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An Ethic of Eating and Drinking

by Stephen C. Rose

Stephen C. Rose is executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, as well as a composer of various types of musical works. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 5, 1982, p. 527. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Jesus said not to take much thought about what you eat or drink, and in the United States obedience to this text is running high. What Jesus had in mind was that there are many concerns more important than eating or drinking: the realm of redemption, for one thing. That realm -- the “Kingdom of God” -- is a place of growth in grace, realized love and care of the poor and weak. In other words, it is a place where transcendent values are played out and where life conquers death. Surely, then, he would not have us ignore the ways in which our eating and drinking deter the spread of this realm in our personal and corporate lives.

A minimal ethic of bodily consumption might embrace the concept of reverence for life -- Albert Schweitzer’s maxim that only when faced with the utmost necessity is one justified in taking the life of another creature or, for that matter, inflicting any manner of cruelty. Any ethic of food and drink springs, then, from the essential unity and sacredness of the whole creation.

From this starting point, I arrive at six themes or perspectives that seem germane to an ethic of food and drink.

1. The rights of animals. After World War II, when Americans did relatively well dietarily on the produce of victory gardens, there was a media campaign to convince us that large amounts of protein are necessary to our health. The ad campaign led to literal and figurative overkill. And now to accommodate our taste for meat, we have introduced sophisticated forms of factory farming that effectively deny the animal any reason for existence other than to be killed and consumed.

Begging the question of whether an animal has a right to life in the face of a “necessity” that is neither economically nor medically established, it can most surely be argued that if an animal’s destiny is to be slaughtered, this should be carried out with some respect for the creature. I find it hard to come to some intermediate standard between freedom and slaughter that would represent an acceptable form of treatment. Rather, I suspect that the practical application of an ethic of food and drink will have to present the public with an ever more graphic picture of what is being done and rely on the inherent wisdom of human beings eventually to make some humanitarian decisions.

This is not the place for such documentation, but it might well begin with examples of the treatment of young calves that are fed in such a way as to make them anemic so that their veal will be white -- or the debeaking of chickens to keep them from killing each other in the close quarters to which they are so cruelly confined.

Animals do have rights. To define these rights, and to see them as related to the well-being of our global ecosystem, is one aspect of an ethic of food and drink.

2. The systemic impact of unexamined consumer behavior. Our entire system of food and drink is, to a large extent, the product of unexamined consumer behavior -- unexamined by the consumer, that is. For massive amounts are invested by corporations in the manipulation of consent to such propositions as the following:

• It is possible to eat substantial amounts of carbohydrates without losing one’s trim physique or athletic ability. This is the implication of myriad television, billboard and magazine advertisements.

• It is desirable to eat meat as often as one likes. Nothing is said of the uneconomic cycle that is involved in translating whole grains into beef and then into cuts for the table.

• Sexual attractiveness can be linked to the consumption of various foods and beverages.

These propositions underlie a huge multibillion-dollar corporate monolith that might use its power to educate the public on health matters were it not for the fact that the present system has not begun to crack. When enough people refuse to eat or drink what is generally offered, profit will presumably follow good sense.

The intake of refined sugars is probably the most egregious example of unexamined consumer behavior, and its systemic impact is revealed in innumerable health statistics -- from dental to coronary -- suggesting that if there is one thing we do not need more of, it is sugar.

We have, of course, in the ongoing Nestlé campaign, a well-documented example of how corporate practices can wreak havoc by dumping products into markets where their use virtually guarantees not nutrition but its opposite: failing health.

The only antidote to unexamined consumer behavior is a campaign of scientific and humane forces to inform both the corporate perpetrators of palpable falsehood and the equally responsible consumers that self-interest in the form of happiness and longevity, not to mention social justice, lies in considering an ethic of food and drink.

3. The tangible benefits of a mindful diet. The foundations of a mindful diet can be stated with some assurance. They are a radical reduction of the use of sugar, the elimination of coffee and other stimulants, the forswearing or minimal use of alcoholic beverages, the substitution of organically grown vegetables for chemically fertilized ones and the derivation of proteins from beans, whole grains, and, in moderation, eggs and cheese. This is a “new age” diet in the sense that it is difficult to maintain in today’s society without somewhat more attention than might seem appropriate to the busy person. You can’t eat this way at a fast-food place or buy this way at every supermarket. You must pay rather high prices at health-food and fresh produce stores (though the prices are lower at co-ops).

Why the wisdom of this course is not more clear is difficult to fathom when one considers that we are speaking, in general, of the sort of diet typically recommended to the victims of heart attacks.

4. The need to examine the impact of institutional diet practices. We are on the threshold, I believe, of scientific confirmation of the relationship between diet and the breakdown of mental health; there are studies that link propensities to violence with food and drink intake. I have not touched heavily on alcohol abuse because it is widely known that it breeds all manner of sad responses.

My “long winter of 1982” was spent, in large part, visiting my 77-year-old father in the hospital where he had brain surgery for an aneurism. The diet he was fed consisted of overdone beef, canned string beans and sugary desserts -- surely not the appropriate input for a person needing to build up a body.

In Anatomy of an Illness Norman Cousins has recorded the story of a patient’s struggle to become a part of the healing process by assuming control over phases of diet and medication normally the province of the physician alone. We need more studies that deal with the effect of institutional diet on the health of the people “served.” A friend who works in inner-city schools is convinced that student violence can be directly correlated with carbohydrate and sugar intake.

5. The microcosm/macrocosm effect. The idea that persons are microcosms of the world is hardly new. It is becoming obvious in our time that we cannot talk about peace on a global scale without recognizing the need for peace on the home front, in the self, in relationship, in community. I do not look with scorn on the person who feels that his or her meditations and prayers can have a positive effect on the world as a whole.

My ethics mentor in seminary, John Bennett, made an indelible impression on me when he offhandedly remarked that many liberals seem incapable of relating affectionately to the persons most close at hand. I am convinced that this correlation between the individual and society requires some attention to the ethics of food and drink.

6. A mode of ecumenism. During the 1970s a new school of theology sprang up outside the camp of institutional religion. It is the theology of the new age, and its literary gurus are numerous: Ken Wilber, Michael Murphy, David Spangler, William Irwin Thompson and others. Essentially this school of thought deals in the broadest sense with issues of unity and dynamism -- the action of the Spirit -- and with the possibilities of human transformation or potential.

As a new social movement rises up around the issue of global survival, it seems essential to explore the distinctive relationship between the Good News of a realm of redemption which is at once personal and cosmic, and the holistic work that is being done in fields as diverse as consciousness studies, physics and diet. It is time to call a truce between those who have defended a purely individual approach and those who have seen things in terms of a class or systemic analysis.

It is not too much to hope that around the seemingly small issue of nutritional ethics this form of ecumenism will be encouraged.

The biblical argument for the approach developed here is that Jesus was heralding a new age of human responsibility for personal and world development. In this declension, faith is viewed less as belief than as the energy or perspective needed to allow good to become manifest in the world. Faith is the power to tap into the sacred reality of God’s tangible presence and dynamism.

The case for an ethic of food and drink may be summarized thus: It seems doubtful that faith mandates a system of life that appears to require inhumane slaughter of creatures, uneconomical and exploitative uses of land, disregard of personal health, and ignorance of the probability that the key to world peace lies in the conscious cultivation of a practical philosophy of reverence for all that lives.


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