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.

Body Size Discrimination and the Church

From a Christian perspective, discrimination on the basis of body size/shape is especially heinous.  We are called to love all people, sinners and redeemed-sinners (otherwise known as the saints) alike.  We are called to love them because they are made in the image of God.  I think, however, that healthism is creeping into the Church, preventing us from loving some of our neighbours—or our brothers and sisters in Christ—as well as we are called to do.

Now, you might argue, loving overweight people means helping them to become healthy.  Yes, yes it does.  But consider this quote from Dr. Jon Robison:

“Health can be redefined as the manner in which we live well despite our inescapable illnesses, disabilities, and trauma.”

Robison makes a very Christian point here, whether he intended it or not.  One of the things we know as Christians is that there was a Fall.  Human beings, though made in the image of God, are now dying beings, experiencing the on-going effects of the first sin.  Our brokenness means that we will suffer disease and illness, that some of us will be born with physical or mental challenges, that we can be injured and maimed, and that we can make mistakes when it comes to taking good care of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live.

We also know, however, that we are being redeemed.  Our world, our selves, and our relationships with God and others are all part of that ongoing redemption.  When we interact with someone, we are interacting with them both as children created in the image of God and as people who can be or are being redeemed.

Health is a part of that redemption.  But it behooves us to note that, in some cases, ideal health (whatever that might look like) will never be possible.  No matter how virtuously a cancer patient lives her life, she may still die young.  No matter how hard a blind person prays, he might not receive healing.  Someone with a chronic disease like Multiple Sclerosis lives as well as he can despite the pain and difficulty associated with the brokenness of his body.  Regardless of how often a fat person tries to lose weight, statistics tell us that in 95% of cases, the weight will be regained (sometimes with interest) within 2-5 years.

So, encouraging someone to live a healthy life sometimes means accepting that their body will not be made perfect on this side of the general resurrection, and that, frankly, we don’t know what perfect will look like on the other side.  Helping someone live a healthy life means helping them to love themselves well.  It means helping them to see that their bodies are giving them cues about what to eat and when and how much.  It means helping them to find healthy and pleasurable ways to move their bodies so that they are experiencing fullness of life.

It means not judging someone because they go to the gym and then have an ice cream afterwards.  Instead, why not complement them for going to the gym?  It means that you welcome people of all abilities and sizes into a physical event—whether sports or dancing or gardening or otherwise—and make sure that everyone is having fun and no one gets hurt.  It means affirming someone as made in the image of God and helping them to find abundant life in the body which God gave to them, even as that body is marked by the brokenness of the Fall.

Why I Get Excited about the Incarnation

What’s so exciting about the Incarnation of Jesus?

It comes across at first as a dry theological topic.  It has a Latin-y name with more than two syllables.  It sounds kind of vague and abstract and ivory-tower.

In fact, the exciting thing about the Incarnation of Jesus is that it is none of these things.

When we find Jesus in His human body, we find something not vague, but specific.  Not abstract, but concrete.  Not ivory-tower, but down-in-the-dirt with the least of us.

Jesus has a human body.  A specific human body.  With specific features.  Unfortunately for us, none of the disciples cared to describe Jesus’ appearance in writing for us, which might be because he doesn’t look like anything special. (In fact, in Isaiah 53:2b, Isaiah foretells that there would be nothing about him that would cause us to take a second look.)  But he has features: he has a nose of a certain shape, eyes of a specific colour, a mouth that curves upward in just a certain way when He sees His friends.  I don’t want to speculate on what He looks like because we simply don’t know…yet.  But someday we will.

Jesus has a human body.  A concrete human body.  It isn’t a ghost’s “body,” somehow looking physical but actually made of energy or something.  He has a solid, touchable, human body.  Granted, His human body is now transformed, so it has…properties…that our bodies don’t yet have, but it is still a concrete body.  It is a concrete body that no doubt tore at the flesh of His virgin mother when she gave birth to Him.  It is a concrete body that felt the warmth and wetness of the tears of the woman who came to wash His feet.  It is a concrete body that cried tears when He felt–with His real, human, poignant feelings–the grief of His friends over the death of their brother, Lazarus, when He felt His own grief.  It is a concrete body that still bears the concrete scars of His crucifixion: holes in His hands (wrists?) and His feet, a gap in His side where the spear pierced His concrete flesh, His forehead torn by the thorns of the crown they gave Him.

Jesus has a human body.  A comes-from-the-dirt human body.  This isn’t an ivory-tower, academic, castle-in-the-clouds concept.  This is a truth that is as real as the ground beneath our feet, the sweat on our skin, the blood pounding in our ears.  Jesus is alive in this body right now in the presence of God, in the dimension we call Heaven.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Word that was in the beginning, the One in whom all things hold together, has a real human body that we will someday see with our real human eyes.  Jesus knows what it means to be hungry, to feel physical pain, to experience temptation, to hug a friend or family member, to touch a person suffering from disease, to craft something with his hands, to mix spit with dirt to create mud.  Academics (and I am one of them, most of the time) can make almost anything so difficult to understand that it seems like they’re just making things up as they go along, or so aloof from reality that we can’t ever figure out why certain concepts matter.

But the body of Jesus matters.  The body of Jesus is matter.

I get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus because it’s the part of the story where everything changes.  God, who crafted human beings out of the primordial stuff, the basics that make up even the dirt that we walk on, that God chose to become one of us.  He chose to cast His lot in with us, to take the death that we deserved, and then to pave the way for us to become like Him.  Because His real human body is present with God, our real human bodies can be present with God…someday.  Because His flesh was transformed, our flesh will be transformed…someday.  Because the dirt from which His body was formed, that basic stuff…tissues, cells, DNA, atoms, electrons, the Higgs boson…all of that basic stuff will be transformed…someday.

So, how can I not get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus?  Because Jesus is matter, matter matters.  Because Jesus has a body, we can trust that our individual bodies, and the whole of the universe, will someday be transformed in a collision between the eternal heaven and the currently-finite universe.

Your mileage may vary, but to me this is Very Good News.

That’s why I get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus.

Marriage saved by grace

A while ago, I read a blog post about “how not to destroy your marriage,” written by a man with two failed marriages.  It had a lot of good advice, some of it common sense stuff, some of it obviously learned the hard way.  But it also had some advice that didn’t resonate with me and got me thinking about why I deemed it to be bad advice.

And then it struck me: it was marriage by works.

Okay, I’ll back up a bit.  I’m going to borrow rudely from Protestant theology here.  Oversimplified, Protestant theology accuses Catholic theology of being based on a model of salvation by works.  That is, “I can get into heaven so long as I am very, very good and do very, very good things.”  Protestants, on the other hand, believe in salvation by grace: the idea that God is very, very good and we are very, very bad and there’s nothing we can do about it, so God sent Jesus Christ to save us from our sins.  Okay, I told you that was oversimplified.

So, my theory is that some marriages are based on works.  Some couples believe that if only they take good enough care of their bodies (“don’t let yourself go”) or avoid farting in front of their spouse, or any other thing that they can think of to do to show their spouse that they love him/her, then their marriage will be saved.

I disagree.  I believe that marriage is saved by grace.  It’s saved by two people who pledged before God and their communities that they will love their spouse through the good times and the bad, through sickness and health…etc.  But it’s important to understand that our pledge to love our spouses means that we love them even though they fart in front of us, or even though they gain weight, or even though they stop manscaping, or even though they stop wearing makeup every day, or even though they sometimes get grumpy, or even though…have you got the picture yet?

Does that mean you shouldn’t wear makeup, manscape, fart in the bathroom, hold your tongue, etc.?  Of course not!  I told you I oversimplified Protestant theology!  Salvation by grace also includes the desire to show God how much we love Him by doing good things, not because of anything we will get from the experience, but simply because we want to do good things.  Same goes for marriage.  If you want to get dressed up for your spouse or do other nice things to show that you love him/her, do those things.  But don’t expect that you will get love—or other reciprocal actions—from your spouse.  You are doing these things because you love him/her, not because s/he is a vending machine that you can plunk a good deed into and get a candy bar out of in return (same goes for God, by the way).

And your duty is to love your spouse with grace, not expecting him/her to do anything to earn your love.  You love that person because they are your spouse.  Love is a posture your heart takes, and, yes, it is a posture his or her heart needs to take as well.  That’s the difference between marriage and our relationship with God: marriage is two-sided, but God’s grace is one-sided (and here is the inevitable place where my analogy falls apart).

So, my secret to a strong and lasting marriage (and mine is in its tenth year, so take that as you will)?  Grace, grace, grace, grace, and more grace.

Love with grace, love actively, love gently, love without expecting love back, love kindly, love patiently, love broadly, love focusedly (okay, I made that word up: it means love just this one person in just this particular way. To be more obvious…no adultery, real or imagined!), love passionately, love with laughter, and above all, love with grace.

What’s a body to do?

For the past four years I have been engaged in the research and writing of a thesis that was the final requirement for my Master of Christian Studies degree from Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  The title of my thesis rather sums up the topic and main concern: “This is My Body: Responding to the Sexual Objectification of Women through a Theology of the Body.”  It should come as no surprise to learn, then, that I’m very passionate about two issues: women’s rights and human embodiment.  Embodiment might not seem to be an issue, as such, but in my experience, human beings—especially 21st Century North American human beings—have very conflicted relationships with our bodies.

Women feel it more acutely: images of the female body are everywhere and used to sell a mind-boggling number of products.  Men, however, are increasingly being targeted by beauty advertising as well, as the recent Hugh Laurie L’Oreal campaign rather painfully demonstrates.  At the same time, North America is (apparently) suffering from an “obesity epidemic” in which bodies are being targeted as the loci of a frantic and pervasive nervousness about health—private and public—and longevity.  North Americans aren’t really sure what to do about death.  We try to put it off by “doing the right things” whether that means “eating right” or “exercising enough.”  If we are not embracing this asceticism aimed at avoiding the unnameable inevitability of death, then we are instead ignoring our bodies, using them as tools of hedonistic self-indulgence: eating, drinking, smoking, or f…well, you get the picture.

Death isn’t going anywhere, of course, so we are forced to deal with it eventually.  How North Americans imagine death is also fascinating.  Both religious and non-religious people attempt to envision so-called spiritual life-after-death.  Popular television deals all the time with questions of what happens after we die, with entire programs dedicated to exploring that undiscovered country, or at least the passenger lounge before one truly departs for it.  Can a troubled “soul” “cross-over” or will s/he need help?  Is there a place—possibly called heaven—where we go when we die or do we just cease to exist?  Do we all go to the same place, or are some of us punished for our misdeeds, and what misdeed is bad enough to warrant such a punishment?  Can we achieve “higher levels” of consciousness and “evolve” to a point where we won’t need physical bodies anymore?

North American culture is deeply, richly steeped in a philosophical tradition called dualism.  Very basically, it is the belief that human beings are made up of a body and a soul/spirit/mind which animates the body.  In most cases, the belief also tends to be that the soul/spirit/mind is the “true person” and that the body is simply a vehicle that the “true person” roams about in.  This leaves the body in a precarious position.  Do we love it or hate it?  Should we rebuild it if it doesn’t look the way we would like?  Should we ensure that we maintain it as carefully as possible so that it doesn’t break down on us?  Does it really matter what I do with my body since it isn’t really me at all?

Christians often buy into this dualism as well, accepting a tradition that first began to creep into Christianity in the days of the Greeks.  Read the epistles of Paul the wrong way and you end up with something close to dualism (i.e. my soul is the best part of me so I can’t wait to die and go to heaven and have no icky, sinful body to contend with).  In my experience, this is a very common error.  I’ve made it myself in the past, considering the soul to be the only part of me that was made in the image of God.  As I’ve journeyed through my theological degree and been led by the Holy Spirit, however, I’ve come to a different understanding, and that understanding is expressed in my thesis.

Human bodies are made in the image of God.  I don’t know exactly what this means except to make sure that you know I don’t believe that God look anything like us (except Jesus, of course, who has a human body!).  My logic goes like this: without bodies, we would make pretty crappy servants of God.  God created a real, physical world filled with an inexpressible diversity of life, and we are a part of that real, physical world.  In fact, God charges us with a task: the care of that world.  We can’t care for God’s world without real, physical bodies.  Nothing I’ve read in the Bible suggests that God created human souls and then decided they needed flesh-suits.  Whether you take Genesis literally or not, it seems pretty clear that God created/caused-the-evolution-of flesh-beings and then made them come alive mentally in a way not shared by the other animals.  In other words, our bodies make us who we are in at least as fundamental a way as our souls—whatever they might be, exactly.

So if we are Christians, I think we need to take our bodies seriously, not treating them with cruelty or disdain nor abusing them with pleasure-seeking.  When we learn to accept our own bodies as gifts of God, then I think we need to learn to accept the bodies of others as such as well.  If all bodies are good gifts, then it is deeply disrespectful to treat any body as nothing but a manipulatable, sellable object.

Expect more words about bodies on this blog, then, since it is a topic which I am passionate about, and one about which I have spent a lot of time in thought.