Harvest - Whose is the face on our plate?

A sermon preached by Fr Robert Thompson at St John the Baptist, Holland Road, on 6 October 2013

Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Revelation 14.14-18; John 6.25-35

"Whose is the face on our plate?"

The psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson in his 2009 book The Face on your Plate: The Truth about Food contends that central to every meal that we have is the human ability to participate in and promote either violence or compassion.  His work focuses on the suffering that animals have to endure in order to satisfy the appetites of a growing human population. We have all I am sure seen the scenes that are the outcome of what we might call the modern 'agribusiness,': the battery farming of chickens; the pictures of cows, calves and pigs clamped in small enclosures where they are unable to move; the live export of animals in which they endure days squashed into transport often in searing heat and without water. The body of Masson's book describes many graphic scenes of  the cruelty that we human beings inflict on animals.

Masson believes that if most of us really knew of the abject horrors of the modern food industry, and if we really dwelt on these facts for long enough, then all of us would reconsider just how much meat and fish we consumed, if not totally give up on the eating of animal flesh. One of his most compelling arguments is that the modern agribusiness deliberately distances the consumer from the actual act of the slaughter of animals. This distance protects us so that we can all live by the myth that they have been humanely killed for our consumption. The very title of Masson's work, The Face on your Plate, undoes this moral distancing- the modern food industry 'defaces' our plates. It defaces our plates in the sense that it hides the faces of the animals that we kill. And it defaces our plates in the way in which it masks our own violent and destructive impulses as human beings.

But Masson calls us to remember that there is always a face of our plate; a face of a real animal; the face of another sentient being, with much in common with us. And he demands that individually and collectively we reflect on the way in which that face has been treated before it came to the table in front of us. Masson argues that the proper moral response to the need to secure a sustainable human future, in relation to the both need for a dramatic increase in food supply and to the welfare of animals, is to adopt a life of non-violence. Or to use the Sanskrit term, which means not to harm or injure, ahimsa. For Masson himself this moral conviction ends in his living out of and advocation of a vegan lifestyle.

I am neither a vegetarian or a vegan. Though I increasingly eat less and less meat. Partly that's for personal domestic reasons; partly it's because of concern about health and lifestyle; but increasingly it's also because of a growing awareness that our diets are a moral and spiritual issue, and therefore that Christian discipleship prompts me to set the face on my own plate within the wider framework of the whole web of God's creation. For me the issue of whether or not any of us decides to adopt  a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, seems secondary to Masson's call for us to adopt a more compassionate lifestyle, a more compassionate diet. What Masson, and other writers of his kind call for, is an increase in our own capacity for empathy with other sentient beings with whom we share God's world. To hone our capacity for empathy will inevitably lead to the lessening of the suffering that we inflict on animals.

"Whose face is on our plate?"

Whilst authors who focus on the suffering of animals draw attention to the particularity of animal faces on our plates, I think that we also need to be reminded that it is not just animals who suffer in the way that our modern agribusinesses have been constructed.  In her book The American Way of Eating,  Tracie McMillan draws attention to how other human beings also become the victims of our insatiable human appetite. McMillan highlights what she calls the "paradox of plenty" in western societies. This paradox consists of the fact that it seems that the eating of a healthy diet has become expensive, time consuming, and difficult, whilst it's cheap and easy to eat badly. As she neatly puts it "Our agriculture is abundant, but healthy diets are not."

McMillan explored this paradox over 2 months as a undercover investigative journalist. Her work paints very closely the faces of the cheap, immigrant labour who are employed to pick the fruits, to work in the processing factories and to stack the shelves of our supermarkets. These are the faces of the underpaid, the cheated and the exploited. The faces of people who work long hours of manual labour without much training, with few benefits and often in unsafe environments. These sorts of jobs do of course provide "good" employment for those of us who are unskilled, but at the same time McMillan unmasks such jobs as creating a perpetual underclass in our western societies, an underclass whose exploitation simply feeds our own privilege.

One of the tragic news events of the last week deepens McMillan's insight and is also very poignant when we consider the community with whom we share this building. The sinking of the ship in Lampadeusa off the Italian coast, with the loss of hundreds of lives of Eritrean and Somalian illegal, economic immigrants is truly shocking, and as Pope Francis rightly called it, is also "shameful" for our society. But when we further consider that many people who attempt to come from Africa to Europe as illegal immigrants, come out of situations of real hunger, caused by natural disaster and compounded by human conflict, only to end up working in the sort of permanent underclass that McMillan describes, the human effects and the human costs of our global economic, development and food policies are truly deplorable. Some in our world simply waste away from lack of food, whilst we create waste from our over abundance, which comes at their expense.

The human faces that we might discern upon our plates are not only limited to the poorest and most exploited of our culture. The human faces on our plates are multiple and legion and they include our own. Large global food corporations incite our appetite, and create crave in the ways in which they use marketing to engineer and compel our own personal and corporate over consumption.  Billions are spent in advertising "healthy" foods which actually turn out to be highly processed, or containing levels of salt, sugar or fat that are just not healthy at all. The addiction of our large food organisations to profits, leads to corporate practices designed to make us all addicted to the sort of foods that they sell. We, ourselves, or at least our waist lines, our hearts and our livers become the victims of our own insatiable appetite made more insatiable by false advertising. We look on our plates and we see the face we encounter in the mirror.

"Whose face is on our plate?"

Some of us, as indeed I do myself, may well feel very uncomfortable with my thoughts in this sermon so far. And some of us may well be wondering what all this has to do with Christian faith in general or the festival of the Harvest Thanksgiving in particular.

In some sense we come week by week to Church and we are fed on a diet of word, sacrament and community. That's to say that we meet the face of God in the stories that we read together in scripture; we encounter the face of God in the celebration of the holy meal that recalls Jesus entire offering of his life to God, using the foods of bread and wine; and we see God's face in the faces of those with whom we worship and by extension in all our neighbours.

Today's scriptural diet echoes with many of the concerns that Masson, McMillan and myself have raised.

Our first reading is one of the accounts of how the ancient Hebrew people are to celebrate their own Harvest Festival in the land in which they find themselves. At the heart of the reading is the idea that it is God who gives them the land. And that because it is God who engifts the land to them that they, in turn, are to give God back the first fruits of the earth. They are to bring their basket of the harvest offering and give it to the priest. They are to remember that they have come into the land that God had promised to their ancestors. They are to bring to mind the promise made to Abraham. They are to recall the slavery endured in Egypt. They are to recount the mighty deliverance of God, the Exodus, in which they were freed from Egyptian exploitation. They are to say to the priest "and God brought us into this place and gave us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me."  The text continues in Deuteronomy 26.11: "Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that The Lord your God has given to you."

Central to this reading is the belief that all that we have is simply gift from God. Nothing is ours by our own design, or our own industry or our own making. We have no rights to anything. There is nothing that we deserve. And all that we have comes at cost and expense to others. That's why in this passage the gifts of the people are given with precise words, words that recall that this people were themselves the victims of exploitation, that they too were aliens, foreigners, immigrants in another land and that their freedom is a gift to them from God to be shared with those who are alien, foreigners and immigrants in their own land. From that experience of exploitation and exodus they are to learn to give back to God what is God's, and to celebrate the harvest, not just among themselves, but with the Levites, and with those who are not Jewish, not of their blood, who work for them. This passage echoes the weight of the scriptural tradition, which does not simply say that Thanksgiving, at harvest or at any other time, is simply a spiritual exercise, a prayer offered to God, but rather insists that thanksgiving is constituted by a fair sharing of the earth's resources, even with cheap immigrant labour that creates our own wealth.

So much for how we treat other human beings, but what of animal welfare? It is much more difficult to construct from passages of scripture an unambiguously clear ethic about how we should respond to the issues of modern food consumption and the welfare of animals. In our gospel reading however Jesus reminds us "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." Each of us needs to ask of ourselves what it means to come to Jesus in relation to the issues of our own diet. What does it mean to find fullness of life in his teaching and way of being in the world? What does it mean to come to the one who embodies a love of creation, a celebration of mercy, an orientation of compassion, and a special concern for the powerless? And what does all that mean in relation to the exploitation  and suffering of animals within the modern agribusiness world? Harvest gives us a space to explore  and reflect upon these personal and social moral aspects of our own diet. Harvest enables us to weigh up the ways in which we accommodate the drive  of our appetite for food with our conscience.

"Whose is the face upon our plate?"

In this Eucharist we see the face of Christ in word and in sacrament.
May our faces more and more reflect his compassionate gaze.
Which probably may well reflect the advice of Michael Pollan, another ethical food writer, that we should "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants."
Holland Park Benefice