Sunday, February 17, 2013

Seeking Blessing in a Fractured Land

Last week, at a Pennsylvania sustainable agriculture conference, I attended a seminar with the cheerful title “Understanding the Role of Environmental Agent Exposures in Health and Disease.”

Seated in a comfortable lecture hall in the Penn Stater conference center, I watched a series of slides reminiscent of a series I assembled for some presentations on food and farming I’ve led in the past year. The upward curves looked familiar: Increases in autism. Increases in obesity and diabetes. Increases in food allergies.

I was alarmed to see the series go on longer than my own: Parkinsons. Psyczophrenia. Leukemia.

Rick Woychik, the presenter, deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, (a division of the National Institute of Health), quickly dismissed the idea that such explosive increases are the result of better diagnosis or some kind of genetic change. “We’ve controlled for the diagnosis theory. And genetic change takes generations, not decades.” His conclusion was the same as my own, although much more firmly stated: “The cause for these dramatic diseases is environmental.”

Woychik went on to explain the challenge of identifying specific causes, talked about the thousands of changes introduced to our environment and food supply in just the past few decades, reminded us that the human body, like the environment itself, is a system, with interdependent parts.

He described the old ways of testing environmental hazards: put some cells in a Petrie dish, introduce the substance to be tested, watch what happens. Or feeding some lab rats something new for a period of weeks, while everything else stays the same.

Not only are bodies far too complex for these simple tests to give adequate data, but how do you test the multiple ways that various agents interact with each other? New substances in packaging interact with new substances in food interact with pesticides and other toxins and with nanoparticles introduced at an alarming rate. Woychik talked quickly: BPA not just in plastic bottles, but lining aluminum cans, and coating cash register receipts. Substances crossing the placenta, interfering with brain development of infants in their mothers’ wombs, with results that might not appear until the onset of Parkinson’s or osteoarthritis or other diseases, decades later.

When he finished and asked for questions, there were several seconds of stunned silence. One listener said quietly: “I feel informed, but not empowered.” A young woman raised her hand and asked, “If you had a daughter who was pregnant, in her first trimester, what would you tell her?”

In some countries, the Precautionary Principle holds sway. It was stated as part of the Rio Conference, or "Earth Summit" in 1992: 
"In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
Another formulation, from the 1998 Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle, is a bit more direct: 
"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
In some countries the Precautionary Priniciple governs food regulation, agricultural practice, mining and drilling, introduction of synthetic products or genetically modified crops.

In the US, the assumption has been, if it’s good for business, it’s good for the rest of us. Which has brought us chemically and radioactively mutated wheat, feed grains laced with pesticide, growth hormones in our children’s milk, high fructose corn syrup in foods that once were completely healthy.

Keystone XL Tar Sands Climate Threat
And carbon-laden, dirty, environmentally destructive tar sands oil, prompting the largest environmental protest in US history – today! – asking for President Obama to reject, completely, the Keystone XL pipeline and any other pipeline expansion that would further the mining of tar sands oil     

I've been carrying with me the words of Jesus in from the Beatitudes (Matthew 53-10): “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

They’re puzzling words, partly because we see “blessed” as synonym for “happy”. We have no word that comes close to the complexity of the original word, “makarios,” which seems to imply being rightly placed, set in right relationship with earth, other humans, and God as well. There’s a hint in “makarios” of participation in eternity, of deep harmony, of that inner well-being that sometimes washes through us when we know we’re loved, living wisely in ways that benefit those we care for. 

The best explanation I can find is from Spiros Zodhiates, Greek-American Bible scholar:
To be makarios, blessed, is equivalent to having God's kingdom within one's heart. Aristotle contrasts makarios to endees, the needy one. Makarios is the one who is in the world yet independent of the world, [whose] satisfaction comes from God and not from favorable circumstances.   (Complete Word Study Dictionary)
The beatitudes make no sense once we've bought the version of “happy” sold in every thirty-second ad: convenient, easy, enviable, cheap. Whiter teeth, the newest phone, more food, and more, and more.

Puzzling over the beatitudes, and what they have to say to the issues of the day, I came across this extended quote by Brian Zahnd, a mid-western pastor and author of a new book called “Beauty Will Save the World”: 
"The Beatitudes pose a direct challenge to the way the world is run. The Beatitudes are a subversive manifesto at odds with superpower agendas. As a result, the Beatitudes (when liberated from sentimental patronizing) elicit differing responses depending on who the hearer is. There are those who are blessed by the Beatitudes and hear them as a clarion call for welcome change. Others feel threatened by the radical revolution the Beatitudes appear to embody. . . 
The Beatitudes are the antithetical ethos to the superpower mantra of “we’re number one!” The Beatitudes are deliberately designed to shock us. If we’re not shocked by the Beatitudes, it’s only because we have tamed them with a patronizing sentimentality—and being sentimental about Jesus is the religious way of ignoring Jesus! Too often the Beatitudes are set aside into the category of “nice things that Jesus said that I don’t really understand.” 
"We have not been formed by the values of the Beatitudes; we have been raised on the received text of a superpower. (The notion that the received text of a superpower and the sacred text of the Sermon on the Mount can be made to fit together nicely is lunacy!) Contemporary Americans are scripted in a way that is completely counter to the values of the Beatitudes. We certainly don’t bless poverty or sorrow or meekness or hunger or persecution—yet it is the poor and sorrowful and meek and hungry and persecuted that we find Jesus blessing in the Beatitudes. At the very least, this should perplex us." 
I don’t have Zahnd’s book – so can’t read his conclusions. But I hold tightly to the perplexity he describes, and welcome the clarion call for change he hears in Jesus' words. Running down our current road will never bring blessing – just more and more suffering, poverty, disease.

Blessing lies in another direction. Blessing comes when we set easy answers aside, force ourselves to understand the depth of our mistaken desires, begin the painful process of divesting, rethinking, moving in a new direction. Blessing comes when we seek the vision of wholeness, and holiness, embedded in Jesus' teachings.
What does that look like, for me, today?

I’ve given up wheat and high fructose corn syrup for Lent. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous, insignificant, wildly unhelpful, not even marginally spiritual. But the more I learn about our current food systems, the more convinced I am they need to change, and wheat and corn syrup have become, for me, signs of harm done, and symbols of our folly. They’re implicated in far too many maladies to name, present in most of our processed foods, and giving them up forces me to look for real nourishment, and to grieve my own addiction to sweet, cheap, convenient food.

I’m also spending time, a few minutes a day, advocating for change I believe in. Today, that means posting comments on asking President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. And posting some links to organizations working on climate change and our excessive dependence on fossil fuel.
And praying. Always praying.

For wisdom.

Real health.


When people forget that Jesus is the bread of the world, they start eating junk food--the food of the Pharisees and of Herod, the bread of moralism and of power. To often the church forgets the true bread and is tempted by junk food. Our faith is not just about spiritual matters; it is about the transformation of the world. The closer we stay to Jesus, the more we will bring a new economy of abundance to the world.  (Walter Brueggeman, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity)   Amen.

This is the second in a series that will continue through Lent (February 13 to March 31). 
1. An  Alternative Narrative: February 10