Food as a Tool of Control

In Church by Caris Adel2 Comments

“The royal policy is to accomplish a food monopoly. In that ancient world as in any contemporary world, food is a weapon and a tool of control.”(Journey to the Common Good 5)

Buffalo was the Native Americans’ main food source. So….I wonder what the empire of the United States did (and continues to do).

“One Congressman, James Throckmorton of Texas, believed that ‘it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence.’ Soon, military commanders were ordering their troops to kill buffalo — not for food, but to deny Native Americans their own source of food. One general believed that buffalo hunters ‘did more to defeat the Indian nations in a few years than soldiers did in 50.’ By 1880, the slaughter was almost over. Where millions of buffalo once roamed, only a few thousand animals remained.” (PBS)

“There had been a time when it was an article of faith that the civilizing of the Plains Indians would follow close on the annihilation of the buffalo – and a civilized Indian was universally understood to mean one who had given up everything of his own culture and had become an imitation white man. Once the buffalo were gone, it had been believed, the Indian would be forced to give up his roaming ways and settle down to feed and clothe himself by the sweat of his brow as a farmer, a herdsman, or a laborer. There were a couple of things wrong with this theory. One was that the former nomadic tribes had no experience in farming, and although the government promised implements, seeds, and instruction every time a treaty was made, it produced precious little that was tangible.

What was even more to the point was that almost all tribes, former farming peoples from the east and from the tall-grass prairie as well as the one-time horse-and-buffalo tribes, had been put on land that could by no means be called the best. Dohesan, a Kiowa chief, remarked acidly that if the President was so eager to have Indians raise corn, he should have given them land that would grow corn.” (The Long Death 335)

Love of God comes as love of neighbor with an immediate, concrete, economic dimension.” (Journey 42)

The U.S. controlled the availability of food and they controlled where people were allowed to live. They reduced people to poverty because of greed and fear. This same system was at work in Egypt, and in a similar way, the Israelites controlled something even more important than food or land. They controlled the location of God and who had access to him. And today the U.S. government and its citizens continue the ways of empire.

Brueggemann describes it this way:

“Solomon is the model in the Bible for a global perspective of the common good, a perspective that smacks of privilege, entitlement, and exploitation, all in the name of the God of the three-chambered temple, the three chambers that partition social life and social resources into the qualified, the partially qualified, and the disqualified.” (Journey 54)

Joseph is heralded as a Bible hero. He saved the people. But really, he enslaved a nation, making them give up nearly everything in exchange for food. Why couldn’t he have supplied Egyptians with food without taking their land and their labor?

Christians hold up the temple and its king as a biblical ideal. Spend 10 weeks with Beth Moore analyzing the tabernacle/temple and you will see how the system is all specially and perfectly designed by God. So of course it was ok that there were sections to the temple, and of course not everyone was allowed everywhere. Of course people couldn’t have equal access to God.

But what if it wasn’t? What if people just did what they wanted and put the God-stamped seal of approval on it?

Is it possible we’ve been co-opted by the American myth? Does that change how we read the stories of Joseph and Solomon?

What if the tearing of the temple veil was a political statement to upend centuries of discrimination and prejudice?

The temple was a point of vulnerability for people. But it was at the center of their society, and as such maybe it was hard to see it as a weapon used against them.

Could food be so central to who we are and our survival that we miss seeing how it’s a point of vulnerability? What if we are missing how it is a means of control and discrimination by politicians and citizens alike, as it has been in our past? Is it possible that when it comes to the present-day issue of empire and food and money, that we have an inversion of values?

“Even if there is no obvious shedding of innocent blood, oppression is always deadly in its effects. Depending on the form used, oppression deprives individuals of basic things they need in order to live: wages, clothing, food, and housing; it also deprives them of their human dignity and their joyous response to life: the oppressed cannot sing as they used to. Behind almost all methods of oppression lies an inversion of values: people love evil and hate good, but they call evil good and good evil.” (Bible of the Oppressed 47)

In the U.S. today we have the SNAP system, a.k.a. food stamps.

People don’t want to be poor. They don’t want to need help to eat. They don’t want to be known as ‘takers’. Do you know how fun it is to know that whatever you buy, you will be judged on? If it’s cheap junk food, you’re wasting the governments’ money, and if it’s good, expensive food, you’re also somehow wasting the government’s money, because you shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things unless you earn them in a societal-approved way.

“There are two interrelated reasons why the oppressed are always the poor: they are oppressed because they are poor (they have no means of subsistence, no power, and they live at the mercy of the oppressor); they are poor because they are oppressed (they are oppressed by being robbed and thus impoverished).” (Bible 37)

In this empire, we have wealthy people in power making decisions for other people at their point of vulnerability, without having any knowledge of what it’s like to be so vulnerable. And because the United States is an empire, the authorities and the people can’t imagine simply being generous so that everyone can flourish. No, the bare minimum is the goal, and therefore we have consistent controversy over the food assistance program. Because in this land of thriftiness and scraping by, everyone can learn to scrape a little better.

But people are not getting rich off of food assistance. “In 2013, the average SNAP client received a monthly benefit of $133.07, and the average household received $274.98 monthly.” (FAQ)

Participants have to be at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Level, and in order to receive help, you must prove this. This is what I don’t understand when people are so quick to assume everyone on ‘welfare’ is lying. There is documentation and bank statements and pay stubs and social security numbers. It is not a quick and simple thing to become food stamp approved. Not to mention, there is a waiting period between the time when you are eligible to apply and when you get approved. Good luck getting food in the meantime.

“Many Americans believe that the majority of SNAP benefits go towards people who could be working. In fact, more than half of SNAP recipients are children or the elderly. For the remaining working-age individuals, many of them are currently employed. At least forty percent of all SNAP beneficiaries live in a household with earnings. In fact, the majority of SNAP households do not receive cash welfare benefits (around 10% receive cash welfare), with increasing numbers of SNAP beneficiaries obtaining their primary source of income from employment.” (FAQ)

Not only is food a weapon, it’s a means of discrimination. It’s a way for non-poor people to trade empathy for the myth of their own self-sufficiency. We won’t talk about tax credits or write-offs or family money or anything else. No, the poor people are just lazy. And so we cut funding. We require drug tests. We start from the assumption that if you need a certain assistance to live, then you somehow are deficient as a human being. And we end up with churches filled with people spouting Bible clichés in one breath and supporting shame-based policies with the next.

Love of God comes as love of neighbor with an immediate, concrete, economic dimension.”

If you are not willing to examine your own prejudices, assumptions, and voting practices as it relates to economics on a national and local level, then stop talking about Jesus.

“Here we have an ideological means of legitimizing oppression. When the first demand is made for the freedom of the Israelites, Pharaoh answers the representatives of the enslaved people: ‘Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work’. Pharaoh’s reply to the demand is to intensify the exploitation…In the view of the oppressor, the appeal for freedom, the celebration of a feast, and the whole idea of worship are simply lies and a cover for laziness…The Hebrew people in the service of the Egyptian empire became an object of hatred because they sought their freedom.” (Bible 43)

We subconsciously (or not) have become drunk on bootstrap theology, and have conditions put upon who is considered worthy of help. Have you spent every last cent on surviving and never wasted a penny on frivolity? Ok then, here is your free food. We use the availability of food as a means of controlling which ways of living are acceptable. Meet our standards or we will not help you. (But just so you know, even if we do stoop to help you, we will still probably judge you. Because that is what empire trains us to do.)

And speaking of tax credits that I know many middle-class white people take advantage of, both the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are classified in the same category as food stamps – Safety Net Programs. Safety nets are there to catch people. We are all being caught in some way, because we are all intertwined in the system. But which programs bring shame to people? Who is worthy of respect and why? And what do we call waste or fraud and what do we ignore?

“Since the program has been established, SNAP has frequently been a target for accusations of fraud and abuse of the system….According to a recent USDA analysis, SNAP reached a payment accuracy of 96.19% in 2012 (the highest that the program has ever seen). Trafficking rates—the number of benefits exchanged for cash—are at 1%.”(FAQ)

But did you know that J.P. Morgan makes hundreds of billions of dollars running the SNAP program? Why is the 1% consumer fraud more concerning than excessive profits by private companies? Why is billions of dollars in profits not even considered fraud, or at the very least an obscene waste? Why do we value the corporations over the people? Why can’t we drastically reduce the money they make and use the rest to boost food assistance?

Because for all the bluster of people complaining about people on food assistance, the government only spends 76 billion out of a 3.5 trillion dollar budget on the program. Which is like $76 out of $3,500. The entire safety net program which includes cash assistance, child care assistance, tax credits and various other forms of assistance, is only 12% of the federal budget.

Look at this picture:

Where are our priorities as a nation?

When it comes to Christians taking the U.S. as an empire seriously, we need to ask who has privilege, who is entitled, and who is exploited? Because we have used food as a means of control in the past, we are doing it now, and we will continue to do it in the future if we don’t re-evaluate who we are. The empire’s goal is not self-sufficiency. The goal is to keep people anxious, worried, and dependent.

We have a history of denying so many things to so many people.

Why do we want to continue on the same way?


pictures source

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Empire: The United States and Walter Brueggemann

   1. A Systemic Greediness
   2. Nightmare Into Policy
   3. Food as a Tool of Control

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  • Andee Zomerman

    Beautifully written and I am sick to my stomach. My way of saying, “good post”.