From the soil, to the stove, to the dining room table, I am convinced that food lies at the center of reconciling work.
In the Genesis account of the fall of creation, a simple act of eating heralded the brokenness of all kinds of relationships: the relationships of humans to one another, to their own bodies, and to the earth. And through such brokenness, humanity’s relationship with God.
These wounds have festered on farms and in fields and over stoves and at dining tables throughout the course of history. From the abuses of those who work the land by force, the unfair payment to those who work the land because they have no other choice; to the shame placed on bodies crafted carefully out of soil and brought to life with God’s breath. The degradation of the land humans were commanded to serve and protect; and the use of the table to stratify class. Serfdom to sharecropping to migrant labor; monopolies over trade and the engineering of seeds; the anguish of calories consumed, of macros versus micros and paleo versus whole grain; the refusal of a seat at the table.
The deep brokenness of the world cries out from every corner of humanity’s relationship with food.
But God is in the business of reconciliation. Of turning brokenness and shame on its head, of using the very spaces that wield pain to begin the work of healing.
Which is why the degradation that began with a bite of sour fruit—which humans tried time again to appease through an offering of sacrificial food to God or gods—was turned on its head when Jesus served a meal back to us. He said whenever you eat this feast, remember that this brokenness is being turned upside down and inside out. That reconciliation is at hand and our responsibility is to take part.
Last fall at Princeton Seminary’s Just Food conference, I listened to the Rev. Richard Joyner of Conetoe Family Life Center tell the story of how God transformed his anger at generations of injustice through the joy of children playing in the soil. The son of a sharecropper, Joyner grew up understanding that the land was a space used to wield power against him.
“To grow up sharecropping inflicts more childhood trauma than an education can overcome,” he shared as he told tales of his father’s tireless work on another man’s land. His father would work hours every day, only to be told he had never even met rent for the land. Exhausted, blistered, he would day after day face his fourteen children without any more money than the day before – every penny made paid to the wealthy white man who sat beside him in church on Sunday morning.
To Joyner, freedom from racial injustice meant freedom from the land. But cleaning the dirt from under his fingernails did little to clean out the deep wounds of injustice. He remained captive to anger aimed at the oppression inflicted by the owners of that land. Until one day he felt God urging him to return once again to the soil. With great reluctance he faced the tool used to abuse and transformed it into a tool to facilitate healing. He developed a children’s gardening program at his church.
As Joyner watched children run and play and find joy in the soil that he and his own brothers could never bear to touch, the ground transitioned for him from a place of injustice to a place of health and wholeness. The program has since developed into an inter-racial, inter-religious project that has transformed the wellness of his community, empowering youth and promoting healthy eating. But most importantly, it is dismantling oppression. Using the spaces that wield pain to begin the work of healing, God’s method of reconciling the world.
Joyner’s powerful story strengthened my commitment to the study of food, to exploring the many ways that healing humanity’s relationship with food is integral to restoring humanity’s relationship with God.
Whether focused on care for the soil and the cultivation of life, on personal health or dismantling body-shame, on food access or limiting waste, or on setting tables that are open to all—growing, cooking, and eating are all sacramental acts of worship. Each one can be used to reinforce division, but it can also be used to take part in the reconciling work of God.
So let’s eat and drink and set to work re-membering a broken world.
Because from every angle, food is at the center of reconciling work.