The Body of Christ: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
Last summer, I visited a farm in Georgia where a seasoned southern farmer recalled the years when his animals were confined to feedlots and the land was soaked with pesticides. Instead of muffled oinks and wind rustling through the leaves, he heard the roaring fans and generators of CAFOs – Confined Animal Feeding Operations.
Since converting back to regenerative agriculture, which returns animals to the land and renews the local ecology, he has been reorienting himself to a healthier ecosystem. His new favorite activity is watching sparrows return to the land. For him, it is an everyday epiphany to see ecological healing take place in his lifetime by changing his farming practices. And that gives him hope. I can’t help but think how Jesus explained that God cares for the smallest sparrow, even these ones in southern Georgia.
As Christ modeled it, food is a central part of the Christian faith. By becoming the bread of life, he was enacting his part in the great food chain of being, becoming food for us to consume. Communion at church is not the only time to honor God’s presence. If John’s prologue is true, then Christ was at the beginning of creation – and is within all of creation now. Every time we eat, each bite is a sacred element, a sacrament. We are part of the crucifixion and resurrection at every meal.
If this is the case, are we not dishonoring the Logos when we ignore where our food comes from? Instead of those serene sparrows, consider the broiler chicken bred for our consumption. Because of our demand for white meat, the chicken is grown to such proportions that it cannot stand on its own legs. Then it is thrown in the air to be transported and soon electrocuted and scalded alive. How are we honoring God by eating a piece of cheese from a dairy cow that is continually impregnated, only to be separated from her calf the moment it is born? Her body is converted into a commodity for us to eat and drink her milk, only to be slaughtered in two years, which is 18 years earlier than her expected life span.
Burdens of Consumption
The land itself is deeply wounded by such practices. Over 70 billion animals are raised each year for human consumption. Modern animal agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Sites where trees would normally absorb emissions are destroyed. Think of the vast resources that go into these feeding operations – the corn or soy required for feed, the emissions from tractors and transport, the energy to run these concrete houses, the manure placed in lagoons and released into the air or waterways, the removal of carcasses. Neighboring residents, often people of color, fall victim to the surrounding pollution, with respiratory problems and contaminated water. This burdensome form of animal agriculture is now the second largest contributor to humanmade greenhouse gasses. By 2050, consumption of meat and dairy products will likely almost double.2
So why aren’t we talking more about our food?
This was made apparent at the most recent United Nations Climate Conference in December 2018. Even while world climate leaders focused on urgent matters of clean energy and transportation, they were fed a meat-heavy menu. As nonprofits such as Biological Diversity, Farm Forward, and Brighter Green pointed out, the conference’s food choices emitted the equivalent of burning 500,000 gallons of gasoline. If these climate champions are not willing to change their eating habits, how do we expect theological leaders and their congregations to do so?
Everyday Ethical Decisions
Every choice we make has morally, ethically charged consequences. To choose to ignore what we consume three or more times a day is to be complicit in an extremely broken system. We hurt people who reside near CAFOs. We hurt our bodies by overconsuming this meat. We hurt the animals who are the ultimate victims of these meat-producing machines. And we hurt the earth. As inhabitants of this planet, we need to think of ourselves as members of one body instead of individual beings.
This is where Christ can help us fix the food system, which is such a large part of our climate crisis. For those like me who continue to consume animal products, it’s time to begin thinking differently about the meat, dairy, and eggs we choose to buy. Recognize Christ’s body as more than just a wafer on Sunday mornings – his body is within each steak, each egg, each slice of cheese. If the Logos resides within all of creation, we can treat each bite with the same reverence we bring to kneeling at the altar. Sacrifices were made for our cheeseburger or our mac and cheese. When Jesus broke bread, he modeled reverence for bodily sacrifice.
Saving the Planet?
Some would like to believe that simply eliminating red meat is enough to “save the planet.” But the challenge is bigger than steaks and hamburgers. A white-meat alternative – replacing a Hardy’s cheeseburger with a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich – is not fixing the bigger issue. We have reduced animal bodies to mere consumption commodities and forgotten what it means to eat with reverence. We are in touch with reverence at Sunday worship, yet we forget just moments later at Sunday brunch.
Change is possible every time we pick up a fork. Eating fewer animal products and more plant-based options is the first step. Our overconsumption of meat, dairy, and eggs has given rise to a horrific food system. Replacing beef with plants would reduce CO2e (greenhouse gases that are considered carbon dioxide equivalents) by 96 percent. Agricultural emissions can be limited through smarter livestock handling, technologies that monitor fertilizer and antibiotic use, and an overall commitment to more efficient agricultural techniques.
Consider purchasing local and pasture-based meat and dairy. These practices decrease industrial waste, carbon and methane emissions, transportation emissions, animal suffering, and the pitiless influence of corporate capitalism. Animal welfare, job security, grasslands, land sustainability, even rejuvenation, and ultimately the sacredness of bodies – animal and human – are all enhanced by supporting certain types of farming. Regenerative agriculture is an essential step to reviving our relationship with the land.
Defying Peer Pressure
For some, it will be an easy decision to embrace these changes. For others who, like myself, succumb to peer pressure when dining out or lack available local options, it can take longer. I still make mistakes trying to do my best. But recognizing shortcomings while making one small change at a time can establish long-term habits. Programs like the ASPCA’s Shop With Your Heart show how consumers have the power to change the fate of the planet three times a day. They promote farmers and brands that are making responsible farming central to their business. If we as Christians believe climate change is an ethical crisis in need of moral reform, let’s learn to shop with our hearts. Supporting farmers who not only care about the food animals but also the sparrows and all wildlife is a necessary step to reconnecting with our food and reconnecting with our faith.
I now think about rituals differently. Sacraments are everyday embodiments of the Logos. Church includes an open field with the summer sun beaming down, with cattle and pigs in the distance, and sparrows catching their dinner in midair. Once we realize our actions are spiritually charged, we can honor the Logos with every decision we make, striving to heal all of planet Earth.
Julia Johnson ’18 M.Div. is studying for an M.S. degree in Anthrozoology from Canisius College and works as Manager of the Farm Animal Welfare Department for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
1 See “Animal Agriculture Impact on Climate Change,” climatenexus.org.