Equality and Diversity Managers may be particularly interested to read new guidelines from the Interfaith Network for the UK on catering for the faith-based dietary practices of different faiths.
As a footnote, the table shows how comparatively few food rules are found within Christianity. Does this mean Christians are completely uninterested in questions about food? Or is something else going on? This is a personal take, rather than an official statement, but I hope it captures helpfully some of the key themes in Christians’ attitudes to food, which I think are shaped by several different considerations:
1) A strong underlying theme in Jesus’ teaching to his disciples (i.e., followers/apprentices) is that they must go beyond observance of external laws to a ‘new law’ which is ‘written on their hearts’ – the importance of inner motivation and purity is key. So whilst observant Jews who accept Jesus as Son of God and Saviour may still observe many Jewish food laws, the general principle which Christians have tended to adopt is that purity of heart, mind and intention is more of a priority.
2) In the New Testament book of Acts (Chapter 10), one of Jesus’ closest followers, Peter, has a dream in which a cloth is laid out before him containing all sorts of foods, some ritually clean and others ritually unclean in the eyes of the Jewish Law, and he is encouraged to eat from the whole selection. This story epitomises a wider shift in very earliest Christianity away from strict observance of the Jewish Law. Some Christians today will talk about how the comparative absence of hard and fast rules of observance in Christianity reflects the fact that their relationship with God is built upon God’s gift of grace and love, rather than on obedience to a set of rules.
3) This flexibility towards food is also seen in the writings of Paul of Tarsus, whose letters to young Christian communities across the Roman Empire comprise most of the second half of the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 9 (first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9) Paul tackles the question of whether Christians should eat food which has been offered to the gods of other faiths and beliefs. Paul’s answer is that it really depends on whether eating such food tempts you to abandon your faith or get involved in questionable activity (here specifically he is writing about some of the morally questionable behaviour associated with some cults in the Roman world). If it does, then avoid it; if it doesn’t, then there is no problem (although his ‘strong’ readers are urged to be sensitive towards the ‘weak’ in this respect). As a result, Christians may take a variety of attitudes towards eating food prepared according to the rules of other faiths – some will gladly do so; others may be more reluctant.
4) If many Christians believe they are liberated from the requirement to obey specific food laws, there is strong tradition of fasting or abstaining from certain kinds of food as part of a voluntary personal or collective spiritual discipline (i.e., as a way of focusing on God and demonstrating commitment). At various points in history, Roman Catholic Christians have been encouraged (and at certain points in the past, obliged) to abstain from meat on on particular ‘penitential days’ including Fridays in Lent, in remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross – and as a result many ate fish instead. When he was Pope, Benedict XVI sought to reassert the value of this practice (but in reality there is variety of contemporary practice – many Catholics do not observe this, whilst others will). Likewise, some Catholic and some evangelical Christians may choose to fast either weekly, monthly or at certain times of year (e.g., Lent – the period before Easter). There may also be a general sense, for many Christians, that apart from specific fasting days, over-indulgence is not a good thing (this is found in numerous places in the Jewish and Christian scriptures).
5) Since there are comparatively few specific laws or rules within Christianity, Christians have always therefore needed to make choices about what is ethically appropriate in the light of their faith (‘Everything is permissible, but not everything is good’, writes St Paul). Recent decades have seen the flowering of a strong commitment in many quarters of the Christian churches towards ethical sourcing and fairtrade, prompted by a desire to care for creation and to show justice to those who are poor or marginalised. Whilst fairtrade and sustainability are concerns shared by people of all faiths and none, Christian individuals and churches have been at the forefront of campaigning for fairtrade in the UK, and against certain products or companies with an ethically questionable reputation. Using fairtrade and ethically sourced produce may therefore be welcomed by Christian staff, students and visitors.