I grew up Catholic and have hop-scotched through several major faith traditions during my early adulthood before settling in at my current church home. Curiously, this is the first church where I have experienced the classic all-church “pitch-in” (also called “potlucks” in some circles). Though I am told that, in some parts of America, pitch-ins still include various terrifying incarnations of gelatin molds, I find ours to be entirely agreeable ways to marry the hand of Christian fellowship with the other hand that is fully-occupied with shoveling fried chicken, salads, side dishes and desserts in to my delighted mouth. This heavenly excess seems entirely good, a joyous celebration of breaking bread (or buttered yeast rolls) with my fellow believers.
But imagine that we instead held an “open bar” gathering where we enjoyed the fellowship of roulette and poker (actually, events not far off my earliest church memories…), perhaps punctuated by a luxury shopping spree and a bikini-clad dance competition among single women, judged by the elder board. (I fear I have left out one or more of the classic deadly sins—perhaps I should include a stoning of a sinner to encompass “wrath.”) No reasonable person would think this resembles anything close to the church Christ calls his spotless bride. But why is eating to excess acceptable?
It could be argued that Jesus himself speaks of this bride in terms of a banquet, a lavish, feasting celebration of the consummated love of the bride and her bridegroom. And Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard, though he was neither. No ascetic, that Jesus. Our relationship with God, in the Psalms and the gospels, can be summarized as a celebration meal where we are filled to true satisfaction. So where does “filled” transition into the excess of gluttony?
Dr. James Thobaben from Asbury Seminary has done outstanding work in tracing the history of the church, from the earliest traditions of moderation in all things, including eating, that remained remarkably consistent through the Middle Ages, Reformation, and Enlightenment. The Second Great Awakening, he finds, is where heightened restrictions against alcohol and sensuality ran directly into the tradition of shared meals on the church lawn among evangelicals. As some of the “deadly sins” became well-recognized, restrictions on gluttony were relaxed, as these fellowship meals were sanctified. To this day, maps of obesity in America, county by county, can be reasonably well transposed over maps of the evangelical/ fundamentalist population. The meals on the church lawn may have moved indoors, but we still love to eat together.
Why is this such a big deal?
As pluralism envelops our culture, I genuinely think (however wishfully) that the church’s consistency in ethical issues will not be a quaint throwback, but will be a beacon to those who look for it. And the way we eat is an ethical issue. Whether I drink my liver into cirrhosis or eat my pancreas into diabetes mellitus, I am proving a poor steward of the body God has given me. If I take a wildly disproportionate share of the world’s resources to eat to excess, I do not show a heart for the nations that are lacking.
Americans love meat. Nations in the developing world with rapidly-expanding economies increasingly love it, too. How we use the Earth’s resources, and care for the animals we will eat at restaurants in New York, Rio, Moscow and Beijing, not to mention at my church pitch-in, are ethical issues with which the church will contend under the world’s watching eyes.