Food Justice and Jesus

Food Justice and Jesus


Edward P. Echlin

(This article was published in ‘The Pastoral Review’, Vol. 7, Issue 6, 2011)

Throughout the world, including in affluent and developed countries, people are rediscovering the importance of food. Without adequate and varied food human life is difficult and sometimes impossible. There are many converging reasons for this rediscovery, including shrinking household incomes, and the rising cost of food even in farm shops and supermarkets. Intermittently there are pictures on television of hungry children in Africa, Asia, andLatin America. Food security in theUK, especially since World War II, was at least until recently, taken for granted. Now however, adults realize food cannot be presumed abundant, and are trying to sensitise children to food’s preciousness. A woman council leader recently said that children to whom she spoke in schools thought that chips came from supermarket shelves and takeaways, and that many had never seen a real potato – until she produced the one she carries in her handbag when addressing schools. A senior civil servant, and mother of three, agreed, saying that until her family moved to a house with a garden where they could grow some vegetables and plant a fruit tree, her children thought all food came from supermarkets.


Food growing in fertile urban soil, as in Vancouver, Canada, and in ‘Edible Hackney’, is suddenly interesting, fascinating, even necessary for balanced family budgets. Allotments have unprecedented waiting lists and are now included in new housing developments. Food groups flourish. The dictum of food writer Colin Tudge is often quoted, ‘Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety’. [i] The reasons for food insecurity are many and varied. There looms, for example, in addition to increased Asian meat eating, with the demand for land to feed livestock, spreading car ownership inChina. In 2009 more people bought new cars inChina than in theUnited States. If car ownership inChina emulates that ofAmerica, three cars to every four people,China will soon have one billion cars, more than the entire world today. The soil to accommodate cars would cover two thirds of the area now used to grow rice. Cars, and their demands for asphalt for roads and car parks, are one reasonChina,South Korea,Saudi Arabia, andVietnam buy up large blocks of land, including forests, in already hungry Africa andAsia. Colonisation of fertile topsoil exemplifies another major reason for food insecurity, that of exploding populations which outstrip the fertility of regional biosystems. Jonathon Porritt writes,

It’s been nearly a decade since the CIA first drew people’s attention to China’s enthusiasm for acquiring land (by direct purchase or long-lease agreement) in Africaand other countries. Since then, many more countries (especially from the middle East) have joined the party – explicitly to help meet their own food needs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, nearly 20 million hectares of farmland – almost half the size of all the arable land in Europe– were sold or had been negotiated for sale or lease in 2010. [ii]


There is also human (including cars) induced climate damage, already felt in increasing droughts and food insecurity. There is soil damaging construction within cities, towns and hinterland even on green belt land. About one quarter of the greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, now surrounding the earth like a coverlet, is attributed to intensive agriculture. Substantial areas of agricultural land which, when sustainably farmed sequester carbon as well as feeding local people, are now used for biofuel crops which feed not people but cars and planes. Bioenergy crops, especially inGermany,Italyand theUK, also exploit distant rainforests and peatlands. The globalisation and intensive agribusiness promoted by economists, industrialists, and media, encourage the removal of small agro-ecological growers from the land and their enforced migration to urban areas where they become consumers of imports, their fertile soil incorporated into intensive agribusiness.

In July 2011 the UN, noting world population density, predicted that world food production would have to increase substantially by 2050 to feed a projected 9 billion people. The UN also noted the undernourishment, even famine, in parts ofBangladesh,China, theCongo,Ethiopia,India,Indonesia,Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa. It estimated food poverty of 578 million people inAsiaand the Pacific, and 234 million in sub Saharan Africa. Moreover there is both hunger and malnutrition, combined with obesity, in developed countries surfeited with instant junk foods. Some of the malnourishment is related to dysfunctional families. Calling for global food security, the UN notes the sustained productivity of small scale agro-ecological farming and growing. Also important is seed preservation. InIreland, for example, at Irish Seed Savers Association, at Capparoe, Scariff, and in theUSat Seed Savers Exchange inIowa, and at Heritage Seeds,RytonGardens, in theUK, and elsewhere throughout the world, traditional seed varieties are preserved and traded. When President Obama visited Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa in 2011 he was given seeds of varieties saved by Thomas Jefferson at his farm in Virginia, including Tennis Ball lettuce, and Asparagus Pear, with a quotation of Jefferson, ‘the greatest service that can be rendered to any country is to add a plant to its culture.’ Obama replied that the White House garden is flourishing and feeding his family. For a few summers I was a ‘seed guardian’ for a lettuce, called Emerald, given to the seed collection at Ryton by Carmelite Sisters. Emerald is no longer an ‘orphan’. I then saved a climbing bean grown by the Cherokee Indians and taken by them on their enforced migration from their Eastern homeland to a western reservation. Called ‘Cherokee  Trail of Tears’ it grows companionably with sweet corn. The Cherokee seed, like Emerald lettuce, is no longer endangered, so I now grow a compact French bean called ‘Hutterite Soup’. Its name describes its provenance. When the seed is no longer endangered, no longer an ‘orphan’, it too will not need guardians.


For the continuation of our species through this century we will need an adapted agrarianism, including its biodiversity, climate stabilization, and superior productivity, not only in rural areas but in towns and even cities. ‘Agrarianism is a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on the health of the land and of living creatures.’ [iii] One has only to glimpse the CCTV footage of the English 2011 riots to see how alienated from the land and its living creatures are many urban young people. Among many parents, teachers, politicians, and journalists there is the related and dangerous assumption that land is a commodity, with potential for ‘development’, which can increase or decrease in monetary value. In fact, as Wendell Berry comments, ‘all economists begin to lie as soon as they assign a fixed value to land …. Whatever the market may say, the worth of the land is what it always was. It is worth what food, clothing, shelter and freedom are worth It is worth what life is worth.’ [iv] This is the agrarian way of thinking and living we need to rediscover. Throughout the earth millions of small growers – and let us not forget small agro-ecological farmers, small holders, and allotment growers and sustainable fisherfolk in the UK and other developed regions – these small scale methods feed millions of families in a biodiverse sustainable way unlike large techno-chemical farms. Miguel Altieri of California University writes, ‘Although 91% of the planet’s 1.5 billion hectares of agricultural land is devoted to agro-export crops, biofuels, and transgenic crops to feed cars and cattle, millions of small farmers in the developing world still produce the majority of staple crops needed to feed the planet’s rural and urban populations.’ [v]


Jewish Agrarianism and Jesus

In the Jewish agrarian culture known to Jesus, even ‘sold’ fields reverted to their hereditary owners at jubilee, the Sabbath rest extended to fields and animals. Jewish agrarianism also included sharing the land’s produce in a culture of partial self-sufficiency. The Jews did not cultivate fields to their very borders, but left margins for wildlife. Some gleanings were left for the poor and strangers. Newly planted fruit trees were unharvested for three years, the fourth year’s fruit belonged to God. Thereafter their owners could harvest them for food (cf. Lev. 19-25). The famous ideal of every person sitting under their own fig and vine included sharing fruit and shade with neighbours. (Mic. 4.4; Zech. 3.10)


Jesus therefore lived as man in an agrarian, earth caring culture which explains his vivid metaphors and parables, not least those illustrated by seeds and fields. This cycle of life and its biodiversity is included in Incarnation and Redemption. Teilhard de Chardin in the last entry to his journal, three days before he died, noted the centrality of ‘the universal Christ’. ‘The universe is centred. Evolutive. Above. Ahead. Christ is the Centre.’ [vi]


Nazarethwas the home of Jesus for the major part of his life on earth. The gospels tell us little explicitly about the Nazarethyears. Yet if we contemplate Jesus at Nazarethwith the senses of the imagination, as Ignatius Loyola directs us in The Spiritual Exercises, we discover Jesus at the centre ofNazareth’s agrarian culture, obedient to his parents, and as a youth learning the ways of the soil in a family field. Loyola says,

In contemplation or meditation on visible matters, such as the contemplation of Christ our Lord, Who is visible, the composition will be to see with the eyes of the imagination the corporeal place where the thing I wish to contemplate is found. I say the corporeal place, such as the Templeor the mountain, where Jesus Christ or our Lady is found, according to what I desire to contemplate.’ (The Spiritual Exercises, First Week, First Contemplation).

Luke’s gospel provides a precious clue, when he twice notices that Jesus grew ‘in wisdom’ at Nazareth(Lk. 2.40, 52). Jewish wisdom included more than abstract knowledge, it included the ways of the local biosystem, how wise people worked with and not against the soil. Isaiah describes agrarian wisdom in the experienced grower working with the soil. (Isa. 28. vv 23-26). Jesus, after growing in wisdom and learning the ways of the soil at Nazareth,  preached the kingdom in agrarian imagery. The seed scattered on fertile soil, which in Nazareth is semi-permeable chalk and marl, the tiny mustard seed and the mature plant’s welcome shade, seeds maturing slowly, figs and vines and the value of manure, cereals and bread, hens and chicks, rain and drought, olives and vines, invasive weeds, stony soil, golden fields at harvest … Jesus’ metaphors like biodiversity itself, are colourful. Jesus preached the kingdom in metaphors related to food production. Dermot Lanewrites, ‘It is surely no accident that many of the parables of Jesus invoke agricultural images from the earth to describe the dynamics of the Reign of God in our world: the mustard seed, the leaven, and the vineyard. There is more than a hint in the parables of Jesus that the earth and its cycle of life is an important key to a proper understanding of the present and future Reign of God.’ [vii]


This inclusion of food implies that the future kingdom includes the whole earth community.St Paultestifies how our fellow earth creatures, stones and plants and animals, await and yearn with us for the kingdom (Rm. 8.19-23). They are included in the ‘all things’ cohering in Christ Risen (Col. 1.17). Pope John Paul II described this cosmic inclusion in Jesus.

The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is flesh … The Incarnation then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension: the “first born of creation” unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, within the whole of creation. [viii]

The ‘entire reality of man’ implies food and water. Hopefully future church teaching and our daily living will be agrarian.


The Agrarian Church on the Ground

We noted that 1) agrarianism is a way of living in community with care for the land and its creatures; and 2) even in towns and cities people can and must be agrarian in ways adapted to urban living. The bible and our living tradition and our way of living need re–interpretation in theology, spirituality and practice. Our contemporary culture will certainly need global and local food security. Our Christian assistance of hungry people and our sharing agrarianism reflects Jesus in his sharing lifestyle. Our church land, like our ministry, can and should witness to our agrarian sharing. Whenever possible our land should include fruit and nut trees, vegetable growing, and wildlife sanctuaries. Our south facing roofs can harvest and share solar energy, and our buildings should harvest rain which we return to the soil, its trees, plants, and aquifers. Sacramental water should be poured onto a plant or tree near the sacristy. In brief, even our ‘water witness’ should be holistic, like Jesus in his life on earth. ‘Christ is never without water’, wrote the African Tertullian. FromBethlehem toGolgotha to the appearances at the lake, Jesus was involved with water. Our eucharists too signify the communion of the whole earth community with our Creator. John Zizioulas notes,

The eucharist as “communion of the last times” reveals to us that the whole of creation is destined by God’s love to be set free at last from corruption and death and to live “unto ages of ages”, having as its head the “last Adam”, Him who made a reality what the “first Adam” refused and failed to do: the communion of what is created with God. [ix]


Jesus was a Nazarethcraftsman (tekton) who lived and worked with wood from trees, and who died on a tree which is now the symbol that represents Him. He died and was buried in a garden, and appeared there and in other fields and by the lake to many eyewitnesses. The church, the people of God who are Christ existing as community, witness to the intimate relationship of people with God in Christ, with each other, and with the earth, its food and water. A remarkable ecumenical example are the churches of Sudan. Ecumenically, the churches equip [x]people with resources and skills to redirect hunger and improve the lives of the poor. In Florida the Sudan churches have a farm divided into six different ecosystems. They learn the ‘best practice’ for agro-ecological food production in different ecosystems which assists missionaries to teach best practice to the people with whom they work. The Episcopal Church of Sudan trains agricultural officers for eleven dioceses, who learn from and assist small farmers. Seminary theology is holistic and agrarian, relating scriptures to sustainable small scale agriculture conscious of God’s presence, as in the book of Job which says that God ‘does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number: he gives rain upon the earth and sends water upon the fields’ (Job. 5.9-10). Ellen Davis of Duke University assists with the curriculum and teaches Hebrew at Rank Theological College in Southern Sudan. Seminary graduates, Davis says, are often the best educated and trusted leaders in their communities, and are ideally placed to teach sustainable agriculture across Southern Sudan including food growing in towns. One grower said to Davis, ‘Agriculture is peace-building. It is an alternative to war.’ Agrarian lifestyles, with trust in Christ and the agrarian church make Africans less dependent on food aid from afar. [xi]


Sudanis a model for churches in different local contexts reaching well beyondAfrica. Significantly, clergy are among the first persons to respond in times of hunger and insecurity, as in the Horn of Africa famine and in British riots of 2011. Even industrialized nations are prone to food shortages, price inflation, and hunger. A helpful response in crowded urban areas is ‘nooks and crannies’ urban agriculture, including the removal of some slabs and asphalt covering once fertile gardens. Micky Tompkins, a specialist in urban agriculture, encourages what he calls ‘Edible Hackney’, including some of the modernist housing estates involved in the 2011 riots. Tompkins, a bee keeper, produced a map called ‘Edible Hackney’ which illustrates how housing estates in a small urban area can engage in food production, including fruit, vegetables, and bees. Tompkins produces what he calls ‘London Field Honey’. One small garden at the back of a block of Hackney flats produces beans, tomatoes, spinach, artichokes, potatoes, herbs and plums.


Southern Sudanand ‘Edible Hackney’ are models the churches could adapt and follow. A holistic, sustainable Christianity, identifying with the agrarian Jesus is the ministry we owe our contemporaries. Lay leaders and Deacons could co-ordinate a diocese’s agrarian witness, mission, and ministry. The kingdom Jesus preached included food and the whole earth community. In teaching and lifestyle he related the kingdom to ‘daily bread’, meals and sharing, echoing the kingdom banquet of Isaiah (Isa. 25.61). Significantly the bible begins and ends, like a literary inclusion, with food, water and trees. There is the familiar garden earth and tree of Genesis (Gn. 1.1-2.15), which is echoed by another tree, this time of life, in the final chapter of Revelation, ‘Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations’ (Rev. 22.1-2).


(Dr Edward P. Echlin is Honorary Fellow in Theology at LeedsTrinityUniversityCollege; Visiting Scholar at SarumCollege, Salisbury; and author of Climate and Christ, A Prophetic Alternative, Columba, 2010.)



[i] Colin Tudge, Good Food for Everyone Forever: A people’s takeover of the world’s food supply (Italy, Pari Publishing Sas, 2011), p. 66.

[ii] Jonathon Porritt, ‘Jonathon Porritt offers some lessons from history’, Green Futures (July, 2011), p. 17.

[iii] Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An agrarian reading of the bible (Cambridge, CUP, 2009), p. 1.

[iv] Wendall Berry, ‘The Agrarian Standard’, in Norman Wirzba, ed., Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community and the Land (Lexington,Kentucky University Press, 2003), pp. 28-29.

[v] Miguel Altieri, ‘Sustainable Agriculture, Small Farms show big promise’, Food Ethics (Autumn, 2008, Vol. 3, Issue 3), pp. 22-24.

[vi] Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, N. Dennys, trans. (New York, Harper Row, 1969), p. 324.

[vii] Dermot A Lane, Christ at the Centre, Selected Issues in Christology (Dublin, Veritas, 1990), p. 30.

[viii]  Dominum et Vivificatum (On the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and the World), (Vatican City, 1986), a.50.

[ix] John D. Zizioulas, The Eucharist Communion and the World (London, &TClark, 2011), p. 81.


[xi] Fred Bahnson, ‘Churches Moving beyond Hunger Relief’, 2011, State of the World, The World Watch Institute (London, Earthscan, 2011), pp. 153-154.



Author: | Date: 19 March, 2012 | Category: Food | Comments: 0

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