Lessons in Ethics and Gardening

Soon into my first year in theology school, I realized that the kind of learning cultivated at Candler goes beyond the surface. Not every class provides a life-changing learning experience, but something is bound to catch each student at his or her core, to be transformative.

For me, it happened this spring. In Introduction to Christian Ethics, we were each tasked with pursuing a moral question that held some weight for us personally. We weren’t just learning about ethics, we were doing ethics. I chose to write about food and agriculture-related justice issues as they relate to both the environment and poverty.

Part I: Describing the Problem

Environment: I began with the premise that our earth faces an ecological crisis. Climate change/environmental degradation are real, measurable, and furthermore, human-induced. Which leads to the second premise… the choices you and I make about the food we eat each day can have a profound impact on the rest of the biosphere. The interconnected issues of agriculture, environment, and food provide an opportunity for our response: to promote justice for the environment.

I’ve been a vegetarian for about a year now, choosing not to eat meat because of the sustainability issues surrounding the industry’s practices. This decision has posed a problem for me, on occasion, in the form of cognitive dissonance. I am aware of the privilege of being able to ask “what will I eat?” rather than “will I eat?” each day, and so my choosy eating habits feel a bit elitist. Which leads to the part about…

Poverty: Persons of lower socio-economic statuses don’t get to choose the option of organic produce. Eating healthy and “green” is a class-based privilege in America. Making the choice to eat food that is produced in a way that is environmentally sustainable sounds good, but if it is only an option for an exclusive population, is it really a just choice?

So, I found at this intersection of ethical issues a dual-responsibility: to promote justice for the environment and justice for people by providing accessible nutritious food that is produced in ways that care for the environment. Unfortunately, these two forms of justice can seem mutually exclusive. Making healthy produce accessible often involves mass-agribusiness methods of production (which aren’t good for the environment).

Part II: Asking the Question

We reach a difficult point when choices that cultivate different aspects of the good life come into conflict with one another. It is at this intersection that I thought, read, wrote, and studied all semester: What is our Christian response to be in the tension produced by these competing goods – accessibility of healthy food for all and agricultural/environmental sustainability?

Part III: Constructing a Response

By the end of a lot of research, reading, and thinking, I returned to my personal engagement with this moral question with a renewed commitment to eating food produced in ethical ways. Personally contributing to the consumer demand for ethically produced food still seems like a constructive personal response, even if it is not one that everyone can afford to make.

In the process of thinking through the question, I also sought a way to transform my communal experience of food. Rather than just exercising my personal privilege to make decisions about what I eat, I knew I could work to extend that right to all people.

In my local congregation, I am part of the “Green Team” that is leading a theological response to the issue of land care and food justice. This May, we planted an organic community garden. We have been tending the earth and plan to share our harvest with a local food-pantry. The goal is to extend access to healthy, sustainably-produced food to those in our urban community.

The garden is a literal and theological common ground for the participating community members as we reconnect to the source of our food and the Source of all life. There is hope for a system that allows for environmentally and economically sustainable agricultural practices, and it can begin with Christian communities and individuals committed to justice for land and people.

The learning that started in class continues to disrupt my everyday life. (Indeed, I am in the garden almost every day.) My first year at Candler is marked by learning that has cost much time and commitment, learning that continues to form my ministry, learning that transforms.

-Meredith Shaw

Meredith is 2nd year M.Div student from Lexington, KY. She ministers to youth at Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta and is an Assistant for Missional Congregations at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.


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