You Are What You Eat. Eating as a Political Act

October 14, 2001

Ian Lawton

Ordinary Sunday 28     Matthew 22:1-14


I heard a quote which says; "I'm not a vegetarian because I love animals, I am a vegetarian because I hate plants."


I want to talk to you today about food. It is one of the great social markers of any culture. More relationships find their beginning and their end over a meal than any other activity. We are told that families which eat together stay together. Groups gather around meals. In our Anglican tradition eating is a central theme in our gathering and our worship.


The food we eat expresses all sorts of ideologies and beliefs. Personally, eating is one of my favourite pastimes. I eat too much, then I feel the need for diets. Diets for me come and go and rarely achieve anything. I came across a great diet the other day. Eat whatever you want - just don't swallow any of it. The act of eating or not eating also expresses much about our selves.To what extent is food a social object and eating a political act?


Recent movies would suggest that food is a central social theme. In the last decade there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in cannabalism as a theme in movies. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, The Silence of the Lambs, and Delicatessen are just some of those movies which have explored cannabalism as a metaphor for human power relations.


And not just in movies. I came across a fascinating study of food and eating in the writing of Canadian author, Margaret Atwood. Atwood writes about women who use food as a means of both naming and fighting their oppression. She explores the power dynamic of eating and non-eating, the relationship between consumer and consumed. In her fiction, the powerful not only eat, they eat the powerless. Atwood's work is filled with images of the body as food. Teeth - the body's tool for consuming food - are particularly potent symbols. One character tries to murder her husband by short-circuiting his electric toothbrush. As the article concluded this "is humorous but simultaneously signals the power dynamic inherent in teeth. After all, you cannot eat much without teeth." Being toothless becomes a symbol of powerlessness.


Speaking, like eating, is a source of power. Diet and language converge in the mouth. Again the theme is that women have been suppressed by being denied a voice just as their appetites have been repressed. One character who is raping a woman stops her from protesting. Atwood describes the mans "teeth against my lips, censoring me".


Clearly food is a social object, and eating is a political act. You are what you eat! I guess the cliche would hold then that our world is what it eats. Come with me then as spectators at a global feast. I have gathered together 100 people from around the world for a round table feast.* They are invited in proportion, so that the 100 present represent the make up of our world. 61 of those at the table are Asian, 14 American, 13 African, and 1 Australian or New Zealander (depending on who wins the tri nations that year). There are 50 men and 50 women. 33 of them are Christian, 67 not. 6 of those present own 60% of the entire wealth of the group. 13 at the table are hungry or malnourished. 14, most likely including the 13 hungry people are unable to read. Only 7 at the feast have secondary education. You can be sure this 7 doesn't include the hungry ones. 25 of them are living on $1 a day or less, and 47 are living on $2 a day or less. Back in their own homes, only 25 of the group keep food in a fridge.


There are a number of other logistical problems. Saying grace before the feast is problematic. Whether to say it or not, and then which god to say grace to are both political decisions. In the end grace is said at the request of some of the 33 Christians. While men and women are equally represented at the feast, there are more women preparing the feast and serving the round table than men. Of the 87 who are not malnourished, some will have eating disorders of various kinds. Currently in the world there are 7 million women and girls with eating disorders, and 1 million men and boys. There could well be some at the table. What food is served at the round table? McDonalds which was prepared by young and poorly paid workers. The food stands as a reminder of the sort of cultural imperialism which has created the make up and demographics of the group present.


Again, food and eating are socially complex. So with that in mind come now to the world of Jesus 2000 yrs ago. This was a world where food was a marker of being an insider or not. The food laws of Hebrew religion were a guide to separation of food for health reasons, yet also a mark of a righteous person enjoying God's favour. Jesus revolution was a response to this religion as well as to a Greek way of thinking which was so quick to separate and polarise people.


Feasts were powerful social occasions. The respectable ate with the respectable. Again separation and purity were paramount. There was an order for seating, communication and eating. Eating was gendered and class based. Jesus on the other hand ate with sinners and lowly people, even with women. The act of eating was for Jesus a powerful symbol of his revolution. In his system people would not be judged by their religious purity, not by the social status and not by their political power. Jesus broke all the rules to turn the power of eating on its head.


Consider the last feast of Jesus, those gathered were an odd collection of misfits, and the socially stigmatised. At that meal food was simultaneously a symbol of solidarity and betrayal. At that meal our own communion celebration was given its power as a feast manifested in token morsels. Token for a reason. For free from desire, we realise the mystery of partaking in Jesus revolution, a movement which broke down status oriented privilege and sought the heart of people and structures. Free from desire we explore the mystery of our own centre, our spirit.


Our communion celebration is a feast of diversity. Some come forward and kneel, some stand. Some dip their bread, some drink from the cup. Some simply come forward in silence. We come forward as individuals, yet we stand alongside our neighbours, as a mark of solidarity and community. We stand in our difference to signify the open and radically equalising revolution of Jesus.


The great feast is a metaphor in the Bible for heaven, the ultimate ideal. Whatever heaven is it must be the realisation of the Jesus revolution, the actualisation of the mystery of life. All of which brings to me my point, which grows out of the saying of Jesus in today's gospel, which I modify a little. 'Nothing which enters a person can alone make them unclean. It cannot mark them as a special or powerful person. It is what flows from a person's heart which marks them as individuals.'


The point: Seek the things of your heart. Realise the mystery of your spirit. Follow the revolutionary call of Jesus. Feast on all the good things of life and together we can create a world of spirit and substance. Feast on the token elements of Jesus life and death, and together we can work towards a world where people aren't hungry because they are born in a certain place, or a certain gender, where all people have equal access to the world's resources. From our hearts first, spirit and substance. From there to a world where spirit and substance are primary concerns.


Seek the things of your heart.


Ian Lawton, Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City




"You are what you eat: The politics of eating in the novels of Margaret Atwood"


*Sourced from "The Sustainable Village"


A study on McDonaldisation and Culture


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