I arrived home with my paper sack of organic vegetables that I picked up every Wednesday. The bag, as always, was bursting with crisp greens and I am eager to rush home to see what is in the bottom of the bag. This particular week I uncover beets, carrots, cabbage, sugar snap peas, and a zucchini. I set them aside and raise a large bunch of freshly cut basil to my nose to breathe in its sweet perfume. I am blessed.
The vegetables made their way to my home each week from the Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Massachusetts. I received a parcel from late spring with mountains of fresh greens through the fall when gourds and pumpkins signaled the end of the harvest. I enjoyed buying and eating that food because it is absolutely delicious and healthy. Perhaps more importantly my joy comes from knowing it is organic, grown locally, and my participation supports local farmers and agriculture. That particular farm also employs those formerly incarcerated and trains them to become certified organic farmers.
I’m told that's eating ethically. Eating ethically? I’ve taken ethics courses. I don’t remember being lectured on the ethics of what we eat. Paying a fair price to the grower and worker, supporting farms in our community, avoiding the devastating effects of pesticides on our bodies and our environment, and saying no thank you to genetically modified foods are some examples of eating ethically.
Could eating ethically be a theological concern? Does our Unitarian Universalist faith have anything to do with what we eat? Absolutely.
One of the principles that Unitarian Universalists live by is the respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. That means we understand that all of creation is connected and that we should consider how we care for and use our natural resources. Easier said than done. Much debate surrounds the pros and cons of eating ethically and folks like me can get plain old confused and wonder if we are doing the right thing.
Respecting the interdependent web of existence is what is right and must be a guiding principle. Within our faith we are asked to consider how our decisions and actions touch one another, our earth, and all that is the miracle of creation. It is our task to understand how we are to embrace that guiding principle. It is when we begin to truly honor that principle that we discover what we eat is an issue of faith. Our choice with what we nourish our bodies with and how we come by it speaks volumes about our respect for life and our understanding that we are indeed interdependent creatures.
Ethical eating recognizes the moral dimensions of our food choices. The ways our societies raise, buy, and consume our food has direct effects on the earth, plants and animals, and humans who work to make our food available. Rev. Mark Hayes warns us “We engage some of the most challenging social issues of our time: hunger and malnutrition, free and fair trade, labor and exploitation, animal rights and human responsibilities, neocolonialism and globalization, environmental degradation and climate change.”
I have a story for you told by my colleague the Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer of Rochester, NY. It is a tale of two heads of lettuce.
One head of lettuce was grown in Salinas Valley, CA. It was grown according to conventional, industrial farming methods by a multi-national corporation. They used chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow it, low wage migrant workers to quickly and efficiently harvest it and get it into trucks, which drove 2,500 miles from Salinas, CA to Streetsboro, OH. She bought the lettuce in the Giant Eagle market in Streetsboro for $2.19 per pound. That lettuce required 4000 calories of fossil fuels to get to us today. The second head of lettuce was grown according to sustainable, small scale farming methods in Holmes County, OH by an Amish farmer who used natural fertilizers and no pesticides to grow it. The Amish farmer, or someone else in his family or community, harvested the lettuce. It was put on a truck and driven 67 miles from Holmes County, OH to Cuyahoga Falls, OH. I bought it at Krieger’s market in Cuyahoga Falls for $2.39 per pound. That lettuce required fewer than 100 calories of fossil fuels to get to us today. How do we decide which head of lettuce is the better deal? Perhaps the larger question is as Unitarian Universalists what should our moral response look like?
In his sermon What My Grandchildren Would Want Me to Preach the Rev. Scott Taylor tells us “Imagine having a conversation with your child, grandchild, great grandchild or a member of a younger generation. They begin to understand the disastrous world that they have inherited. They question their inheritance. You might answer: It’s really complicated. I’m only now understanding it myself. We weren’t really thinking about it like you and your friends do. It’s not that we didn’t care about how it would impact you; we weren’t really thinking about you at all. Oh that’s sounds terrible, you’ll say. I don’t mean that the way it sounds. Again, it’s complicated. It wasn’t personal; we just didn’t think that far ahead. It was more like a blind spot. Our focus was mostly on our daily living, which felt hard and overly complicated as it was. We had our hands full just trying to think about and find the time to spend with your mother and your aunt and uncle. I’m not trying to defend it. I just don’t want you to think we were callous or selfish. It’s more like we were overwhelmed. And when you’re overwhelmed it’s hard to have perspective. I mean, a lot was going on. The whole issue of how our military might was destabilizing the world and also undermining our ability to take care of basic services like public schools, and health care was just beginning to dawn on us. And I can’t say I regret focusing on that. Without the anti-war effort and the radical changes we accomplished there, things would be a whole lot worse than they are now.
And they would respond: But I don’t get that. You mean you could only handle one thing at a time? Didn’t global warming also feel huge? Your reply: No, of course it felt huge. And it’s not that we could only handle one thing at a time. That’s not what I mean. Again it’s complicated. I guess what I’m saying is that we knew it was a huge and scary problem, we just couldn’t feel it. What we felt was worn out. You’re used to things as they are now. These “little things,” as you call them, just didn’t feel little to us. The idea of a smaller house, going without air conditioning, voluntarily paying $5 for gas or finding the $20,000 to install solar panels just seemed too much and too big to wrap our minds and to-do lists around. And nobody else was really doing it. And more than that: we were hopeful. Ironically that’s a part of it too. We weren’t just worn out and overwhelmed with our personal lives, we actually believed the tide was changing, that bigger systems would begin to kick in and stimulate the changes for us. They’ll wrinkle their brow at this point showing confusion, so you try to explain. Scientists, you see, weren’t just telling us that we were on the verge of causing irreversible and dangerous climate change, they were also telling us we were on the verge of a technological break-through that would soon make alternative energy sources available and affordable... I think the best way to put it is to say that our optimism and our hope, well, it sort of betrayed us. We had hope in technology. We had hope in politicians. And we had hope in our market system. It really felt like they’d save us without us having to do much. There was a saying back then: “Let go and let God.” I guess we saw science, politics and the market as our gods -- more powerful and knowing than us tiny normal folk. So we gladly turned the problem over to them and waited for them to change us.”
A difficult conversation. But a conversation we should begin to prepare for because the need for an explanation to the generations after us is inevitable.
The Seventh Generation Principle is based on an ancient Iroquois philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. That philosophy is currently somewhat overused as a “green” marketing ploy to sell everything from dish soap to cars. The first recorded concepts of the Seventh Generation Principle date back to the writing of “The Great Law of Iroquois Confederacy,” although the actual date is undetermined. The Great Law of Iroquois Confederacy formed the political, ceremonial, and social fabric of the Five Nation Confederacy (later Six). The Great Law of Iroquois Confederacy is also credited as being a contributing influence on the American Constitution due to Benjamin Franklin’s great respect for the Iroquois. The Seventh Generation Principle today is generally referred to regarding being made about our energy, water, and natural resources, and ensuring those decisions are sustainable for seven generations in the future. And so using this principle to guide us we must ask ourselves what are we willing to leave as our lasting legacy?
Making good choices about what and how we eat matters. It matters to our bodies and to the planet. And like many of the choices we face — what’s good for us is often what’s good for the Earth. By choosing to eat more locally produced foods and more whole foods, we’re also choosing to do a little less damage to the Earth by our living here. “Choosing our food may not be so easy -- if we want to live in right relationship with Earth and all its inhabitants.” says Vicki Talbot. “The grocery store may not be that glorious paradise after all”. So by what principles will we choose to live by?
Ironically we, as Unitarian Universalists, have seven. Take your pick. Much attention has been given to our 7th principle. We know that industrialized agriculture as it now exists flies in the face of that principle and threatens the interdependent web. It causes massive pollution, reduces biodiversity, and destroys land integrity at an alarming rate. But, let’s not overlook how our other principles fit into the equation of ethical compassionate and sustainable food choices. When we consider the inherent worth and dignity of every person, how can we ignore the family in a poor village in Asia whose culture has been degraded with their land when it was taken over by a multinational corporation to produce wheat for snacks for us? What about the migrant workers here in our own country who are exposed regularly to dangerous pesticides and then can’t get decent medical care? Don’t these people have worth and dignity equal to ours?
I’m not suggesting that you return home today and get rid of everything in fridge and cupboard. Well maybe the Barilla pasta. There's no love lost there. There are simple things we can do that will better equip us in answering that question asked by the seven generations after us: What did you do? At my request Susan Gross has offered an insert listing local farmers markets that we all have access to. The insert is designed to take home and to post it where you can have this resource readily available to you. If we all commit to supporting those farmers by buying a percentage of our food from their farms we can make a difference. We will also be able to harvest fresh produce from our garden here on campus. Marika and Howie Stone have lovingly donated starter plants and the growing season has begun. Mary Reynolds, wife of Wayne Reynolds, recently deceased, has earmarked donations made in his name to beautify our campus and to support the garden. But we need your help to sustain it, harvest it, and partake in its fruits. You can join me in supporting a coffee hour that I have signed up for in late October where the only food that will be on the table will be from local farms. Let us consider investing in a compost barrel that we can use and open up to the North Palm Beach community. We can’t be the only people concerned about these issues.
I’m making an official call to action to our Board, the Social Action Committee, and the Congregation to bring the Green Sanctuary Program offered by our association to our Congregation. This program offers us a framework and a way to live out our stewardship for the earth.
In his book, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben tells us “It’s so much easier to picture the defiant future, for it’s merely the extension of our current longings. I’ve spent my whole life wanting more, so its hard for me to imagine less in any but a negative way. But that imagination is what counts. Changing the way we think is at the heart of the question. If it ever happens, the actions will follow.”
May actions follow our questioning. May we prepare ourselves to offer the generations an answer to their difficult question that describes us as standing up, stepping forward, and taking action. May we answer the call and take first steps toward sustainability and witness justice for the earth.
May it be so.
Seventh Generation, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sep 29, 2013.