At the biological level, food is vitally important, as something necessary for the life of all animals; human and nonhuman. For Christians – creatures of God who are also called to be disciples – food is also theologically important, as something vital for God’s creatures and deriving from God’s creation, for which we are totally dependent on God and within which humans have been given some measure of responsibility.
Because it is important, food can be controversial to debate. All the more controversial, too, among Christians seeking to discern how to respond to the call to be servants of Christ in the world. Paul acknowledges this in his letter to the Roman church, navigating in Romans 14 an ongoing debate between those who “eat only vegetables” and those who “believe in eating anything” (14:2). This debate, being part of a wider debate in the ancient church over the extent to which Christians needed to observe the prohibitions of Jewish Law, does not map easily onto modern discussions about food – it is not the ancient equivalent of a disagreement between a vegetarian and a meat-eater today! Rather, meat sacrificed to pagan idols seems to have been the real point of contention, with Jewish Christians abstaining on the grounds that eating it was blasphemy, while Gentile Christians pointed to Christ’s liberation of humanity from the constraints of the Law.
This freedom is made clear to Peter in Acts, when he is told that “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:15). This proclamation, however, can only be understood in light of Paul’s reminder to the church in Corinth, that “‘All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up” (1 Cor. 10:23). There is an infinite distance between a thing between ritually pure or legal – and all food, from a Christian standpoint, is this – and that thing being morally unproblematic. Name-brand trainers sewn in sweatshops are ritually pure and legal to buy, after all – it is the destructive relationships at the heart of the system that produces them that creates a problem for Christians seeking to be signs of the kingdom in the world.
By way of disclosure, I’m ‘mostly vegan’ – I eat vegan at home and try hard to stay vegan outside the house, making concessions when necessary for reasons of geography or hospitality. I believe there is a strong theological and scriptural case to be made for vegetarianism as a Christian practice; that part of my faithful response to the love God gives me in Jesus is to practice love of the other in all my worldly relationships, including my relationships with nonhuman animals and consideration of how my choices as a consumer affect them. If I am being hosted somewhere vegan food is neither provided nor available, however, there is a degree of tension between my responsibility to whoever is hosting and feeding me and the responsibility I perceive I have to my nonhuman brothers and sisters. On the one hand, I attempt to minimise harm done to other animals through my choices of what to eat; on the other, I try to avoid my dietary ethics becoming a barrier to relationship with people who do not view food as I do. This tension does not have an easy fix, and is just one example of the impossibility of eating a perfect diet. Food is rarely an easy thing to engage with, once the commitment is made to really think about it – but that just makes the task of reflecting on it all the more worthwhile.
Paul recognised food’s importance; but he also recognised the futility of striving to eat ‘perfectly’, and the damage that can be done when one point of contention becomes a defining and divisive issue for a community. This can be seen in the practical instruction he gives to the Roman church – one short passage is particularly pertinent:
Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? (14:3-4)
Paul’s message to the Romans – and to us – is clear. Even if we disagree about how we, as Christians, ought to relate to food, we are called to love and respect our sisters and brothers in Christ. This does not mean we should be surprised to find that we do not always agree with them, but that this disagreement – if it can be worked through in love – can be a blessing. Talking and listening are vital for communities that want to discern how to serve Christ in the world – they are a vital part of the process wherein we are moved by God’s Spirit to see the world and our task in it anew. This talking and listening is paramount when it comes to food, where there is no such thing as a perfect diet and all our eating choices impact upon creation. And genuine listening, as Paul counselled the Romans, requires abstaining from judgement and being open to seeing things differently – a point that goes equally for meat-eaters, vegetarians, vegans, raw-foodists, and everyone in between.
Thanks for reading. For anyone interested in reading what else I've written about Christianity and food (you strange people):
The 'horsemeat scandal' is the tip of a very ugly iceberg, KLICE Comment (March 2013)
Eating for the Kingdom, The Other Journal (October 2012)