Have we adopted the spiritual version of Jamie Oliver’s food-drive in our churches?

I read an interesting piece from last week’s Times (paywall). The piece lambasts Jamie Oliver’s continued demonisation of the working classes based on their dietary decisions. The piece criticises what amounts to middle class scolding of the poor.

The Telegraph reported back in August this year that:

Jamie Oliver, the chef, has admitted his school dinner campaign has not succeeded, saying eating well is still viewed as an indulgence of the middle classes.

Oliver, who has campaigned to change the nation’s eating habits, said feeding children healthily remained the preserve of the wealthy, leaving working class communities suffering more.

His solution, quoted in that same piece, was to back a sugar tax and essentially insist that the government make the foods that working class people tend to eat much more expensive, forcing them to buy the already prohibitively expensive food preferred by the middle classes. The reason this has all come up again is that, as the Times comments:

Last week Oliver received the endorsement of Nicola Sturgeon when the Scottish first minister announced that her government intended to push through Oliver-friendly measures that would, for instance, outlaw two-for-one deals for supermarket pizzas.

The article runs with comment from George Orwell and James Bloodworth to rightly make the fundamental point:

When life is a drudge, and you are living payday to payday, a Big Mac and a can of cheap lager offers a measure of relief no amount of broccoli can match.

Doubling the price of supermarket pizzas does not improve the lives of people living on or below the minimum wage. It merely forces them to spend more of their already meagre resources on the basic necessities of life and it does so purely to satisfy wealthy scolds revolted by the ghastly behaviour of their economic – and social – inferiors.

The revolting people here are not the poor but, rather, those who consider them revolting and, in the name of improvement, demand they sacrifice some of the few and fleeting pleasures available to them. Not so they will lead happier lives but so their middle-class superiors may feel better about themselves.

The article rightly carried the headline, ‘Jamie’s obesity drive is just the middle class gorging on its desire to scold the poor’.

I was minded to think how we fare little better in the church. Whilst I have been at a few bring and share (‘pot luck’, for my American friends) church lunches where folk have simply sneered and turned their nose up at the food brought by some sections of the church, this tends not to be the focus of our snobbery. I remember one church that would fall over itself to eat anything from another culture so long as it wasn’t the local white working class culture that preferred the kind of pub grub served nearby. Apparently, the peasant food of any country except our own was entirely legitimate.

But typically, instead of a food-focus, we sneer at the way people bring up their children, or make patronising comments about people’s homes, or we are funny about the fact that people don’t invite us into their homes for dinner because, would you believe it, they don’t even have a dining table! How do these people eat?! On their laps in front of the TV like a sizeable proportion of the country, that’s how!

I have scarcely had a pastoral meeting in someone’s home that didn’t involve the TV remaining on for the duration. Often, pastoral meetings don’t even happen in homes – people would rather meet on neutral ground. There is nothing essentially wrong with either of those things and yet, those inclined to sneer, chalk these things up to an unwillingness to engage or a lack of hospitality or something like this. But these are little more than middle class cultural hang-ups rather than biblical ones.

Just as many can (rightly) see the condescending attitude of Jamie Oliver toward the poor regarding their dietary choices, we should work hard not to replicate the same sort of sneering attitudes toward the poor in our churches. We must be careful not to impose our culturally conditioned choices – that seem so right and obvious to us – onto others who don’t share our particular culture. We all have a habit of reading biblical imperatives through our own particular set of cultural spectacles and are not so good at seeing how those principles may work themselves out in entirely different social contexts, or amongst those drawn from cultures different to our own.

It is evidently true that all cultures will have things to commend them and things that are less great about them. There is much to commend the middle class tendency to sit around a table with your family and discuss your day and it can be great to invite people over for meals at your home. These are things we do as a family all the time. We just have to recognise that these particular understandings of what the bible teaches are not specifically what the bible actually says.

If it’s not appropriate to force the working classes to eat kale just because we think they should, let’s extend that same view by allowing the scriptural commands to be worked out in culturally appropriate ways within, and across, our churches.