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April 27, 2011

Connecting Our Faith with Food Choice

Christine Gutleben considers a thoughtful and deliberate approach to food in the Christian faith

  • A pig in a gestation crate. The HSUS

by Christine Gutleben

Christians today find it easier to perceive the bread and wine in Holy Communion as the body of Christ than as food. Yet, Holy Communion is based on an actual meal Jesus ate with His disciples.

While the liturgical elements of Holy Communion—the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ—are important, we should not forget its humble beginnings as a repast. 

It is also significant that sharing a meal of thanks was among the first things Jesus’ followers did together, and therefore one of the first Christian practices. Eucharist, another term for Holy Communion, comes from the Latin term, Eucharista, or to give thanks. 

With food playing such a central part in Christian history and practice, it seems we ought to be more thoughtful and deliberate about it. Isn’t it inconsistent to place food on the church altar without considering where it came from or how it was produced? What if the wheat in the Holy Communion bread was grown on a farm that used methods harmful to its laborers and the ecosystem? We would be right to be troubled by this. 

Similar concern caused me to become a vegetarian several years ago while in graduate school. I was exposed to images and films of industrial animal agribusiness, and I couldn’t knowingly continue to support a system with so much cruelty. Pregnant pigs and veal calves are confined in cages and crates so small they can’t turn around. Hens are crammed into tiny wire cages unable to spread their wings. 

Pregnant cows are forced to produce so much milk that they suffer from high rates of a painful udder infection known as mastitis. “Factory farming,” Matthew Scully wrote in a passage that spoke loudly to me, “has no traditions, no rules, no codes of honor, no little decencies to spare for a fellow creature. The whole thing is an abandonment of rural values and a betrayal of honorable animal husbandry.” Spiritual values, too.

The United States consumes more meat than almost any place else on earth. According to the USDA, the average American consumed 222 pounds of meat in 2007. That’s an increase of 78 pounds in less than 60 years! Factory farmers meet this demand by slaughtering animals at a rate of a million an hour around the clock. This, even as the environmental costs of animal agriculture continue to take their toll in a world in which food, energy, clean air and water, and other resources are being squandered where they ought to be safeguarded.

Everyone can do something to help change this terrible system. Whether you choose to eat a vegetarian diet some or all of the time, switch to animal products from farms that don’t use factory farming methods, or screen our film, Eating Mercifully, your efforts will make a difference. We make food choices several times a day. What an opportunity to honor a tradition that places significant value on food and shared meals and to align our behavior and diet with faith in a compassionate God who created all things.   

Christine Gutleben is the director of The Humane Society of the United States Faith Outreach program.

This essay will appear in an upcoming edition of the Blessed Earth newsletter.

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