I was gonna do this once.
In reading the Jubilee once again and Walter Brueggeman’s commentary on it from Finally Comes The Poet , I was struck by two particular aspects of this passage that I had missed previously. The first relates to a question that I think many people think of, if not ask explicitly, when thinking about the practice of letting fields lie fallow for an entire year. The text itself asks, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” (Lev 25:20). With global population now at 7 billion, we don’t really have the luxury of following this kind of practice right? Well, first let’s listen to the text and see if it has anything to say to a world with 7 billion people.
This question is the central theme of this blog, “What shall we eat?”. Perhaps in the imagination of the agrarian readers of Leviticus it was almost as impossible as it seems to us to feed yourself without practicing constant and intensive agriculture. The answer to the question of how they will eat if the land is not in production is found at the beginning and middle of the chapter:
The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.
The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely…I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives. (Lev 25:6-7, 19, 21-22)
So, here’s the radical thought to sit with for a second: The earth produces food without the help of human beings. Some of the plants that we consider a nuisance and call weeds are actually edible. Before you start foraging for dinner among your local neighborhood make sure you get educated. Back in the day it was common knowledge what to eat and what not to eat. We have lost that common knowledge and now must rely on field guides and experts to learn what we can forage in our local bioregion. This fact, that the earth supports all of the life on it without the help of human beings, is the central idea of the Sabbath practices which culminate in this year-long practice of cultivating the mindfulness of our place within the creation that sustains us.
Now, the global population when Leviticus was written between 538-332 BCE was somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million. That’s only 3% of the current world population of 7 billion. So while the advent of agriculture had already begun to significantly increase global populations, the pressures of population on the land to produce was minimal compared to today. I’ve heard lots of different figures about what the carrying capacity of the earth is in terms of human population from 10 million all the way up to 9 billion. Regardless, it is clear that this practice of an entire year without production would not support current and future levels of population.
Now, you careful readers will point out that in the text God promises a bumper crop just prior to the Jubilee that will carry them through the fallow year and then some. While it may seem like this is the product of human ingenuity and hard work, any good farmer will tell you that there’s really not much you can do to get yields of the magnitude suggested by this passage. Sure there are bumper crops, but not because of anything any farmer did to make it happen. Studies have shown that even our best technological attempts to improve yield can’t out perform nature. So, the provision of food to carry people through three years on one year of production is a miracle intended to tell them, “Quit worrying about it and trust me”.
So, we have created a world which is completely dependent on the efforts of human beings to maintain and sustain itself. This clearly contradicts the heart of the Sabbath practices which reorient our lives around the fact that we are not owners in an absolute sense and the maintenance and sustenance of life on this planet does not depend on us. What are the repercussions for a world in which we have transgressed this Sabbath boundary and made a world dependent on us, in essence making ourselves God? I suggest that this question, “What shall we eat?” reveals once again our addiction to control and domination and our complete disconnection from the land. The Jubilee is a radical act of faith in the ability of the creation to sustain itself and ourselves, if we are willing to understand the boundaries of the system as it was created.
Up next… Jubilee is Salvation.
One of the last books I read while living in Bolivia was Beyond Organics: Gardening for the Future by Helen Cushing, which is available for FREE from the Soil and Health Library online. As should be expected of books on the cutting edge of agriculture, organics and gardening the author is Australian. While many of the examples in the book are from the Australian context and therefore not as relevant to a North American audience, the overall principles are easily translatable to whatever context you find yourself in.
Probably because of their particular climate and the problems they have had to face long before the rest of us related to changes in climate, drought and other agricultural issues, Australia, the birthplace of permaculture, is often way ahead of the rest of the world in ideas about sustainable agriculture. Beyond Organics is no exception.
It isn’t until the end of the book that Cushing lays out some of the facts about how we treat our yards, but it’s worth sharing up front.
According to the EPA ‘almost 80 million pounds of pesticide-active ingredients are used on US lawns annually’. Also astonishing are these statistics from the US National Wildlife Federation:
- 30 percent of water consumed on the US East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60 percent on the US West Coast.
- The average suburban lawn receives 10 times as much chemical pesticide per acre as farmland.
- More than 70 million tons of fertilisers and pesticides are applied to residential lawns and gardens annually.
- A motorised lawnmower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as an average car; a brushcutter emits 21 times more; and a leafblower 34 times more.
- Where pesticides are used on lawns, 60-90 percent of earthworms are killed. (196)
These statistics seem much more dire after reading the preceding 195 pages of her book in which she explains what gardens have become and casts her vision for what gardens can be. Cushing takes on the concept of the isolated backyard garden and expands it into a network of havens for species, plants and life to thrive. Her concept is an environmental garden that stretches underneath, around and over the garden fence.
She takes us through the history of organics and gardening showing how gardens evolved into what they are and how we can reorient our ideas around abetter way of thinking and gardening. It’s also a very empowering book as she reminds over and over again that these gardens in our backyards matter. She paints a portrait of the unseen and unnoticed world of our gardens.
There is a whole society of birds, insects, reptiles, mammals who come here to wash, drink, feed, each attracted by the water and also by each other, with some becoming the meals of others. Plus there are the unseen millions, billions, of micro-organisms – the politics of ecology requires that this silent majority are not forgotten. (38)
It is easy to miss the life teeming around us whether we live in the suburbs or the inner city. We tend to focus on what we have been taught to see, the large animals, flowers and aesthetics of our gardens. What we miss is the web of life that makes the whole thing work. The other thing that tricks our minds into thinking badly about our gardens is fences.
The boundaries exist only in the minds of the property owners, where they allow that owner to limit his or her sense of responsibility to the space within those fences. It is easy to think that we don’t have much impact, because our land or garden is not so big. But the biosphere is fenceless, and time is long, longer than the river. The effect on the environment beyond our fence is the combined effect of many individuals over many years, many generations. In the same way, our concept of ecosystem is generally flawed, because it packages them into neat concepts that satisfy our desire to contain and present our understanding, as though ecosystems also have fences. But they don’t. (41)
Maybe your desire for a garden is simply to please your eye (or your neighbor’s eye). Perhaps instead it is to produce more of your food and be a good steward of the environment. Either way we still tend to think of our small gardens in isolation. Cushing pushes us to realize that this is not the reality of the world of biology and ecosystems. Life does not recognize fences or borders. This goes both ways.
There are things we do in our yards that are harmful, using chemicals, planting non-native (or invasive) species or selecting plants for our own aesthetics. Chemicals and seeds do not respect the fences we build. They find their way into other places, our neighbor’s yard and waterways. Our gardens can do great damage, not just by themselves, but along with all the other gardens and gardeners contributing an excess of water and chemicals to our shared environment.
On the other hand, if our garden considers the world beyond our fence and provides habitat for birds and animals, plants for pollinators, insect and other life, then it becomes one strand in an ecological web providing sanctuary for species rapidly losing habitat in many places and food for pollinators, insects and animals that need it. Our gardens can be a force for sustainability, not only as isolated plots trying to carve out an organic, sustainable niche, but as part of an interlocking network of gardens . Cushing describes the environmental garden like this,
The more the plants give in terms of food, shelter, habitat, nutrient cycling, soil stabilising and so on, the more they maximize the garden’s environmental positives. They are a resource for the environment, rather than a sink. If these same plants are low need, that is, virtually independent of you, the ecological profits go up even more. Ecology is based on the economics of nature. The words ecology and economics even have the same Greek root, which is oikos, meaning household. (171)
I was delighted when the author made this connection between economics and ecology. This way of thinking about our little plots of dirt connects them to the greater whole and makes them more important than just “keeping up with the Joneses”. So, as you think about what to do with that plot of dirt, no matter how small, wherever you live, remember that your garden matters. It is part of the web of life and can be a vehicle for transforming our environment.
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.