Feast and Famines
God’s Diet and the Retraining of Desire
L. Shannon Jung
I want to invite you to think with me about our abundance and our role in others’s hunger and how that produces a hunger in ourselves. A very different hunger to be sure. A different sort of appetite or desire. The kind H. Richard Niebuhr was talking about in his book Radical Monotheism when he asked, “What is the center of value for us?” What do we most desire?” Niebuhr’s questions reiterate—though in a positive way—Jesus’ warning to his disciples, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (MT 6:21).
These are questions of faith, of ultimate desire. To focus on desire means attending to our longings, appetites, and hungers. As human beings, we want. We reach out. We desire. We hunger for meaning, for purpose, for fulfillment. Indeed, it’s instructive to think of our actual physical hunger as the visceral analog to belief or cognitive doctrine in the life of faith. As the poet W. B. Yeats claims, “We only believe those thoughts which have been conceived not in the brain but in the whole body.” And our bodies definitely feel hunger.
But does feeling hunger (or longing or desire) mean we have a right to whatever we can find to fill ourselves? What if the way we fill our desires conflicts with others’ abilities to meet basic needs? And how do we even know we want the right things—or that we want them the right amount?
If physical hunger is an effective analog for our deeper desires, then maybe the ways we hunger—and the ways we retrain our hunger—may teach us something not only about the food we eat but the lives we lead.
My concern here is with the world food crisis. And that for at least three reasons: first, this is especially a concern for Jesus, who gave us the example of feeding the hungry and encouraging his disciples to a similar compassion; second, there are many hungry people in the world today, and this hunger is man-made; and, third, this is a theological issue of faith for affluent people who live quite comfortable lives, thank you very much, while many are starving and others are working in miserable, unjust conditions to bring us our daily coq au vin or lobster.
My goal is not to take you into the swamp of guilt but, much more importantly, to suggest that there are ways to extricate ourselves from the mud puddle of complicity.
Not all complicity is the same.
In fact, I am addressing the issue of weak complicity. That is, the average U.S. consumer is complicit to the extent that the bananas s/he buys are raised on Latino plantations where the average wage is below subsistence. The average U.S. consumer is complicit to the extent that the chicken s/he eats is raised without beaks and in tightly confined cages. The average U.S. consumer is complicit to the extent that that the U.S. farmer who raised the wheat that makes his bread is getting paid below the cost of production. The average U.S. consumer is complicit to the extent that the tax code that privileges his or her being able to afford nutritious food does so at the cost of the working poor’s being taxed at a much higher rate of income that eats into their food budget. And the list goes on and on and on…
But weak complicity. That is, the injustices that are being perpetuated by U.S. and other affluent countries’ consumers benefiting from the terrible working conditions, subsistence pay, and negligent health benefits of the global poor is not something that individual consumers can do much about. They certainly do not approve of such injustices directly. They do not directly even cooperate with such evil. They do appropriate the benefits of such injustice. But often they do so unknowingly. Without evil intent. This is what I am calling “weak complicity.”
Well, then, why worry about this? The world is full of such injustices.
However weak the appropriation, however unable individuals are to avoid the disordered global food system, the impact of these weak complicities is enormous. However inappropriate the word “guilt” is when applied to this situation, the consequences of the vital link of continued consumption supports a truly global disorder. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of growing, processing, transporting, and selling food (and increasingly, water). Indeed, the number of people who are starving worldwide is increasing.
Food is only one part of a lifestyle that consumers desire (and I do not think the word “desire” is too strong). Affluent consumers have appetites that are insatiable. There is never enough. Most consumers cannot fathom what the word “enough” even means. Enough would, when the average citizen is asked, require about $20,000 a year more. (Really, this is a social scientific finding!) And that, whether the person is making $65,000 or $165,000 a year.
The Nature of Sin and Evil
My wider targets are the nature of evil and the education of desire, as they impact the issue of complicity. As we rehearsed at the outset of this piece, the question of what we desire is very close to the bone of religious loyalty and faith. As human beings, we desire many things (as Jesus reminded us in the Sermon on the Mount) but close to the forefront of those are food, sex, companionship, security, and transcendent belief. Jesus tells his listeners, “Seek first the reign of God and all these things will be yours as well.” (MT 6:33) Tillich would call faith our “ultimate concern.” Perhaps the Reformed tradition is expressing a related belief when it speaks of the sovereignty of God. So whatever people most desire is their sovereign. It is that being or thing that most directs their behavior and attitudes. Since God is sovereign in the sense of being Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, it is appropriate and right for believers to act as though their discipleship to Jesus Christ were sovereign – it is the way of Jesus that should direct his followers. It is also inappropriate and erosive of our deepest satisfaction and joy when people hold someone or something (as, for example, our own comfort and lifestyle) sovereign. The form of sin that got Eve and Adam and now us into trouble is that of pride or “wanting to be like God.” We have replaced God with an idol.
Let us consider for a moment the nature of evil. For those of us who hate snakes, it speaks volumes that evil came into the world in the guise of a snake. It is a subtle, even stealthy, process by which our desire can degenerate into an unquenchable appetite for consumer commodities, when we hold something other than God as sovereign, and then begin to objectify people into what it is that we want (rather than seeing them as subjects of God’s love). Dr. Ryan LaMothe, a pastoral theologian, speaks of the evil of lust as involving the loss of amative space, that is, the failure to maintain the boundaries between self and other in love. Love becomes lust when amative space is lost and we objectify the other1. This is narcissism, the loss of the ability to recognize the boundaries between self and other, which Christopher Lasch suggests has come to characterize the U.S. culture.
In lust or narcissism the individual person becomes the center of the world, the center of value; s/he takes the place of God as the center of value, in H. Richard Niebuhr’s terms. It is only in relation to the self that s/he measures value From Niebuhr’s viewpoint, people lose their sense of value when their desires and ultimate loyalty drown in the many ways consumers are tempted to put self first. An obvious example is the consumer who puts the quality of their food before the possibility of others’ even having food. The process by which our values are distorted is anything but an obvious or deliberate shift. The nature of evil is that God is replaced by our own appetites, a source of evil which, when rightly ordered, can be a source of good. Creation is a delight, and food one of its chief delights, but the objects or subjects of delight can be mistaken for the source of delight.
One thing that a Reformed understanding of sin highlights is sin as hubris, that is, the failure to recognize limits, rather to make the self the center of value. When Wendell Berry writes that “hell hath no limits” he is suggesting that our culture is addicted to the myth of unlimitedness, and that our failure to respect limits is destroying us2. Berry contrasts community or neighborhood economics with an economy in which “the powerful are limitlessly “free” to trade, to the disadvantage, and ultimately, the ruin, of the powerless”3. He does mention a number of the deadly sins – Gluttony, Pride, Wrath (He adds Greed and Waste) – and indicates how our love affair with unlimitedness has disguised the very values which we most need: neighborliness (Cf. Matthew 19:19), caretaking, and the respect due to land, resources, workmanship, and food production which get reduced to their monetary exchange. In short, our culture is a culture of narcissism writ large, a failure to come to terms with our limits as human creatures in a web of others. The sin of hubris has come to occupy the economic throne.
I cannot fail to connect this sin with what is happening on Wall Street, with the economy gyrating up and down because of a number of CEOs, realtors, banks, and everyday consumers seeking to build greater comfort on a housing boom and subprime mortgages. The bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and AIG, and Merrill Lynch, and who knows who else is due to our hunger and thirst after consumer goods that we cannot afford. Indeed, I saw the beginnings of this when our nineteen-year-old son came back from spring break with 16 tee shirts, each emblazoned with the logo of a different credit card. (They had given them out for free on the beach in Panama City!) That is education.
Capitalism itself constitutes an education of desire, an education to refuse limits. The housing crisis and tee-shorts gone wild are only symptomatic.
However widespread and pernicious the consequences of this failure to recognize limits, the greatest danger may be to ourselves. (The Heidelberg Catechism suggests that sin causes great damage to the sinner him or herself.) Our bodily life is an important aspect of this. Hedonism and consumerism target the body, but not in its natural state. Instead, they claim that the body is not o.k. until it is accessorized. The consumer needs shampoo, deodorant, age-defying cosmetics, glamorous shoes, fashionable clothes, good muscle tone, and the right foods if it is to be acceptable to self, others, and to the cultural ideal. “Consumer capitalism exploits the body, argues John O’Neill, by teaching us to ‘disvalue it in its natural state and to revalue it only once it has been sold grace, spontaneity, vivaciousness, bounce, confidence, smoothness, and freshness.’”4
How, in the face of billion-dollar advertising budgets and the expert production of discontent, are we to re-educate our desires? I believe that one way begins with food and eating. These are universal desires and have produced habits that we practice at least three times a day. Furthermore, in the Christian tradition we have answered the question of how we are to eat in light of the reign of God. One of those ways is through practices, “patterns of communal action,” which “create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy, and presence of God can be made known to us.”5
Seven practices associated with eating have developed throughout the Christian tradition. These are associated with healthy and faithful eating. They are: saying grace, feasting, fasting, honoring the body, cooking, sharing and hospitality, and the master practice of the Lord’s Supper.
Beginning with a visceral, appetite-infused desire such as eating is a helpful way to begin to integrate the fragmentation of desire as well. These practices point us to God as the Creator (saying grace, honoring the body, cooking); the Redeemer (sharing and hospitality, feasting) and to the Sustainer (cooking, fasting). They are come together in the master practice of the Eucharist, or communion. That is, the Lord’s Supper contains aspects of the other six eating practices.
Let me give a brief example: saying grace, a simple, everyday practice, constitutes a re-education of desire. It begins by acknowledging that we are not the source of the created order; it reminds us to be grateful to God and to the earth community and to other people for this food before us. Then, it expresses gratitude to God for the grace that God has provided in our lives. It recognizes that we are blessed, rather than wanting more. As such, it stands in contrast to a consumer culture where there is never enough and not much gratitude.
Given the constraints of space, what I want to do now is to isolate two of the practices: fasting and the Lord’s Supper6. Teasing out the theological and practical significance of these two will address the question of how to retrain or educate our desires, and to move in more faithful and fulfilling ways.
One of the rich Christian practices that addresses this worldwide crisis is that of fasting, especially abstaining from food even if only for a brief period, say 18 hours. During the 12th through the 18th hour of such voluntary abstaining, one will gain a number of important insights:
• The faint gnawing of hunger that one feels will produce a greater degree of empathy with those whose hunger is involuntary or intense.
• One will realize that s/he is an embodied creature who is anything but independent, but in fact depends upon a wide variety of people, and inanimate objects such as soil, rain, and sunshine to sustain one’s bodily life.
• One will strangely begin to understand and take a degree of pride in the realization that one can do without many things for a while; that in fact there is such a thing as enough, and that humankind is able to do without, at least for a while.
• If one is giving the money which would otherwise be spent for food during this time to a relief or development agency (Presbyterian Hunger Program, Heifer, Bread), it is likely that she will feel a bit of relief from her weak complicity and closer to those who are hungry.
• Not insignificantly, fasting does make us appreciate the food we have and delight in it, as God intended7.
• Combining the fast with a period of penance and prayer will bring us closer to God and to the neighbor. I recommend a group fasting together because that adds another dimension to the fast and the possibility of debriefing with each other in discussion and prayer.
Fasting is in many ways the opposite of consumerism and is strangely fascinating. One learns how dependent he is, and how much food and drink come to us through the combined efforts of many other people. Most important, perhaps, is the finding that we are dependent on God for our daily bread. We don’t have to do it by ourselves.
The final practice I invite you to consider is the master practice that incorporates all other aspects of eating practices, most notably sharing, hospitality, and mission. Here Jesus’ body is offered to all freely and all are invited to participate in the Bread of Life and to pass on that Bread to all. Here God’s abundance is on display and the celebrant invites the participants to take it, all of you, and do this in memory of me. When Jesus invites the disciples to “do this” he is calling them to mission, a mission that includes feeding others physically and spiritually.
The meal is called eucharista, or Eucharist, which means gratitude or thanksgiving. That is certainly the attitude and intention with which disciples approach the table. They come to the hungry feast, praying that their hunger will cease and that Jesus will fill us, as the consumer society has failed to. We come with appetites unsated, with desires that are confused and strewn about. We know that we need to focus our desires; we long to focus our desires in a worthwhile and deeply satisfying life. This is a meal that God freely offers us, and invites us to share as a feast.
And here at the table of our Lord, we find the means to focus our lives:
• An entry into the realization of the depth of God’s love for us, and how that love gets lived out in material life.
• The realization that the same sharing and hospitality that characterized Jesus’s life characterizes his death and resurrection.
• The call to us to participate in being on mission to share with all the overwhelming salvation offered to us here and now as well as in the future.
• To partake of the meal is to confess one’s loyalty as a disciple of Jesus Christ alongside the other members of the body; it is to be part of the
fellowship of the Jesus movement.
• To realize that no one is excluded from God’s love and that the disciples are to care for everyone as neighbors in the community of Jesus.
This translates into a concern for all who are malnourished and starving, or overeating because they have not found a focus for their lives. It is one of the ways that our desires become retrained.
Finally, the faith inherent in the Lord’s Supper points the way beyond complicity, even weak complicity. It reveals that sharing with others is part of delighting, and that the creation is for all. God gives to all without condition and calls us all to a community of mutual benefit.
The Point of this argument is simple: One way of countering a culture where insatiability is king is to turn to the food practices of the Christian tradition. The disciples of Jesus are called to God’s diet, a gourmet meal where their deepest desires are actually fulfilled. Indeed, their desires are fulfilled beyond their imagining. God has created food for our delight and for our sharing. The two together call us to enrich ourselves when we share our possessions with others. Sharing with all others produces a peace wherein we discover our other’s satisfaction is our greatest satisfaction. That is why Jesus counsels us to “love God, and to love the neighbor as ourselves.”
1 “Maddening Desire: Understanding Lust in Pastoral Counseling,” Pastoral Psychology 54:5, May 2006, p. 479.
2 Berry, Wendell. Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits,” (Harper’s, June 2008).
4 John O’Neill, Five Bodies. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985, p. 101, quoted by Gorringe, op cit., p. 84.
6 Each receives a full chapter in my book Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment, Fortress, 2006.
7 See Food for Life, Fortress, 2004
1. Shannon Jung speaks about weak complicity. How often do you think about the origin of the food that you consume each day? What are some strategies that you have practiced to moderate your impact on the global food crisis? How do you see this connected to spiritual hunger?
2. Do you agree with Jung’s claim that the evil that infects our affluence is our replacing of God with selfish desires? Why or why not?
3. How many of Jung’s list of seven practices do you live out on a regular basis? Are there others that you would add? If you had to choose one new one to begin this year, what would it be and why?