<![CDATA[The practice of thanksgiving is one of the most important practices of the Christian life. We must offer thanks for the good things we are given, the gift of our life and everything we are given to sustain it. This is a practice that is especially relevant at meal times where we are reminded that our own energy is taken from that of others—plants, animals, or even the human energy that went into growing and processing and preparing our meals. If we are to truly offer thanks for these meals we will come eventually to see that we cannot offer thanks without guilt for everything we eat. How do we offer thanks for chicken soup when the chicken we are eating spent most of its life as a laying hen confined to a small cage? How do we offer thanks for an organic spinach salad when it was grown 3000 miles away and transported with the help of a violent petroleum economy, not to mention harvested by migrant laborers who are paid unjust wages and kept in slave like conditions by an immigration system bent on offering inhospitality? [caption id="attachment_641" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="A call to grace empowered mourning (image: J Fowler)"][/caption] We cannot properly call these things gifts of God; we must admit that much of what we have and consume are objects that we have obtained through unjust means and an unjust economy. Surely we can give thanks to God for what he has provided, in spite of the injustices of our economy, but we must at the same time mourn the sustaining of our lives—our eating, clothing, housing, and transportation—through an economy of destruction. The practice of actively turning our lives from sin and embodying our mourning for sin is called penance—an ancient practice that needs to be recovered in the lives of Christians seeking to live their lives holistically. There are many ways we might practice penance—we could collect on our 401(k)s and give the money to the poor to show repentance for our unjust means of income, we could wear only second hand and homemade clothing as a sign of our repentance for clothing ourselves through the exploitation of woman and children in sweatshops—the ideas for penance are as varied as the sins to which we must respond. I would like to offer fasting and abstinence as penitential compliments to the offering of thanksgiving at meals. Fasting is simply eating or drinking nothing, but water (though sometimes fruit juice is consumed during a fast). Abstinence, in this case, is abstaining from eating meat. What if we simply decided to go hungry rather than eat an unjust meal? What if we made a commitment, like Wendell Berry has, to only eat meat we know to be good? Perhaps we simply fast from food on Fridays as a show of repentance for the injustice of our eating. This penance is not meant to be a sign of our superiority over others; nor is it a replacement for the grace through which we live. As anyone who has tried to live without sin knows—we cannot escape sin altogether until we are in a world that is freed completely from sin (call it the ecological principal of sin). For instance, I would love to be able to live without the use of electricity, but I do not yet know how to be hospitable without it. If you are reading this you are certainly involved in the same net as I am. What penance does is to keep me from simply saying, “oh well, so is the world.” By fasting on Friday’s for instance, I am able to say, I know that I eat meals that were grown in unjust ways, but I am going to go hungry today to offer a sign of my desire for conversion from that economy. Penance is a sacramental act of turning my life from a world of sin, something that goes beyond a simple personal prayer, but rather becomes a visible sign of the invisible reality of my turning.]]>
Recovering the Practice of Penance
by Ragan Sutterfield | Feb 5, 2010 | Agrarian Notebook, Features | 4 comments
An excellent and thought-provoking post.
With respect to eating, our goal, of course, should be nonparticipation in the industrial food system. If we achieve that we'll still have plenty of reasons to be penitent, but complicity in the sins of the industrial food complex won't be among them.
I've become convinced that as a society we eat far too much meat. Beef cattle consume a disproportionate share of our dwindling resources, and relying on cattle for food is ultimately unsustainable, in my opinion. And the way cattle, chickens and pigs are raised, slaughtered, processed and marketed, is a crime against creation.
So I no longer eat meat from any animal I didn't raise personally and kill with my own hands. My wife Cherie is a vegetarian. Just as she would never kill an animal and eat it, neither will she eat an animal someone else has killed. I haven't given up meat, but I am confident that limiting myself to the meat of animals I personally kill, will result in me eating far less of it than if I were spared that unpleasant task. And I am absolutely certain that meat consumption in this country would plummet if consumers had to buy the animals live, then kill them before they could eat them.
I realize this lifestyle won't work or make sense for most people, but I thought it would be worth mentioning in a discussion about staying mindful of our complicity in sins against creation.
When we were first married (14 1/2 years ago), my husband encouraged me to shop at the local co-op (Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco — a little cramped hole in the wall at the time) and buy organic foodstuffs. I countered that all of that was rather expensive and we didn't really have an expansive budget. His reply? We should buy what we could and that the more people who did likewise, the sooner the laws of supply and demand would help push the prices down.
I don't know that prices have gone down one iota, but I think his principal is still a sound one. We don't have to go out and buy all organic or local or grass fed or what have you. We can buy what we can afford, a little here, a little there. And those small purchasing decisions are, as you said, like an act of penance for the times and ways in which we can't live as freely or cleanly or fair-trade-ly as we'd like.
It's easy to feel guilty for not doing more. I think sometimes we need to use sober judgment in determining what we're able to do, and then we need to follow through on that.
And God has been faithful to us in this. We're now able to buy quite a bit of our food locally. Those small steps, small penances, help to move our hearts ever closer to a more just life.
Very cool Meg. We must be faithful in the little.
Very cool Meg. We must be faithful in the little.