VIOLENCE, PRIVILEGE AND FOOD WEALTH by Alexandra Hjerpe, first year M.Div.

A seminarian reflects on her journey towards humility, health, and faithful community living

Ignoring my body, and my relationship with food, was my supposedly faithful response to a superficial, commercially-consumed world. However, this focus led me not only into the murky bog of self-justification theology and hypocrisy, and to a deficit of poor physical health, but also into what I would call a state of abusive relationship with my fellow, living community.

By refusing to pluck my eyebrow arches, to wear the latest skinny jeans and to fast- myself-thin with salads, I believed that I could withdraw myself from the beauty pageant in which many of my young, female peers obsessively competed. I knew that the earthly values emphasizing physical beauty were transient, narrow and market-driven, and so I decided to separate myself by interacting casually and robustly with food in my physical body.

Through this narrowed and self-justifying perspective, I believed that denying attention to my external body would correspondingly mold me internally as a more mindful Christian individual: I would not be prey to the system of body glorification like the others. And so, while my college friends carefully examined the carbohydrates in their salad dressing before an evening out, I would instead confidently order a cheeseburger and fries, and eat it with great satisfaction (and zero humility). However, in this action, I did not recognize the inherent violence I was inflicting not just on myself, but to countless others, with this personal crusade of so-called faithful eating!

In the absence of attentiveness to my relationship with my body, I was actually turning my face away from the reality of my food privilege, and was denying own part in a system of wealth and individualism. What I thought was a spiritual habit of mindfulness was in fact a neglect of my responsibility and Christian deputyship—not to mention disrespect for the priceless, irreplaceable gift of my physical body.

Eating is a kind of measurable privilege; unlike race or age, it is one of few environmental privileges that I could personally–but did not–temper. Growing up in white, middle-class, Midwest America, I had luxurious privilege because of food availability. My parents were able to abundantly provide calorie-rich and nutritious foods, and not just as fuel for survival: the decoration of holiday eating, the social dynamic of family table fellowship, and the entertainment of experimenting with a variety of ingredients were all blessings to which I grew accustomed.

Unfortunately, I assumed that my patterns of casual and pleasure-oriented eating were “normal” for everyone—which is perhaps the most dangerous possible state of existence. On the contrary, my eating habits and health expressed a limited and privileged position of food wealth—one that participated in a cycle of power and appropriation unaware that it was at the expense of others.

Rather than attentiveness to each bite of food, I gulped and swallowed rapidly, hardly chewing, my snacks in front of the television. I ate food for myself. I ate food out of boredom. I ate food for a buzz. I ate food to cover up my own problems and distractions—and none of which were any fault of the food. My orientation around food was not about physical vanity, yet it was vain; it was focused entirely on myself and individual desires, without regard or gratitude for the significant amount of sacrifice in its production. I did not consider the amount of land and rain the earth had consumed in order to nurture this food in my hand; the amount of energy and sacrifice by laborers who received low wages in order to grow and harvest it; the amount of smog and gasoline burnt into the receding layer of sky in order to transport it; the amount of toxins and garbage that would accumulate in order to package it. I had no awareness, no relationship with this food, and my eating habits communicated that same disrespect. I abused my food privilege. In a word: I consumed violently.

And so it happened that gradually, in this micro-environment of passively receiving food wealth, I grew just as much a drone to consumerism as the next mascara-laden, Cosmo-reading teen girl I was so mercilessly judging. I was a privilege-hypocrite, accepting the marketing of the food industry, and marching to the beat. I was not living up to my “faithful” standard at all.

To be a bit more gentle with myself, I was not intentionally trying to be violent with my food wealth. My habitually practiced calorie survival skills also functioned to patch up deeper hungers that arose from creeping depression and low self-esteem: I regulated my profound anxiety and mood swings with hormone-blunting, feel-good food chemicals. And yet, the continued use of chocolate to take the edge off of my sadness was still an appropriation of a life-giving, communal phenomenon—food—and covering up my mental illness with accessible calories was an expression of my privilege. I was still engaging in a system that violently swallowed up the resources and gifts of others for the sake of sustaining myself, rather than seeking alternative, healthy sources that could truly help me correct and prevent these deficits.

At seminary, after a process of education and exposure to the most subtle levels of power and control embedded in my culture, I have gradually became aware of, identified and named much of my food privilege. Claiming and naming my power, I have begun the process of taking ownership of my wealth and responsibility, and have decided to change how I interact with the generous world around me.

Focusing more on a model of accompaniment with creation than a model of appropriation, I feel called to an awareness of my time and place in history as one that is saturated in the privilege of accessible, high-calorie, nutritious food. With this contextual awareness, I can begin to accept my civic duty as a steward of creation by responding in a healthy, generous and life-giving way to this environment in which I have been placed. Instead of passively and ignorantly allowing an unhealthy, violent food system to determine my behavior, I am choosing mindfulness, and seeking a counter-cultural relationship of reconciliation with my sources of food energy, my food-providing community, and my body.

So now, when I decide what I am going to eat, I take the time to slowly and deliberately savor every morsel of food. I praise God and offer thanks before, during and after my meal, to honor the high cost to the earth and to others to bring this food to my plate. But perhaps most significantly, I have re-oriented my relationship with food towards an open-system model of energy usage rather than an inward-system. Intentionally using the glucose-energy derived from the nutrients of food in the most God-glorifying, life-giving ways discernable, I am devoting myself to listening to and participating in God’s active mission of love, grace, mercy, justice, compassion, hope and reconciliation in this world by serving the needs of others before myself. And with each day, my head and my heart become more active; my body and my lungs become more healthy; and my soul becomes more awed and grateful to the mercy, and communal nature, of God.

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