The Law of Love: Jesus, Paul and the Ethics of Eating
Would Paul support contemporary efforts at ethical consumption, or would he see it as a barrier to ‘the law of the spirit of life’?
What should be immediately clear from the above discussion (see reference above), but what nevertheless still needs to be stressed, is that Paul is not at all interested in what we might call ‘purity’. He shows absolutely no concern that what you eat or drink might somehow put you on the wrong side of God.
From my observation, there is sometimes a real danger that discussion of ethical consumption amongst Christians can implicitly assume – without ever quite articulating it – that the goal is ‘not doing the wrong thing’; or to put it more bluntly, staying clean. Perhaps, even more worrying, the goal can even subtly shift to being seen to do ‘the right thing’.
When ethical consumption becomes a code for ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, then it must be rejected. For one thing, it would require all those proxies we have developed to guide ethical consumption to always be ‘right’ all the time (an impossible ask), or else the whole exercise becomes futile. Moreover, the idea that in this mind-bogglingly complex global economy we could somehow achieve a status of being ‘pure’, no longer implicated in wrongs of the world, is delusional.
But more seriously, as both Paul and Jesus understood, purity codes have the effect of creating division between people – of delineating those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’, and further leading those who are ‘in’ to become judgemental of those who are not. And that is one thing that Jesus and Paul won’t countenance: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?’ (Rom 14:4); ‘Judge not, so that you may not be judged’ (Matt 7:1).
More than once I have heard new converts to ethical consumption agonise over whether they should or should not drink the coffee at their friends’ house, knowing that it is not Fair Trade. From a Pauline perspective, this is a non-issue: drinking a cup of Nescafe (that your friend has already bought) is not going to hurt anyone, however, refusing the hospitality of a friend (or anyone for that matter) has more serious relational implications. In our household we have made a decision not to buy any Nestle products because of their woeful corporate record, but it would be rude, ungrateful and plain wasteful not to accept and enjoy a box of Nestle chocolates that someone, acting out of kindness, has bought for us. The great spiritual danger of purity codes is that they become a substitute for, or even a barrier to, faith, that small-but-huge word that Paul uses to describe the ongoing process by which humans struggle to be oriented to the God of love.
So a concern for purity – something that supposedly keeps us on the right side of God – is not a reason that Paul would endorse for exploring ethical consumption; however, there are some much more substantive reasons to take up an ethical code of conduct in consumption, and these align closely with Paul’s primary concerns.
As noted above, foundational to Paul’s instructions on eating is the relational implications of people’s decisions: ‘For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but justice, peace and joy’ (Rom 14:17). In this quote Paul is drawing on the big Hebrew concepts of justice/righteousness and peace/shalom (right relationship) that fill all his writings. It represents his conviction that through the coming of Jesus, God is undertaking the work of putting the world to rights – of establishing right relationship between people, between people and God, and between people and creation – and that those who are ‘in Christ’ are called to participate in this great shalom-making purpose (see 2 Cor 5:17-20).
One of the great accomplishments of people such as Nick Ray, the Ethical Consumer Group and others like them, has been to lift the veil on the consumer economy and show how, through our acts of consumption, we are in relationship with people all over the world, and with the earth itself. And the reason this incredibly dense web of relationships is so ingeniously hidden from our view is that so much of it is exploitative and alienating, the opposite of justice and shalom. Through the frameworks of ethical consumption, however, we can, acting out of love and from our own free will, choose to restrict our own consumption and limit our own gratification in order to make the best choice that we can for the sake of our neighbour, and for the sake of God’s good earth upon which we all depend. Surely this is an idea of which Paul would thoroughly approve.
When acting from this basis, we are acting according to what Paul calls ‘the law [Torah] of the spirit of life’. Not only is it a choice of love, it is a choice of conscience, which is another way of saying it is a choice to integrate belief and action, and this also is critical for Paul. Knowing what we now know about our consumer system, how can we now read Jesus’ challenging response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and continue to ignore the implications of our consumption for others? ‘Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith’ (Rom 14:22-23).
But this is exactly where we need teaching and guidance, because the complexity of the consumer system so effectively obscures what a choice for love might look like. The frameworks and proxies that have been developed around ethical consumption offer practical guidance - yes, a kind of Torah - for negotiating these complexities in our day-to-day choices. Indeed, by invoking the comparison to Torah, we very usefully gain a sense of the benefit, but also the dangers and limitations, of trying to live by such frameworks.
So let’s embrace ethical consumption frameworks for what they are, and not imagine that they are something more. They are partial, contextual improvisations that help us to more easily make good choices in a global economy that is horribly broken and horrendously complex. They are not infallible and they are not the last word on what is right or good, and neither should we expect them to be. Tools such as the Ethical Guide are based upon the best information available, however, such information is never perfect or complete, and is changing rapidly. Certification codes such as Fair Trade and Certified Organic are systems which endeavour to guarantee better treatment of people and the land, however, all human systems are liable to break down somewhere along the line. Don’t be dismayed or even surprised when some certification code is shown to be flawed in some way – they too will always need scrutiny, critique and improvement. Don’t let our inability to make ‘the perfect choice’ (whatever that is) stop us from making the best choices that we have available to us. What the world needs of us and what God hopes for us is not that we attain moral perfection, but that we form habits in trying to choose what is good, acting out of love for our neighbour and for the earth, even if we sometimes fail, and even if we sometimes just can’t quite resist slipping down to the local fast food chain …