Gluttony

by Kendra Hotz & Matthew Mathews

We often think of gluttony as simply eating too much, but the Christian tradition has used the term to name many ways in which our relationship with food is distorted. How we relate to food, to one another, and to God is so intimately connected that the Christian tradition has named gluttony, the distortion of those relationships, one of seven deadly sins. What, how, and with whom we eat are never only about meeting our body’s basic need for fuel; they are also about how we enact human community together, how we live in and value God’s creation, and how we honor God.

In this essay we will use a definition of gluttony derived from Gregory the Great, a sixth-century pope who first named gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins, to explore a healthy and holy relationship with food. Gregory’s treatment of gluttony has been handed down in the Christian tradition in summary form: gluttony involves eating “too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily, or too much.”[1] We’ll start by looking at why we eat “too much,” “too soon,” and “too greedily” and conclude with some reflections on what it means to eat “too delicately.”

To recover the concept of gluttony as a way of naming what has gone wrong in our relationship with food, we must acknowledge that the term is likely to be misunderstood. First, naming gluttony as a vice is not about ridiculing or stigmatizing anyone, especially those who struggle with obesity.[2] If we fail to consider broader forces such as food production and policy alongside personal choices about diet and exercise, then our efforts to understand obesity and its relationship to gluttony become nothing but finger-wagging judgmentalism untouched by the grace of the gospel. Second, naming gluttony as a vice is not about discouraging us from taking deep pleasure in our meals. Food is not the enemy; it is a gift from God that has the capacity to nourish and delight us, and to draw us into trusting relationships with others. To long for food comes with being a creature; it is a mark of our finitude that expresses our dependence on God, our interconnectedness with the plants and animals that become our food, and our need for human community.

Two Meals Observed

A Feast with Friends

A fine seafood gumbo begins with a thick, dark roux. You stand over the pot stirring the flour and oil constantly until they become a single, dark-chocolate colored sauce. Then, through the mysterious somatic intuition of a good cook, you recognize the moment just before the roux begins to burn and stir in the onions, celery, and bell peppers. When the roux and the vegetables are so acquainted that they are nearly indistinguishable, you add Andouille sausage, spices, and stock and simmer it for hours until all the disparate flavors become a single, rich, complex flavor. Finally you add okra and shrimp, allowing their delicate textures to mingle with the heavier base until the last moment when you stir in filé powder, which thickens the soup to a stew, so that you arrive at that feast for the senses that is gumbo.

That is how seafood gumbo begins, but for it to become truly exquisite other ingredients are needed: bland rice, a crisp salad on the side, and community gathered. We have shared this meal often with friends. We look forward to preparing this meal with our own hands because at such a feast we are woven into the human community, drawn into deep gratitude for the good gifts of the earth, and supplied with food that provides enough to satisfy our needs and delight our senses. The experience is divine.

A Purse-Proud Banquet

“Purse-proud etiquette surrounds a householder at his dinner with a mob of standing slaves. The master eats more than he can hold, and with monstrous greed loads his belly until it is stretched and at length ceases to do the work of a belly; so that he is at greater pains to discharge all the food than he was to stuff it down. All this time the poor slaves may not move their lips, even to speak. … All night long they must stand about, hungry and dumb.

“When we recline at a banquet, one slave mops up the disgorged food, another crouches beneath the table and gathers up the left-overs of the tipsy guests. Another carves the priceless game birds; with unerring strokes and skilled hand he cuts choice morsels along the breast or the rump. Hapless fellow, to live only for the purpose of cutting fat capons correctly… Think also of the poor purveyors of food, who note their masters’ tastes with delicate skill, who know what special flavours will sharpen their appetite, what will please their eyes, what new combinations will rouse their cloyed stomachs, what food will excite their loathing through sheer satiety, and what will stir them to hunger on that particular day.”[3] (Seneca, Letter 47)

Two meals, both with great food. One is a feast; the other a “purse-proud” banquet.[4] What makes them different? The first meal is prepared by friends for friends. It is the product of intimate acquaintance with the gumbo’s ingredients and appreciation for the Cajun and Creole cultures that produced this dish. The second meal is prepared by slaves for masters. The variety of the dishes served is designed to display the ostentatious wealth of the master. Those who serve stay silent and hungry, and those who are served find that the abundance of the food does not satisfy so much as sicken. This meal is an enactment of gluttony, a spectacle of excess rooted in domination of other people and disregard for the abundance of nature’s gifts.

Converting from “Too Much, Too Soon, and Too Greedily” to Simplicity

In all of human food history, the people of the industrialized world may live in the only era in which, for the sake of our health, we must be careful not to eat too much. Most people in most civilizations lived in fear of not having enough—a single day without wages or a single crop failure could push a family into starvation. The Roman masters at the banquet displayed unimaginable wealth precisely through their ability to waste food. They had so much that they could eat themselves into misery and drop perfectly good food on the floor. They ate too much. They were gluttons. They were also the exception. Most people of that time were more like the slaves who stood by “hungry and dumb.” They worked, and hoped their labors would be enough to supply their daily bread.

Our world is very different. In the industrialized nations, most of us do not live in fear of famine. Our food system supplies nearly twice as many calories on a daily basis as the average person needs to be nourished and satisfied.[5] After ages of living under the threat of scarcity, it seems that we in the industrialized world have arrived in an age of bounty and even surplus. The irony, of course, is that now our health is threatened by our abundance. L. Shannon Jung points out that “we carry [these excess calories] around our waists, our hips, our bellies, and our bottoms. That, of course, produces other problems: respiratory disease, heart attacks, and diabetes.”[6] Like the Romans, we eat too much and are eating ourselves sick. We are gluttons.

Gluttony in an age of abundance, though, takes a different form and carries a different meaning. If we look carefully at our impulses, we see three interlocking factors that contribute to it. First, we eat “too much,” as is evident in the size of our portions and plates. We also eat too much that is unhealthy, like apple pies instead of apples. Second, we eat “too soon,”[7] that is, we eat too often, reaching for comfort foods when we find ourselves bored or anxious. We eat too often because eating is too easy and food is always readily available, just around the corner at the convenience mart or fast food drive-thru. Third, we eat “too greedily,” gobbling our food down quickly without taking time to savor it or to allow ourselves to feel full. The impulse to eat too often is closely connected to eating too greedily; the fast food burger offers little to delight the senses, so we shovel it down to fill our bellies. Eating too much, too often, and too greedily leaves us with miserably full stomachs and digestive troubles.[8] Even as it exacts a toll upon our bodies, it also exacts one upon our spirits. It deprives us of the rich sensory experience of a well-planned meal savored slowly and shared with loved ones. Gluttony makes us sick in body and soul.

There is nothing new about these impulses. For example, as they wandered in the wilderness, the Israelites had all their needs provided for by God. The manna that appeared daily was not simply bread to fill stomachs but also a delight, “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). But the people remembered the food in Egypt, “the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” and complained, “if only we had meat to eat” (Numbers 11:4–5). They had enough, but they wanted more. God relented, and the people got what they wanted. They received enough meat “for a whole month,” enough that they could eat “until it [came] out of [their] nostrils and [became] loathsome to [them]” (Numbers 11:20). Their gluttony was given free reign, and it made them sick, as sick as the Roman masters at the banquet, and as sick as we are, shoveling down fast food in the front seat of our cars.

Simplicity

Of course, we are not freed slaves wandering in the wilderness, but we too crave more. However, more is not the great orienting hope of the Christian faith. God provides us with enough; we do not need more. The vision of the Garden of Eden, which means “Garden of Delight,” is one of a place in which we have both what we need and what is delightful. The vision of the Exodus is that God provides the manna that we need for each day. And the central act of Christian worship centers on a simple meal of bread and wine shared equally among all God’s people. When we eat too much, too often, and too greedily, our hunger is in fact never sated. But when we learn the beauty of enough, we recover the delight of the feast with friends. Our stomachs are filled and our lives are full.

If gluttony is a vice that has hold of us, then we need more than a few adjustments to our current lifestyle. We need instead an overhaul of our imaginations with respect to food.[9] To be born again into simplicity involves adopting a mindful, intentional commitment to enough. It prompts us to think about portion size at every meal, to think twice before dropping the coins into the vending machine. Simplicity encourages us to explore new recipes and ways of cooking that use simple, whole foods. It is not a discipline of fearfulness, not a “diet” that terrorizes us with a fear of too many calories. Instead, simplicity frees us from the tyranny of the gluttony that has hold over us and our food system. Simplicity can teach us to be satisfied with enough so that we can delight in the feast.

Converting from “Too Delicately” to Solidarity

For the Roman master reclining at his banquet, eating delicately meant eating expensive, fastidiously prepared foods and having slaves who were trained to read the master’s mood and prepare foods for every occasion. Eating “too delicately” meant using food as a marker of social status, something that indicated the bright line between who would serve and who would be served. It was an exercise of social power that involved domination and exploitation of others, and the “purse-proud” banquet was designed as much to signal exclusivity as it was to nourish and delight.

It is easy to identify this “delicate” form of gluttony in the Roman banquet, but it is much harder to see it in our own lives. We can scarcely imagine enjoying a meal while hungry slaves stand by silently and wait to serve us. And yet, our food system creates and reinforces disparities based on social and economic class. Industrial food production practices depend upon troubling labor practices that have direct effects upon the health of many workers in our food production system. Additionally, our food system itself has been transected by socioeconomic factors and become two food systems: one for the prosperous and the other for the poor.

Unlike the slaves at the Roman banquet who were visible in the banquet hall, our food system usually hides from view the least of these whose exploitation is responsible for our contemporary gluttonous eating practices. Consider, for example, that “of the three million people currently employed in agriculture in the United States, nearly a third, or one million, are undocumented farm laborers, mostly of Hispanic origin.[10] Many of these undocumented workers have no job security, are poorly compensated, live and work in marginal conditions, and suffer from sicknesses caused by the chemical toxins used in pesticides and fertilizers.[11] In some cases, the undocumented workers live in conditions of virtual slavery, and as indicated by recent cases prosecuted by the United States Department of Justice, they are held in actual slavery.[12] It is unthinkable to most of us that our food is harvested by slaves, and that by eating in familiar restaurants like McDonalds, Wendy’s and others we become complicit in the institution of slavery. Yet that unthinkability is by design. We are not supposed to look and see where our food comes from or ask who harvests and processes it.

As a society we prefer not to see or hear about these undocumented workers even though our current food system requires them for our food to be cheap. Instead of confronting their plight and seeking justice, we anonymize and demonize them. We worry they are siphoning our social resources and, while denying our dependence on them, often insist that they are undeserving of healthcare, education or the full protection of the law. So, like the Romans, we often eat surrounded by slaves who are “hungry and dumb.” We just prefer that they be in the field rather than in the dining room with us.

Eating too delicately, however, points us not only to the socioeconomic injustice of food production, but also to food consumption. The more aware we become of the injustices and health problems embedded in our current food system, the more difficult our food choices become. They are predicated upon a high degree of social privilege that includes access to disposable income, leisure time to visit more than one store, and reliable transportation. The challenge is that the choice is not wrong; the challenge is that not everyone can make it. We who share these values—and who have access to the social privileges necessary to express them in our consumption choices—may come to believe that we hold the moral high ground. Our health, planet, and community benefit from our choices.

The challenge of this good choice—and it is a good choice—is that it leaves us embedded in a food system that creates and reinforces health disparities. As Mark Winne puts it, “we have in America today a tale of two food systems—one for the poor and one for everyone else.”[13] Healthy, whole foods are affordable for the privileged, while the poor are left with inexpensive fast food restaurants and convenience markets. Many have access to more than enough calories, but cannot afford the raw, nutritious foods that promote health. We find ourselves in the odd position of having many Americans who are obese, but malnourished. When the wealthy are more likely to be physically fit, the disparities of our economic system are ultimately written into our bodies.[14]

Solidarity

When we consider the complexity of our food system, we realize quickly that it is a maze from which we cannot completely escape through our personal choices. Consider the account of the gumbo feast that opened this essay. Even in this delightful meal, there are moral questions and compromises. Who harvested the vegetables? Were the animals that yield the sausage treated humanely? And even if they were, our capacity to afford such humanely produced meat is inseparable from the fact that we have sufficient income to do so. There are serious moral questions present in the delightful feast of gumbo, and we are dishonest if we fail to acknowledge them. Nevertheless, the feast of gumbo also enacts equality among those who eat together, was prepared by the cook as an act of hospitality rather than by a vulnerable worker as an act of economic desperation, and is received as a gift by those who share in the meal. In these imperfect and incomplete ways, it participates in the reign of God. Amidst moral ambiguity, it seeks to approximate an ideal represented by the eucharistic feast of Jesus.[15]

 

We eat too delicately when our food choices come at the cost of others’ well-being. So how are we to eat faithfully when our eating occurs in a food system fraught with injustice? One way to answer this question is to focus narrowly on each individual food choice, trying with pharisaical precision to get each choice perfectly right. Another way, and the way we wish to propose as more fruitful, is the way of conversion to the virtue of solidarity. Solidarity involves turning from the exclusivity of gluttony to the inclusivity of a feast. It involves entering empathetically into the lives of vulnerable others, committing ourselves to act alongside them in a shared struggle for justice, and questions the structures which grant privilege to some and disempower others.[16] This conversion invites us to ask, what kind of people do we want to be, before we ask about any particular food choice.

We see this conversion to solidarity when we look at Jesus’ table practices. In the Gospels, Jesus is always eating. We find him at table with women and Pharisees, with the wealthy and the poor, with Gentiles and his disciples. While the Pharisees and John’s disciples were trying admirably to make good choices about what and with whom to eat, Jesus enacted an inclusive meal practice.[17] The early Christian community adopted Jesus’ table practices, and the central act of worship for the earliest church involved gathering for table fellowship and remembering Jesus’ last meal. In a world where meals served as markers of social status, the Christian Eucharist was an open, inclusive meal where people gathered to dine together without regard for social class, ethnicity, or gender. The Eucharist teaches solidarity.

When gluttony takes the form of eating too delicately, it acts as a vice that turns our mealtime into exercises in social power. Gluttony encourages us to value exclusivity and to regard the best meals as ones that few have access to. But Christian solidarity, following the example of Jesus and patterned on the Eucharist, teaches us a different way. Solidarity teaches us the delight of the feast in which all are welcome.

Conclusion

In the Christian tradition, temperance has traditionally been regarded as the virtue designed to remedy gluttony. Gluttony was about excess, and so it made sense that we would overcome it through moderation. But temperance can too easily be construed in a way that eclipses root conditions. What we propose is that such a mild rearrangement fails to see or address the profound ways in which gluttony has hold of us. We need not so much to tinker with current practices as to be born again into a life newly organized around grace-filled ways of reimagining food and eating. Conversion, then, will become a way of life that leads us into the way of Jesus, just as it always has.

[1] In this essay, we follow Francis Prose in Gluttony: The Seven Deadly Sins (Oxford, 2003) in summarizing Gregory’s treatment of gluttony as eating “too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily, or too much.” Gregory’s own treatment of the five manifestations of gluttony occurs in his Morals on the Book of Job, Book 30, Section 60 available online at http://www.lectionarycentral.com/GregoryMoralia/Book30.html

[2] In his treatment of gluttony, Thomas Aquinas argues that if we eat to excess out of ignorance, thinking that we need more than we actually do to remain full or healthy, it is not actually gluttony. A great deal of our overeating is rooted in ignorance about our food; it is for this reason that we wish to be careful about not simply equating obesity with gluttony. See Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Second and Revised Edition. trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920): 2.2.148, Article 1, Reply 2.

[3] Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Epistles. Transl. Richard M. Gummere. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1917-25. 3 vols: Volume I, Letter 47, p. 303, 305.

[4] Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 137-43.

[5] See Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Revised and Expanded Edition (University of California Press, 2007).

[6] L. Shannon Jung, Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006), p. 1.

[7] Throughout this essay, we will use the phrase “too often” instead of “too soon.” When Gregory spoke of “too soon,” he meant eating too frequently between established mealtimes.

[8] For an extended treatment of the digestive effects of eating too quickly, see Gerard E. Mullin and Kathie Madonna Swift, The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health (Rodale Books, 2011).

[9] For exploration of simplicity as a Christian practice, see Kendra G. Hotz and Matthew T. Mathews, Christian Living in God’s Splendor (Congregational Ministries Publishing of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 2011) and Martin Marty and Micah Marty, When True Simplicity Is Gained: Finding Spiritual Clarity in a Complex World (Eerdmans, 1998).

[10] Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi, Food Justice (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010), p. 20.

[11] Gottlieb and Joshi, Food Justice, p. 25. See also Daniel Rothenberg, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farm Workers Today (University of California Press, 2000).

[12] Eric Holt-Giménez, “The Coalition of Immokalee Workers: Fighting Modern Day Slavery in the Industrial Food System,” Institute for Food and Development Policy, Food First, March 12, 2009. Accessed online at www.foodfirst.org/en/node/2389. See also John Bowe, Nobodies: American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the American Economy (Random House, 2007).

[13] Mark Winne, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press, 2009), p. 175.

[14] William C. Cockerham, Social Causes of Health and Disease (Polity Press, 2007), pp. 121-23.

[15] Angel F Méndez-Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Blackwell Publishing, 2012)

[16] See M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Fortress Press, 2009) and Rebecca Todd Peters, Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

[17] Stephen H. Webb, in particular, draws attention to this point in Good Eating (Brazos Press, 2001), pp. 132-35.

This article was awarded the 2014 Award of Excellence for Theological or Scholarly Article by the Associated Church Press.

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