The Redemption of Wheat

Our food systems are broken and the church is part of the problem.   What do I mean by saying we are part of the problem?  Here's an interesting story that demonstrates how the world of agriculture and the world of the church intersect.

Each week we purchase bread or flour and place it on our altar tables following an ancient pattern beginning with Jesus.  As Jesus taught us, we make a sacramental proclamation that this is the 'bread of life.'  Yet as we do this we are largely ignorant that most bread has become far from life-giving.

How did bread, once one of the most nutritious foods, come to be so unhealthy?  Michael Pollan explains that bread has become, "more a product of industry than of nature."  Beginning with breeding practices, wheat in the US is grown from a hybridized seed that has been optimized for yield but does not carry the same genetic material as the grains of wheat that were used for millennia, from long before Jesus until one hundred years ago.  Some scientists suspect that 'modern wheat' might be a cause of the gluten intolerance from which many people suffer today. The second problem is that most wheat is consumed as white flour.  White flour is milled using a high-speed processing system.  This system, called roller-milling, discards the germ and bran, where most of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber are stored, leaving only the starchy endosperm which renders the grain almost worthless in terms of nutrition (except for the synthetic vitamins that are added back).  Processed white flour has a glycemic index of 73 whereby whole grain flour's index is a healthy 52.  According to the American Diabetes Association, healthy glycemic levels are 55 and lower, whereby unhealthy levels are 70 and above. The consumption of white flour is linked to the increase in four major chronic illnesses in this country (obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, and heart disease).  The third health issue, both for our bodies and the planet, is that modern wheat (unless it's organic) is farmed using a staggering amount of chemicals in the form of pesticides and fertilizers.  In addition to these problems, wheat products are transported thousands of miles to their final destination.

This story amounts to a pretty sick system in which the church participates.  It prompts me to ask, if Jesus knew that the bread we are now breaking was making people and the earth sick, do you think he would have said, “break this bread and remember me?”  Well, maybe that’s exactly what he would say today.  "Break and eat this bread and remember that I came to bring life, abundant life."  If that's what he would say, let’s get going and make sure the symbol we use to make this sacramental proclamation is actually accomplishing this reality.

Good news, there are small steps being taken to bring back the life-giving qualities that bread once possessed.  For the second year in a row, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we served a special communion bread at our clergy conference for over 150 clerics.  The bread was organic and locally grown in the sunny, fertile, Russian River Valley.  It was stone milled and baked fresh and it tasted of honest, dark goodness.

Each time we choose to buy locally grown heirloom wheat, that is organic and stone milled, we are acting in a way that restores the vitality to the staff of life.  Now that’s the work of redemption.  Onward!