Living and Leading Change for Good: Meet the Disruptors
The Forum for Theological Exploration series, Living and Leading Change for Good, invites you to meet the disruptors – theological explorers and visionary architects inspired by their Christian faith and fueled by courage. These leaders are actively addressing civil and human rights issues and the anxiety about the rising tide of color in the U.S., along with creating social entrepreneurial ventures that respond to issues our communities face today. Our hope is that their voices and stories toward peace and justice might inspire you to be the disruptive change you’ve been waiting for. You can find the full series, here.
The Spirituality of Food Justice
By Christopher Carter
At the beginning of every semester, I ask my undergraduate students at the University of San Diego to describe their theological beliefs. Usually, about thirty percent of the class describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. But what does that mean?
Many of them point to an inability to connect with church (whether traditional, contemporary, or whatever is trendy), or a particularly painful experience with their former religious community. However, the majority of them say that before leaving their previous faith community, they had experienced something transcendent or “spiritual.” They had experienced a connection to something wholly other that grounded them in a deep well of compassion for themselves and their community. It is this sense of the sacred they desire to keep, and they are willing to disregard religion if it doesn’t foster this kind of spiritual experience.
Imagine my surprise the day I realized that I more or less agree with these students! I could be considered a millennial myself, born in 1981. I initially felt that being spiritual but not religious was a sign of an immature faith that was fearful of committing to a faith tradition. Yet, somewhere along my faith journey, going to church – even though I enjoyed it – was no longer enough to deepen my notion of God in meaningful ways. Pious platitudes about God being love, while true, lacked the relational depth I needed for personal relevancy.
While I never stopped attending church, my spiritual practices evolved. Music, cooking, and outdoor recreational activities like walking through an urban park or hiking, expanded my conception of God and our role as created beings.
In light of this change, I also came to understand food to be spiritual and relational. I now see my work as a Farm Forward Faith in Food Fellow and my activism within the food justice movement as an expression of my faith. There is a spiritual connection between what we eat, who we choose to eat with, and how our dietary choices impact our bodies and the bodies of those who grow our food. And if food is relational, then food justice activism and ministry involves mending the broken relationship between ourselves, our Creator, and God’s creation – one meal at a time.
To be sure, marginalized bodies (i.e., black, brown, and/or poor) bear the burden of our broken food system. If you are a person of color, you are more likely to live in a food desert (an area without access to fresh & healthy foods) and are more liable to suffer from diet related diseases such as diabetes and certain forms of cancer. Our diets can be an expression of our resistance towards the systematic oppression of humans, animals, and our planet. In this way, food justice work is spiritual, since our spirituality is tied up in the aforementioned web of relationships between God, human beings, and God’s creation.
But this spiritual practice does not, and I argue should not, come at the expense of a thriving relationship with a religious community or a church. Rather religious communities ought to see the Millennials’ longing for spirituality as the longing for meaningful relationships that extend beyond the walls of the church, a desire to emulate the way of Jesus by becoming a radically inclusive community, and a commitment to fostering a just society.
In this way, religious and congregational leaders ought to hear the phrase “spiritual but not religious” as an invitation to reimagine and recreate our religious institutions in light of the prophetic Christian tradition modeled by Jesus. Doing so would render “spiritual but not religious” as an oxymoron or an impossibility because our spirituality would be enmeshed with our religious practice. Understood this way, it becomes clear why the spirituality of food justice deepened my faith.
For our “religion” to remain personally transformative, it must ultimately become socially transformative and seek to emulate the anti-oppressive message of Christ. The practice of being a Christian must extend beyond the pew in order to bring healing to a broken world. If we are going to be a Church committed to Christian justice, food justice ought to be an essential ministry for all congregations. The practice of being a Christian must extend to our gardens, our personal and church kitchens, our plates and our politics. This is spirituality served one plate at a time.
Rev. Dr. Christopher Carter’s teaching and research interests are in Black & Womanist Theological Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Religion & Food, and Religion & Animals. His publications include The Spirit of Soul Food (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming), and The Future of Meat Without Animals (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). In them, he explores the intersectional oppressions experienced by people of color, the environment, and animals. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of San Diego and a Faith in Food Fellow at Farm Forward.