In the first two posts of this series, Kim shared personal health reasons for beginning our food journey. However, this journey is about more than our individual health. We know that the redemption of our bodies and the redemption of all bodies – human and non-human – are intimately connected. Understanding this connection, we both deeply want to align our eating habits with our values for environmental and social justice. “Food justice” is our short hand for all the interconnected aspects of eating faithfully – in other words, relating to food in ways that participate in healing our bodies, regenerating the land and promoting human flourishing.
Food justice begins with hearing the groans of creation and opening our eyes to the devastating effects of our industrial food production practices. My awareness of environmental degradation began as a teenager reading The Grapes of Wrath in a high school English class. One of the images burned into my memory is the tractor.
Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades – not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders – twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping with out passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses (Steinbeck, p. 36).
The top soil eroded and blew away during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s largely because of the farming practices that destroyed the native grasses whose extensive root systems were critical for soil stability. Steinbeck’s graphic rape metaphor is jarring, yet, so is the crisis we face. Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish climate activist, delivered a jarring message of her own at the United Nations Climate Action Summit this month.
This is all wrong… How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.
Steinbeck also points to the economics that kill the land and threaten human life.
The owner men went on leading to their point: You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.
The squatters nodded – they knew, God knew. If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land.
Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were… But -you see, a bank or a company… breathe profits; they eat the interest on money… It is a sad thing, but it is so… The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size (Steinbeck, p. 33).
Over the years I have learned more about the effects of industrial agriculture (conventional farming) on the environment, human health and social justice. It is not a pretty picture.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).
Paul’s words are not a cute way of saying that the world is eager for some spiritual transaction to occur where “the saved” are whisked away to heaven and leave this world behind. Paul is echoing a constant and critical voice within his Jewish faith: the land bears the fruit of humanity’s relationship with God. When we break faith with God by refusing to live as God’s image-bearers, and specifically as creation’s stewards, the land is cursed (Genesis 3:17-19).
Biblical scholar Ellen Davis writes,
We are literally consuming our planet, taking our food in a way that violates its natural systems… In this situation, it is instructive to notice that the first human sin, as the Bible represents it, is an eating violation. God sets a limit, and the humans choose to override it. God responds with a question both indignant and incredulous: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat” (Genesis 3:11). The immediate result of this first violation is that the ground itself is “cursed” (3:17). It sprouts “thorns and thistles,” a clear sign of fragile land that has been mistreated. A group of young farmers with whom I studied this passaged opened my eyes to what any ordinary Israelite would have seen in it. They said, “It’s obvious: when humans are disconnected from God, the soil will be the first to suffer.”
The truth we should not miss in these passages is that adam and adamah, humanity and fertile soil, are bound together; there can be no long-term flourishing of the one without the other. As the young farmers saw, human dysfunction evidences itself in the natural order (from “Knowing Our Place on Earth: Learning Environmental Responsibility from the Old Testament” in The Green Bible).
Humanity’s disordered longing for autonomy, power, status, money, etc., is killing the earth. We live as if the environment is merely another object to “use.” Consumerism is the liturgy of our daily lives wherein we sacrifice our humanity and worship the myth of “eternal economic growth.” Creation is groaning for our redemption, for our liberation to take up our full humanity as God’s children faithfully serving and observing the garden’s vitality that is inextricably linked to the flourishing of all life. We have to answer its call.
Becoming aware of the death the creation suffers, we lament, joining with creation’s groans in eager hope for liberation. Then, we repent. As Kim and I put our learning into practice, we will have to challenge our own consumerism, reclaim our humanity, and invest in healing the wounds we inflict on the earth and others.