After a recent visit to Anchorage’s new Halal Grocery, I found myself wondering, “Why doesn’t Christianity have an ethic for eating?” Islam does. Judaism does. But not Christianity.
As the Christian gospels tell the story, Jesus came into the world at a time when the great revelations of Judaism had become encrusted with layer upon layer of burdensome ritual and regulation. This complexity gave a great deal of power to the experts, to the religious leaders who were the keepers of the rules.
In this context, the message of Jesus was a liberating one. Being righteous was a simple matter of loving God and neighbor.
One faction of the early church–a faction whose views came to dominate Christian theology–took that message a step farther. These leaders said that rules were unnecessary. “By grace are you saved through faith,” they said, “and that is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
One of the convenient side-effects of this liberation from the strict rules of the Judaism of that time period was that it made Christianity highly adaptable in a multicultural world.
In this story, outreach to new cultures and liberation from dietary restrictions are explicitly linked:
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ He answered, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.’
On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’
Even in the early church, however, there was some push-back about this throwing off of the rules. When the fledgling church in Corinth was being ripped apart by various factions, each saying, “We’ll do what we want,” Paul wrote to them, ” ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.”