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Soul Food – February 27, 2011

In Madison, Wisconsin, for the past two weeks, demonstrators have occupied the state capital building. They are gathered there in protest of a bill proposed by the governor of that state that would greatly reduce the power of state employees to engage in collective bargaining. Many of the protesters come from fields directly affected by the legislation: public school teachers and people who work for state offices and agencies. There are also folks from other state unions specifically exempted from the law: firefighters and police officers, and other people with their own individual stories who are supportive of the effort.

The thousands of people filling the capital rotunda in Madison are disrupting the way business would otherwise be conducted by the state government of Wisconsin, and I recognize that not everyone in this country, or in this sanctuary agrees with that. When people confront systems of power to protect rights they are already promised, or to demand rights they believe they are owed, it takes courage and determination and a willingness to be unpopular. It also, most times, takes patience and the ability to endure. The protesters in Madison have slogans to chant and placards to wave. Some of them have drums to beat on and, I understand, a few folks from the firefighters’ union even have bagpipes to play. What they’ve needed, in order to hold their ground for these past twelve days or so, is something that absolutely all of us need, pretty much every day of our lives: food.

Keeping that many people fed is a real challenge, particularly when most of them are workers on strike who aren’t going to work and aren’t collecting their regular paycheck. So I was fascinated to hear earlier this week of one enterprising Madison business that has figured out a way for supporters in other areas to help. Through the magic of the telephone and the internet, people from anywhere in the world can be and have been ordering pizza from a restaurant called Ian’s that they will deliver to the hungry people sleeping on the floor of the state capital. Ian’s Pizza reports that it has taken orders from all fifty states, and more than two dozen countries, and there have been days this past week when the owners have had to cut off donations at $25,000 – they just can’t make any more pizza than that in a day.[i]

The work of life requires fuel to do it. The things that we want to do, the things that we have to do, the things that our hearts and spirits demand that we do: all of these things take energy, and that energy comes from the food we eat. Food is a vital, universal and constant human need. And yet for those who have enough of it, it is something very easily taken for granted. Voltaire said that, “Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” In the world that we share, these seem to be the two primary ways of looking at food: as necessity, and as pleasure. When we view food only as a necessity, it doesn’t much matter what we eat, as long as it gets us full and keeps us going. When we view food only as a source of pleasure, then the taste, the smell, the experience of eating matters quite a lot, but nothing else does. When we have a choice about what we eat, these are often the only two factors we consider.

Some part of the modern American relationship with food can be traced back to the very early days of Christianity. Second Temple Judaism, the religion that Jesus would have grown up in, and that both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism grew out of, had a system of dietary ethics. Certain foods were permitted, and others were not; in particular, there was a fairly long list of animals which were considered unclean, and so could not be eaten. In the continuing evolution of Judaism, the Rabbis would go on to codify and elaborate on this list of rules.

Christianity took a different turn. The young religious movement had limited growth potential within the Roman Empire; it was still practicing the rules and expectations of Second Temple Judaism, and many of these did not travel well. In particular, Romans didn’t share the same strictures about what they would eat, which made it difficult, if not impossible for someone following Jewish dietary laws to share a meal in the house of a Roman. The Christian scriptures describe a series of changes in practice that made the new movement more palatable and open to Roman converts. In one of them, the apostle Peter experiences a vision apparently telling him to eat the flesh of any and every animal; anything that flies or swims or walks. The distinction between clean and unclean food for him and his community had been lifted, and he could now eat whatever with whomever he wanted.

That shift, which initially allowed Christianity a greater outreach and appeal, has had broad implications in nations and cultures shaped by Christianity, including our own. While some set of rules or ethics about what should or should not be eaten is fairly common among the world’s religions, it is an anomaly among Christians. In fact, religious and cultural communities living in or subject to predominantly Christian communities have sometimes been targeted for such differences, or had them used as a means of harassment. Both Judaism and Islam prohibit eating pig, and after Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, formerly non-Christian families that had converted rather than face exile were expected to demonstrate their transformation by eating pork. In 1857, a rebellion among Muslim and Hindu soldiers serving in the British army in India was sparked in part because of new orders for the loading of their rifles: they were now required to open the pre-made packets of gunpowder with their teeth. These packets were widely believed to be treated with fat rendered from cows and pigs – again, animals not permitted for eating by Hindus and Muslims, respectively.

Besides the lingering influence of Christianity’s conscious break with Jewish practice, the availability of food has played a huge role in the way we think about what we eat. Hunger is very real, very painful and sometimes deadly reality – all over the world, and here in the US. If it were not, our congregation’s Tuesday Night Supper Program would have no one to feed. Some of us here today have experienced real hunger in our lives; a few of us may even be experiencing it now. For people who do live through the absence of food, and later become stable enough that that stops being an immediate concern, the determination to avoid ever feeling that again often remains very strong. The author Jonathan Safran Foer tells a story about being enlisted by his grandmother in what he calls her “food acquisition missions”:

“I remember the sale of some pelleted bran cereal, for which the coupon limited three boxes per customer. After buying three boxes herself, my grandmother sent my brother and me to buy three boxes each while she waited at the door. What must I have looked like to the cashier? A five-year-old boy using a coupon to buy multiple boxes of a foodstuff that not even a genuinely starving person would willfully eat? We went back an hour later and did it again.”[ii]

Today we live in a country that is said to have four major food groups: fast, frozen, instant and chocolate. When we talk about food it is sometimes as a necessity and frequently as a pleasure but rarely as a matter that ethics should have any influence over. I find that there is a great moral vacuum in the way that we collectively understand our food, often even for those of us who deeply care about doing what is right in all the other parts of our lives. I said as much in a conversation I had a week ago with some friends – over dinner, of course. And one of them, I am very grateful to say, contradicted me. What she experienced in the way our society deals with food was not a glaring lack of morality, but an oppressive over-abundance of it. She described judgment from others about what she eats, in particular what she is seen eating. She spoke of a moralizing expectation that she should make ‘healthy choices;’ not that the food she eats should actually be good for her body and its needs, but that it should be considered ‘slimming,’ and should be served in small quantities. Most of all, she talked about the many ways that she is told subtly and directly that she should appear at all times to be doing her best to lose weight.

I have spent my whole life being both skinny and male, and nothing I’ve eaten in that time has done much to change that, so I don’t always think about the minefield of cultural expectations connecting body type and food. But it is always there, as my friend reminded me. So two voices about food then: a stern resistance to any moral or ethical judgment about what should be eaten, on the one hand, and a sharp field of expectations about what sort of foods we ought to eat, based on our gender, age and body-type. It makes for a harsh combination.

But it is not, I believe, an ailment that can be cured by harshness in return. Among the many reasons that I am a Unitarian Universalist is this: I do not put much stock in guilt as a means for creating positive change in myself and those around me. The more precious and personal a choice is to a person, the more closely they will guard it. The food we eat is the stuff that we choose to put into our bodies, to be the fuel for the work we do, to literally become us. So the choices that we make about food are among the most intimately personal choices in our lives. They can be changed effectively only when we decide to change them for ourselves.

Many of you know that I am vegan – I do not eat flesh from animals or anything else that comes from animals. It was not always so, with me. As the staff of my college dining hall could attest, together with my long-suffering, but ever-so-patient mother before them, my diet for the majority of my life was built on a solid foundation of hamburgers and pepperoni pizza. When I fell in love with a vegan, nothing my eating habits changed. But strange things happen when you love a person. You listen to them. You try to appreciate how they think. You attempt to step into their emotional and philosophical world, even if only for a moment. Years later, by the time we moved in together, most of my excuses had gone: I no longer believed that my eating animals was right; all I had left was the sad certainty that since I ate so few foods to begin with, if I chose to give up meat, I’d have almost nothing left. After a short time in our new apartment, even that was gone. I found out that vegan food, when not made as an afterthought by an institutional kitchen, as had been the case in college, could actually be quite tasty. The final trigger came when I started studying to become a minister. I was setting out to spend my life trying to convince people to live up to their own high ideals. Shouldn’t I start by living up to my own?

I share that abridged version of my own story with you not with the intention that you will see things exactly as I see them, and make exactly the same choice that I have made, but in the hopes that you will make a choice. The choice to engage our moral power as human beings with regard to what we eat is a radical activity. It breaks down the false barrier between the body and the soul and affirms that we – our whole selves – are holy, and so everything that we do with those selves should be grounded in that holiness. As Unitarian Universalists we are notoriously particular about the ideas we will entertain. We rejected Hellfire, because we found that it was harmful to human life. We discarded the Trinity, because we found neither logic nor meaning in it. And we removed ourselves from the authority of religious hierarchies and their lifeless dogma because we believed in the sacred power of individuals to find truth for themselves, and to form egalitarian communities in which to pursue it. If we refuse to be fed on narrow creeds and harsh doctrines, why would we be any less intentional in considering what foods to feed ourselves?

Ninety-nine years before the current protests in Wisconsin, a different group of labors, not far from here, in Lawrence, began their own strike. They were textile mill workers, mostly women and girls, almost all of them immigrants without a shared ethnic or cultural identity to unite them. Their months-long strike came to be associated with the demand for “bread and roses” after a poem that was popular at the time. Bread to feed the body; roses to nurture the soul. There are many questions that we will be called on to consider, if we devote the same moral reasoning to our eating habits that we employ in other facets of our lives: Where did my food come from? Whose labor made it possible, and under what conditions did they work? Who suffers, so that I can eat? What cost did the planet have to pay, so that I could enjoy this meal? And ever as always: What’s for dinner? As we seek ways to live that put us at peace with the answers to these questions, may we remember that the fuel we choose for the work of life matters, and that the food we choose for the body, is also food for the soul.


[ii] From Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, Little, Brown and Company, 2009.


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