Continuing with “things I’ve learned in seminary” 2… In my Introduction to Christian Ethics class this semester, we were each tasked with pursuing a moral question that held some weight for us personally. We learned about different forms and sources for ethics, and then we applied all of the theories and processes to our own moral questions. This way, we were doing ethics, rather than just learning about the subject all semester. Very good pedagogy.
I chose to write about food/agriculture-related justice issues, as they relate to both the environment and poverty.
Part I: Describing the Problem
Environment: I began with the premise that our earth faces an ecological crisis. The scientific community is in general agreement that climate change/environmental degradation are real, measurable, and furthermore, human-induced. Which leads to the second premise… anything we do that impacts any ecosystem, including the choices you and I make about the food we eat each day, has a profound impact on the rest of the biosphere. The interconnected issues of agriculture, environment, and food provide an opportunity for our response: to promote justice for the environment.
I’ve been a vegetarian for about a year now, choosing not to eat meat because of the sustainability issues surrounding the industry’s practices. This decision has posed a problem for me, on occasion, in the form of cognitive dissonance. I am aware of the privilege of being able to ask “what will I eat?” rather than “will I eat?” each day, and so my eating habits feel a bit elitist. Which leads to the part about…
Poverty: Persons of lower socio-economic statuses don’t even get to choose the option of expensive organic produce if they want to. Eating healthy and “green” is a class-based privilege in America. Making the choice to eat food that is produced in a way that is environmentally sustainable sounds good, but if it is only an option for an exclusive population, is it really a just choice?
So, I found at this intersection of ethical issues a dual-responsibility: to promote justice for the environment and justice for people, by providing the kind of nutritious food that every body needs, yet so many bodies lack… and that is produced in ways that care for the environment. Unfortunately, these two forms of justice can seem mutually exclusive. Making healthy produce accessible often involves mass-agribusiness methods of production (which aren’t good for the environment).
Part II: Asking the Question
So what do we do??? Ethics is about making choices that shape the good life for both the self and others. We reach a difficult point when choices that cultivate different aspects of the good life come into conflict with one another. It is at this intersection that I thought, read, wrote, and studied all semester: What is our Christian response to be in the tension produced by these competing goods – accessibility/affordability of healthy food for all and agricultural/environmental sustainability?
Part III: Constructing a Response
I’ll cut to the chase and skip most of my reading/research/thinking. I worked through Scripture, church traditions, scientific reason, and human experience – all authorities for the moral life – to criticize our current agricultural practices and also to construct a hopeful vision for improvement/change.
By the end of it all, I returned to my personal engagement with this moral question with a renewed commitment to eating food produced in ethical ways. Personally contributing to the consumer demand for ethically produced food still seems like a constructive personal response, even if it is not one that everyone can afford to make.
In the process of thinking through the moral question at hand, I have also been able to envision a way to transform my communal experience of food. Rather than just exercising my personal privilege to make healthy and environmentally-conscious decisions about what I eat, I can also work to extend that right to all people.
In my local congregation, I am part of the “green team” that is leading a (in my mind, theological) response to the issue of land care and food justice. Just two weeks ago, we planted an organic community garden. We have been tending the earth and plan to share the produce with a local food-pantry. The goal is to extend access to healthy, sustainably-produced food to those in our urban community. The garden will be a literal and theological common ground for the participating community members as we reconnect to the source of our food and the Source of all life. I hope that we reclaim the spiritual experience of food. I believe that efforts like local community gardens foster renewal, hope and justice.
Here are some pictures of me in the garden:
Due to the conflation of environmental care with liberal political agendas, the environment is often, unfortunately, a polarizing issue for the Church. It is time to face the problem to which we all contribute, and to envision constructive and concrete Christian responses. The Church is in a good position to draw on the theological concept of justice, and on Scripture, tradition, experience, and empirical reason, to fuel personal and congregational action and to advocate for systemic change. There is hope for a system that allows for environmentally and economically sustainable agricultural practices, and it can begin with Christian communities and individuals committed to justice for land and people.