I observe two contradictory trends today: on the one hand, our culture really believes in the notion of privacy–perhaps best exemplified by Pierre Trudeau in 1969:
There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. I think that what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code.
He said this in regard to Bill C-150 which decriminalized homosexuality in Canada. On the other hand, many of us voluntarily relinquish our privacy through social media and our governments gather our private information without search warrants or probable cause. To understand how great the erosion of privacy rights is, just today I learned that the US border patrol, operating 30 miles inside the US border, arrested Greg Rosenberg an American of Armenian origin for refusing to cooperate with a search of his truck without probable cause. Then, after 19 days, the authorities just simply released Rosenberg dropping all charges.
Here in Canada, the Canadian government required that one out of five households fill out the 2011 Census “long form”, which included questions about what race we are and our sexual orientation. So much for the government staying out of the bedroom of Canadians. Gay activists were the most vocal complainers when the Tory government removed this form. Evidently, they thought that sexual orientation information in the hands of the government could only help their groups. A more pessimistic view of government would suggest that knowing personal data about people makes them vulnerable to special treatment. But I don’t want the attention of government and I would prefer to be invisible.
To wit, the Canadian government, as of July 1, 2014, has singled out certain people for special treatment in the area of banking privacy. The Stephen Harper government has passed legislation authorizing banks to collect information on people with alleged ties to the United States. The banks are to pass their financial data to the CRA which will in turn send that information to the IRS. On the face of it, this is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on several fronts. But clearly, the victims of this legislation will have their Canadian banking privacy violated with the authorization of Canadian law.
I want to discuss a theology of privacy tonight: Do Christians believe in privacy? What are the limits of privacy? In order to achieve this end, I want to discuss positive law and natural law as the theoretical basis of privacy.
Positive law as the basis of Privacy
Tyrants pass executive orders or edicts–their word has the effect of law. Legislatures write and pass bills into law. These man-made ordinances are called positive law. For example, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) is a law in Canada which governs privacy rights. However, if positive law were the basis of privacy, the government could just as easily create rules taking all privacy away–but that would not make such laws appropriate. So around the world, many societies have put into place safeguards against the violation of rights through positive laws. These declarations often imply that their texts do not so much create rights so much as explicitly set out and acknowledge human rights in order to prevent their violation by governments.
Natural law as the basis of Privacy
Natural law is the idea that nature endows human beings with rights. These rights include everything necessary to live freely–the ability to breath, eat, work, and not least of all, to accumulate wealth so as to meet those other needs. In the Judeo-Christian world-view, God endows humans with these rights. In atheistic world-view, man’s nature endows him with these rights. Since we need to breath, eat, as well as clothe and shelter ourselves, we have the right to obtain and accumulate. The right to privacy is ultimately the right to private property.
The Bible affirms the right to privacy in the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness, etc. These commandments prevent other human beings and associations of human beings such gangs, criminal syndicates, multi-national corporations, and governments, from violating private property rights.
Banking privacy and the Castle Doctrine
The concept of privacy has its basis in private ownership. If the authorization of the king to come into your house and make an inventory of your goods implies two basic premises: (1) the king is only making an inventory for his own purposes, in case he needs something; (2) ultimately what is in your house belongs to the king. Thus, the concept of privacy is long established in English law with the Castle Doctrine: A man’s house is his castle. The king has no business there, because what is in the castle belongs to its private owner. The limit to this rule, of course, is that if the authorities have reasonable cause to suspect that a crime has been committed, they may obtain a warrant to search the house.
Banking privacy is really thus an extension of the Castle Doctrine. The IRS has no right to know what is in the bank accounts of Canadians because we have the right to private property. Stephen Harper has procured a law written by human hands that takes away the privacy rights of certain Canadians, those with alleged ties to the United States–but he does not have the authority to do that. Privacy is a right given to us by God, enshrined on tablets of stone, written by God’s own finger.
This warrantless grab for information by the United States government in Canada is particularly foolish considering that even the Canadian government is not entitled to our bank account information except as it pertains to pertinent taxable events: e.g., dividends, interest, sales of stocks–these are reported on T5 and annual stock trading statements without also passing on the account balance or the account holdings. To obtain bank account information, even the Canadian government requires a warrant.
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Matthew 6:33 (KJV)
“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Mark 16:15-18 (KJV)
A missionary friend spent a very short week with us last Fall (2013), trying to learn my diabetic low carbohydrate high fat diet, alas, with less fruit than I’d hope. Still I always enjoy his company, and we have been friends since 1992–since Neuchatel, Switzerland. He was the one who first put me in contact with FATEB in Bangui, Central African Republic, where I taught for eight years as a visiting professor of New Testament and early Church history. At one point during the week, my friend said something quite interesting, and I paraphrase: “You mean it really does matter what I eat. I never put any concern into eating. You know, Seek ye first the Kingdom and all these things shall be added unto you.” “All these things” is a reference to necessities of life–food, clothing, shelter. But during that week I’d stressed to him that for diabetics, sugar and starch are like poison because they raise our blood sugar to levels that we can’t bring down and the excess blood sugar begins to damage our skin, our blood vessels, our eyes, our brains, our nerves, and whatever other bodily tissue there might be.
I think I shared his attitude while still young and healthy. As long as I was in the will of God and on the mission that he’d called me to do, I didn’t have to worry about what I ate, for God would protect me. Of course I wasn’t entirely consistent. I didn’t want to go to Africa and die of malaria or some other tropical disease. So I relied on medical science to keep me alive, and indeed, without the yellow fever vaccine, you can’t even enter the tropical countries of Africa. I went to the local Missionary Health Institute and received numerous shots and two prescriptions: mefloquine for malaria and Cipro for traveler’s diarrhea. So was this the sign of my lack of total faith in my reliance in medicine instead of God’s healing power? Doesn’t the long ending of Mark promise protection to God’s missionaries against serpents and poisons? One would think that promise would also protect us from drinking Typhoid laden water or the bites from malaria or yellow-fever infested mosquitos. Perhaps.
Peter and Cathy with Peter’s housekeeper, wife and children Bangui, Central African Republic, February 2005
But St. Paul left Trophimus sick in Miletus (2 Tim 4.20). Even Paul himself suffered bodily affliction (Gal 4.13). Paul says also that the grace of God means that we can do all things in Christ Jesus who gives us the strength, and that means to prosper or to suffer want (Phil 4.10-13). So Paul, arguably the greatest missionary of all time, knew both want and illness. Timothy may also have suffered from bad water (1 Tim 5.3), given his frequent illness–Was that traveler’s diarrhea? Ultimately, God’s protection is for our eternal well-being (e.g., Matt 10.28); but he allows us temporal suffering. This temporal suffering can be the most excruciating: I heard the story of an orphaned missionary kid, whose brothers died of malaria in a Canadian hospital and whose parents died in a airline crash off the coast of West Africa. And during my first trip to Central African Republic, one of my students said that the grave yards were full of the first missionaries who died shortly after arriving in Africa–but nevertheless, the African church was grateful for their sacrifice on behalf of the gospel.
I am reflecting on this issue as a I continue to suffer debilitating tendinitis, brought on by my putting something deadly in my mouth, Cipro. Somehow, Mark 16.15-18 doesn’t apply to me. Instead, as a diabetic, I have to worry about the food that I eat. Instead, I have to do the Wahls Protocol in my attempt to heal the damage that exposure to toxic foods and pharmaceuticals have done to my body. I am a victim, and this is partly as a result of answering the call of God, for I wouldn’t have taken toxic drugs like Lariam (mefloquine) and Cipro if I hadn’t taught in Africa.
So my conclusion is this: We shouldn’t see the biblical passages like Matthew 6.33 and Mark 16.15-18 as promising protection from all harm, especially the harm that we do to ourselves by eating junk food or by exposing ourselves to toxins. Ultimately, this means we are still responsible for what we put in our mouths, and if we eat badly, then we shouldn’t expect God to protect us. We shouldn’t reject wisdom and thus confuse presumption with faith. Besides, if God promises to provide food for us, our faith should be strong enough to ask God for nourishing healthy food, and we should not view food that is ultimately going to ruin our health as God’s intended provision. God gives good gifts to his children (Matt 7.9-12; RSV): “Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
An obesity epidemic plagues the world today. Some of my poorest friends are obese, and they often feel helpless to do anything about it. I have obese friends from Africa in countries where a typical salary, if one even has a job, is around $100 per month. No matter how little they eat, they have trouble losing weight. But in our minds today, even in the church, we associate gluttony with obesity and overeating. But in the Bible there are these stories in which a very wealthy person feasts but refuses to share with the needy. One of these stories is 1 Sam 25, the story of Nabal.
One of the most important gluttons in the Bible, in my opinion, is Nabal. Nabal was very rich, and he had a shrewd wife. He himself wasn’t as smart as his wife. While David led a group of rebels, he asked Nabal for aid. David figured he had something coming from Nabal, since he’d protected Nabal’s life and property. So he sent some of his men to request some food. But Nabal refused. Abigail heard and took some food to David and pleaded with David not to do something foolish by killing her stupid husband. David relented from his wrath. But when Abigail informed Nabal of what David intended and how she narrowly averted Nabal’s destruction, Nabal died, evidently of myocardial infarction.
So Nabal’s sin is not his overeating but his failure to acknowledge the service that David had done for him by sharing with him and his men. Even his own wife recognized his feasting in the presence of very dangerous men to be an extremely foolish thing to do.
Should we consider an obese person a glutton if that person is very willing to share and is generous towards the poor?
An African friend once told me that in his home province an elderly man learned that his son had killed a chicken and had eaten the gizzard. Now in that culture, it is a custom to offer the gizzard to the most honoured person in the family, and the father considered this act by his son to be disrespectful and so asked the constabulary to arrest his son–for eating a chicken gizzard! This seems to me to come close to the Old Testament understanding of the term “glutton”.
“Glutton” is a term that appears in the Old Testament a few times. The Hebrew term, זלל (zalal), appears in Proverbs 23:20-21:
Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
This appears in a context of admonitions to children, telling them to obey instruction of their elders, as also Prov. 28.7:
A discerning son heeds instruction, but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father.
The Proverbs passages may depend on common understanding of the term זלל that we find also in Deut 21:18-21:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
Overeating may be an aspect of what it means to commit זלל, but it is very much a sin associated with rebelling against the commands of God and against the instruction of parents. Gluttony seems less a question of eating so much that it leads to obesity but rather of eating in a manner which does not honour other people, especially one’s parents.
In late 2012, Cathy asked me asked me to put some carriage lights up on our garage. In the evenings after doing this work, my feet were in pain which seemed disproportionate to the level of exertion. Not only so, but I fell off the ladder twice and also stumbled on the last step leading down to the garage. Now, I wondered if this lack of co-ordination could have anything to do with diabetes—a disease that runs in my family which I had been worried about getting. So I did some internet research and soon found that I had a problem called peripheral neuropathy, which is degenerative damage to peripheral nerves esp. in the hands and feet. It is a common diabetic symptom associated with uncontrolled blood sugars. Peripheral neuropathy causes loss of proprioception—and for years I stumbled going up steps because neuropathy makes you unable to sense where your feet are. Eventually peripheral neuropathy leads to amputation. So once I figured out where my diabetes was leading me, to loss of limb, I freaked out, and decided to stop eating carbohydrate laden foods—because I figured that carbs were the basis of the problem, and I found Dr. Bernsteins Diabetes Solution very early on confirming my decision to restrict carbohydrate.
It is an interesting phenomenon to eat low carbohydrate high fat in a society which fears fat and in which the majority of “foods” are highly processed. When shopping, I spend nearly all my time in the outside aisles (meat, vegetables, high fat dairy, eggs) and only get coconut oil and coffee from the middle aisles of the grocery store. My food culture has a name: “Paleo”.
This alternate culture that I practice might cause problems for me when I travel or go out to eat at a friend’s place. Once eating at the house of an MP, the honorable Parliamentarian importuned me to eat an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, but I strayed not from my menu. I don’t see such things as food any more. This clash of culture has been even more difficult for others: I know of one diabetic lady whose mother-in-law makes a fuss whenever she comes over and refuses to eat her high carbohydrate fare: She makes a remark like, “I guess she thinks our food isn’t good enough for her.” One of my African colleagues says that while he agrees with low-carb culture it clashes with his African culture—he says that his fellow African Christians become offended if you refuse to eat their high carbohydrate offerings. It does no good to explain that carbohydrate restriction is necessary for health. They will not accept refusal, says my friend. But wheat and sugar are causing new epidemics of diabetes in African countries today.
Clash of Two food cultures in our readings
Now it is interesting in three of the Bible passages that we read today that there is clearly a clash of two cultures going on: Gentile and Jewish culture. Jewish people ate a pretty strict Kosher diet then as they do today. Not only did the meat have to be of specific kind (from animals with cloven hooves and that chews their cud), but it had to be killed in a specific way, so as to drain the blood from the animal. Consequently strict Jews would refuse to eat in the houses of Gentiles. Furthermore, Gentiles would eat meat sacrificed to idols, for in antiquity, most of the meat sold in the market was sacrificed to idols. Furthermore, they often associated eating and drinking with licentious sexual practices: the Romans and Greeks, especially the noble classes, regularly took advantage of their slaves, both male and female, after having a nice evening meal with wine. This painting in Pompeii probably depicts the level of decadence of the Roman society:
Clearly, Roman dining presented a cultural clash with the Jewish standards of the day. Both food and the behaviour of the diners presented a problem.
In this context, gentiles had come to faith in Jesus Christ, and their teachers, Paul and Barnabas, did not think it was necessary to impose upon them the Jewish law. But when Jews from Jerusalem came to the church in Antioch, they began to insist that these people follow Jewish laws. So Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss this with the powers that be. The result was that the council of Jerusalem in Acts ch. 15 only imposed four requirements, to abstain from:
(1) what has been sacrificed to idols
(3) what is strangled
These instructions would have been the minimum requirements making of it possible for Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to dine together. Why was that necessary? Because in the early church, the Lord’s Supper (i.e., Holy Communion) wasn’t just going up to take a wafer and a sip of wine, but a sacred meal that Christians ate together under one roof. The Jerusalem apostles and Paul were trying to create a single unified church which worshiped together, not a fragmented movement, which had separate Gentile and Jewish factions. The Jerusalem Council made it possible for people of two cultures to worship and dine under one roof. Both groups would have to make compromises so that neither would be overlooked or offended.
This compromise resulted in a certain tension for Paul. Paul had internalized the view that the whole of creation was the Lord’s and therefore nothing in it is evil in and of itself. So also Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark that uncleanness, sin isn’t a matter of what one eats but what comes out of the heart. So, Mark explains that Jesus thereby declared all foods clean. But this freedom to eat any food remained a problem for Jewish Christians. Paul, in his attempt to be all things to all men, would eat with Gentiles but not ask whether the food was sacrificed to an idol (1 Cor 10.23-32). All things were created by God—as the Psalmist also declares in our reading, “O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures.” But knowing that food wasn’t intrinsically harmful wasn’t good enough. What if two people were eating together and one took offense or would stumble because of what was on his dinner plate? Paul says that the stronger brother must out of love cede his freedom and make concessions for the weaker brother—this is what love requires. In Romans 14, then, the weaker brother who could not partake of certain foods and for whom some days were more important than others was undoubtedly the Jewish Christians, who had very strong scruples about days (e.g., the Sabbath) and about foods. So Paul says to the Gentile Christians, make sure that you don’t offend your Jewish brothers by what you eat. So compromise was the course of the day: the Jew would compromise by eating with Gentiles, and the Gentiles would compromise by not putting anything on the menu that would offend Jews. Nor would the Gentiles continue their typical loose morals of having sex with slave woman or young slave boy—rather they would practice monogamy (a man would have one wife, a woman one husband). Through these restrictions, one church and one faith was possible. The ruling principle was one of loving one another, not putting out stumbling blocks, because that is more important than food.
Now let’s bring these readings to the 21st century and try to figure out some principles and applications that might help us to think about food in a biblical manner, particularly as it affects us as a church. Today, we have one dominant culture of food, let’s call it the Standard Western Diet, consisting largely of highly process foods with a few meats, fruits and vegetables thrown in. But there are many subcultures in our Canadian context. For example, we have many Iranians in our area, and as most are Muslims, they would typically eat no pork or alcohol; we are bordering on Thornhill with a large Jewish population, many of whom eat strictly Kosher meat; we also have a large number of vegetarians and vegans in our culture. And also now as I mentioned, I belong to a growing Paleo movement. There is also a growing number of people with severe food intolerances, such as people who go into anaphylactic shock around peanuts; but there are other food intolerances: diabetics are intolerant of carbs; many others are intolerant of gluten; alcoholics are intolerant of alcohol. So in light of these Scriptures readings, how should we think about food in this multi-cultural context?
Principles of Food in the Church
1. All foods are clean because they are part of God’s creation. No one sins only because they eat a certain food. If I eat only saturated fat, and you eat wheat, and vegan abstains from every sort of animal product, no one of us sins for that that reason alone.
2. The church should be focused on unity and compromise when it comes to food. If today some Muslims and some Jews walked into church and were baptised, we wouldn’t start a separate Halal service and a separate Kosher service, but I’m sure we could find a way in which all of the Christians of differing cultures could worship together so that we could remain in fellowship and Holy Communion together. I will therefore never be the founder of Paleo church. And for that matter, our church is not a Standard Canadian Diet church, as the little sandwiches and pork sausage rolls after a funeral would suggest. We are Christ’s church and we all belong to him.
3. Love should be the guiding principle around food. So we should do nothing that would injure someone: Paul says, “If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”
Applications specifically at our church
1. Holy Communion: (a) I am pretty sure no one here is offended by the small amount of wine in the cup. But if we had Christians of Muslim background come to our church, we would perhaps have to discuss this with him or her. (b) The bread that we use, however, may a present a problem for those who are eating gluten free. It may seem like a small amount, but let me talk about Dr. Terry Wahls: she has secondary progressive MS and she has reversed her symptoms through eating a strict Paleo and gluten free diet. The Youtube video of her TedX talk, “Minding your mitochondria”, has gone viral with over 1.8 million hits.
Terry Wahls says that if she eats even the tiniest amount of gluten, for example in a sauce at a restaurant, her MS pain comes back in her face. We have gluten intolerant people in this congregation. So if we out of love want to make sure that we do not injure people, we would do well to have gluten free alternative. Of course, I am not picking on our church alone here—that’s not my intention. But I think that love requires that the knowledge of the negative effects of modern wheat (cf. Wheat Belly). Love would require that we rethink what communion bread should consist of.
2. Coffee Time and other occasions where we serve or consume food as a church: This is a mixed problem to me because I see our coffee time as especially important for conviviality and fellowship. I remember my first few Sundays at here and how people here were so welcoming. I am also thankful for the great and consistent effort of the people who provide the coffee and accompaniment; for I know that your hearts are in the right place.
A good effort is made to try to welcome those who have food intolerances: (1) Often I see gluten free items on the table; (2) Cheese and vegies are also often available for those who do not like or can’t tolerate sweets. I can see an attempt to provide alternatives and that is definitely within the spirit of compromise that our Scriptures mention.
However, I wonder if we put several selections of hard liquor:
What impression would we have of that. I wonder why we don’t do that? We have a lot of alcoholics in our society, so this may actually injure someone who has a problem with alcohol. Also, it may impair us on our drive home, and make it impossible for us to have a very good afternoon except to sleep off the alcohol. But what about a coffee-time table that looks like this:
Gluten to a celiac is like peanuts to a person allergic to peanuts. Carbohydrate and sugar are to a diabetic like alcohol to an alcoholic. Well, I think we all know that such food is fattening, and most of us have some weight to lose. Also it is commonly accepted that sugar often alters the behaviour of children for the worse. With such offerings, do churches put a stumbling block before weaker brothers and thus injure them? I leave you only with my own testimony: I love the coffee time, and the opportunity for fellowship. But I used also to love the sweets and I would go home often with a bag full of Tim Hortons, you know the one that someone used to bring. Well, this is what happened to me after church on Sunday: I would fix dinner, Cathy and I would eat, then I would have an afternoon nap and wake up at around 6:00 pm. Yes, the carbs regularly knocked me out—without them today, I nap most of the time only about 10-30 minutes. Furthermore, I reached a top weight of about 260 and 44 inch waist, and the hospitality of our church made its contribution, to be sure.
Well, this story isn’t about me. It isn’t about our church alone either. It is really about asking ourselves what hospitality could possibly require in our culture. The early Christians literally forbade certain cultural foods in the context of church, even though both Jesus and Paul said that they were not intrinsically sinful to eat—they did so because some people were weak, and could handle neither eating them nor being in the presence of those who did.
I don’t want to prescribe a certain action. But I believe God would have us open up a dialogue. Are we able to think through the issue of food so that our love and our concern for everyone at church, both regulars and visitors, shines out? How can we benefit as a church from dialogue: Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church has lost a collective 250,000 lbs on diet similar to mine: low carb low fat (I do low carb high fat). I am told on good authority that our church also did 3D years ago—a church weight loss program. I am hoping that we can do something here again to help folks lose weight. If Rick Warren can lose 65 lbs, and his church 250,000 lbs, that encourages us to try something as a church.