Today we gave a workshop at the US Social Forum. About 60 people attended (including the 15 of us) out of the, oh, 15,000 or so attendees at the forum! But for this we were very grateful, especially as the room could hold just about exactly 60. They were a diverse crowd from all over the (US) map and of different faith backgrounds. Our presentation was entitled:
Faith Communities in the Local Food Movement: Sustainable and Just!
We began it with a rocking rendition of "Looking East" by Jackson Browne, organized in small groups, introduced the trip as a whole, ourselves as individuals, some of the places we'd been, etc.
This is the portion I did:
Thank you for being here today and participating. The experiences you share are enriching us, and we hope and pray it is mutual. I want to speak for a few minutes on rooting our food justice efforts in our faith, and specifically in our sacred traditions, by which I mean texts, rituals, and wisdom passed down the ages.
In approaching the issues of hunger, food insecurity, and injustice in the food system, it is easy to look to the moral teachings of our respective religions. For many people our entry into food justice work is one of the variants of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is a perfectly strong and compelling reason to work for justice and sustainability in our food system. None more is needed. Good ethical reasoning and a healthy sense of moral compunction can take us far, whether we are of any religion or none.
However, our work can only be strengthened, our spirits encouraged, and our faith deepened, by connecting the work we do in the world with the faith we profess. I will be speaking from the Christian tradition, specifically Presbyterian, and I do not pretend to speak FOR my entire church. However, as I relate to you my own reading of a text I hold as sacred, I hope you will be encouraged to look to your own faith, your sacred texts and traditions, and explore whether you can find similar connections. The human relationship with food and with soil is as ancient and essential as the breath of life itself, and so rightly takes a prominent place in many religions.
The story I would like to bring before you today is from the book we know as Exodus. It takes place after the first Passover liberated the Hebrew people from Egypt, and their flight through the Red Sea. I will begin in ch 16 vs 2:
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “if only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meatpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”
Thus begins the establishment of the nation of Israel. The very first question facing the group, released from the laws and social structures of their former life, is “how do we eat?” The answer to this question defines who they will be.
The story goes on. God does indeed send a mysterious breadlike substance down from the sky, called manna, and the people gather enough to eat. They are tested in this. Each person is to gather only what they need. If you try to gather extra, it will rot overnight. EXCEPT on the sixth day of the week when they are each to gather a double portion, so that they have something to eat without going out to gather it on the Sabbath day. God is testing the people. Some don’t trust, and they hoard their food, and others don’t listen to the commandment about the Sabbath, and they are surprised to find there’s no bread from heaven that day.
God needs to test the people in this story, because they are too attached to their old ways. They have been led by miraculous means out of slavery, yet they don’t trust these miracles, and they wish they were back in Egypt eating their regular allotments of meat. In the words of Dr Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School, the problem is that the Israelites have “learned to trust the deceptive abundance of empire.” In Egypt they were not free, they were not secure, their lives lay at Pharaoh’s very whim, YET Pharaoh always had a lot of grain in his silos, and he fed the slaves just well enough to convince them that they were happy under his thumb – as any cunning government, or corporation, will do to those under its sway. It was a hard task to be weaned out of this pattern of exploitative dependence. Much of the next few books of the Bible are devoted to several sets of divine instructions: how to live, how to eat, how to use the land. How to pattern a society that is the polar opposite of Egypt’s centralized, oppressive, command economy benefitting the few at the expense of the many. Instead, the new nation will guarantee that everyone has a plot of arable land; everyone must have the means of subsistence.
The lessons learned by eating manna from heaven were: 1) trust God to provide, (2) gather only what you need, and (3) take a break. Take a Sabbath. The concept of Sabbath was foundational to ancient Israel, and one of the things that distinguished them from other nations. The law codes prescribe not only on a weekly Sabbath, but also letting your LAND lie fallow, to rest once every seven years to regenerate the soil’s fertility. It’s good technique. Take a break.
Clearly there are a lot of people in this world who need to hear the word: “gather only what you need.” There are a lot of people who need to hear “take a break.” A lot of people need to get out from under the thumb of Pharaoh’s deceptive abundance, and start trusting God instead. And many of these people belong, at least in name, to one of the religions that holds this story as sacred. They need to hear such stories -- and there are many – taught and preached in a way that actually affects their economic practices.
It doesn’t only need to be preached to outsiders, though. Those of us who work actively for food justice and reform need to hear these stories too. We need to know that although today’s situation may be unique, it is NOT entirely new. We need to draw on the wisdom of the ancient storytellers who brought us the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. The details are amazing. Later on when they’ve been eating manna for a while the people complain again, (Num 11:5) remembering Egypt’s fish, and cucumbers, and onions, and leeks, and garlic… and we might do that today, maybe one week when the CSA delivers a few too many root vegetables, we could start moaning about the way we used to buy asparagus year-round, who cares if it’s local or organic… I bet we will fall into some of the same traps. We need to hear the stories of those who have gone before us. We also need to hear their poetry, their longings, their desperate prayers and pleas to God, and know that we are not alone. Just as important as it is for us to connect to one another as we are doing here and now, it is important to connect to those who have gone before us.
I want to end by asking you what traditions inform your work with food justice and sustainability. Is there another text, sacred to you, which speaks of food or the land? Is there a ritual which enacts your care for the land? Is there a saying or a song which inspires you? How do you keep your work rooted in your faith?
(we had a great discussion, went on to meditatively eat a blueberry, contemplate our role in the food revolution, and commit to action. Awesomeness.)
cross-posted at presbyterian.typepad.com/foodandfaith