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Eating for the Kingdom: A Response to Stephen Webb’s “Against the Gourmands” and William T. Cavanaugh’s “Out to Lunch”

Theological Reflection on Food: A Dialogue about Diet or Politics?

Most Americans eat three meals a day, or thereabouts, and so what we eat is undeniably a significant part of our embodied life. But to what extent are our everyday dietary decisions part of a larger moral framework? How integrated is what we eat with who we are? The recent exchange of articles between Stephen H. Webb and William T. Cavanaugh—consisting of Webb’s “Against the Gourmands,” Cavanaugh’s response “Out to Lunch,” and Webb’s counterresponse1—is an example of a discourse that engages with food at an integrated level. Webb, in writing “Against the Gourmands,” is concerned primarily with the communitarian implications of some (and only some) members of the body of Christ enjoying an expensive organic diet. For his part, Cavanaugh focuses on the church’s call to witness to the world and so criticizes the social and environmental harms perpetrated by the factory farming Webb defends. Through engaging with their disagreement, I aim to suggest that the sphere for Christian reflection on diet ought to be broadened beyond just the church, the (human) world, and the environment: if we seek to serve the Creator of everything, I believe we must also consider the nonhuman animals whose flesh makes up so much of the American diet. Above all else, Webb and Cavanaugh emphasize humanity’s connectivity with food; through reflecting on their conversation, I intend to emphasize our connectivity with other animals.

Webb and Cavanaugh, despite their differences, have one big point of agreement: the profoundly elemental point that food is theologically important. The bulk of their disagreement, however, emerges from this point of convergence, being located around the level at which they consider food’s significance in serving Christ. Webb, who is opposed to the perceived elitism of the ethical consumer movement, argues that “food is fuel,” a point he substantiates with reference to the Eucharist as the one meal which puts all other meals into perspective.2 Within this framework, the political and economic ideologies espoused by proponents of organic farming are criticized as limited and unrealistic. For Webb, the free market is a reality for Christians to work around and within, not a network one can choose to disassociate oneself from.

Cavanaugh, in response, highlights the myriad issues of social justice—in America and overseas—that make support for global capitalism in general, and McDonald’s and Walmart in particular, less than tenable for Christians who are concerned with living the life of charity. Purchasing organic meat, for Cavanaugh, is one step that such Christians might take; it is as an act of love not merely for one’s own health and pleasure but for the workers and small suppliers who are exploited on a colossal scale by global corporations.

Both Webb and Cavanaugh, then, recognize that our food choices are not so much deontologically as teleologically important: what we eat matters because it is a choice that reflects our character and how we perceive ourselves within creation. Whenever we choose the mechanized3 convenience of McDonald’s or the luxury of Chez Panisse, whenever we choose to dress our barbecue grill with steaks, halloumi, or tofu, we display to the world—as surely as if we’d put it on a blog—which issues we see as important, how we perceive our place in the world, and who (or what) we see as having sovereignty in our lives. Wary of the stigmatization and hyperbole that can infect debates around diet (and which are regrettably present in Webb and Cavanaugh’s discussion), I aim here to argue that further nuance is needed, that nonhuman animals, as well as humans and the environment, are to be considered when we seek discernment on diet. In conversation with Webb and Cavanaugh and via reflection on the theological ethics of Romans 14, I aim to develop this nuance through consideration of food’s broader theological significance.

McDonald’s, Zweber Farms, Rhetoric, and Hyperbole

“Against the Gourmands” opens with Webb expounding his serious misgivings with the ethical consumer movement. For him, the narrative constructed by the dietary choices of self-professed gourmands is one that tells of a profound distortion of telos. In favoring expensive and sometimes obscure foodstuffs, those consumers who have the disposable income to eat more ethically than those on the breadline separate themselves from their less affluent brothers and sisters in a manner that is destructive of living together as the body of Christ. This is so even if, as is the case in Cavanaugh’s example of the free-range and organic Zweber Farm, there are life-giving and responsible reasons for making such a choice. Eating—and being seen to eat—in line with recent trends can become an end more highly valued than life together in the name and presence of the Spirit of God.

As someone who writes and thinks about diet in the context of local church communities, I appreciate the reminder of the classist and paternalist prejudice that may be intrinsic in any attempt to create moral distinctions based solely upon the luxuries of the more well off. After all, this is simply snobbery. However, as someone who recognizes that life in community does not benefit from (and is in fact actively harmed by) homogeneity of practice,4 I worry that Webb’s blanket dismissal of fine dining, which is wedded somewhat hastily to an uncritical endorsement of McDonald’s, paints an unrealistically monolithic picture of how Christians ought to live with, eat with, and exhort one another. Webb’s concerns about classism within the ethical consumer movement are real and need addressing, but recourse to stigmatization undermines the potential for a more holistic theological analysis of the significance of diet. Webb is focused on food’s significance for life in Christian community, which is surely worth being concerned about, but if that focus comes at the expense of thinking about food as food (alongside all the questions about its procurement), Christian responsibility to God and our fellows (human and nonhuman) is sold short.

In answer to Webb, Cavanaugh offers his own rejoinder in “Out to Lunch,” which is, broadly speaking, in agreement with what I have said thus far. Counter to Webb’s partial portrayal of gourmands as Manichaeans who absolutely delineate between fine dining (the Good and the preserve of the educated and affluent class) and fast food (the Evil and the preserve of the working class), I would suggest, alongside Cavanaugh, that it is Webb who is unnecessarily dualistic in his own separation of feckless gluttons and the honest-but-poor working class. The sometimes-hyperbolic rhetoric5 and crude either/or drawings of the other employed by Webb in his two articles present a false dichotomy that does little to advance either his own argument or wider theological reflection on diet.

In response to Cavanaugh’s critique, Webb in turn criticizes Cavanaugh for saying that simple eating is simply better; and yet this is exactly what he wants to claim for McDonald’s, which (he claims) Jesus would patronize were he to come back in the flesh today.6 Here, his critique of culinary snobbery reaches its logical progression: from the accurate perception that the excesses of some gourmands are wasteful, via the questionable assertion that McDonald’s provides calorie-dense fuel at an “affordable” price,7 to the implicit conclusion that Christians should accept fast food and factory farming as necessary realities. Webb’s concern with the divisions created when those who have the luxury of eating organic make a moral distinction between their diet and that of their poorer neighbors is laudable for its egalitarianism and its attentiveness to the poor in their particular situatedness. Unfortunately, his absolute and monochromatic criticism of ethical consumers leaves him open to the allegation of failing to attend to them in their particularity, a generalizing move that obfuscates the depth and nuance which theological reflection on diet can encompass.

Where I most agree with Webb is in fact the point at which he criticizes Cavanaugh’s own rhetoric, objecting to Cavanaugh’s use of the film Babette’s Feast to illustrate the bounty of creation at the dinner table. The film’s climax, wherein puritans are cajoled into using their taste buds, is an unfortunate metaphor to use in Christian reflection on what we eat, particularly because, as Webb says, to “associate a lavish banquet with the abundance of grace” while so much of the world suffers poverty and starvation presents a disturbing picture of what we understand grace to be.8 The feast is wasteful, inward looking, unconcerned with the suffering of those outside the community’s walls, and ignorant of the environmental and animal impact. I do not follow Webb in his somewhat partisan depiction of the film as “a self-serving prop of left-liberal criticism of conservative students,”9 but when acceptance “that God’s grace is not finite but lavishly spread over all creation,”10 to use Cavanaugh’s words, is not accompanied by the call to serve Christ by ensuring that the spread is as equitable and peaceable as we can manage, it seems to me that grace has not been so much accepted as perverted.

This serves to demonstrate the need for greater nuance and openness and less hyperbole when we dialogue about diet: where Webb is too hasty to ascribe fairness to the capitalist marketplace and reduce food to mere fuel, Cavanaugh’s idealization of the grass-fed and organic fare he is fortunate enough to be able to afford lends his account of Christian eating a kind of classist myopia. Their hyperbolic rhetoric detracts from the conversation, limiting the potential for progress to an undulation between McDonald’s and the Zweber Farm. In both cases, beef remains unquestioned on the menu.

“The Weak Eat Only Vegetables”

Alongside 1 Corinthians 11:20–22, from which both Webb and Cavanaugh draw out the ecclesiological and political implications of diet, it seems constructive to refer to Romans 14, a chapter that has been too often misunderstood and deliberately misused in Christian conversations about diet. Paul’s navigation of an ongoing debate within the Roman church, between the weak who “eat only vegetables” and the strong who “believe in eating anything” (14:2 NRSV), should not be mapped directly onto modern theological reflection on diet, as though this point of Roman contention were the ancient equivalent of a disagreement between a meat-lover and a vegan today. Instead, we must recognize that this passage is but one part of the wider Pauline narrative concerning the tension between Christ and the law, and in particular the debate over the extent that Christians needed to observe prohibitions such as the one against eating flesh which had been obtained via pagan sacrifice.

What is perhaps most instructive for theologians (by which I mean all Christians) who are thinking about food today is the practical instruction Paul offers the church:

Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? . . . . Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. . . . it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. (Rom. 14:3–4, 20–21)

What is Paul’s point? It seems to me that he means that even if we disagree about the importance of how our food is obtained, it is better to love and respect our brothers and sisters in Christ than to make them stumble by engaging in practices they find theologically problematic.

More than this, I believe that Paul speaks here against unnuanced idealism. “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?” he provocatively asks. Paul is simultaneously realistic (like Webb’s assertion that “food is fuel”) and idealistic (like Cavanaugh’s criticism of the capitalist marketplace as damaging to right living), a standpoint that recognizes both creation’s fallenness and the human calling toward redeemed living. As Paul expounds elsewhere,11 God’s justifying and sanctifying grace liberates us from bondage to sin: as disciples of Christ we must, as Serene Jones puts it, “strive for excellence of practice, knowing that we can never earn the excellence of grace.”12

Webb’s argument that “food is fuel” and that McDonald’s is a theologically unproblematic choice if one is pressed for time13—a claim that effectively renders diet amoral, or at least less ethically significant than good timekeeping—is pure realism, so isolated from idealism that it does more to affirm creation’s fallenness than it does to lament it. In “Against the Gourmands,” Webb writes that dietary decisions should “flow naturally from acts of worshipping God, not efforts to change the world.”14 Here, Webb is absolutely right; but if worship does not involve efforts to change the world, in the hope of the kingdom, then it is manifestly not worship of the God who created, affirmed, and will ultimately redeem all creation. There is not the delineation between worship and practice that Webb here implies: indeed, the binary separation of the two seems to be another counterproductive use of rhetoric.

Cavanaugh’s position, concerned as he is with farmers and the environment as well as with the church community, is a more idealist one. He is, after all, prepared to go out of his way and pay a little extra to buy free-range meat from the Zweber Farm. But it is an idealism that is self-limited: the environmental costs remain underemphasized, and the animals farmed are not considered at all. Furthermore, both Webb and Cavanaugh skirt the boundaries of Paul’s warning against making one’s brothers and sisters stumble: Cavanaugh by setting a standard for food purchases which not all can afford to meet, and Webb by labeling those Christians who buy free-range meat as “promoting dietary practices that might have more to do with fantasies about opting out of modernity than the reality of following Jesus Christ.”15 Webb is right to draw attention to Paul’s attack on dietary elitism in 1 Corinthians 11. But if Christians who think about the whole of creation when reflecting on the impact of their diet are fantasists, then it is a fantasy inspired by the grace of God and the Spirit of Christ.

Livestock’s Long Shadow: Christian Responsibility in and for Creation

Attentive readers may notice that I have used the words meat and flesh interchangeably when talking about human consumption of other animals. This is no accident: if we are to talk about the social, political, and environmental costs of producing our food, we cannot neglect the cost to nonhuman animals. If we are to reflect on diet as Christians who celebrate God’s creation even as we witness that it is fallen, we cannot ignore our fellow animals, themselves not only beneficiaries of creation but of God’s covenantal, incarnational, and soteriological action in the world.16 I do not mean to claim that either Webb or Cavanaugh wholly fail to acknowledge this cost, but it is one that neither goes far enough with in their metatheologies of food.17

In his concern for the suffering of those outside the church, Cavanaugh writes in “Out to Lunch” that buying and eating grass-fed, organic meat—like what he purchases for his own family from the Zweber Farm18—is a way of witnessing to Christ’s downward action in creation in that it exhibits concern for the workers exploited for cheap labor by multinational corporations. The suffering of these workers is, for Cavanaugh, a hidden human cost to the cheap fuel that McDonald’s serves and Webb romanticizes. As Webb points out in his counterresponse, however, Cavanaugh’s simplistic claim that “there are no ‘hidden costs’ to the environment when meat is raised in this way”19 is objectively wrong.

In 2006 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a report on the environmental issues raised by cattle farming that was starkly titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”20 With regard to both land use (one acre of land used to farm cattle will produce twenty pounds of usable protein; the same acre used for rice will produce 261 pounds) and water use (10,000 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef compared to just 192 gallons for a pound of rice), the hidden environmental costs that Cavanaugh does not recognize are laid bare, and they are staggering.21

To say even this much continues to neglect another important element of our creaturely lives: our responsibilities to and relationships with nonhuman animals. Webb is right to take Cavanaugh to task for declining to recognize that the death of a cow is a cost; but why is the death of a cow a cost in a way that the death of a plant isn’t? Webb’s argument, and mine, is not without scriptural precedent. Humans are created alongside other animals who are also given spirit22 by their Creator (Gen. 1:30). Permission for humans to eat animal flesh is not received until after the flood (9:2-3), coming in the context of God’s recognition of human sinfulness and alongside the proscription of murder (9:6). The attendant rituals of sacrifice (9:4) make visible the death of the individual animal (9:5), reinforcing the intimate commonality between humans and other animals,23 something modern factory farming deliberately attempts to obscure.24 Even more notable with reference to Genesis 9 is the covenant in which God promises to be with Noah “and with every living creature that is with you” (9:10); activity which finds a parallel in Hosea, wherein God makes a covenant “with the wild animals” on Israel’s behalf (Hosea 2:18). Job’s protestations about the injustices of life are met with a divine response that puts Job in his place as one animal (albeit one made in God’s image) among many, from the horse to Leviathan (Job 38–41).25 In Jonah, God exhibits concern for the animals of Nineveh (Jon. 4:11), who themselves are clothed in sackcloth, participating in the confession and lamentation of that city (3:7–8). Eschatologically, Isaiah (11:6–9 and 65:25) and Revelation (5:13) describe humans and animals living peaceably in relationship in visions of the kingdom to come. Paul, often criticized by vegetarians for his proclamations on diet, affirmed that the whole creation is “groaning in labor pains” awaiting “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22–23) and that through the blood of Christ, God has reconciled “all things” to Godself (Col. 1:20).

Looking at the scriptural witness, the relationality and commonality shared by human and nonhuman animals assuredly does not mean that Christians are called to live and work in hope of the end to all animal violence here and now, any more than relationality and commonality between humans means we can establish a society absent of coercion in this time before the kingdom. To take one example: whether one’s ecclesiology is integrationist or isolationist with respect to the world, the majority of Christians accept, at least in theory, the necessity of some kind of police force for society to function. Accepting this does not mean affirming everything the police do in practice, and neither does it mean accepting the necessity of a military or the use of capital punishment. Similarly, even if one’s theological anthropology privileges the human within creation, and even if predation and death are omnipresent in the world as it is now, accepting these realities does not mean affirming ongoing practices of mass industrialized slaughter that render an animal’s life and death invisible and irrelevant.

If we are called, as I believe Christians are, to live simply and responsibly as part of our witness and mission to the world, if we are to be a sign of the peaceable kingdom where all creation is reconciled, if we are to live relationally in and for creation, as God wills for us, and if we are blessed enough to live in a part of the world where it is easily practicable, surely vegetarianism (maybe even veganism) is a more authentic act of worshipping God than the purchase and consumption of animal flesh (no matter how grass-fed and organic it may be). I am not here suggesting that vegetarianism is in every way a morally superior diet or that it has no hidden costs of its own. I am putting it forward as an ameliorating inflection to Cavanaugh’s argument for responsible and ex-centrically oriented eating. Cavanaugh’s concern for his fellow humans is not undermined by extending filial love to our fellow sentient creatures: at least at present, a move toward vegetarianism is a move away from patronizing global corporations and their exploitation of workers.

In light of the reality that we are fallen, and of the earlier critique of rhetoric’s overuse, I should add that an endorsement of vegetarianism is not a blanket rejection of all animal farming and every meat eater. But if Cavanaugh’s organically farmed flesh has a lower cost to humans and other animals—despite Webb’s valid concerns about elitism—a vegetarian diet has a lower cost still. This is a supplement rather than a replacement for arguments in defence of the ethical consumer movement: raising animals for consumption is not the only farming industry susceptible to mass industrialization, and Christian vegetarians should pay just as close attention to who they’re buying from as their meat-eating sisters and brothers.

The multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation known as the Monsanto Company offers one of the readiest examples of why this is the case. With a poor environmental record and a reputation for heavy political lobbying, Monsanto has also become famous over the last two decades for aggressive litigation against farmers—the company’s most common claim being against individuals who use seed from one season’s crop to plant the next season’s crop.26 Monsanto’s effort to maximize profits in this way creates a system of tenant farming where those who enter into a contract with them have little choice but to keep buying from them, year on year, and it is a system that is fully supported by American law and the free market, the very system that Webb argues fits so closely with Christian faith.

In “Out to Lunch,” Cavanaugh quotes from his own work, Being Consumed, to make the case that “The church is called to be a different kind of economic space and to foster such spaces in the world,” something Webb neglects to consider in his claim that “it is crucially important for all Christians to think deeply about how free markets, limited government, and Christian faith fit so closely together.”27 If the church is to truly be an alternative space, a community where all are to be welcomed and embraced as equals before God, organic farmers can no more be forgotten than can the poor and starving, Walmart employees, slaughterhouse workers, and the animals they slaughter. In terms of minimizing environmental damage and living a transformed life in relation to humans and other animals, a vegetarian diet can be an embodied practice that is not unrealistically idealistic but serves to glorify the Creator of everything.

Conclusion: Vegetarianism as Discipleship?

It seems to me that the interwoven questions of who to be and what to eat might be best answered if we propose the “vegetarian question” in a different way than it is usually framed. That is, as a faithful expression of love for the farmer, the farmed, and the wider environment both live in, and in the spirit of idealism that justification and sanctification by grace make possible for sinful humans, why should we not try to practice vegetarianism? Recognition of our limitation and dependence upon God both emphasizes our commonality with other animals28 and calls us toward responsible living in and for creation in a manner consistent with Cavanaugh’s right-minded rejection of “any dichotomy that demands we choose worship instead of social justice.”29 Called to live for others as God is for us, Christians are therefore called to stand against the “linked oppressions”—to borrow a phrase from Carol Adams30—of human and nonhuman animals and to stand for the environment that both human and nonhuman animals coexist in and which God called good. The reality that the alternatives to patronizing McDonald’s are imperfect is no more a reason to settle for dehumanizing (and de-animalizing) corporations than the practical limitations of nonviolent nonresistance are a reason to enlist in the armed forces.

This does not mean that one can never taste flesh again on pain of excommunication. To make such a claim, or anything approaching it, would be to ignore our fallen nature and, by extension, to indirectly hold up vegetarianism as a sinless diet, something which cannot exist this side of the eschaton. Can McDonald’s be a conscionable option if you’re caught short and there’s nothing else quick to eat? Perhaps. But contrary to the sentiment of Webb’s strange claim that anticonsumerists believe “Playboy magazine invented lust,”31 it is a reality of living in the world that what we purchase and consume is an act that both demonstrates and forms who we are, as well as having a political impact.

Webb’s elegant summary of the Eucharist as “the meal that gives us a foretaste of the kingdom yet to come”32 demonstrates beautifully how eschatological worship invokes eschatological witness. As we take the bread and wine together, in hopeful prayer for the reconciliation of all things, we are called and transformed to better serve as signs of the peaceable kingdom in relationship with others. These others include those humans who make up our local church, the wider church, and the world outside the church. But these others also include the nonhuman animals and the environment itself, all the creatures of God’s good creation that join us in exuberant praise (Isa. 43:20 and 55:12) as we gather at the table. Part of such a life is loving care for the marginalized, and who is more marginal than the cow whose death has become such an assumed necessity for our existence that its life is not recognized in a discussion of the costs of organic farming? I agree with Cavanaugh that one locus where our worship becomes praxis is where we foster communities that are alternative economic spaces in the world, but I would add my own concern that the church recognize the call to be a different kind of dietary space, too. As compromised idealists who are called to love the world as God does, we should be prepared to follow our theology through to its ethical conclusions, however challenging they might seem. For the church today, in North America and Western Europe at the very least, vegetarianism is just such a radical and life-giving challenge.

Editor’s Note: For previous installments in this dialogue check out the following,

1. Webb, “Against the Gourmands: In Praise of Fast Food as a Form of Fasting,” The Other Journal 19 (2011): 2–13; Cavanaugh, “Out to Lunch: A Response to Stephen Webb’s ‘Against the Gourmands,’” The Other Journal 19 (2011): 14–19; and Webb, “A Response to William T. Cavanaugh’s ‘Out to Lunch,’” The Other Journal 19 (2011): 20–24.

2. Webb, “Against the Gourmands,” 2 and 12-13.

3. Mechanized here is a multivalent term that refers to the mechanical production of the cow patties, the production-line methodology that McDonald’s management trainers are experts in, the lack of concern for employees as individuals, and an unreflective approach to food production and sales at the global level. One question I would like to answer in this response, which Webb in drawing his binary between fast foodies and gluttonous gourmands was not interested in, is whether as Christians we can see any Deus in the machina of fast food production and consumption.

4. This much is something Webb explicitly recognizes in “Against the Gourmands” (6–7 and 13), citing Paul’s depiction of the church as a body with many members (1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12).

5. In particular, Webb’s criticism of “the rhetoric behind dietary trends” is somewhat undermined by the readiness with which he reverts to rhetoric in “Against the Gourmands”: vegetarians “find compensation [for giving up meat] by granting themselves the right to tell other people what to eat” (8); Michael Pollan is “a gourmand, which is the same word in French for a glutton” (10); naturalists are “zealots” (11); while it is inaccurately implied that Cavanaugh believes “that capitalism lies at the origin of original sin” (12).

6. Webb, “A Response to William T. Cavanaugh,” 20–21.

7. Even this is only demonstrably true if we understand price only as the value placed on the product by the company at the point of transaction between itself and the consumer, which is an irresponsibly simplistic understanding of the interrelated networks of relationality that constitute creation as a whole and human politics in particular.

8. Webb, “A Response to William T. Cavanaugh,” 21.

9. Ibid., 22.

10. Cavanaugh, “Out to Lunch,” 14.

11. See Romans 6:6.

12. Jones, “Graced Practices: Excellence and Freedom in the Christian Life,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 2002), 70.

13. Webb, “Against the Gourmands,” 13.

14. Ibid., 7.

15. Ibid., 4.

16. For a developed theological account of how the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and redemption (among others) relate to nonhuman animals, see David Clough, Systematic Theology, On Animals, vol. 1 (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2012).

17. I am aware that Webb has advocated for vegetarianism: in fact, it was while writing my undergraduate dissertation on Christianity and vegetarianism that I first came across his work when Good Eating (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001) was recommended to me. Along with Andrew Linzey’s Animal Theology (London, UK: SCM Press, 1994), Good Eating affirmed and strengthened my theological interest (as an academic and as a Christian) in vegetarianism. However, in his exchange with Cavanaugh and elsewhere, Webb’s theological defence of the free market is allowed to override and negate the radical implications of his theology concerning animals.

18. As a side note, Cavanaugh’s description of the glass-walled abattoir in Minnesota where the Zweber cattle are slaughtered (“Out to Lunch,” 18) is interesting in that it puts the lie to Linda (and Paul) McCartney’s rather hopeful claim that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would become vegetarian.

19. Cavanaugh, “Out to Lunch,” 18.

20. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Livestock’s Long Shadow—Environmental issues and options” (2006).

21. It might also be argued that the environmental costs of cattle farming in the US can be considered a matter of global justice: while people across the world are struggling to obtain enough food to meet their basic caloric needs (and only these people, I would suggest, truly understand what it means to call food “fuel”), the disproportionate resources expended on reproducing cattle farming for the satisfaction of the appetites of a small percentage of the global population should at least give Christians pause for thought.

22. Scripture witnesses that both humans and other animals receive the breath of life (nephesh hayyah) from God as the final act of their creation. It is unfortunate (as well as being evidence of an anthropocentric worldview abrogating authentic exegesis) that numerous translators, from the KJV to the NRSV, have obscured this reality in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, often rendering nephesh hayyah as “living soul” or “living being” with regard to humans and “living creature” with regard to nonhuman animals.

23. Webb advances a similar argument in Good Eating, along with the claim that the sacrifice ritual was a twin performance of thanksgiving and repentance (72–101).

24. See for example Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Tenth Anniversary Edition (New York, NY: Continuum, 2002), 14.

25. For an interesting theological reflection on the place of nonhuman animals in God’s response to Job, see Rachel Muers, “The Animals We Write On: Encountering Animals in Texts,” in Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals, eds. Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough (London, UK: SCM Press, 2009), 138–50.

26. For a discussion of many ethically problematic practices of Monsanto, see Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear,” Vanity Fair, May 2008.

27. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), ix; and Webb, “A Response to William T. Cavanaugh,” 24.

28. David Clough draws on Scripture and cognitive ethology in arguing for greater theological recognition of human-nonhuman commonality within the animal creation. See On Animals, 27–44. Jürgen Moltmann makes a similar, albeit more pneumatologically rooted, claim in God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation (London, UK: SCM Press, 1985).

29. Cavanaugh, “Out to Lunch,” 17.

30. In Neither Man Nor Beast: Feminism and the Defence of Animals (New York, NY: Continuum, 1994), Adams thinks through (and theologizes about) the relationship between the dehumanization of women and the commodification of nonhuman animals within patriarchal cultures.

31. Webb, “Against the Gourmands,” 12. In response to Webb, I would suggest that while Playboy did not invent lust, it did explicitly (in two meanings of the word) affirm it.

32. Ibid., 13.

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Matthew Barton :
Matthew Barton is currently completing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Leeds on dietary pacifism. His research interests include animal, relational, and ordinary theologies; ecclesiology; and the many intersections between systematic theology, Christian ethics, and ethnography. Barton is also the Methodist lay chaplain at the University of Nottingham.
  • http://love2justice.wordpress.com Joe D.

    wow… great writing Matthew. Thanks so much for this!

  • Jonathan McRay

    Well written and argued. False dualisms definitely abound.
    Webb unfortunately seems quite ignorant of agroecology and the countless food
    sovereignty initiatives led by working-class and peasant folk in rural and
    urban areas worldwide. Not to mention the cultural significance of food
    throughout history.

  • Matthew Barton

    Thanks for the kind words; and I agree, Jonathan, about the too-frequent recourse to false binaries. Perhaps the status of animal and/or dietary ethics within Christian theology (read: they aren’t frequently explored, and in some quarters in can even be an unpopular move to bring them up) contributes to the relative lack of nuance when they *are* discussed?

  • r

    Are not you making a similar argument–against Webb–that Webb makes in his own book, Good Eating?

  • Patrick Thompson

    Well done, Matthew! I have been struggling with my own convictions and praxis regarding food for some time now. Your words bring to a place where I knew I must eventually arrive.

  • Matthew Barton

    r, I think you’re quite right; but I also feel (although I’d be happy to hear from Stephen himself if he disagrees with my reading of it) that Webb’s theology of diet has changed significantly over the decade since Good Eating was published, being shaped in the process by his political theology.

    In other words, the Webb of Good Eating might have been similarly critical of the Webb of Against the Gourmands.

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