There is a deeply rooted historical memory and ritual around food in all faith and indigenous spiritual traditions
Facing a world in which food is abundant, yet nearly one billion people are chronically hungry and undernourished, communities of every kind are fighting for social justice so that the hungry can feed themselves. Often they are faith communities, inspired by their religious traditions to liberate the hungry and the oppressed. At other times they are part of the grassroots tide of civil society, comprising more than two million organizations speaking out in defense of the rights of all people and all creatures. On an international scale, indigenous peoples and communities throughout the world are being impelled by their spiritual and ethical values to defend their lands and regions, their water, air and animals, their crops and seeds, their way of life and traditions.
It’s no wonder that the act of producing food brings such spiritual fulfillment; it connects us intimately to the entire web of life and creation. A central theme in religious tradition, creation is a powerful and holy act – a blessing, sacred. As an undercurrent throughout history, creation is not merely a past moment, but a perpetual cycle carried forward through the living, breathing planet we draw upon to sustain ourselves. In this context:
Agriculture is a deeply spiritual practice.
Cultivating the Earth and protecting these precious life-giving resources, is a profound act of stewardship.
Eating is an intentional act of receiving nourishment and expressing gratitude for that gift.
Engaging in the struggle to ensure all our brothers and sisters do not go hungry, but have the means to ensure the health of their families; to protect the rights and livelihood of those at the heart of our food system, the farmers and farmworkers, peasants and fisherfolk who keep us fed is to act upon the values of justice embedded in the foundation of religious social teachings.
When United Farm Workers founder César Chávez began organizing in the 1960s, he called on the religious community to change its emphasis from charity to justice.
Justice for the Hungry
Compassion for the poor and hungry is central to world religions. The Torah teaches that caring for poor and hungry people is not a matter of charity, but of justice or tzedekah. In the Christian tradition (Matthew Ch. 25), feeding the hungry is to feed Christ himself. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims consume no food or water from sunup to sundown: Ramadan combines both fasting and feasting, a powerful symbol of the unity of Muslims throughout the world. Buddhism teaches a universal compassion for the suffering of humanity. In these and in other faith traditions, their teachings are being translated into practical initiatives of feeding the hungry and defending farming communities, supporting farm workers and food workers, and working for healthy, local food systems.
Sacred Meals and Happy Meals
A potential inspiration in the task of rebuilding a just, sustainable, and healthy food system is the tradition of “sacred meals” in many faith traditions and spiritual movements. Sacred Fasting and Feasting, the Jewish Sabbath meal and Passover Seder, the Christian Eucharist, the Native American Corn Harvest ceremony, the Buddhist practice of Mindful Meals, the Islamic tradition of Devout Dining, the Wedding Feast in Hinduism, the Sikh practice of langar and many other spiritual traditions – all these show us ways to transform our everyday meals into true celebrations. Yet everything depends on “walking our talk,” on changing the world according to the spiritual and ethical values we live by. However, these values bring us into conflict with our current food system.
How do we renew the family meal in a society dominated by McDonald’s Happy Meals? How can we live the values of local diversity and sustainability in a monoculture of fast food and an industrial agriculture system which poisons the soil and pollutes our food and water? How do we live the values of justice and compassion in an agribusiness food chain that is destroying local communities and traditional ways of rural life here and abroad? It is here that the power emerges of social movements for food security and food sovereignty, for agroecology, for ending hunger and poverty. Ethical and spiritual principles underlie the strategies to rebuild local, regional and global food systems – principles such as biodiversity, safe and healthy food, fair prices for family farmers and farm workers, empowering the urban and rural poor, understanding seeds as a free gift of nature, and ensuring the human rights to food, water and land.
What We Can Learn From Each Other
The struggle against hunger and poverty brings together religious traditions and humanist approaches, the sacred and the secular, indigenous peoples and good food movements in modern cities especially and, increasingly, in rural areas where refugees are resettled: what can they learn from each other? World religions, which go back thousands of years and comprise billions of people, can inspire their followers to build food justice: in the U.S. we see faith communities strongly involved in soup kitchens and food banks as well as food activism and food policy work. They are increasingly active in building local food systems such as community supported agriculture and sister cities projects.
At the same time, religious traditions have had to awaken to the global food crisis we are in: they are learning from the environmental movement and from food activists that the bread and wine and water and land invoked in their sacred rituals have become global commodities under corporate control. Faith traditions are building connections to an international movement committed to justice across the food system. A special inspiration in the struggle for a world free from hunger and despair comes from the deep spirituality of indigenous peoples who see themselves as a part of nature and its guardians.