How Many More?

I spend a lot of time in the place where faith and food intersect.  As a farmer and a seminarian, I suppose that is natural.  But because I have chosen to make that place the focus of my education, and because it produces some of the driving reasons for what we do here, my exploration of that area is particularly deliberate.

These days, most of the time I’m not outside working on the farm, I’m inside working on my thesis–in which I hope to discover where the thoughts and writings of John Wesley would locate him within the contemporary food movement.  When I began my research I didn’t realize how fertile that ground would turn out to be.

The world remembers John Wesley as a tireless evangelist and advocate for social justice.  His ecclesiastical legacy is Methodism and the many denominations it produced.

But in his day Wesley’s writings on holistic and preventative medicine far outsold his sermons.  He worked to promote both “inward and outward health,” believing that while God’s ultimate plan for creation is to redeem it from all sickness, death, violence and decay, it was the duty of humanity to do as much as possible now to preserve and restore the wellness God intends.  While preaching the necessity of personal holiness, Wesley also called on his followers to exercise regularly and practice responsible diets.

I am convinced that if Wesley were alive today he would embrace the Food Movement, and he would be horrified at what we have done to our bodies and our society by our poor food choices.  That we have done so, in part, by the systematic torture and abuse of animals would particularly enrage him.

The deeper I get into my study (which necessarily requires me to examine carefully the evolution and effects of our current industrial food system) the more I’m alternatively saddened, frustrated and angered by how little most Christian faith communities seem to care about the health crisis that it is producing.

I’m not going to take the time now to review the facts that show the existence of the crisis.  Anyone who has been reading this blog a while has already been repeatedly subjected to that.  Neither am I going to repeat my argument that this is in large part a moral issue, which the church tends to ignore or even facilitate (see HERE for a review of that), beyond a few thoughts that are gnawing at me today.

In his most recent book Ben Witherington describes being invited to speak to the Southern Baptist Convention.  As he looked out at his audience of Baptist preachers and their wives, he was shocked to see that nearly all were obese, many morbidly so.  Wesley’s heirs are probably no different.  Studies show that these days Methodist preachers are more likely to be obese than are their congregants. And the congregants are more likely to be obese than those who are unchurched.

A few days ago I got an email from a friend who has been planning a mission trip to China for over a year.  On his last trip he helped establish some rural schools and he feels called to be a witness there.  On the eve of the trip, he had to cancel it.  Why?  Because he had to have emergency triple bypass surgery.  He is in his 40s and he is obese.  The Chinese children will just have to wait.

I’ve been distressed by frequent requests to pray for supernatural healing of illnesses and diseases caused by overeating.  I can’t remember ever being asked to pray to heal someone from food addiction, gluttony or an absence of self-control.  I can’t remember ever being asked to pray that a loved one change his or her diet.  Instead it seems the accepted practice is to wait until the person is sick or dying from the consequences of deadly food choices, then pray for God to heal them from it.  I have to shake my head.

I don’t mean this post to sound judgmental.  I realize that our addictions are difficult to break and I realize that in some cases there are genetic predispositions to overeating that make it particularly hard.  And of course the food industry spends billions of dollars creating processed food designed to be addictive and billions more on advertising it.  But I can’t imagine that if any other entirely preventable illness was sweeping our world, and if its root cause was arguably immoral behavior, the church would be condoning or ignoring it this way.

I realize, of course, that there are many people of faith who are taking this issue very seriously.  At least one chapter of my thesis will be devoted to discussing the growing number of Christians and Christian leaders who are part of the food movement and who are working to help stop our descent into obesity, sickness and premature death.  They have a very difficult challenge.

I’ll close with this passage from Michael Pollan’s wonderful little book Food Rules:

Populations that eat a so-called Western diet—generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to this diet. Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases linked to this diet.

People who get off the Western diet see dramatic improvements in their health. We have good research to suggest that the effects of the Western diet can be rolled back, and relatively quickly. In one analysis, a typical American population that departed even modestly from the Western diet (and lifestyle) could reduce its chances of getting coronary heart disease by 80 percent, its chances of type 2 diabetes by 90 percent, and its chances of colon cancer by 70 percent.

We need a new John Wesley.