Mind the Mules: Theology and Justice in the Food Chain

David Breeden

I grew up on my family farm in the southern part of Illinois. There was nothing about it that was a golden age. And I’m NOT nostalgic about the good old days.

I don’t like carrying water from the well out back. I don’t like going to an outhouse at 4 a.m. in the snow. I don’t like the wasps that always seem to build nests in the outhouse in summer. I don’t like living in close proximity to snakes.

And I don’t like the suffering of animals. (Those of you who grew up on farms know that it’s the kid’s job to kill the chickens, because it takes some energy to catch ‘em.) I really don’t like killing chickens. Or hogs or cows. I don’t even like hunting. I hate the smell of hot blood. As far as farming is concerned I—as my grandmother would say—turned up in the wrong turnip patch.

The sad fact is that, for the most part, our society does not know where its food comes from; nor do we know the true cost of that food. The fact is, the way we produce our food has caused irreversible environmental damage; has created an insupportable food chain; and has destroyed a way of life.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s look at just once cause of this problem.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the law that provided most US workers with the right to collective bargaining, excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers, and by implication small farmers. This was an instance of realpolitik for the Roosevelt administration, since it needed to keep southern, plantation-owning Democrats in the coalition. But that compromise had a couple of disastrous consequences.

First, since in the 1930s a sizable number of African Americans were domestic servants, agricultural laborers, or small farmers, the compromise postponed the civil rights movement for another generation. It also insured the suffering of millions of migrant workers to this day, despite the best efforts of people like Caesar Chavez.

Second, the compromise insured that farm workers and small farmers would have no voice in government policy concerning agriculture. The consequences of THAT killed the family farm, damaged the environment, and is now killing the US population with bad food laced with corn derivatives.

I vividly remember the last time I saw my grandfather alive. He was sitting on his front porch, an old scraggly chicken resting between his feet. My grandfather was rubbing the chicken’s head with his cane. He respected living things — because they kept him and his family alive.... I learned that when I had to do harm or kill I should do it without hesitation because that is the kindest, quickest way. I learned to see the interdependent web and to live in it as lightly as I could.

When it comes to agriculture, no magic occurs: everything we eat is part of the soil and the sun. There is no free lunch. When we eat, we consume life, and the life we consume becomes part of us. We consume plants and animals...and the labor of the human beings who raised the plants and animals, processed the plants and animals, hauled the plants and animals, and served the plants and animals to us.

There’s nothing magic about our food, no matter the wonders of the advertising or the packaging. Though economies of scale and the welter of advertising obscure the reality, eating is a sacrificial act; a holy act: for us to eat, even when we are vegetarian, living things suffer and die.

Next time you sit down for a meal, consider praying an old Buddhist prayer that my teacher, the poet Allen Ginsberg, taught me:

We take this food
The labor of many people,
The suffering of many forms of life.
We wish to be worthy.


Excerpt of a sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church of Alton, IL, on March 30, 2008.