Chipotle, Stewardship and the Theology of What We Eat
What Christians can learn from Chipotle's haunting short film.
You have to hand it to Chipotle. The idea that “high quality, affordable product” plus “ethical business practice” equals “immense success” shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is, and Chipotle’s riding high on that little equation. You don’t have to care about our nation’s farmers to appreciate what Chipotle does, but it helps. That’s part of what made their new ad so powerful.
It would surprise none of my friends to learn that Chipotle’s new short film moved me to tears. Their stunningly executed piece is advertising at its best, all without hardly mentioning “Chipotle” at all. As Fiona Apple croons the refrain from Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, “Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.” we see a traumatized cow trapped in a milking/torture chamber. When Apple repeats the refrain, the protagonist scarecrow is chopping his home-grown ingredients in a missional effort to combat the evil agri-food business. And, just like that, Chipotle pulls off the neat trick of being an immensely popular eating establishment without actually being part of The Establishment.
It’s hard not to feel like there’s something a little personal in the metaphor, as McDonald’s was a majority shareholder in Chipotle until 2006, when the double arches divested.
The hauntingly beautiful infomercial animates our worst fears; the food industry has gone mad, trapping us, along with bovine #53281, in a broken system. But the admittedly less than holistic food industry is only one of many capitalist enterprises which have degraded and damaged the earth. We could also include mining, manufacturing, transportation, communication, entertainment, and housing. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to live in this world without contributing to the decline of the planet–which is part of why many folks simply ignore the crisis and go on with their lives.
Short of selling our vehicles, refusing to fly, committing to only buy food from local organic farmers, forgoing diamonds, and wearing clothing hand-sewn by college educated Americans who all have health insurance and 401Ks, what’s a Christian to do?
Our action point should not and cannot be to simply eat at Chipotle as we smugly vilify the Crow Foods of the world or the farmers who grow for them. After all, farming and food production are market driven industries and we are the market, demanding strawberries and preternaturally plump chicken breasts 365 days a year. If we push ourselves beyond the initial reactions of guilt (if you stopped at MacDonald’s on the way home), self-righteousness (if you stopped at Chipotle’s), or anger (if you happen to be a much maligned farmer) and allow the grim message to get under our skin, there’s a more faith-filled response it might inspire.
Could we courageously accept this as a challenge to take God’s first command to humanity seriously and re-envision our role as caretakers of the earth? Though the first official commandment is “You must have no others gods but me,” the Lord’s first directives to man and woman are found in Genesis 1:28:
“God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (KJV)
Believers have obviously embraced the being fruitful and multiplying component of this command. A small percentage of us–I would argue mostly farmers, gardeners, and foresters–do most of the replenishing work. It’s in the area of subduing and dominating where humanity has fallen short.
Mankind tends to understand subdue and dominion in militaristic terms and thus relate to the earth as unreflective proprietors empowered to exploit. Slaughtering buffalos to the brink of extinction and strip mining illustrate this unfortunate penchant. But if we explore these concepts within the entire biblical narrative, a very different paradigm emerges.
For instance, God instructs Moses, “Give the land a sabbath rest on the seventh year. Do not plant your crops or prune your vineyards during that entire year.” And several verses later, as if to remind us whose earth it is, “The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me.”
Writer Christopher Brown further explains:
The dominion that God desires is one that protects the defenseless and gives justice to the oppressed. Applying this to the command for humanity to exercise dominion over creation, we can see that while we rule over creation, we’re [also] called to protect it.
What if more congregations across the country not only agreed with this mandate but decided to purposefully engage with it? Tri Robinson, founding pastor at the Boise, Idaho Vineyard has done just that. As part of their commitment to caring for the earth, the church grows organic vegetables (more than 30,000 pounds annually which goes to their weekly food pantry), reads the Scripture with “green glasses,” and recently started a new school to teach folks about “upriver” issues such as how the abuse and misuse of the earth contributes to worldwide poverty and inequality. According to Robinson, “Christians should be at the front line of environmental issues.”
We don’t all have the option of being part of such a holistic church, but we can reframe our understanding of what it means to be stewards of our holy earth and allow this to inspire us to action. Francis Schaeffer understood the unmistakeable link between stewardship and faith. In his book Pollution and the Death of Man, Schaeffer writes:
The blood of the Lamb will redeem man and nature together … But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace, upon the basis of the work of Christ,” substantial healing can be a reality here and now.
That substantial healing will come to pass when the body of Christ willingly and purposefully embraces God’s sacred call.