to three pounds of food compared with something like 100 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef (my stats may be off, but the true numbers make the same point). They are also very abundant and easy to grow. Another interview on Treehugger described ways to use insects by making a powder and substituting it in recipes. I haven’t tried adopting this practice into my own diet yet, but the logic makes a lot of sense and could go a long way toward a healthier planet.
One last interesting tidbit I found was in verses 37-38 “if a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.” The rule here seems to be “keep dead things out of your garden” which makes a lot of sense. Carcasses in your garden, on the crops you’re trying to grow are going to do damage to those plants. If it happens to fall on seed that hasn’t been planted or germinated, then no big deal. As an avid humanure composter it is important for things to decompose properly. There are microbes, bugs and fungi that do that job in an ecosystem. We do not occupy that space in the ecosystem and neither do our food, plant or animal. So, you don’t want something going through the process of decomposition on or near your food source. Pretty basic stuff, but explains a lot about why dead things were such a no-no.
So, clearly these dietary laws held some embedded wisdom about what foods were safe. They also functioned to distinguish the Israelites from the people surrounding them. Is there anything more that we can glean from these laws about our relationship to our food, the earth and our fellow humans? Anyone who has had dietary restrictions, whether vegetarian or vegan by choice, or kosher or hallal by religious practice, knows that it makes you much more aware of what you are eating. You have to ask questions of your food. My journey with food started 11 years ago when I decided to try a vegetarian diet. As a Texan this meant turning my back on my people. I was very aware of all the things I could no longer eat and my food choices began to take on more importance. So, dietary restrictions at least force us to think about what we are eating.
Holy, Holy, Holy
I began this post with the verse from the previous chapter of Leviticus, because I think it holds something helpful. It says, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.” What does this pairing of “holy and common” and “unclean and clean” mean? First, I think the translation “holy and common” as opposed to “holy and unholy” is helpful. It’s not just holy and something that is the opposite of holy. “Common” is something shared among the people; something to which everyone has access and knowledge. “Holy” is not simply the opposite. It is not something to which we don’t have access or knowledge (though that is partially true). Instead it is something Other. It is something not shared among everyone.
The division between sacred and secular serves to divide the church from the state and create a privatized faith impotent to speak to the Powers. This is not the distinction made here between holy and common. So this idea of distinguishing between the holy and the common is put along side the distinction between things and food that are clean and unclean. These are also not the same distinctions, but apparently they are related. Perhaps it has to do with how we relate to the world around us. The distinction between clean and unclean relates to all that we can know and experience in the world around us (the modern day realm of science), yet all of creation is considered good. The holy gives us some anchor in another reality that in some way reads, interprets, judges and ultimately redeems the common, which is what is divided into clean and unclean. (I’m immediately skeptical that I have just created a hierarchy where there is none, but I’ll go with it.)
In other words, there is something Other that judges and interprets the material world and our relationships within it. There is a Reality underlying what we see, hear, smell, taste and experience that is not separate from it, but Other, transcendent perhaps. Maybe Tillich’s idea of the Ground of Being or the idea that God is the eternal observer that keeps reality from disappearing by constantly perceiving it are shadows of what I’m grasping at like the blind men and the elephant.
I think of the Eucharist. It is a meal of simple elements, bread and wine. These were among the most common foods of the time and shared among people every day. Yet they constitute the most important ritual in the Christian tradition. So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live? What role does the idea of clean and unclean continue to have in our world today? Even though the Jesus movement clearly chose to do away with these restrictions (particularly because of the experience of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, a favorite passage of mine), we still use caution, discernment and cultural cues to decide what to eat and what not to eat. In many ways the question of the ethics of eating is our modern day version of clean (organic, local, sustainable, fair trade, etc.) and unclean (processed, underpaid migrant labor, subsidized, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified, etc.). These lines are not as clearly drawn as those in Leviticus, but what the followers of Jesus seek is, not a new law to replace the old one, but the ability to be led by the Spirit. May we feel that breath and follow the wind into all truth.
So, the idea for this blog came out of my quest for what to do with my life after seminary. The title is just a clever and catchy way to get at the main theme of this blog, food and theology. As I have unpacked this silly little question it seems to have sometimes taken me far afield. Lately I write a lot about economics, anti-civilization, collapse and consumerism. In my mind, of course, they are all interrelated and connected, but maybe these connections are not always obvious. I try to tie it back in to this question “What Would Jesus Eat?” that’s really about making ethical choices in a very complicated world and helping us navigate these murky waters.
Well, my primary purpose for this blog is to be a place where I can process out loud my own thoughts about these issues from my own reading, experience and thinking and hopefully get some feedback from the few friends and readers that occasionally read and comment. The secondary hope is that some of this will be helpful to other people. Sometimes I think that this secondary purpose would help give more clarity to my thoughts and writing. If I delve into ideas about civilization collapsing, how does that help you understand and live in the world more faithfully? If I go on about economic theories or obscure aspects of finance that I don’t even understand, how does that answer the ethical questions we face about what to eat and what to buy?
In some ways my recent excursions have subverted (or at least criticized) the big question always on the top of this website. The question assumes a certain stance towards the world concerning what we eat and buy. It presupposes that we are consumers and the question of utmost importance is how to choose the ethically correct (or least ambiguous) products on the shelves of our local big box store. I use to have a relatively simple formula for answering this question.
- Buy local.
- Buy sustainable/organic.
- What you can’t buy local try to get fair trade.
It is perhaps still a helpful start in some ways, but it misses the deeper issues that we face. It does not question the assumption that consumption is the answer to the question of making ethical decisions about how we participate in the world through economics and in particular through what we eat. Nevertheless the goofy question that started this ball rolling still haunts me. What do average people living in the world today do to make the most ethical decisions given the world as it is? How does faith, Jesus and the Bible speak to the kinds of ethical dilemmas that plague us? What are practical things that people can do?
I don’t expect everyone to become some kind of radical anarchist, join an intentional community, protest, grow all their own food, forage, dumpster dive, make everything they need, somehow drop out of the economic system and in the end move to a developing country just like me. I’m certainly not as radical as I like to think I am. I depend on the food system and other conveniences of civilization that all of us do. So, in some ways the questions for me are not that different than the questions for the guy working in a cubicle.
So, as I’m coming down off of a reading, writing and thinking binge, I would like to return to this basic question about Jesus and what he might have to say about food and our choices, including issues around consumerism, agriculture, environment, economics. However, I would like to keep in front of us where some of these things really hit the ground, like building and maintaining a composting toilet system which is something I experience every day. I’ve often said I want to get back to the Food in the Bible series for numerous reasons, but I think it fits in with returning to some of the reasons why I write and what I hope for. I’m not making any promises, commitments, resolutions or covenants. As usual, I’m just thinking out loud.
If anyone is out there, I would love to hear some ideas, thoughts or suggestions about what would be helpful to you for me to explore. Here are some questions I’d love to hear answers:
- What are your questions when walking down the aisles of your supermarket?
- Where do you face ethical dilemmas or questions about food or consumption that don’t have easy answers?
- Where do you find your economic life in conflict with your life of faith?
- What practical skills or knowledge would help with growing your own food, living more simply or living off the grid?
I really look forward to hearing your responses and hope they can spark some new conversations.
Another relationship in Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer between Deanna, a forest service worker living in the middle of a preserve, and Eddie, a young man hunting coyotes who becomes her lover, centers on their mutual love of nature but their conflicting perspectives on predators, coyotes in particular. Eddie comes from a family of sheep ranchers out west who see predators as the enemy, while Deanna sees coyotes and other predators as keystone species that hold the ecosystem together.
“And what rule of the world says it’s a sin to kill a predator?”
“Simple math…One mosquito can make a bat happy for, what, fifteen seconds before it starts looking for another one? But one bat might eat two hundred mosquitoes in a night. Figure it out, where’s the gold standard here? Who has a bigger influence on other lives”(179)
Small and medium size ranchers and farmers across the U.S. are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Predators like coyotes account for a small percentage of livestock deaths, but they are a good scapegoat for people frustrated with their economic situation. It’s much more difficult to deal with institutions like the USDA and policies that create such slim margins for farmers and ranchers. It must be satisfying to find a coyote or wolf in the sight of a rifle and feel like you have some control over your own life and problems.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the loss of predators causes many more problems than it solves. Deanna puts it this way concerning a turkey that Eddie kills for their dinner.
“Oh, gosh, there’s gaggles of [turkeys] walking around this hollow. A turkey lays fourteen eggs without half thinking about it. If something gets one of her babies she might not quite notice. If a fox gets the whole nest, she’ll go bat her eyes at a tom and plunk out fourteen more eggs…But still turkeys are scarce compared to their prey. Grubs and things, there’s millions of them. It’s like a pyramid scheme…The life of a carnivore is the most expensive item in the pyramid, that’s the thing. In the case of a coyote, or a big cat, the mother spends a whole year raising her young…She’s lucky if even one of her kids makes it through. If something gets him, there goes that mama’s whole year of work down the drain…If you shoot him, Eddie, that’s what you’ve taken down. A big chunk of his mother’s whole life chance at replacing herself. And you’ve let loose an extra thousand rodents on the world that he would have eaten. It’s not just one life.” (319-20)
Usually we think negatively about pyramid schemes. They stand for something that benefits a few elite at the top and depends on the oppression of the masses at the bottom. In the case of an ecosystem, however, the pyramid scheme serves to create stability. The billions of microbes feed millions of insects which feed larger animals and on up the chain. When we reach the top of the pyramid, we find that there is a symbiotic relationship between the predators at the top and all the other species making up the pyramid. When the predator is taken out of the equation, the prey species proliferate and the balance is thrown off as the increased population competes for a dwindling amount of prey species underneath them. This is a pyramid scheme in which everyone benefits from the arrangement.
Eddie and Deanna have an interesting exchange about our cultural perception of predators over their turkey dinner. Deanna says,
“It’s a prey species. It has fallen prey to us. I can deal with that. Predation’s a sacrament, Eddie; it culls out the sick and the old, keeps populations from going through their own roofs. Predation is honorable.“
“That’s not how Little Red Riding Hood tells it,” he said.
“Oh, man, don’t get me started on the subject of childhood brainwash. I hate that. Every fairy story, every Disney movie, every plot with animals in it, the bad guy is always the top carnivore. Wolf, grizzly, anaconda, Tyrannosaurus Rex.“
“Don’t forget Jaws,” he said. (317)
It’s important to recognize that predators like coyotes are really in some sense our competition. We make other arguments about it, but the way we perceive and depict them has a lot to do with the fact that they are the closest thing humans have to competitors for our sources of food. In another passage Deanna argues that we should really relate more closely to these top predators because they are more like us than other animals.
So, predation is both a pyramid scheme and a sacrament. I was a vegetarian for nine years. I don’t take the killing of animals lightly at all, but those who want to argue that human beings should never eat animals have to deal with this basic reality of healthy ecosystems and our place in the ecosystem. There are lots of very good arguments for eating less meat, which have to do with methods of production, environmental costs, etc., but it cannot be argued from nature that we should not eat meat at all. In a healthy ecosystem, I think human beings would be more in touch with their environment by killing and eating some meat. I also think both meat-eaters and vegetarians should be involved in the process of killing and butchering meat at some point to understand what it really means to consume our food. Deanna describes it this way,
“Life and death always right there in your line of sight. Most people lived so far from it, they thought you could just choose, carnivore or vegetarian, without knowing that the chemicals on grain and cotton killed far more butterflies and bees and bluebirds and whippoorwills than the mortal cost of a steak or a leather jacket. Just clearing the land to grow soybeans and corn had killed about everything on half the world. Every cup of coffee equaled one dead songbird in the jungle somewhere, she’d read…”Even if you never touch meat, you’re costing something its blood,” she said. “I know that. Living takes life.” (322-23)
The sustainable food movement would benefit from recognizing this fact and refraining from becoming neo-Pharisees that tell you exactly what to eat. The reality is much more complicated and messy. No one has clean hands when it comes to eating. The more people claim to eat a pure diet, the more it seems they miss the point and are blind to the hypocrisy of the purity of their diets, vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic or fruititarian. The real revelation, in my mind, is the fact that we are but creatures and not somehow other than creatures, yet we are unique among creatures. As Deanna says, “Living takes life” and there is no way around it.