Tanzania and the theology of food by Dan Handschy

July 27, 2017
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My church members already know that I place a lot of emphasis on food and foodways in my thinking about God and God’s purposes in the world.

My kids will recognize a saying I used a lot when they were little: The world always looks better over a plate of food.

In my doctoral work on sacrifice, I came to understand that in the Old Testament (and indeed in any sacrificing culture), it is the meal that atones, or reconciles human beings to one another and to God. It is the shared food that creates atonement.

Even in the New Testament, we misunderstand the sacrifice of Jesus if we forget its connection to the eucharistic meal. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, is scolding his community for their pettiness toward one another and the final clause in his argument is, “Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast, not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). Jesus was sacrificed in order to become our feast.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in Anglican theology (and other Anglophone theologies), evangelical preaching began to focus on the idea of a personal conversion as the doorway to God’s graces. One had to “accept Jesus as a personal savior” in order to be counted among those saved. Among Wesleyans and other evangelicals, it became important to be able to point to that crisis moment when one received Jesus, or was converted, in order to be certain of salvation.

This kind of preaching formed the core message of missionaries from England and America to places like Africa and India. The content of the Gospel was reduced to personal conversion and a moral change of life (abandoning old, “demonic” practices of the native religion). While many missionaries founded hospitals and schools, their actual preaching had little to do with the theology of health or learning. And missionaries very rarely talked about the importance of food security as an aspect of salvation.

One of my students at Eden Seminary, Anderson Madimilo, a priest in the Diocese of Mpwapwa in the Anglican Church of Tanzania, wrote a paper on the ethics of food production. He argued that when people are starving, they cannot experience a personal conversion in order to be saved. Salvation has to look something like having enough to eat. He went to write his master’s thesis for me on the same subject. I began to have him explore the Old Testament, and the sacrificial system in books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In those books, God clearly demands that, in order for a sacrifice to be acceptable, the offerer must have done everything in his power to make sure the hungry were fed and the stranger welcomed. And the point of the sacrifice is not the death of the animal, but the meal which results, to which widows and orphans and the sojourner must be invited. Sacrifice has everything to do with the production of food. We offer food to God in thanksgiving for God’s goodness in providing it to us – and then we have a party!

Anderson said that the missionaries had never preached this kind of message, and consequently, the ordained leadership of the Anglican Church in Tanzania were not trained to read the scripture in this way. They had no way of thinking about agriculture theologically. I am convinced that agriculture is the key to understanding the Old Testament, and therefore, also for interpreting the New Testament. It’s all about food. Anderson invited me to come to Mpwapwa and put on a conference for pastors on the theology of agriculture. I put him off, thinking I could not afford to go. When I mentioned this in passing to our bishop,he replied that there were funds to support this travel, and suggested that Pamela Dolan, rector of Good Shepherd, should also go. Pamela wrote her Doctor of Ministry thesis on the spirituality of gardening.

So – Pamela and I will be traveling to Mpwapwa, Tanzania for the first full week of September. The conference will run from September 5 – 8, and we hope to have a chance before the conference to tour the diocese and see how people grow their gardens.

Anderson wants us to talk about both the theology and the practicalities of growing food. Both Pamela and I feel a bit odd, as Mzungu (white people) dropping in to Tanzania to tell them how to grow food, since we know nothing about Tanzanian agriculture (if you want evidence of how badly such a scheme can go wrong, just Google “Tanzanian groundnut scheme”; in British slang, it has become equivalent to a huge waste of government money with no result). But Pamela has some contacts with Episcopal Relief and Development, and they have a project in the next diocese over from Mpwapwa dealing with sustainable agriculture, so we will have access to local experts.

I am excited by this venture for several reasons. I have had several students at Eden from Mpwapwa, so I will see them again. I am also excited because a part of what has caused such anxiety in the Anglican Communion is different approaches to Scripture, and questions about its authority. Looking at the fundamental theology of agriculture in the Old Testament will open up new approaches to scripture for the clergy of Mpwapwa, and shift focus away from our tired old fights about human sexuality. And, if all goes well, I should be able to get at least as far as Kampala in Uganda, and maybe even to the refugee camp at Kiryandongo while I am on the African continent, to see our Lui friends there. [The Diocese of Missouri has a companion diocese relationship with the Diocese of Lui in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan. During this time of civil war in the Lui region, many members of this diocese have escaped to refugee camps including the United Nations camp at Kiryandongo, Uganda.]

The Rev. Dan Handschy, Ph.D. is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Crestwood, Missouri, Dean of the Episcopal School for Ministry, and an adjunct professor at Eden Seminary in Webster Groves. This article published in the diocesan quarterly Seek, and can be read online. Donations are being collected to help fund travel, board and lodging for pastors traveling in Tanzania to this conference online here.

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