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Thirteen Theses on Food Ethics

Since this has recently been pushed to the forefront of debate in Moscow circles, and is something my wife and I have been thinking about a lot ourselves, I decided to try to crystallize some thoughts in these thirteen theses.  They are not very eloquent or gripping, I'm afraid, but that's what happens when you're trying to cover all the bases.

As I believe Martin Luther showed us well, the point of posting theses is to get people to have at it.  So, if you have a desire to debate any of these, please do so:
  1. Since God created us with bodies designed to work in certain ways and eat certain foods but not others, we have a duty before God to exercise good stewardship over our bodies, so that we can use them and our resources effectively in his service, rather than becoming weak or expending enormous resources on treating preventable diseases.  This means that we have a responsibility to eat food that will benefit, rather than destroy, our bodies.
  2. Since God created food and drink in such a way as to give us great pleasure and enjoyment, we ought to gratefully accept and enjoy these gifts, rejoicing before him with each bite we eat and each sip we drink, and not scorning the great pleasures he has so kindly given us.  
  3. In God’s providence, these two duties work together, rather than against one another.  That which is a blessing to our body should also be a joy to partake of, and that which is harmful to us should be unpleasant.  However, in a fallen world, we find that what is harmful to us seems at first sweet and pleasant, though it proves otherwise at the end, and what is good for us is often difficult at first--this is true in many areas of our lives, food included.  Nevertheless, as in the rest of our lives (sex, literature, exercise, etc.), diligent effort and training will move us beyond a childish appreciation of more shallow pleasures and help us to enjoy more richly and deeply that which is truly wholesome for us.  Therefore, we can expect that we will indeed find that our duty to rejoice in God’s good gifts of food will be best fulfilled by eating that which he designed for our nourishment.
  4. Because food is no small matter, but is the very source of our life and health, the means by which we commune with one another, and, in the Sacrament, with God, we ought not to be careless with it, but ought to seek to understand what it is that we eat and drink, so that we may pursue responsibility to be well-informed about what we’re eating, so that we may enjoy it better and nourish ourselves better.
  5. Of course every responsibility we have in life must be balanced with all others.  It is impossible for any man to successfully fulfill every godly demand on his time and attention.  Therefore, in pursuing these godly responsibilities regarding eating good food, no one should exalt them to the point of neglecting other responsibilities.  Therefore, it may well prove that due to other pressing demands on our time and money, we will have to compromise the pursuit of health and excellence in our food, and this being unavoidable, it is also above reproach when accompanied by a godly attitude. 
  6. Eating well does not mean always eating the healthiest possible food, but pursuing, on the whole, a lifestyle of healthy and joyful eating.  Again, other areas of life can provide good analogies--the pursuit of excellence in art does not mean that every book we read or music we listen to must be a preeminent example of great art, but it does mean that we should not make the baser examples our daily fare.  
  7. In addition to the responsibility we have to eat healthily, we have a responsibility not to purchase food products that have been produced in blatantly sinful ways.  Just as we should not buy cars from a used-car salesmen whom we know to have stolen the cars from old ladies, neither should we buy meat from farmers or corporations who abuse their animals (which is the case with the vast majority of meat in the US today), or coffee from farmers who have been oppressed or cheated.
  8. In many cases (e.g., the exploitation of coffee farmers), there will be just cause for debate as to whether or not actual injustice has dominated the production process, but where there is not reasonable doubt about this, neither is their reasonable doubt regarding our responsibility.  
  9. St. Paul’s statements about food and the indifference of what one eats are made in a very specific context of discouraging Pharisaic insistence on certain religious laws concerning food that divided a Christian community no longer bound by such laws.  To apply these very specific remarks to modern debates over whether or not to eat artificial, unethically-produced, or genetically-modified foods, as if Paul meant to say no ordinary criteria of prudence or ethical judgment applied in the realm of food, is careless and absurd.   
  10. While learning to eat well and ethically is certainly a virtue, this does not mean that the failure to do so is in itself a sin.  Lack of time and resources, ignorance, and a different understanding of one’s duties before God are all legitimate reasons for failure to pursue excellence in this area.   Sin enters the picture when one freely, knowingly and willfully chooses to consistently eat food that is unhealthy and/or unethically produced, or when one remains willfully ignorant about the food one eats, for fear of having to change.
  11. Therefore, the pursuit of eating well, and the encouraging of others in that pursuit, is not legalism, as many have charged.  It would be legalism to insist that every failure to do so is sin, or to draw artificial lines in the sand about what constituted righteous and unrighteous eating.  However, the cultivation of healthy attitudes and practices, the discouragement of unhealthy ones, and the condemnation of blatant indifference, sloth and irresponsibility is no legalism, but a godly quest for virtue.  
  12. Even this, of course, may be done with an arrogant, judgmental, and legalistic attitude, and this should be condemned.  But one can take a certain position with a legalistic attitude, without thereby making that position legalistic.  
  13. The quest for virtue in this area must be a communal undertaking, rather than mere individualistic moralizing, if it is not to become a source of strife, arrogance, and division.


I was tracking with you until #7. How do you hold that stance in light of what Paul says about meat sacrificed to idols?

Also, I'm not sure how #9 and #10 fit together. It seems that you're basically repeating Romans 14 in your tenth thesis, yet you seem to say it doesn't apply in the ninth. So, I guess the direct way to handle this would be to ask this: why doesn't Romans 14 apply here?

February 13, 2010 at 8:46 PM  

I think you're generally on track, but would agree with Donnie on the whole idea of what Paul says about food sacrificed to idols.

Would it not be better to say that my conscience should not be burdened if I am rightly suspicious about many foods in the marketplace that are largely unavoidable (like meat sacificed to idols in the 1st cent, or genetically altered and patented soybeans in the 21st), but that I should care enough about both justice and my body that I consider the larger effects of my economic vote as part of my economic stewardship before God.

February 14, 2010 at 7:16 PM  

Re: #7. I have to agree with Donny and your dad. This is the kind of moral surgery that requires a scalpel, not a sledgehammer (even though I agree with your long-term goals).

Suggestion: maybe you're being apocalyptic again when you should be eschatological?

February 14, 2010 at 7:39 PM  

Just another thought in lieu of my last comment:

What would you tell Paul after he failed to command Philemon to have nothing more to do with the Roman system of slavery?

February 14, 2010 at 7:42 PM  

Thanks for the interaction, though Davey, you should know me well enough to know that this was a scalpel, not a sledgehammer...or at least the closest I could get to one (though, with this interaction, perhaps I can sharpen it a bit).
And I don't know what you mean by being "apocalyptic again"; my general ethical posture is certainly "eschatological," if by that you mean "patient," though not if by that you mean "complacent," as some people seem to. And as proof of that claim, I assure you that I am a big fan of Paul's teaching on slavery, having just defended it in a letter to St. Paul's Cathedral.

Now, let's see about sharpening that scalpel. First, there are two distinct passages here: Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. The first is, so far as I understand, about the observance or non-observance of Jewish food laws, and is what I was referring to in Thesis 9.

1 Corinthians 8, on food sacrificed to idols, does need more attention than I gave it. It's hard to figure out exactly how this applies because it's so different from anything in our own society. It does seem that there is a distinction, however, because Paul's rationale (or rather, the Corinthians' rationale that he is hesitantly affirming) for the legitimacy of buying and eating this meat is that the idols have no real existence, and so the sacrificing of this meat is meaningless and can be disregarded. Oppression of animals or of people does have a very real existence and cannot be disregarded. Moreover, the concern in Corinthians seems to be whether one is defiled by eating the item, and Paul is saying clearly that they are not. Clearly I am not defiled by eating a feed-lot-produced hamburger (except possibly by E.Coli!). This is a separate issue from the ethics of purchasing, which is a matter of choosing to support an unrighteous system.

Now, the Corinthians who bought meat sacrificed to idols were financially supporting the pagan temples, one could argue, but (and here's where the pragmatic element enters in) that purchasing decision has no influence on whether the temples keep running--selling meat is very much a side-business and not the main source of their income, and in any case, they are publically supported and will not stop sacrificing until Christian worship has taken over the polis. Moreover, as I understand, the meat sacrificed to idols was not clearly marked separately in the meat-market, and so the alternative facing the Corinthians was to refuse to eat meat altogether. We live in a different situation, where, since producers depend purely on our buying habits, these habits can have a tremendous effect on how food is produced, and where a little bit of extra effort and money can find feasible alternatives.

But, nevertheless, the scalpel does need to be sharpened. Following the way Paul handles things, I don't want to emphasize: "here is the line; if you cross it, you have sinned," but rather "here is the goal, why don't you make decisions that move in that direction, instead of settling for the problematic status quo?" (So, along the lines that Dad sketched in his comment.) In other words, a virtue ethics, rather than a law ethics. I was trying to do that with theses 11 and 13, but I see now that 7 and 10 may need to be rephrased a bit to shift that emphasis.

February 15, 2010 at 5:52 PM  

The virtue ethic sounds much more adequate. And less apocalyptic. :)

The way that the original thesis #7 was phrased, in my inexpert opinion, leads inevitably to an apocalyptic ethic along the lines of: if there's sin in the system, we are forbidden from having anything to do with the system's products. It now sounds like you wouldn't want to go that far. But by bringing up the example of the old-lady-thieving car dealership, you imply that very thing.

Again, I'm all for articulating an ethic which opposes these exact sorts of abuses. The real question for me, however, is *how* we pursue that ethic. Do we demand its spotless observance now, to the extent that any participation in a corrupt system necessarily imparts (an avoidable) sin to the participant? That's what I might call an apocalyptic ethic. And I think this could equally apply to certain critiques of the modern state, as well.

On a side note: Anabaptists would own up to the apocalyptic ethic. How much of it would you be willing to own or disown when it comes to the modern state?

February 15, 2010 at 6:05 PM  

Let me see if I can avoid trying to answer head-on a question like "Anabaptists would own up to the apocalyptic ethic. How much of it would you be willing to own or disown when it comes to the modern state?" and let me say this instead:

I would certainly resist the language of "Any participation in a corrupt system necessarily imparts (an avoidable) sin to the participant?" These words are all quite abstract. What does "participation" in a "system" mean? Is Western capitalism a system? Well, I suppose so...a really big one. Is it corrupt? You betcha. What would it mean to "not participate" in it? Even the most radical Anabaptists, like the Amish, could hardly claim that. Modern states are corrupt systems, but we inevitably participate in them in many ways. At the very least, we are clearly commanded to pay taxes, perhaps for the very reason that Paul doesn't want us fooling ourselves into thinking that we are not in any way involved. "Systems," whatever they may be, are not vast ritually unclean objects, that will stain us if we touch them--we are holy, and if we remain faithful, all that we touch will become holy too.

So, it's much more a matter of concrete practices--negatively and positively. Negatively, we need to try to avoid practices that are involved in very clear and direct ways with supporting clear and direct sin. If we know the local used car salesman stole his cars from widows in the next town, then buying cars from him is a more concrete problem than "participating in a corrupt system." Going to a benefit banquet for Planned Parenthood is the kind of concrete practice to avoid, as is voting for a corrupt and godless politician. Positively, it means engaging in concrete practices that tend towards the goals of the Church--practices that will weaken and undermine corrupt systems, and encourage righteousness in their place. This means shopping intelligently, using our money as much as possible to buy good products from good people and good companies. This means promoting alternative forms of "political action" from those demanded by the nation-state. This means partnering with men and women of goodwill to feed and clothe. This means uniting the Church, even when some of its branches are more rotten than we'd prefer. Etc., etc.

How's that?

Thanks for forcing me to clarify my thoughts here.

February 15, 2010 at 8:56 PM  

I'm still not sure how you're avoiding the problem of what Paul mentions in Corinthians. Buying food sacrificed to idols seems pretty darn concrete.

And then there's the larger pastoral concern. This sort of approach very easily devolves into a competition. The semi-righteous buy organic label food at Walmart. The righteous boycot Walmart. And the super-righteous? They grow all their vegetables in their backyard.

I'm not saying you're intentionally setting up this spectrum of wisdom/righteousness, but it seems unavoidable, and I really don't know how to respond to it. Obviously we don't avoid the issue entirely because some people might get self-righteous, but it does have to inform our tone and attitude.

Plus, we have to watch what we critique. The "food system" might be corrupt, but there's also plenty of good going on in it, too. So encouraging righteousness, wherever it may be found, seems a lot more important than undermining corrupt systems.

And this is really part of a broader point I'm noticing about these discussions on food: everything is so interwoven, it's nearly impossible to really distinguish all the threads of discussion. There are ethical, aesthetic, political, environmental and nutritional concerns involved in this issue. And that's not even counting the good aspects that may be in the current food system. It's so complicated, it also seems unhelpful to call our food system "corrupt". What, concretely, does that mean?

Only when we get that nailed down can we start talking about how to respond to it.

February 15, 2010 at 9:21 PM  

Hey Donny,
As far as your first question, I really thought I'd engaged with that. Buying the meat sacrificed to idols was not really supporting the pagan temples in the same way that buying meat produced in CAFOs in supporting animal abuse.

As far as the concern about a sort of competitive, graded-righteousness mentality...well, I don't see how that's a product of my approach, per se. Anytime you say, "OK, here's a goal for improving the world that we Christians need to pursue" (which, it seems to me, is the very least you could say on this issue), you're going to have some people pursuing it more aggressively, some more lackadaisically, and that can easily lead to a comparative righteousness mentality. The way to address that pastorally, it seems to me, is to emphasize what I did in thesis 13--this is a communal pursuit, not an individual pursuit.

Finally, I never called the food industry a "corrupt system," I don't think...Davey introduced that language into the discussion. But, I think it's an acceptable way of talking about it. If you watch Food, Inc., you understand that the problems are not isolated cases of abuse, but structural incentives that are completely skewed toward minimal health concern, maximal concern for profit, treating animals like temporary, disposable machines, centralization in a few massive corporations and thus disenfranchisement of the individual farmers, and manipulative marketing and monopolization. Are there good things happening in the food industry? To be sure, but there are in the US government too, and that is surely a corrupt system if there ever was one.

February 17, 2010 at 8:04 AM  


First, the pastoral thing. This isn't so much a point of rebuttal as just a concern to be talked about. Essentially, how can we pursue encourage others to pursue this goal without causing division, which is one of Paul's biggest concerns. I really think the issue of unity and ethical strife is much greater than the particular issue of food, and Paul's claim that he wouldn't eat meat to avoid offense is very strong. I feel like it should be factoring in quite a bit, but I'm just not quite sure how.
As for the communal thing, sure, it can help, but it can also alienate even more. Now, if someone isn't pursuing these goals hard enough, they are not working toward the common goals of the community. They aren't part of "us", because "us" starts getting defined in terms of good. It can easily become a sacramental badge, and that's scary.
Again, that's not a refutation of your point, just something to be discussed.

Now, onto the food sacrificed to idols. I brought it up again because of your previous response to Davey, when you spoke about going to a dinner with Planned Parenthood or buying the card from the evil car salesman. I don't see how your words there fit your claims about food sacrificed to idols. Regardless of what you want to say about the existence of idols vs. animals, it still boils down to what argument you are using against purchasing certain sorts of food, and whether it should apply to the case of food sacrificed to idols. The distinction you drew out to distinguish idol food and buying feed lot beef was a pragmatic one, which just didn't seem to fit with you talk later. Is the issue really how much money we're giving them, whether this particular area of purchase is crucially supporting their business or not? Is that really why you don't buy from the evil used car salesman? I don't think so. You brought up what ends we are working toward, whether we are "engaging in concrete practices that tend toward the goals of the church". That seems like a good direction to move, but, again, how does this apply to the food system and not to food sacrificed to idols? I'm just not seeing it.

And finally, the "corrupt" part. You did exactly what I'm saying is making this conversation so foggy. You referenced huge, sweeping problems, blended them all together, and said the system is corrupt (or "blatantly sinful", to use your original words). But I want to distinguish - not separate, but distinguish - these problems, so I know what exactly they are. That should help inform our reaction to them. This is also important because some of the problems you pointed out seem to apply to a number of other areas (manipulative marketing, profit-driven incentives, etc.).
So, again, what specifically are these problems?

February 17, 2010 at 4:25 PM  

Hey Donny,
Sorry it's taken me so long to find time to get back to this.

First, as for the pastoral concerns, absolutely. But that can be true for any ethical issue, and if it's a genuine ethical issue, the reaction should never be, "Oh, let's just steer clear of this issue because some people might get offended and others might get arrogant." But by all means all due pastoral caution and humility should be observed (that's why, for example, I posted these thoughts here, not on Facebook).

Second, you seem to think there's an inconsistency in my use of a pragmatic argument to distinguish this issue from food sacrificed to idols--"Is the issue really how much money we're giving them, whether this particular area of purchase is crucially supporting their business or not? Is that really why you don't buy from the evil used car salesman?" I think that really is the issue. I am certainly not maintaining that the very fact of buying from an evil producer or seller makes me evil--surely not! If so, we'd probably starve. The question is whether our purchases have a material effect on helping the wicked production process continue, which is a largely pragmatic question. When our purchases do have such an effect, we have a responsibility to work toward changing our purchasing habits so as to undermine wicked production practices. And the more wicked the practice, and the more direct our connection to it (e.g., the used car salesman), the more pressing this responsibility is.

As far as "corrupt system," I think this is unfair. My point was that I have not talked about the food system as a "corrupt system" or alleged that as the reason we need improve our eating and buying habits. When you raised the question of it being a "corrupt system," I responded by saying that you could easily argue it is, for a bunch of different reasons. But by all means, when making particular ethical judgments, we should distinguish the various problems, rather than simply saying, "Corrupt system! Run away!"
I don't really understand your last question--if abuse of animals isn't a serious ethical problem...if exploitation of third-world farmers isn't a serious problem...if deceptive advertising isn't a serious problem...if carelessness about health standards isn't a serious problem, then I don't know what specific problems I need to list. That's not to deny that we need to carefully examine each of these ethical problems one at a time, only to say that there are quite a number of them to be examined.

February 22, 2010 at 10:05 AM  

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