Monday, April 19, 2010

Sneak Preview: Food and Faith Response

The following is the manuscript of my response to Kirschenmann's presentation to tonight's Food and Faith conference at St. Thomas:

Kirschenmann has convincingly brought our attention to a number of serious food and agriculture challenges our society (both national and global) will be facing in the decades ahead. And he has suggested that the faith community can play an important role in helping us to shape a response to these challenges.

I want to follow up with these questions: To what extent might evangelicals play a role in confronting these issues? Does the theology undergirding evangelical churches, on the whole, lend itself to such involvement? The answer is far from simplistic. Given the convincing nature of Kirschenmann’s paper (and he is not alone), the answer, normatively speaking, must be yes. Surely evangelical faith communities should contribute to the pressing issues raised. But will they? And what would be the motive if they do? Speaking out of the Baptist evangelical church, I can say that no faith community should be more concerned by a looming food crisis. Tell a group of Baptists (especially Southern ones) that the pot-luck supper could become a relic of the past, and they will sound the alarm and galvanize. No eschatological symbol has greater connectedness to Baptist theology than the table fellowship. When it comes to an eschatology of food, Baptists prefer the “already,” to the “not yet.” Joking aside, evangelicals should be contributing to a solution because (1) it is within their history to do so, (2) it is a crucial component of the Gospel and of Gospel-witness to do so, and (3) everybody eats.

Evangelicals have within our history a tradition of being “first respondents” to social crises and ethical and economic problems. Bethel Seminary, for example, has a historic link to Scandinavian Pietism. Pietist movements emerged as a reaction to a dry, intellectual, and socially-irrelevant Orthodoxy Whereas some traditions of Orthodoxy focused on a Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone, the Pietists sought to recover James’ emphasis that true, regenerate faith always results in works; these works would naturally be demonstrable by engaging important social crises and issues and attempting to effect positive change. These two trajectories can be seen in present day evangelicalism: the Reformation emphasis on justifying faith and the Pietist emphasis on faithful and active justification (with consequent engagement in social issues).

The tensions between these two trajectories are sometimes palpable. Twentieth-century neo-evangelicalism objected strongly to the social-gospel movement (viewing it as a loss of the true Gospel). As a result, much of twentieth-century evangelicalism relinquished the social justice component of faith. We have seen, for the past decade or so, another correction within the evangelical movement as pockets of Pietistic, socially-concerned evangelicals (sometimes called “younger evangelicals”) are contributing to social issues with vigor, not as un-critical devotees of a particular political wing, but as concerned Christians dedicated to the implications of their faith for the good of the world. Many evangelicals, like myself, read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger during their college years, and continue to pay attention to Jim Wallis and to younger, socially-engaged activists like Shane Claiborne. Even “mega-church” pastor Rick Warren has become prominently involved in social justice issues. Incidentally, I’ve found it interesting that Russell Moore, who occupies a prominent place on the more conservative side of evangelicalism, has particular fondness for Wendell Berry’s work. It makes sense that more than any other social issue, sustainable agriculture and food supply cuts across ideological lines. We all need to eat. The prominent question, though, is: If the economic and consumptive disparity continues between the haves and the have-nots, will the wealthier of the world sustain a prophetic concern for those who, in developing world countries, may increasingly find it impossible to eat.

Secondly, evangelicals should be contributors to the issue because of the implications of the Gospel. The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ with all its redemptive significance. To participate in the proclamation of the Gospel is to recognize that Jesus cares about all dimensions of life; there is no more central dimension to life than food. Jesus used food imagery to describe himself: the “bread of life,” the “living water,” the sustenance that will never fade, abundant life. Securing quality of life and equality of opportunity for quality of life requires a holistic approach to the Gospel and to Gospel witness. The Gospel means good news. But Good news for whom? A holistic agrarian approach to life and to social involvement, including deep concern for the other (even those others we will never see), is integral to the meaning of the Gospel and to the effectiveness of its message.

In conclusion, there is great hope for Evangelicals to be involved in this issue. Our historical trajectory and our emphasis on the Good news of Christ—with its implications for life—suggests this to be true. But evangelicals will not really get active in these questions until they can feel the import of them. The message that we are misusing our natural resources, squandering the gift of our earth’s natural processes, diminishing the quality of life of our workers and our famers, and relegating authority over our food quality, food choices, and agriculture to an elite few corporations and policy-makers, must get out.

Eating is an agricultural act (Berry). But eating is also a spiritual act and even, we might say, an eschatological act. Let us not squander away the sacrament of the fullness of Christ’s table, but cultivate it, embrace it, and secure its good future for our friends, global neighbors and posterity.