Thursday, August 2, 2012

Eating Vegetarian on August 1, 2012

I live in a northwestern Canadian prairie city now, so the messy battle over a certain chicken chain, conservative Christians, and gay rights has not reached me in the same material way that it has reached many of my friends in the United States. Mostly I've read news stories, blog posts, and social network comments because they have been presented to me.

In other words, I couldn't have boycotted or supported that restaurant if I wanted to. And I'm wary of adding one more collection of paragraphs to the overwhelming barrage of argument and debate. But my heavy heart compels me.

Last night, I cooked a lentil-carrot soup. I also made whole-wheat rolls from Montana grain. And a pie of butter, flour, apples, cinnamon.

Arriving home from work, I stood for several hours spooning and leveling, stirring, kneading sticky dough. I put that speckled brown dough to rise, cut butter into pastry dough and wrapped it in waxed paper to chill. I chopped onions and garlic, scrubbed and cut carrots, measured spices in the cupped palm of my hand. I peeled apples and sliced them with my short curved paring knife, stirred them with cinnamon. My kitchen took on the fragrance of cumin, of yeast, of butter. My hand felt the power of a wooden spoon scraping the bottom of the pot, a rolling pin spreading cold dough into a round, a browned ball of steaming bread begging a veil of honey.

After these hours of cooking, I sat at the table with Josh, and I spooned hot soup into my mouth, and then I went back for more.

Our actions may be pragmatic--we feed ourselves because we are hungry--but they are also signs. They signify our values, they mean something more than the filling of a belly. In the high drama of contemporary American politics, yesterday's "Appreciation Day" at Chick-fil-A was an opportunity for people to turn their consumption (consumption of food and of a consumer good in the public marketplace) into a sign of their support for the corporation. Those wishing to signify their lack of support for the business (and in particular for its owner's donations to anti-gay groups) have, in the past weeks and months, chosen to avoid the restaurant. (Indeed, I had a conversation with a quiet boycotter on this very issue back in March.)

Let me say that I believe in the rights of individuals, even individuals who own businesses and make money from them, to support groups and causes with which any number of other individuals may disagree. I also believe in the right to public censure, to boycott, to activism. I hope that the latter can act as check and balance to the former.

In seeking to make the act of purchasing and eating a meal at a restaurant chain into one meaning, though, in seeking to signify one thing--whether that thing is support for "traditional family values," support for free speech, support for Christian businesspeoples' freedom of conscience--we overlook the complexity of any act, any situation. And we end up seeming to shout, one word, over and over, for our own way.

First of all, this is not the way of a crucified savior.

Any time those who call themselves Christians start to privilege our "rights" (even our "rights" to worship or free speech) over love, we cease to embody Christ in this world. I will state it strongly: the Jesus who challenges and compels me has no part in such a movement.

Jesus, as I understand him, calls us to give ourselves over not to Ideas, or to Principles, but to people.

Second of all, it seems to me a uniquely American irony that people would engage in activism to support a business that makes a lot of money because they want to show solidarity with its leaders and support for their freedom to do with those profits what they will. As usual, forget the questions of worker rights and compensation--we're talking about a chain restaurant that pays its workers in the $7-8 range per hour.

Not to mention the fact that it is a fast-food restaurant, selling factory-farmed chicken. Where do we think all that delicious "white meat" comes from? And what are the conditions of the folks picking and packing the produce? What farm subsidies are holding down the prices for its sodas' corn-syrup content? What environmental impact results from its production, shipping, and packaging practices?

Which is to say, the ethical questions plaguing the seemingly simple act of eating a meal at this restaurant disallow our attempts to make the act into one thing, one meaning. We may seek to signify our support of a principle, but in doing so we steamroll a host of other issues, many of them having to do with the good of our neighbors for whom, I believe, we find ourselves responsible when we realize the extent to which our choices affect them.

Who is my neighbor? we may ask.

Our neighbor is not a corporation. Our neighbors are human beings, with stories and faces and psyches as complicated as our own. They will doubtless challenge and confront us with differences from ourselves, differences that at times frighten us (with worries of contamination, or of competition, or of our own discomfort). They will also, in the globalized world, confront us with our radical privilege, economic and cultural and otherwise (to be an American Christian, still, often means weilding extraordinary financial and social power).  Our neighbors are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, some of them as Christians and some of them not. Our neighbors are also farm workers. Our neighbors are children who need real food to eat. Our neighbors are unable to afford health insurance while they work at fast-food restaurants. Our neighbors are losing their family farms. (And in all these cases, our neighbors are not simply these things--they are always more, and bear their own dignity and flaws.)

Jesus turns it all around, though, in the familiar story prompted by that question, Who is my neighbor?, by suggesting that the question isn't even one of categorizing neighbors but of defining what it is to be a neighbor to someone else.

To be a neighbor is to show mercy, he said.

To be a neighbor is to ask the question, Tell me what you are going through?

Let us seek not to live our lives shouting one word, over and over, especially not the word "mine"; let us not seek to mean the just one thing as a forceful Sign. Let us live our lives in conversation, in nuance, cook our lentil soups and apple pies and invite our neighbors around our tables. Let us listen to our neighbors' stories, and let us tell our own, over time. This is no metaphor: here is a recipe.

What you do to the least of these, you do to me, he said. Go and do likewise.

18 comments:

  1. Ok, with all due respect, this is absurd. You disregard the fact that this restaurant employs thousands of people. Your statement about those people not being able to afford health insurance reflects a socialist Utopian point of view, and yes gay people are our neighbors but that doesn't mean we should be OK with their sin, just like we shouldn't be with our own. Love them, yes, allow them to push us around and eventually out of public life as Revelation predicta, not a chance. Your not better because you eat lentil soup, even Michael Phelps eats Mcdees, but everything in moderation

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I can promise you I'm not utopian socialist (smile). I'd like to see living wages, though.

      And in the spirit of dialogue (which is often hard on the internet), I'll disagree with "everything in moderation": Jesus's love, and meekness, and mercy were overflowing, as I believe ours should be. Worrying about being "pushed around" shows that we're afraid of losing our power. I think we should be worrying more about losing sight of Jesus's practice of eating with those the rest of his society pushed to the margins.

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  2. Agreed, this is not the way of a crucified savior. Thank you for such beautiful and challenging words.

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  3. My name's actually Chris but it's easier to post quickly as Anonymous. Of course, I'd like to show Christ's love to everyone I meet. My statement about everything in moderation was in reference to Solomon's teachings on material things, i.e. fattening foods like McDonald's. I totally agree about sitting down with people who have been pushed to the margins of society. However, I believe Christians are the ones being pushed to the margins much more than homosexuals. I think we should worry about taking care of our own as well as the defenseless. Gay people have plenty of places to turn, but should we allow our brothers and sisters be run out of public life so easily at the risk of offending non-believers? That's not what Paul teaches. Didn't Christ offend a lot of people with his message? We don't have to worry about losing power because Christ will ultimately prevail. But should we let sin reign in the meantime? Why would a homosexual want to join Christian's when Christians don't even help their own. Wouldn't it be good to show them how we help and support each other? Why would they become Christians if they get treated better as a non-christian? Obviously that's no licence to treat them badly, but you have to be honest with them. I think that one day we will be judged for those we didn't give a chance because we were to afraid to offend. Your right, this is about much more than chick-fil-a, because that was mainly about free speech. But using your own sense morality as weapon to discourage other christians from supporting a cause they believe is important is wrong. Just because you think that factory farms are bad, even though they make produce that feeds millions. It's not pretty, but the result is a cheap meal that almost anyone in this great country can afford.

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    1. Chris, I'm guessing you don't live close enough for me to invite you over for dinner...I think that would be the best context to continue our conversation. Blessings to you, though.

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  4. Mmm... I'm gonna try that soup.

    Thank you, Cindy, for being a ground-breaking story-welcomer in my life and for sharing your table with someone I love. Your welcome was life-giving.

    You modeled for our congregation the radical way of drawing the harmed and the hurting in from the margins. Jesus' practice is indeed redemptive.

    And thank you for this beautiful post.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Meg. You are such an encourager in my life!

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  5. Thank you for your thoughtful words, Cindy.

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  6. Cindy, I love your perspective...and I would love to have a meal with you.:-)

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    1. Thanks, Katie. And the same to you!

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  7. Being on a break from most things political (having a 4-month-old and no time for the news does that) I missed out on any "movements" occurring at our local part of the chain. Random postings on Facebook that were quickly breezed through to get to more substantive posts from friends were the most I heard of it. But regardless, I find an irony that I have "boycotted" that chain along with most other fast food and even most sit-down restaurants. Not for any political reason, but simply b/c I refuse to go out to eat where the only item I can eat is salad, and only that without dressing. I have significant food allergies, one of which is to corn, and as a family unit we refuse to go to those places I cannot eat a safe meal because it is not worth our money. I just find it mildly humorous that my food restrictions tend to place us on one side of this "rights" debate, regardless of the fact that I have a strong reason not to "support" the chain by eating there regardless of my actual viewpoint.

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    1. I think this is a really good point about the fact that our actions are often motivated by much more complex dynamics than the debates that take breeze through fb and media outlets! A number of my friends suffer from these serious allergies, too, and I'm also really curious about their sources (modern farming practices? other technological developments? or have they been here all along with different names?). Do you have thoughts on this?

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  8. Thanks for the offer, but yea I'm too fat away (near Chicago). Good discussion though, I think its good to be aware of the issues. - Chris

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    1. Too bad I'm not in Chicago anymore!

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  9. This article has a definite ring of snobbishness and a condescending and self-serving tone. It is, I'm afraid, rather popular to bash corporations right now, and to promote ourselves and our enlightened ways and how we cook...and how much smarter we are than those poor people who are simply "knee-jerkers".But that is not the way of the Savior, either...He didn't promote Himself.
    He humbly served.A little fact-checking might have been done to find out that the "anti-gay" group being supported with this corporation's donations is the Family Research Council. They are not anti-gay. They are open in their love of all people, with a particular love for those caught up in the homosexual lifestyle. They actively give hope and help to these people so that they can find true freedom in Christ. As Christians, we should love those ones right into the arms of the Savior. Please consider this before labeling an organization.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. To begin, I do (and did) know that the Family Research Council is the organization in question and could have been more careful to indicate that I meant "anti-gay" to reflect the widely circulating perspective on the FRC in this argument. But that matter was not the point of this post. I'm glad you've taken the opportunity to defend the FRC as more than an "anti-gay" organization--that question is certainly open to debate.

      I'm also sad that the post felt snobbish, condescending, and self-serving to you. In narrating my own choice to cook at home, I ran the risk of seeming to idealize my own practice as the best choice. What I was trying to get at was that I chose to do an everyday thing that didn't participate in the "either/or" mentality of the symbolism of eating on that particular day, and that there is complexity and beauty even in the simplest domestic tasks. You're right that this could seem self-serving, or at least pretty prideful. I'm sorry if it ended up sounding that way. (Though I will say that Jesus DID promote himself in saying, "I am the way..."; and the Apostle Paul recommended that Christians follow Jesus by recognizing him in Paul's own example.)

      I'm painfully aware that even access to good, wholesome foods, blog recipes, information about nutrition and social issues, etc. comes along with my privileges as a middle-class American blessed by education, leisure time, and some financial stability. My goal isn't to judge those who don't have access to these things (indeed, that's one of my concerns!), but rather to point out that those of us who DO have such options (who make up the primary audience of this blog) have certain responsibilities as a result.

      Finally, I'll mention that there is a LONG history of criticizing corporations for their injustices--it's not just a popular trend right now. And I don't think they need you to defend them. In fact, I think there is even a strong biblical tradition, especially among the Hebrew prophets, of critiquing those who gather power for themselves at the expense of others.

      But look at me getting all red-faced and proof-texty! Again, I think this conversation would take much better shape over a plate of beans and rice (or a pizza!) ... I'm guessing you're a bit too far away for that, though.

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