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Eating God’s Way

Eating God’s Way

In an episode of the comedy Portlandia, a man and woman
grill their server about the chicken they intend to order. She tells
them the chicken (whose name is Colin) was raised locally, fed a diet of
"sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts" and he roamed free on four acres of
land (though she can’t speak to whether Colin "palled around" with his
chicken buddies). The server then hands over the chicken’s "papers"—a
form complete with his information and an attached photo.

 The segment reveals real questions. With documentaries such as Food, Inc., King Corn, The Future of Food and Fresh
fueling the fire, a new way of thinking about food is emerging: some
call it agrarianism. Agrarians, standing in opposition to the industrial
method of working the earth (chemicals, corporations and combines),
position themselves as caretakers of the soil who think not only about
capital gains but about manure, earthworms, grass, dirt, sustainability
and the future.

Why Now?

In the 1930s, the plains from northern Texas into Kansas and
Colorado became the "Dust Bowl.” This ecological phenomenon brought dust
storms of apocalyptic proportions and was caused by a misunderstanding
of the soil and an abuse of the land. Government incentives to settle
and farm the region, combined with neglectful farming practices and new
technologies, left the landscape scorched, dry and virtually
uninhabitable. The fear is that again, in our time, government policies
and subsidies, combined with heedless technophilia and industrial
business models, have depleted the soil and reduced agriculture to Dust
Bowl-styled dollar signs.

Joel Salatin, the farmer from Virginia made famous by the documentaries Food, Inc. and Fresh,
speaks of the conflict between industrialism and nature. "New virulent
diseases, soil loss, immune dysfunction, high energy costs,
pathogenicity and compromised nutrients all indicate the failure of the
mechanical view toward life,” he says. ”As that view tries rescue
through irradiation, cloning, transgenic modification and more toxic
chemistry, creation rebels in the form of yet greater maladies: MRSA, C.
diff, type 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia and others. … The
industrial/mechanical view toward life is simply running out of
answers.” Gene Logsdon, another farmer and writer on Christian
agrarianism, published a book about tending the soil not with machines
but with manure. The title? Holy S—. In it, he writes: "Human
society is moving … toward ever increasing consolidation. That is
supposed to be our glory, but I fear it is also our doom.” Nothing as
markedly catastrophic as the Dust Bowl has happened yet. But events just
as weighty could be on the horizon. "Nature always bats last,” Salatin
says, "and nature is coming to the plate.”

Ignorance and Indifference

Few 21st-century children grow up on a family farm a phenomenon of the last 50 years. In The Essential Agrarian Reader,
Wendell Berry writes, "In 2002 we [had] less than half the number of
farmers in the United States that we had in 1977.” As that trend
continues, ages of practical, earthy farm wisdom are disappearing as
generations from the first half of the 20th century pass away.

Additionally, many Americans remain uninterested about the origins of
the food they consume and the methods used to raise it. Farmers’
markets, documentaries and even some large grocery stores such as Whole
Foods have begun bridging the gap between growers and eaters, but
according to Salatin, they are just scratching the surface. “We must
always consider the unseen world,” he says. "Each double handful of
healthy soil contains more living creatures than there are people on the
face of the earth. From actinomycetes to earthworms, centipedes to
azotobacter bacteria, the soil is the most vibrant relational community
on earth. Everything we are, everything we see, is completely and
utterly dependent on this unseen world.

“That the average [Christian] family sits in their pew, memorizes the
catechism, recites Bible verses, partakes of the sacraments and never
even contemplates the profound implications of their utter dependence on
this unseen, unsung, unappreciated community exemplifies a
schizophrenic duality that God abhors.”

Christian = Agrarian 

Agrarianism is more than just a whim or personal preference. It is
the posture of honest humility—the very same posture to which Christians
are called. Must Christians be agrarians, then? The answer from the
Christian agrarian community is a resounding "yes.” The Bible exhorts
its readers to embrace humility, and according to Sutterfield, humility
connects us with the earth, reminding us of our place in it. "Job is a
story about God saying: ‘I’m God. There is a whole creation and world
completely independent of human beings, and it’s important to me,"
Sutterfield says. "The eagles God cares for, the places in the desert He
waters that no one will ever see—Job actually finds comfort in the fact
that he is not as important as he thought he was.”

God named the first human "Adam," from the Hebrew word for "dirt.”
Yet, made in the image of God, and made from dirt-divinely muddy-mankind
ought to take both of these together, tending his origins with divine
care: cultivating the earth in godliness. "The closer we partake of the
living world,” Salatin says, "whether it’s raising a baby calf or
growing tomatoes, the more aware we are of the mystery and majesty of
creation. That pushes us toward humility and greater appreciation of an
all-powerful divinity.”

Some might wonder if there aren’t bigger issues at hand; does God
really care about how we use the earth? Salatin believes not only does
God care, but non-Christians are also taking notice of our treatment of
the planet. "He who says the trees of the forest shall clap their hands,
that the lilies of the field are more beautiful than Solomon in all his
glory and that the sparrows are numbered surely is interested in
whether the earthworms are happy. And whether pigs are happy. As Brother
[David] Andrews says, eating then becomes a moral act. That is why the
non-Christian community views Christians with contempt, charging
hypocrisy, when it sees Christians stop off for Happy Meals on the way
to a Right-to-Life rally. That is just as hard to reconcile as a
tree-hugger or save-the-baby-whaler who promotes abortion.”

As agrarianism grows stronger roots into the hearts of earth-deprived
Americans, ministries, co-ops, networks and community gardens are
springing up like rows of non-GMO, chemical-free heirloom corn . Then
there are those who hear the call of the wild, choosing to leave the
urban jungle behind in favor of greener, broader spaces. Each type needs
the other, and as the agrarian spirit takes hold, Christians are
recognizing the Gospel is not just about saving souls but about
receiving Christ’s life into an embodied soul, and hoping and working
for the redemption of all things.

Want to learn more about eating ethically? This article was excerpted from one that appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of RELEVANT magazine.

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