Consumption and Overconsumption at Tables of Plenty
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
(This is third in a series of talks on the theme “The subversive act of missional worship” given by Debra Dean Murphy at the Convocation in Chicago earlier this year).
“O Taste and See” (Ps. 34:8). For all that Eucharistic fellowship means and for all that it requires of those who share in it, there is this fundamental imperative: We are to nourish and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others. In light of this we need to consider how it is that all our sharing of food (and our withholding or wasting it), our complicity with unjust food systems, and, perhaps most unsettling of all, all our eating (and overeating) are implicated in our participation in the simple meal of bread and wine at the table of the Lord.
At the heart of Christian practice is a modest meal: a bit of bread, a sip of wine or juice. Despite its simplicity (or perhaps because of it), Christians have argued about this supper for centuries. What does it mean? Who can serve it? Who may eat it and when? In recent years other concerns have emerged, having to do with the Eucharist’s relationship to other meals, to the daily bread we consume for physical strength and sustenance. New questions have arisen: Where does our food come from? What are its costs—to land, resources, animals, and workers? Why do millions of people lack access to good food while the rest of us waste so much of it?
A God Who Links Food with Justice. Indeed, it is not only the Lord’s Supper but all of Scripture that prompts these questions and others like them. Throughout the Bible we encounter a God who links food with justice: who hears the cries of the hungry and blesses with harvests of abundance; who chastises the gluttonous and the overfed; who reconciles the estranged through simple meals or fatted-calf feasts. Read More…
The Condition of Our Body. So what are we to make of the unhealthy, overweight body we have become? How do we address—with grace not judgment—the alarming rise in food-related illness and obesity in the bodies of men, women, and children who are members of the Eucharistic body? Read More…
The Role of the Church. There is also the outright awkwardness of talking about overeating and obesity in the church. There is the role that fellowship meals have long played in congregational life: potluck suppers, dinner on the ground—any number of occasions at which Christians gather around tables of plenty. Read More…
The Role of Social Factors. Sociological factors make it difficult to talk about obesity in the church and to frame the issue of overeating eucharistically. Women and girls who struggle with body image issues, for instance, who are trying to resist or who have finally conquered the cultural pressures to be unrealistically thin must now negotiate health warnings about the serious risks of being too fat. Read More…
Addiction? Sin? Sickness? Life-Style? A final reason for the difficulty of confronting these challenges theologically (but by no means the last word on the subject) is the understandable confusion about how to describe the chronic problem of obesity. Is it medical or moral? a sickness or a sin? Has the clinical discourse of addiction, compulsion, and dependence coopted the biblical language of gluttony and lack of self-control? Read More…
A Liturgical Response. A liturgically-rooted response to the crisis of obesity insists, counterintuitively perhaps, that food is meant to be enjoyed and that meals ought to be occasions of extravagance and abundance. (In the Eucharist, after all, we are invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”) Read More…
The Trans-Global Body of Christ. In describing the dual problem of overeating and obesity as not merely a lack of individual willpower but as a crisis of community—as a failure, even, of Eucharistic imagination—we discover that we do not have to bear alone the burden of our destructive patterns of overconsumption. Read More…
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How would you describe the relationship between food and justice?
A God Who Links Food with Justice.
Indeed, it is not only the Lord’s Supper but all of Scripture that prompts these questions and others like them. Throughout the Bible we encounter a God who links food with justice: who hears the cries of the hungry and blesses with harvests of abundance; who chastises the gluttonous and the overfed; who reconciles the estranged through simple meals or fatted-calf feasts. In the gospels, it is Jesus’ table fellowship with social outcasts that most confounds his critics. He tells stories about seeds and soil, farmers and bakerwomen. When he feeds the hillside multitudes with bread and fish, all four evangelists seem keen to tell us that full bellies and plenty of leftovers for others are signs of the reign of God. And in Jesus’ last meal before his execution he reworks Israel’s signature ritual feast to offer his own body and blood as food for his closest companions.
Now we who have been baptized into his death live by consuming Christ. His body—taken, blessed, broken, and shared—makes of us a body. And for all that this means and for all that it requires, there is this fundamental imperative: we are to nourish and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others. Thus all our sharing of food (and our withholding or wasting of it), our complicity with unjust food systems, and, perhaps most unsettling, all our eating (and overeating) are implicated in our participation in this simple, holy meal.
The Condition of Our Body
So what are we to make of the unhealthy, overweight body we have become? How do we address—with grace not judgment—the alarming rise in food-related illness and obesity in the bodies of men, women, and children who are members of the Eucharistic body? According to the Centers for Disease Control, since 1980 obesity prevalence in children and adolescents has more than tripled. One-third of all adults in the U.S. are obese, and more than 60% are overweight. Rates for type-2 diabetes have skyrocketed, especially among the young. 1 A special report in the August 2011 issue of The Lancet forecast 7 million new cases of coronary heart disease and stroke, and more than 500,000 new cancer cases by 2030. 2 Our unhealthy lifestyle choices–mostly having to do with food–will soon cost us $66 billion a year in health care costs.
As grim as these statistics are, they are almost never interpreted theologically or pastorally. The radical individualism of modern western Christianity considers eating and our choices and habits regarding food as both intensely personal and unrelated to “faith.” Moreover, the body/spirit dualism, another sacred precept of modernity, has downplayed and devalued the messy materiality of our lives and bodies. What is important, we’ve learned in Sunday School and in sermons, is the health of our souls (our bodies serving merely as their temporary housing). When Christians have sought to heed St. Paul’s admonition to “present our bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1) we haven’t thought so much about food as about vice, interpreting the passage as a summons to abstinence—from sex for the unmarried and from the evils of drinking and smoking for all.
The Role of the Church
There is also the outright awkwardness of talking about overeating and obesity in the church. There is the role that fellowship meals have long played in congregational life: potluck suppers, dinner on the ground—any number of occasions at which Christians gather around tables of plenty. Perhaps especially in the south these meals have featured the richest of foods, labor-intensive and time-consuming in their preparation: the stereotypical fried chicken feast with all the fixin’s, decadent cakes and pies. Overeating at these communal meals seems almost an obligation—all that effort!—a way to compliment and reward the cooks. To bring up the sin of gluttony in such a context would be a lapse in good table manners.
Church suppers are also linked powerfully to memory and to long-term Christian formation. Through the years parishioners might not remember what Epiphany is or how many Sundays are in Advent, but they recall with fondness a favorite dish lovingly prepared and brought every year to the church picnic. They also sense, rightly, the power of food to create and strengthen community. Shared meals over time are significant occasions for both practicing and growing in faithful Christian witness—for learning to offer and receive hospitality, for cultivating attentiveness to the goodness of creation, for being leisurely present to others in this era of eating fast and eating alone. In ordinary table fellowship (as in the Eucharist) we meet each other at the level of our most basic need. As Frederick Buechner once observed, “It is hard to preserve your dignity with butter on your chin or to keep your distance when asking for the tomato ketchup.” 3 When we eat together we make ourselves available and vulnerable to one another and thus glimpse (and share in) something of the mystery of divine communion. Now someone wants to spoil these powerful experiences with depressing health statistics?
A dramatic rise in the number of overweight clergy makes preaching, teaching, and pastoral counseling about obesity awkward and difficult. In recent years studies have shown what many clergy, their spouses, and attentive lay people have long-known: that pastors often suffer in silence the stresses and burdens of leading a congregation. Loneliness, depression, addiction, the break-up of marriages—these and other painful realities of life in the fishbowl of ordained ministry take a tremendous toll on the physical and emotional well-being of clergy men and women and their families.
In North Carolina, for example, a state that ranks 12th worst in the nation in terms of the percentage of obese citizens, the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School has discovered that rates of chronic disease and obesity in the state’s pastors are significantly higher than those of their non-clergy peers. 4 And yet until very recently little has been said, let alone done, to even acknowledge the problem. Thankfully, efforts like those of the Clergy Health Initiative have begun to break the silence, provide resources, and effect positive changes for pastors, families, and congregations. But as welcome as these developments are, there persists a general lack of pastoral leadership on the inherent connections between food (and food-related health concerns) and Christian discipleship.
The Role of Social Factors
Sociological factors make it difficult to talk about obesity in the church and to frame the issue of overeating eucharistically. Women and girls who struggle with body image issues, for instance, who are trying to resist or who have finally conquered the cultural pressures to be unrealistically thin must now negotiate health warnings about the serious risks of being too fat. And what is “too fat” from the perspective of optimum health? And how (and why) have congregations failed to be hospitable places for those suffering both the silent shame and poor physical health from any number of eating disorders? (And eating and body image concerns are not exclusive to women and girls. And on and on with gender and food and body weight and self-worth.)
Class issues also come into play. Is the current trend toward questioning our food sources and eating more responsibly the privilege of those with the time and resources to pursue such ethics? What are the social and economic conditions that keep many of the working poor in perpetual poor health? And how is it possible for congregations to address these questions honestly when so many churches are segregated by class?
And in terms of race: food and identity go deep. Whether it’s the soul food tradition of African-American cuisine, the carb/corn-rich diet of Latino cultures, or the never-enough butter and salt of white southern cooking, food and shared mealtime rituals profoundly shape racial and cultural identity—and routinely lead to increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Yet what would those Sunday potlucks be without the beloved dishes—homey, comfort fare—of one’s ethnic heritage?
In the Mississippi Delta, where race, class, and gender are coextensive factors in some of the most abysmal health statistics in the U.S. (and where poverty may play the most determinative role of all), long-established patterns of unhealthy eating are being challenged by the charismatic Rev. Michael O. Minor and the National Baptist Convention’s ambitious program of putting a “health ambassador” in each of its 10,000 member churches by September 2012. 5 Minor’s battle against obesity and poor health in the Delta may seem akin, as The New York Times recently put it, to “waging war against humidity,” but he and other area clergy are having some measurable success: “No Fry Zones” in church kitchens; bottled water in place of sweet tea and soft drinks; a well-used walking track on one rural church property.
Still, since churches in Mississippi (and everywhere else) are segregated largely by race, and since racial and cultural identity markers are often assumed to trump Baptism and Eucharist as the practices which make of Christians one body, too many congregations are short on the theological resources to locate alternatives to poor eating habits not just in desired health outcomes but in the food and fellowship shared by the baptized at the Table of the Lord.
Addiction? Sin? Sickness? Life-Style?
A final reason for the difficulty of confronting these challenges theologically (but by no means the last word on the subject) is the understandable confusion about how to describe the chronic problem of obesity. Is it medical or moral? a sickness or a sin? Has the clinical discourse of addiction, compulsion, and dependence coopted the biblical language of gluttony and lack of self-control?
Surely it’s not an either-or proposition. Addictions are real (and complicated) and by definition not vanquished through willpower alone. But there is something about the thoroughgoing medicalization of contemporary life that makes it easy for Christians and Christian communities to cede authority (and sometimes our own best instincts) to medicine, psychotherapy, and pharmaceuticals. Often we defer to doctors because we are both bewildered and intimidated by a health care “industry” that regards human bodies as “potentially defective machines” (in Wendell’s Berry’s memorable phrase). 6 This isolationist view of bodies and health—a highly-paid specialist for this or that organ, for instance—typically regards obesity as an affliction of the autonomous patient-consumer to be treated increasingly with a choice of drugs or surgical procedures.
And thus we also sidestep much of our own culpability in eating too much. We know we should not overindulge but we regard our routine proclivity to excess with a kind of amused resignation. With a shrug and a wink we reach for seconds, for another sliver of pie or a fistful of cookies. Overeating during the “holidays” (now a continuous secular feast from late November till early January) becomes an opportunity for detailed reporting on epic binges and “turkey comas” on the couch. The sins of the body, our repressed Victorian ancestors insisted, are sexual not culinary, so our inability to control our desire for food is deemed regrettable weakness not grave sin. Gluttony—that ugly, old-fashioned word from Scripture—gets made over to refer to any number of vague appetites.
A Liturgical Response
A liturgically-rooted response to the crisis of obesity insists, counterintuitively perhaps, that food is meant to be enjoyed and that meals ought to be occasions of extravagance and abundance. (In the Eucharist, after all, we are invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”) Thus one “solution” to the problem of overconsumption is not deprivation, not endless scrimping and skimping and counting and calculating, but (re)discovering the pleasures of eating. (The slow food movement has much to teach us here). To take delight in good food mindfully prepared is to acknowledge our dependence on the abundant gifts of creation. To experience this delight with others is to move beyond nourishment to conviviality. It is to consume our daily sustenance with the kind of attentive, unhurried gratitude (εὐχαριστία) that the Lord’s Supper summons us to.
Yet this can sound a bit too pious and precious when what I am really craving is a cheeseburger and fries. We are back to our old dilemma: We know we eat too much, want too much of the wrong kind of food, and are doing ourselves serious harm. Of course we need to eat less, exercise more, and learn to desire more healthful food. But we are trapped in habits of mind and body that make conversion difficult. We are by turns compulsive and careless in our eating; at times confident that we can do better (those earnest New Year’s resolutions), at other times resigned to a life of endless struggle with food and weight and compromised health.
But if the Eucharist enacts the unity of the body, then we receive the gifts of bread and wine not as an aggregate of individuals but as those whose lives are linked through acts of mutual care and hospitality. My insecurities and anxieties about food are met by your willingness to be a source of support and encouragement (and truthtelling) to me, however tentative and clumsy our attempts at this may be. The church’s common witness to the bread that gives life, our drinking of the cup of salvation—these realities make sermons and studies and congregational conversations about food and health a natural and necessary outflow of Eucharistic practice. An organic garden on church property or somewhere nearby becomes holy ground: fertile soil in which to grow not only food but friendships, a place where together we work out our salvation (σῴζω=health, wholeness) with shovels and sweat (and a little fear and trembling), trusting that in due season we will indeed “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
The Trans-Global Body of Christ
In describing the dual problem of overeating and obesity as not merely a lack of individual willpower but as a crisis of community—as a failure, even, of Eucharistic imagination—we discover that we do not have to bear alone the burden of our destructive patterns of overconsumption. As we commune with sisters and brothers who experience the same struggles and setbacks, our food-related pathologies are received at the Table of grace.
At the same time, though, we acknowledge that a preoccupation with our own food-related failures can keep us from a true catholicity, from recognizing that in every local assembly is gathered the transglobal body of Christ. In fellowship and responsibility we are joined to these sisters and brothers far and near. Therefore at the Lord’s Table we confess our complicity with an industrial food system that contributes not only to our own poor health but to that of our neighbors and to the planet. As fast food has gone global, heretofore unexperienced health crises are emerging around the world. U.S. agricultural policy, with its heavy crop (corn) subsidies, has meant the underwriting of chronic obesity in those who are forced to subsist on cheap, processed, overly-sweetened foods.
Yet through the gifts of bread and wine our lives are linked to theirs: “When one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (I Cor. 12:26). At every local celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the welcome intrusion of the universal body of Christ, and the work of justice flows outward from the Table to the neighbor in need. This meal is the revolutionary witness to the health and well-being that God desires for all of creation; it marks the intersection of what has been with what will be.
“Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness,” observes Robert Farrar Capon. 7 Blueberries and tomato sandwiches (and church supper casseroles) are material evidence of the sheer gratuity of creation. In the Eucharist—also a sign of superfluous abundance—we receive even our own lives as gifts and learn that the whole of creation lives from the inexhaustible generosity of God. It is a modest meal—a bit of bread, a sip of wine or juice. But in and through it are possibilities for transformed living. With thanksgiving we eat and drink to the health of our bodies and our world, Sunday and every day.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How would you describe the relationship between food and justice?
- Why is it important for the church to address issues dealing with food and consumption?
- How has the church contributed to overeating and obesity?
- Identify cultural issues within your context that influence eating patterns.
- In what ways can (re)discovering the pleasures of eating address issues of overeating?
- How can a liturgical approach stimulate constructive conversation and action regarding food and justice?
3 Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC’s, revised and expanded (Harper San Francisco, 1993), 64.
6 Wendell Berry, “Health is Membership” in Another Turn of the Crank (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1995), 89.
Debra Dean Murphy is Assistant Professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Debra brings wisdom and passion around the dynamic intersection of Christian formation and the church as a worshipping community. While she continues to write on this subject, her foundational work is, Teaching that Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education. Debra currently chairs the Board of Ekklesia Project, and has her own blog, Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.