Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Foodie Ethics and Levitical Priests

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There is a sense when one steps into the produce section at the Whole Foods that one has entered a sacred space. The delicate ambiance created by the well-tuned lights and the gentle purr of background music cloaks the organic kale in an almost mystical aurora. Like a church service, Whole Food’s shoppers dress for the experience, donning bright shades of Yoga pants, organic slippers made with bamboo reeds, or any locally-made organic cotton tee—in a concerted effort to show the completeness of their healthy and ecologically-sensitive lifestyle.  Moreover, when they reach the checkout line and fork over what for many normal folks amounts to a whole paycheck, the acolytes gently absorb this small sacrifice as doing their part for the environment and their bodies.

The tongue-in-cheekiness of the above vignette aside, it is my contention that the foodie movement in the U.S. represents a new attempt by Western culture to fashion a folk religion, an ideology that gives consumers meaning in the midst of meaningless consumption. This folk religion is founded on the myth of ecology. Adherents have developed religious practices and virtues that give purchase of organic kale religious significance.

Most religious traditions contain a myth about the world. By myth, I mean an explanatory story that organizes reality. After the enlightenment and the end of religious authority, various myths were used to supplement the loss of the Christian mythology of world. Terry Eagleton shows the evolution from German idealism, to Romanticism, to Marxism, and finally arriving where we are today in Capitalism, each with their own distinctive story for how the world works. During the Cold War, this story of capitalism had a vitality because of its competition with Marxism/Communism. With the end of the war and the “end of history” as Fukayama predicted, capitalism needed a new obstacle to conquer to give people a sense that their shopping had purpose. Enter ecology.  With escalating climate crisis, growing world population and increasing food shortages, modern society has responded with a myth about the human role in the environment. This myth runs something like this: there existed a harmonious environment, humans entered and corrupted it, and now we must respond by re-entering the wild and establishing a harmonious relationship with nature with new green tools. There are a few key points to highlight. First, nature is inherently idyllic and perfect. Humans have the power to break  and fix it. But most importantly, the way we fix it is not consuming less, but consuming differently. In other words, capitalism has transformed the climate crisis into an opportunity to consumer more (differently).

Second, foodies have developed green religious practices.  For the purpose of this article I will focus on the ways related to food. One of the central practices is the locavore movement. The idea is that humanity has become alienated from its food supply through modern agribusiness, which contributes to pollution and over consumption. According to the myth of ecology, we need a more harmonious relationship with the food supply because it is better for the person and the environment. As a result, farmer’s markets and CSA (community supported agriculture) movement’s have flourished. Everyone from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart provides locally produced food. Organic foods are also treated as superior food products because they allow the plants to remain unpolluted by human corruption. Underlying these practices is a mentality similar to the food purity laws of the Old Testament. In Leviticus 11-16, certain foods were labeled as pure and others impure. Purity was not necessarily a moral status, but a necessary condition to commune with God. Priests observed these laws closely in order that they may enter the tent of meeting to give sacrifices to God. The ancient Israelites believed that this was necessary because sin from the garden created a division between humanity and God. In a similar way, members of this green movement unconsciously created a system of purity. This ideology is subtly at work in commercials that pair organic food with phrases “feel better” and “taste the difference.” Genetically modified foods are seen has corrosive to human health and organic foods are presented as a purer alternative. Raw food diets operate under a similar logic: the belief that enzymes released during cooking damage the body is becoming more prominent. The idea is that human intervention in the organic process of food production leads to corruption. The human corruption is based in a deep-seated guilt complex. What happens is that white American children are raised in blind privilege, where material prosperity makes questions of need and desire synonymous. This privileged paradigm is shattered when these white children reach the college campus and take an ethnic studies or environmental justice classes. They discover that their way of life has consequences on other people—or they just realize that there are in fact other people. They have eaten the fruit of the tree of good and evil and they can’t return to the garden. When they leave college and are faced with societal expectations to reproduce the environment of their privileged childhood, they deal with this guilt accumulated in college by buying organic and locally grown food. The guilt results in fetishistic behavior that is more about atoning for their idyllic and structurally violent childhood than helping poor or non-white folks. Organic and locally grown food becomes their elixir for white privilege.

In addition to creating a sense of purity and guilt, these religious practices create sociological divisions. If one believes that his or her food practices are superior to another individual’s food ethic, then the former will develop a sense of ethical superiority. This would not be controversial if the food movement was not necessarily class-related. There is a reason that Whole Foods is often sarcastically referred to as Whole-Paycheck-Foods. It is one thing to buy a few vegetables from a Farmer’s Market, it is another thing to feed a family with a modest salary on organic, locally grown foods. Like the Pharisees who lost sight of the point of the law and who expected the impoverished Jews not to pick grain from the field on the Sabbath, ethical food is too expensive for working-class folks, creating an “ethical” division along class lines.

Ultimately, Christians must recognize that the ecological movement is tied to the loss of meaning that came with postmodernity. More than that, the individualizing tendency of western culture has left people wanting for solidarity and identity with a movement. With rise of global capitalism and the transformation of the world into a market, power has been divorced from politics (nation-state), leaving modern with hopeless feeling that they lack agency. Consequently, ecology has given people the dual sense of belonging and the ability to atone for our deep-seated guilt about the climate crisis. More than that, in a relativistic world where morality has lost intrinsic meaning, ecological eating allows one to measure’s one ethical progress. The problem, however, is that this morality, as Nietzsche would be quick to point out, is tied to wealth and to a false sense of guilt.

In the New Testament, Paul expounds on the issues of impurity, cleanliness and guilt. For instance, the Corinthian church was divided because some church members were ignorantly shaming others for eating food sacrificed to pagan gods. More than likely, the church members who abstained from these foods felt superior to those who continued to consume this unethically produced food. Paul deftly identified the danger of food purity: it creates divisions and disunity. Paul exhorts church members to give up personal ethics that get in the way of church unity. In other words, all foods are clean that work for the incorporation of all people into the body of Christ. This is possible because of the healing work of Christ, who saved humanity and allowed us to live free from the bondage of guilt and impurity. All humanity can access God freely without observing food purity laws or rituals. Thus, dividing people by food practices is an attempt to reinstate the divisions of the Levitical priest code and make the saving work of Christ a human enterprise. Christian tradition instead views food as the place of unity: the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, all Christians become united through saving work of Christ by consuming the bread and the wine. This is the message of the Christian gospel and one desperately needed in a world rife with divisions and guilt.
Jordan Mattox is working on MA in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes for the seminary’s magazine The Semi and blogs at castroscigar.wordpress.com.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mofoskin Jasper De Jaeger

    Jordan Mattox attacks a new sub Group of who are conscious of the consequences of their diet and prefer to eat local, ecologic or sustainable produced food. Those foodies, according to Mattox, would believe in some kind of a new folk religion. My statement is that a sense of green thinking is not a myth nor a religion competitive with Christian faith, but actually one expression of the fundamental ethics of Christianity, namely an unconditional respect for life.
    The author mentions the locavore movement , which only sees those foods as ‘pure’ who have been grown within a maximum distance of 100 miles, as some form of religious practices. He then makes a comparison with the food purity laws in the Old Testament book Leviticus.
    One comparison between the green foodies and christianity is the indicating of right and wrong foods. Another comparison is based upon guilt. White high-class children who have a regular eating pattern go to higher education, learn about the unethical ways in which food is produced and feel guilty about it. I would not judge that growing ethical consciousness but rather encourage it. Such a growing sense of responsibility for the planet and for the anonymous poor living in the areas infected by climate deterioration, is exactly what I feel is missing in the policy of political leaders. As Christians, we better do not shoot at the people who feel responsible for our environment. Whether they are driven by religious motives or not, these climate constructionists help Christians by laying the foundations for the Basileia tou Theou.
    The author arguments that the struggle for a more green food production is essentially class-related. Only the upper class would be capable to buy expensive organic food. When some classes of society feel more responsible for the climate change than others, I see no problem when that class takes action. The rich have the possibility to consume more than the poor and thus have a larger impact on the planet. Therefore, it makes a big change when at least a sub group of the wealthy have the will to change their consume pattern.
    For eco-thinkers, it is clear that in order to lower our impact on the climate, the most direct way is to consume less. The author rightly points out the capitalistic influence. Capitalism has the attractive message that people don’t have to consume less, but only consume differently.
    The author further describes one reason why green thinking is more likely in wealthy circles of the population. Rich white kids are spoiled in their youth. But after taking ethic classes at university, they as a result develop towards a green lifestyle. This lifestyle would serve as some sign of rebellion against their conservative family. The green lifestyle would be nothing more than an identity marker. I do not agree when he proclaims that his fact does not have any bond with the poor folk suffering from climate change. His analysis may be right to some point, but the consumptive pattern of the ecologists does make a difference in the daily life of the poor and powerless.
    The author fears the sociological gap made by rich people who loop upon themselves as the pure because of their green lifestyle. That argument is not convincing. It implies that every single person trying to live a virtuous life, does not have the right to try and have a morally good life, since he is creating a moral gap between himself and the masses.
    The author compares our present changing eating habits with Paul, as he is dealing with a problem about food purity in the Corinthian Church. “Paul exhorts church members to give up personal ethics that get in the way of church unity.” I do not see in what way in the current time, eating from sustainable grown foods, could possibly create a division in the church. I try to translate the basic attitude which Christians hear during every liturgy in the Word of the Lord, in our context. It is clear to me, that thinking and acting green is not withholding the Kingdom of God, but is clearly a step in helping to prepare the full Kingdom of God. The European Christian Environmental Network (www.ecen.org) creates a bridge between catholic moral theology and environmental issues.