Food and Prejudice

A few days ago, I had the privilege of reading this excellent blog post from s.e. smith on the blog This Ain’t Livin’:

Eating as Performance of Moral Superiority – this ain’t livin’.

In this post, Smith explores the ways in which our culture has recently come to give moral and ethical inflection to certain foods or certain ways of eating.  I heartily encourage you to read the post since there is no reason for me to rehash an already excellently written piece here.

Essentially, Smith reminds us that our decisions about food are more complicated than the food-moralists might like to believe.  Food-moralists (I’m coining a term here) want to give certain foods (say, kale) a higher moral superiority rating than other foods (say, white pasta).  They then condemn those who eat “wrong” foods and applaud those who eat “right” foods.

But, Smith suggests, those food choices are not always easy to make.  I have certainly noticed what I call a “health tax” on some foods.  Picking on pasta again, I have noticed that whole wheat pasta is typically more expensive than white pasta.  So, if white pasta is “junk food” (something I once heard a food-moralist say), then poorer people are stuck eating “junk.”  The moralistic implications of the word “junk” are pretty strong.

Smith’s entire post is excellent, but it ends on this strong note:

Until eating can be divorced from value judgments, it’s going to be difficult to repair a broken food system. Individual dietary choices are not made in a vacuum, but a world filled with pressures, and those pressures must be acknowledged in a discussion of what people eat, how, and why. There’s nothing morally superior about eating one thing and not another, and people need to stop acting like their fridges contain proof of sanctification.

Wow.  Proof of sanctification.  I think that hits the nail squarely on the head, don’t you?

And here’s where I have to weigh in theologically, since the word “sanctification” is an explicitly religious word.

What you eat does not make you a better person.

What you eat will not save your body or your soul.

But food-moralism has found its way into churches as well as running rampant in secular society.  What can we do about that?

James has a few things to say that I think are pertinent here (James 2:2-13, bolding mine):

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. …If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. …Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Okay, so here James is talking about clothing as a visible and outward sign of poverty or wealth.  I would argue that in our society, obesity or thinness are the new signs of poverty or wealth.  But regardless of what a person looks like, when we see what’s on their plate, we levy judgments.  We show favouritism.

I guess the theological message I want to add to s.e. smith’s excellent blog post is this: Christians need to live differently than everyone else, and that means letting go of the world’s (our society’s) ideas about “right foods” and “wrong foods”, “good foods” and “bad foods.”  We need to stop judging others about their food choices.  Mercy triumphs over judgement.  Loving your neighbour as yourself means honouring them as adults who are free to make their own choices about what they eat.

If you care so much about what other people are eating, feed the poor.  Donate what you consider to be wholesome foods to the food bank.  Volunteer to make healthy meals at homeless shelters.  But keep in mind that what you can live on as a person who has access to food anytime you want it might be different than what a person who might eat only one meal a day might need.  Honouring the poor means listening to their needs, their likes and dislikes, their desires, not imposing your food judgements and value systems on them.