By Fred Bahnson and Richard Church
In the beginning, humans ate, and in the beginning, Christianity was about eating. These simple facts are at the heart of Anathoth Community Garden. Eating matters, profoundly, to the life of Christian discipleship. As theologian Alexander Schmemann notes, “[T]he Bible . . . begins with man as a hungry being, with the man who is that which he eats.”
This is because the life of faith is embodied and, in fact, demands formation of the body through the formation of godly habits. In other words, it is the activity of our bodies that forms our hearts and minds into the people of God. The sacramental life of the church–anchored around the communion meal–is the best evidence of this truth.
It is not surprising then that along with circumcision, the first question upon which the early church opined was what Christians should eat. The early church knew that we are—and become—what we eat. As such, eating meat offered to idols was taboo for the early church.
The discernment required of the Acts community is no less relevant to the church today, which must continue to discern–“What food has been offered to idols?”–be they Canaanite idols of old or the modern idols of the industrial farm economy. The task remains for us to take account of our eating habits and their connection to Christian discipleship.
Eating also matters to the life of Christian discipleship because of human’s unique role in the creation. In Genesis, humans were called to name the animals and to ”serve and keep” the soil. In Romans 8, we are reminded that all of creation will be taken up in God’s redemptive work of forming a new heavens and a new earth.
Eating that degrades creation, be it through exhausting the soil or through forcing animals to become eating machines in a factory feed-lot, is anathema to a life of Christian discipleship.
In this regard, human’s dominion over creation (Gen.1:28)
has been profoundly misconstrued. Dominion is grounded in human’s unique role in creation as God’s image-bearers. In the ancient world, an image-bearer represented a conquering ruler as a means of making clear that ruler’s power and dominion in an occupied land. A faithful image-bearer was one who expressed power and dominion in a manner consistent with the ruler they represented.
For Christians, the power and dominion of our Ruler is best exemplified by that same ruler dying on a cross in sacrificial love for his own subjects. Thus, our dominion over creation must similarly take this shape of self-sacrificial love. To exercise dominion is to serve creation in a way that’s analogous to how Christ served the world.
Life in the Garden
The context in which we exercise dominion is the garden. Not Eden from which we came, not the New Jerusalem toward which we are bound, but the earthly garden of creation, in which daily we not only live and move but from which we derive our sustenance.
Yet most of us find ourselves removed from the garden, not knowing the sources of our food or who grows it.
Farmer and writer Gene Logsdon says that a garden “is the only practical way for urban societies to come in close contact with the basic realities of life, and if that contact is not close, it is not meaningful at all. To feel the searing heat as well as the comforting warmth of the sun, or to endure the dry wind as well as the soothing breeze; …to know that life depends on eating and being eaten; to accept the decay of death as the only way to achieve the resurrection of life—these are all part of an education that the industrial world hungers for but cannot name.”
Places like Anathoth Community Garden provide such an education. Here people rediscover the joy of sliding their hands into dark, crumbly soil.
For Christians, the way we eat represents—through the sharing of Christ’s body and blood in the eucharist—our most profound engagement with each other and with the world. By sharing the Lord’s Supper we learn not only how to eat, but how to share and receive, how to live and how to die. In the eucharist we relearn that not only our daily bread, but our very lives are a gift. Therefore, growing even a small portion of our own food trains us to eat “eucharistically,” giving thanks for God’s good gifts.
To work in the garden is to take part in an ancient drama beginning with Adam and Eve, whose mandate is ours as well: “to serve and keep” the fertile soil on which all life depends (Gen.2:15)
. Serving and keeping the soil, that is, gardening or farming, connects us to the primordial story: we are in God’s good garden of creation, we have damaged it by our hubris, and we must bear the consequences. The question is not whether, but how we will bear such responsibility.
Which means that there are better and worse forms of caring. And learning the difference is increasingly becoming a necessity. Soaring food costs, topsoil depletion, childhood obesity—each is symptomatic of a deeper problem, the failure to be God’s stewards of creation. Stewardship is both a burden, and as we learn in the act of caring, a blessing as well. Our vocation to serve and keep the garden is one from which we can no longer shy away.
A Vocation of Care
Where do we begin? Perhaps by acknowledging our sinful participation in an extractive, unsustainable, and often violent food economy in which some go hungry while others eat too much, in which quantity replaces quality, in which the laws of the market replace the laws of ecological balance.
We can recognize that food is not a mere commodity whipped up in an industrial laboratory, but is rather a continuation of God’s creative activity. Food is soil, the adamah from which the adam is fed (Gen. 2:7)
, the rich humus which feeds the human. We can acknowledge that we haven’t done a very good job of tending the adamah.
Once we begin, we’ll learn that tending a garden is good work. On the best days such work anticipates the communion of human, beast, plant, and soil that the apostle Paul calls the New Creation. When an improbably tiny seed can produce, in just three short months, an astounding five pounds of Cherokee Purple tomatoes, we can see a reflection of grace itself. A fallen creation still bears the imprint of its faultless Creator, and by participating in this creation we glimpse the coming restoration of all things in Christ.
The tedious work of gardening conforms our bodies to a cruciform existence. In gardening our bodies are broken (they get sweaty, sore, tired), given to others, and are renewed by the very act of giving. As we learn to nurture plants that will one day feed our neighbors and ourselves, our pride is reshaped. We learn that there is no task that we are too good to perform.