Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 16

Food for the Soul: Eating as an Act of Justice

Lisa Graham McMinn

After a day of work, I come to two activities that quiet and center my soul. The first involves visiting the hens. I gather whatever eggs have been laid, feed the hens, check their water, and every other day clean the poop out of their coop. Greta, Chicken Little, Liesel, and Penelope are particularly glad to see me and bow so I can pet them (I’m their substitute rooster). They look and hope for a tidbit from the kitchen, garden, or a grub or worm I’ve picked up along the way. These gentle, eager creatures that supply my husband Mark and me with fertilizer, pest control, and eggs remind me that I am part of creation, just as they are.

The second activity that centers my soul is walking to the mailbox. On the coldest, rainiest days I take a direct path, but I prefer the one that winds through the forest, crosses the creek where it tumbles and falls near the cistern, and then takes me across the road to the mailbox. I return by way of the beehives. If the cedar bench by the creek is dry, I rest there for a few minutes. I can smell, feel, hear, touch, and see God’s love and sustaining presence. In the summer the bench is nearly hidden in an alcove surrounded by shrubs and ferns growing along the creek’s edge. A holy place. On sunny days I may sit by the hives for a few minutes instead, watching the comings and goings of bees bringing home nectar and pollen.

I haven’t always lived this way. It took a long while to give myself permission to explore a life that sounded a bit too much like hippie pantheism. What I’ve come to see is that loving, engaging, and tending God’s creation is fundamentally Christian and honors the One who commissioned us to be God’s representatives on Earth. We are physical beings, and spiritual formation happens as we engage our physical world in just and loving ways.

01.  A Change in View

Changing my view involved looking into older, pre-Enlightenment and pre-Reformation theological understandings of the world. We believers didn’t always see ourselves as above the rest of creation, nor our physical life as separate from the spiritual one—though Christians have always contended with this tendency to separate the spiritual and the physical. We are nature, and while we are broken right along with the rest of creation, creation is fundamentally good. In the beginning God created, and called it good. Very good.

When our faith focuses primarily on God’s grace as extended to our fallen nature (and mostly we mean our human sinfulness), this broken Earth becomes a temporary home, a way station where our eternal destination is determined by whether or not we come to Christ while living here. Heaven awaits. Meanwhile, we are to be long-suffering and share the good news of the Gospel to help save as many souls as we can. The logic flows like this: Since Earth is temporary, Earth doesn’t matter a whole lot. Matter doesn’t much matter, but only souls, which are eternal. Christians are “just a-passin’ through,” and our task is to win as many souls for Jesus as we can during our temporary sojourn on Earth.

This is a partial view of the good news of the Gospel. A fuller view sees the Gospel story as redeeming the physical and social world as part of what it means to redeem souls—including various social structures and a creation groaning for redemption. A view of the Gospel that focuses only on saving souls minimizes the goodness of creation, stopping short of acknowledging and honoring God as the Creator of something amazingly wonderful that fosters the flourishing of life.

The early church identified the separation of the physical from the spiritual (and aligning the spiritual as good, and the physical as bad) as the heresy of Gnosticism. Among Christians who still live what we call “primitive” lives, indigenous peoples of North America and people in the Global South, the Christian story stays mindful of a good Creation that is celebrated. Yes, we are sinners in need of a redeemer, but Christ is still present, sustaining and holding together all creation (Colossians 1:15–20). People whose lives are more connected to the fundamentals of living (who don’t think food comes from a box and light from flipping a switch) are mindful of the soil, water, sun, plants, and animals that sustain them. They more easily see beauty in the mountains, the night sky, the morning sun, and birds singing in the trees. In the West this viewpoint shifted rather dramatically after the Reformation. While we still tell the creation story, we focus more on the Fall.

In the process, we more easily lose sight of God’s good creation as an expression of a God of life and love. Humans are God’s representatives on Earth, charged to fulfill Earth, bring it to its potential for life to flourish and in doing so reflect honor back to the Creator. A more complete formation of the soul comes from remembering we are physical beings living in an amazing physical world. We cannot separate our souls and bodies.

02.  Loving Others in the Way We Eat

A group of students and a colleague from George Fox University gather monthly at our house for dinner. We all share a common desire to celebrate God’s creation and give others in our community permission to love it. We inspire each other to walk gently and justly on it.

So we enjoy good and just food together, simple and seasonal food that mostly comes from local sources. The group organizes snowshoeing and hiking outings and bonfires where we unplug from all our electric gizmos, make music, and talk while making s’mores from homemade marshmallows, homemade graham crackers (a couple of the students delight in making things people think can only be bought from a store!), and fair trade chocolate bars.

The physical act of eating forms our soul. African theologian J.O.Y. Mante critiques Western Christian theology as being ecologically bankrupt because we have a Gnostic view of the physical world. We need, he says, a theology of food.J.O.Y. Mante, Africa: Theological and Philosophical Roots of our Ecological Crises (Accra, Ghana: SonLife Press, 2004).

A theology of food could begin with an invitation to celebrate and enjoy the bounty of food available to us, like fresh apple pie or cheese, bread, roasted hazelnuts, and a glass of wine. From embracing and loving the good, sustaining power in God’s creation we can move to contemplating what it means to love, live justly, and extend mercy as God’s representatives in our own food industry and food choices. This is particularly challenging given the complications of global food.

Food? Really? This is an article about spiritual formation and food? Hmm. Yes. And once you look into industries that prefer you not look at them, and see child slavery active in the cocoa plantations of Ghana and mercenaries who terrorize, maim, and kill to control the banana trade in Central America, then it becomes a conversation about doing justice, which must be part of conversations about spiritual transformation.

Most of us eat three meals a day plus snacks. That much eating provides multiple daily opportunities to move from contemplating spiritual matters to living transformed lives reflecting God’s love, mercy, and justice. Besides saying grace over our food (a good discipline that can remind us we depend on God’s sustaining creation, including animals and people laboring in fields and working in food-making factories), deciding to eat just food is an act of spiritual formation.

Can love of others and love of creation motivate us to attend to how and what we eat? Lester Brown, the president of Earth Institute, reports that the Earth could feed 10 billion well if we all ate as people eat in India: mostly a plant-based diet. If all 6.8 billion of us ate as we do in the United States, the Earth could feed only 2.5 billion of us well. By way of comparison, if we all ate as people eat in Italy, the Earth could feed 5 billion people well. That statistic gave me pause. To love our neighbors, to eat at compassionate tables, we’ll likely find ourselves eating more like Indians and less like our fellow Americans.

Conversations about food can be overwhelming. Transforming one step at a time, exploring one issue with the intention of letting what we learn change how we eat, makes it manageable. I started by growing a “salsa garden” in two raised beds in our backyard to reawaken my senses to fresh local, seasonal foods. We then began to support farmers at produce stands and farmers’ markets. When we moved from the Chicago suburbs to rural Oregon, we supported a local farming couple through their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Then we started growing our own vegetables and are now beginning our own CSA (more on this later).

We are learning to relish local foods. Tomatoes in season taste so much better than tomatoes shipped up from Mexico in January. I freeze roasted tomatoes, dehydrate sliced tomatoes, and can tomato sauce. We have tomatoes to enjoy throughout much of the year, along with various other fruits and vegetables. And it all started with my salsa garden not that many years ago.

I’d been hearing rumblings about the coffee, cocoa, and banana trade for some time and eventually made the choice to look into the stories behind food that grows only near the equator. Once I learned of the injustices surrounding the coffee, cocoa, tea, and banana trades, I couldn’t ignore what had become visible. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, talks about the significance of face-to-face encounters. When we make the invisible visible, when we pull away our veil of comfortable ignorance, we can no longer look away and live as we did before. Becoming aware of children sold into slavery or bonded labor working in the cocoa plantations in Ghana, or the loss of agricultural land and ability to feed one’s family for indigenous people who have lived on and farmed land that is now leased, sold, or controlled by large agribusiness corporations should alter our choices.

Spiritual transformation has to move from contemplation to action to be transformative. If we are spiritually formed, we will live (and eat) differently than if we are not. It may be a political act to write my grocer and request that fair trade bananas be made available; it is also an act of spiritual formation.

So I read up on fair trade certification and direct trade, and began to purchase only coffee and cocoa products that fostered flourishing in the communities from which they came. (Good-bye, Nestle chocolate chips and M&Ms; Hello, Divine Chocolate and baking chips from Good Earth Organics and Dean’s Beans!) It meant we stopped buying bananas because we can’t yet get fairly traded bananas where we live. (I ate a lot of them when I was in England last summer, where fair trade bananas are available).

03.  What about the Animals?

Walk down this road very far, and soon you find yourself bumping into the question: does God care about justice for animals too? To think so was a bit of a worldview shift for me. I grew up understanding that God gave the trees, rivers, mountains, and animals to humans to subdue and use as needed. Dominating the Earth meant bringing it under the control of humans. Civilizing it. Making it useful. Yes, we should do so responsibly, but if people needed the trees, the Spotted Owl would just have to deal with it, and if Spotted Owls couldn’t just move on, how important could they be in the big scheme of things anyway? Certainly they weren’t as important as people.

Shifting my thinking toward believing that we are supposed to protect and foster the flourishing of life changes the focus a fair bit. Since we are the species given the capacity to manipulate and control the Earth to the largest extent, the flourishing of deer, lions, bees, dolphins, owls, and forests therefore depends on our choices. Theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger challenges the idea that animals and creation are primarily valuable because of their usefulness to us. He says:

God’s creatures are valuable not because of their usefulness to humans—though some are useful, indeed essential, to us. Instead they are valuable to each other—for example, the cedars are valuable as places for birds to nest, and the mountains are valuable as places of refuge and rest for wild goats—and most important rocks and trees, birds and animals are valuable simply because God made them. Value rests in being creations of a valuing God—not in their being a means to some human end.Steven Bouma-Prediger unpacks this in his book For the Beauty of the Earth (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2001), 141.

Value rests in being creations of a valuing God. Yes. So with some reluctance, my husband Mark and I let our vegan daughter expose us to the invisible world of animals in the food industry. The laying hen industry will provide one sufficient example.

Except where they are banned, hens in the egg-laying industry spend their miserable lives in what are called battery cages, small wire boxes with barely enough room for them to turn around. Their misery is evident if you’ve ever had the opportunity to pull alongside a truckload of stacked hens on the highway as we did, shortly after acquiring our first small flock of chickens.

Our hens’ eyes sparkle. They run to greet us when we walk anywhere nearby. They nest, scratch in the dirt looking for worms and grubs, dust bathe (they particularly glory in this activity of rolling in the dust and flapping dirt onto their backs on sunny, warm days), chase each other around trying to steal worms and tidbits from each other’s beaks, and otherwise flap, peck, and use their chirps, squawks, and coos to communicate. The hens in the truck were only biologically related to the hens in our barnyard. Mark wasn’t sure hens could register “misery” or “happiness” in their little brains until he saw those stacked and suffering birds. Animals with beaks clipped (because in their crowded confinement and boredom they’ll peck at each other mercilessly) flopped into each other as the truck stopped beside our car. Their feathers were worn away from stress and the rubbing of battery cages, and empty, lifeless eyes gazed at a world outside, a world they were likely seeing for the first time. I’m imagining these hens were headed to the slaughterhouse now that their egg-laying productivity had begun to decline. This was a truck full of chickens that had been living in squalid misery so I could buy cheap eggs. They were bearing the cost of my savings.

Does God’s desire for justice and mercy extend to hens? Does a full, embodied spiritual formation depend on my being willing to look at invisible processes that bring me cheap food, and then being willing to change the way I eat?

The good news is that the word is getting out about the poultry industry, and people are changing the way they think about hens. England and much of the European Union have banned battery cages. Increasingly restaurants and food service companies servicing schools and hotel chains in the United States refuse to buy from suppliers that use them. The state of California passed a bill last year banning battery cages for hens.

04.  Community Agriculture

A few years ago, Mark and I moved to five acres near our childhood homes in Oregon and have grown our vegetable garden year by year, adding fruit trees and berries, giving away extra food to family, friends, colleagues, and folks at church. I sell the extra eggs to my colleagues, providing them the option of eating eggs from well-cared-for hens.

We have an interdependent relationship with our bees and hens. We feed and protect them from predators, and in exchange they pollinate (bees), offer grub control and fertilize (hens), and give us eggs and honey.

This year we expanded our gardens once again and are now small-scale farmers running our own CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). We’re growing food for six families. We chose to become farmers because we love good, just food, and we want to invite others to eat locally and seasonally and be in a relationship with a local food producer. On pick-up days our families are welcome to walk around the farm, stroll through the forest, and bring a picnic supper to eat at one of the picnic tables on the edge of the woods.

Meanwhile, we are strengthening relationships, fostering well-being for humans, animals, and the soil and water that sustain us all. We are remembering that we are nature rather than hovering above it. We both acknowledge and live in an interdependent relationship with God’s creation. And we are forming our spiritual selves through the active pursuit of shalom—a peace that comes because all is well when justice and flourishing prevail. We don’t try to convert folks aggressively to thinking about food and faith—we want to be winsome transformers who invite people to taste and see what God has made, to fall in love with God’s creation. We strive to lead from a place of inspiration.

05.  Becoming a Responsible Shopper

Part of what makes this conversation challenging is an ingrained assumption most of us hold that being responsible shoppers means finding the best bargains and stretching our household’s food dollars. That definition of “responsible” comes from competitive big agribusiness that wants you to buy their inexpensive chocolate, rather than what is available elsewhere from fair trade businesses.

The prophets and Jesus show more concern about the use of honest weights and being fair than they do about stretching a dollar. A biblical understanding of “responsible shopper” considers the ethical and just use of money—not only when we donate it to the church or World Relief or International Justice Mission, but also when we shop for food.

Buying ethically might well mean we can’t afford as many Starbucks mochas or as much beef and bacon (which has other problems for the global food supply anyway). Maybe eating just food means we buy fewer clothes or shop for them at resale shops, and we learn how to negotiate Craigslist as effectively as we’ve learned to maneuver around the shopping mall.

Food conversations are particularly uncomfortable because eating is a private matter in our culture. I don’t like people scrutinizing my grocery cart as I stand at the checkout line. So challenging you to question whether buying cheap eggs is inherently Christian or not risks stepping on toes. But maybe we should be accountable to each other for how and what we eat.

We’re not bad people because we like a bargain. The costs of those bargains are simply invisible to us. We came to this point of spending less on food than did our grandparents and great-grandparents somewhat gradually—through agribusiness that exploded after WWII. Cheap food seemed like a social good. Raising doubts about its goodness sounds ungracious and elitist—shouldn’t we want lower-income people to be able to afford McDonald’s and have access to cheap eggs and chocolate? This question introduces a broader conversation.

We ought to be asking how a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke can cost less than a meal you make from basic ingredients bought at a grocery store. Given all the labor and materials costs that go into making buns; growing potatoes for fries and corn for animal feed and cooking oil; raising, feeding, and slaughtering cows; processing and transportation costs; marketing and paying store managers and employees who flip the burgers—how can that meal be cheaper than a burger and fries I make at home? Exploring farm subsidies for corn, and the high efficiency achieved by mass production of food (that passes the real costs onto animals; taxpayers through farm subsidies; and farm, factory, and store laborers) provides good starting places.

Cheap food is good for the pocketbook, and that good covers a lot of other bad in most people’s ledgers. But the cost of our cheap food is externalized and borne by others. That may be good for our personal finances, but at what cost to our souls?

06.  Discovering True Freedom

One hundred years ago, sociologist Max Weber saw that industrialization had wooed the masses with rational, efficient, predictable ways of meeting our basic needs. We didn’t see that these rational systems created an iron cage around us and had irrational consequences. Contemporary sociologist George Ritzer calls it a velvet cage because we actually find living in our rational world rather comfortable and are not overly eager to leave it even when we see the irrational consequences of it. Mostly we prefer the irrational bits stay invisible.

Some years ago, Mark and I visited Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, a place that houses exotic animals like lions and tigers that people thought would make cute pets until they grew into seven-hundred-pound predators. Most of these pets are euthanized; a few make it to refuges around the country. Esmeralda and Sampson were two of the lucky ones. But having been caged their whole lives, they found the freedom outside the cage terrifying. They had a half-acre hilly playground full of shrubs, trees, grass, and dirt available to them, but they wouldn’t leave their concrete and iron cage to enjoy it. The caretakers forced them out with water hoses several times, locking the door behind them, and the animals paced back and forth in front of the cage, fearful, yearning to be let back in. After six months the caretakers gave up and offered the habitat to other captives more eager to be free.

Augustine defined true freedom as the ability to act right always. I long for such freedom and know it will most fully come in heaven. Meanwhile, I want to step out of my rational, predictable, efficient velvet cage to witness what better freedom is possible when I let myself be transformed by what I don’t yet fully understand. I want to listen to my neighbors around the world and relearn how to live in a more harmonious interdependent relationship with God’s creation, one that fosters the flourishing of all life, not just my own. I want to be spiritually transformed from the inside out, starting with what I put on in my grocery cart, on my plate, and into my mouth.

A mocha that contributes to the flourishing of communities by paying farmers a livable wage for the coffee and cocoa they provide tastes better than alternative mochas. Just food gives us an opportunity to practice shalom and to celebrate bounty and goodness. And embracing that kind of food, just food, transforms our souls.

07.  Interested in Tasting Some Fair Trade Chocolate?

Divine chocolate is an African-owned company that ensures everyone involved in producing the chocolate is treated well and receives a fair and livable wage. Visit the website for divine chocolate at


Lisa McMinn is a professor of sociology at George Fox College in Newberg, Oregon, where she and her husband, Mark, are cultivating a small farm. Lisa’s most recent book is Walking Gently on the Earth (InterVarsity press), written with her daughter Megan Anna Neff, published in August 2010.