“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. But this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
At the height of quarantine, after the seventh recipe for sourdough bread was shared on my social media feed and the longing to hoard food was as real as the need to hunt and gather toilet paper, two ancestral stories of manna and wilderness kept filling my mind. The first evoked my elderly Irish grandfather describing his relatives coming to America, fleeing the great potato famine of Ireland for farming in Ohio, struggling and caring for their land and community. Irish immigrants were not well-received, he would remind us. But they made a life for themselves far away from all they once knew as home, choosing to distance themselves from the land of their forefathers in more ways than one. For some immigrants, the land they leave is never far from their minds, and often this is true even of the generations who have never seen this land for themselves; this was not the case with grandfather’s kin. They even changed the spelling of their surname so that “home” would be less recognizable, wanting to get on with a new life, a new land, and new manna. Bringing this story of his farming roots to a close, as I sat thankful for my husband’s gift of filling time in a nursing home with conversation, he then added as almost an afterthought: “I don’t remember how, but our land increased over the years, and life eventually got easier for them.”
With proud Irish memories in his eye, my grandfather then turned thoughtfully to my husband and asked him to recount the story of his people, the Apaches. “Were they always from Oklahoma,” he asked? “Did they farm too?” The Apache of the Plains, now recognized as the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, were nomadic bison hunters who roamed the Great Plains for life and resource. In 1867 they were captured by the U.S. War Authority and confined to reservation land in Oklahoma. Unable to hunt and gather with the seasons and buffalo, they were given food commodities by the U.S. government on which they had to learn to sustain themselves or starve. They were kept there until 1901 when some were given small land allotments in Oklahoma. Some leased their land to survive, while others tried to raise livestock.
I am ashamed to say it was the first time I had ever visualized the histories at an intersection, though both belong to people I love intimately. Before us was a timeline that physically intersected: my grandfather’s mysteriously increasing land and spiritual community and my husband’s relatives’ diminishing land and spiritual community. These are not two distinct and unrelated ancestral accounts, but one timeline of two vastly different encounters of U.S. land and relatedness to that land. Reaping the manna of this wilderness was a matter of favor and control. It was the bread not of life but of stratification.
In his 1988 essay “Racism and the Economy,” Wendell Berry reiterates the prescient claim made twenty years prior in his book The Hidden Wound. Namely, the psychic wound of racism is the inevitable result of “wounds in the land, the country itself.” For those of us who view land in terms of property lines and economics, there is a giant chasm that separates us from those who define geography as life and spirit, a geography whose historical wounds therefore run physically, spiritually, and imaginatively deep. The tragic role of place and displacement in the story of every first nation tribe across North America may be historically recognizable, but the on-going spiritual, personal, and physical weight of that offense is often grossly ignored, forgotten, or miscalculated. Still, these wounds in the land are wounds that continue to make us all sick, though some far more quickly than others.
French playwright Jean Anouilh once said, “I like reality. It tastes like bread.” While the rich symbolism of bread may well be universal in reach, in reality bread’s quality, and prevalence varies greatly between racial and socio-economic groups. Adding to this, the current state of industrialized food production, preparation, and consumption is held tightly within an imagination that has displaced spirit from body and land from soul, an imagination that often fails to see the role of privilege in the bread of stratification we break, an imagination that views food as commodity and eating as a primarily individual act. Where local and organic food movements attempt to counter some of this imagination, there have been needed strides toward greater food justice and environmental care. Unfortunately, many of these movements themselves lean heavily on the language and power of choice in the marketplace, employing as their main strategy for rejecting an unhealthy system a system that privileged them in the first place.
In contrast to a counter-imagination that relies on the same consumer forms it seeks to critique, the Eucharist offers a sacramental counter-politic to the powerful system of industrialized land, food, and eating, as well as to the liturgy of the consumer that keeps us blind to power dynamics and racial inequality, content with the bread of stratification. In the biblical tradition bread is a symbol of divine rescue—from God’s provision of manna in the wilderness to Elijah’s gift of bread and meat from the ravens, to the rich imagery of messianic banquets, the feeding of hungry crowds, and the body of Christ himself broken as food for past wounds, present needs, and future feasts. Far more than a symbolic contrast, the broken body of Christ himself placed in our hands is food that sustains the visible, social body of Christ’s church, empowering an imagination that resists consumerism’s claims over land, food, and bodies.
Native folk and blues rocker Keith Secola sings of frybread in his popular song by that name, retelling the story of North American indigenous tribes through a comical parable of frybread. He describes the hiring of military people like Colonel Sanders, Captain Crunch, and Major Rip-Off, government policies like the Frybread Removal Act, Frybread Allotment, and the Trail of Grease, all fierce attempts to remove frybread from the land. “But they couldn’t keep the people down,” Secola sings, “because born to the people was a Frybread Messiah, who said ‘There’s not much you can do with sugar, flour, lard, and salt (except maybe give up 86 million acres of treaty-protected land, but that’s another story). You gotta add something special…the strongest medicine known to our people, and that’s love.’“
Frybread is a seemingly simple food with a complex symbolism in native culture. It emerged around the mid-nineteenth century, after Andrew Jackson’s sweeping policy of Indian Removal. Having to adapt to new sources of subsistence, many tribes learned to cook using rations given while held as prisoners of war or in confinement on reservation lands. Utilizing the provided white flour and lard, the dough is hand-flattened to a large circle and deep-fried into golden bread. For many, like Secola, frybread is seen as a symbol of their spirit of survival and resolve in the face of displacement. Served commonly at powwows and cultural festivals, the bread is also seen as a powerful unifier between tribes. Popular culture has given the fried dough an added status, with a recent surge of films, t-shirts, and websites garnering love for frybread and further rooting it as a native cultural icon in both Indian and the larger cultural imagination.
But not all agree. Indian writer and activist Suzan Shown Harjo first spoke out against the ubiquitous frybread in her 2005 article from Indian Country Today and started a debate that is still raging among tribes. “Frybread is emblematic of the long trails from home and freedom to confinement and rations. It’s the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations and slow death,” she writes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that a piece of frybread averages 700 calories and 27 grams of fat, not including the common toppings. While it can be eaten plain as an accompaniment to a meal, it is more commonly used as the base of an Indian taco, a plate of frybread covered in meat, beans, cheese, and sour cream. Or, according to one popular frybread restaurant: frybread makes a warm and doughy vehicle for chocolate sauce and butter. In Harjo’s words: “Frybread was a gift of Western civilization from the days when Native people were removed from buffalo, elk, deer, salmon, turkey, corn, beans, squash, acorns, fruit, wild rice and other real food… If frybread were a movie, it would be hard-core porn. No redeeming qualities. Zero nutrition.”
If it is true that a culture’s traditional bread is the very symbol of health and wellbeing, literally and figuratively, it is tragic, as Harjo notes, that frybread has been so thoroughly embraced as a part of traditional eating among native people. Commodity rations from the government are still given to tribes to distribute among members today. Harjo points out that commodities rations were known initially as “poor food” but are now readily seen as “Indian food.” When I first moved to Apache, Oklahoma, to learn from a community of Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, and Ft. Sill Apaches as a part of my field education in seminary, I was welcomed graciously by elders who took me to commodity distribution and made sure I received the best and most coveted foods for my kitchen. Referred to fondly as “commods,” I was given commod cheese (a non-refrigerated processed cheese in a black and white box), enriched white flour elbow macaroni, a bag of enriched white flour, and a can of lard.
For indigenous communities in particular, the extraordinary disconnect between land and soul, food and politics common in industrial eating and the monoculture it forces continues to hold severe consequence. Long denied access to truly traditional foods and forced to rely on the poorest quality government commodity non-traditional food, many tribes today are trapped in patterns of hunger and nutritional injustice, the bread of stratification an often overlooked form of institutionalized racism. The severe hold of displacement and forced assimilation, coupled with modern consumer influence, has “damaged traditional knowledge and relationships with the land and led to changes in the people’s tastes and desires”—a hold that continues to threaten native groups with displacement. Type 2 diabetes is rampant among indigenous people in North America, affecting this people group more than any other, with one in two Native children predicted by the CDC to be diagnosed in their lifetime. Such metabolic disorders statistically occur a full decade sooner in natives than in the general population, between the ages of twenty and thirty years old.
So can frybread be seen as manna in the wilderness? Is the frybread messiah a figure of rescue or death? As eating is a sensitive matter of profound cultural identity, such questions are best addressed in and by the communities they most concern. Though thankfully, as the debate continues to stir emotion and discussion in tribes across the country, new consideration of native identity and the narrative of colonization continue to crop up. Whether frybread itself is received as a powerful symbol of life or a symbol of slow death, the greater nutritional injustice and continued stratification of tribal communities cannot be ignored, particularly for those whose concern for food, land, and neighbor is inherently theological. If Christ is the bread of life, what does it mean that our current food system continues to serve some the bread of oppression?
In his book Being Consumed, William Cavanaugh describes the narrative at the heart of the modern economic imagination: “The standard assumption of economists that we live in a world of scarce resources is not based simply on an empirical observation of the state of the world, but is based on the assumption that human desire is limitless.” In other words, the bread of consumerism is never enough to go around. The imagination of the consumer is one that sees with a sense of resignation the poor as always with us, not simply because scarcity assures there won’t be enough for them, but because scarcity brings us to believe that no one ever has enough.
It should not be surprising then to hear the narrative of the consumer even in seemingly compassionate attempts to relate to food insecurity, held by the structure, imagination, and narrative of the market. In Cultivating Food Justice, Julie Guthman quotes popular food writer Michael Pollan who admits that “‘not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful: however, those of us who can, should.’” Her critique of these words, which at first seem empathetic, cuts at the heart of justice in alternative food movements, which like Pollan, often easily assume “the persistence of inequality.” The “wonder” of the wonder bread of consumerism is its capacity to distract us from those who are truly hungry with our own hungers. But as Cavanaugh writes, “Self-interested consumption does not bring justice to the hungry.”
The body, detached from soul, in exile of land and community, chasing limitless desire, is one lost in wearying consumption. Likewise, any system that looks at food as a commodity, the health of a community, race, and individuals as unrelated to food production, or simply unavailable to some, is neither just nor sustainable nor healthy. The exclusionary divides will continue to become pronounced and the marginalized will get sicker. It is a tale counter to the multiplication of the loaves and fish, where those holding the scarce amount of food are the messianic figures among a hungry crowd. Pointing their fingers at each other in an attempt to wash their hands of the problem, they say uncomfortably, “You give them something to eat.”
It is not without significance that John notes this feeding of the multitude as taking place during the time of the Jewish Passover, a feast that boldly shaped communal memory, cultural identity, and imagination. Multiplying the loaves and fish of scarcity for a hungry crowd, John seems to call to mind the first miracle of Jesus, also involving food and Passover, when Jesus turns water to wine at a wedding feast in Cana. And again, as Jesus moves toward the cross, the Lamb of God and bread of life broken before a hungry crowd, John is careful to note the presence of Passover. Held within a feast that informed cultural, physical, and spiritual identity, one that shows “in complete contrast to agribusiness in both ancient and contemporary cultures…that food is, more than anything else, an expression of God’s sovereignty over creation and generosity toward mankind,” John seems to suggest an even greater expanding of this imagination and identity. As Jane Webster points out concerning these food narratives, the wine Jesus offered at the wedding feast was said to be of exceptional quality; likewise, the distinguishing feature of the bread and fish Jesus multiplied on the mountain was its quantity.
Where Christ is the bread of life, a powerful narrative emerges that is both far from the scarcity of the bread of consumerism and far from the nutritional injustice of the bread of stratification. The imagination of the Eucharist, the daily liturgy in which we remember Jesus as bread broken for a hungry world, is a story of quality and abundance that radically counteracts the consumptive imagination that forgets community, overlooks stratification, and blinds us to true hunger.
As the Eucharist remembers Jesus’ conflict with the powers of this world, dimensions of Christ past and future are brought into a present and visible body, and as such invite the possibility of being and acting in the world that confronts similar social powers today. In an industrialized system, which presents the liturgy of hunger, the bread of stratification, and the abuse of land and bodies, the liturgy of Christ as bread of life confronts these systems, countering assumptions of the persistence of hunger and inequality, and disrupting otherwise unchallenged narratives of exclusion and isolation. Consuming Christ, we ingest his counter-narrative, literally taking in a body politic larger than self, becoming as the church the Body of Christ in the world whereby others might encounter Christ as bread.
For Ben Yahola, co-director of the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative & Earthkeepers Voices for Native America, it was the possibility of a narrative and imagination other than colonization and consumerism that was vital to their discovering of “ways of changing our internalized oppression into physical action, ways that awaken the spirit to do something positive to improve our health.” His work among his tribe involves reclaiming traditional foods and practices by reintroducing farming and food preparation more culturally and ecologically appropriate.
I began with Wendell Berry’s prescient thought that racism is the inevitable result of “wounds in the land, the country itself,” as well as my own rhetoric of muddying these wounds—seeing the story as past, disconnected from my own history. There is perhaps no wound more deeply intertwined with land, spirit, and people—and more forgotten—than that of our violent history with the Indigenous peoples of North America. Far from a privatized voice joining in conversations about land and food, the church is poised to call the land to remember a wound that is not past, inevitable, or unrelated. Rather, the church is uniquely able to confront continued abuse and marginalization, to “un-imagine the inevitability of violent disciplines,” and to reject the bread of stratification, tasting and knowing a bread of life eternally more real.
At the messianic table, Christ invites us to participate in God’s imagination, to join a feast that reconnects us to food, land, and neighbor, and offers a way of remembering that confronts forgotten wounds, fragmented minds, and displaced bodies. Holding the bread of life, we present to the world the daily liturgy of eating as a profoundly communal, biological, spiritual, humanizing, and, as it turns out, counter-cultural act.
 Wendell Berry, “Racism and the Economy,” The Art of the Common Place, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), 47.
 Keith Secola, “Frybread,” Crystal Shawandas 2nd Annual Homecoming Concert, Wikwemikong, Ontario, July 31, 2009.
 Suzan Shown Harjo, “My New Year’s Resolution: No More Fat ‘Indian’ Food,” Indian Country Today, January 26, 2005.
 Kari Marie Norgaard, Ron Reed, and Carolina Van Horn, “A Continuing Legacy,” Cultivating Food Justice: Race Class, and Sustainability, Eds. Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 24.
 William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008 ), xii.
 Julie Guthman, “If They Only Knew”: The Unbearable Whiteness of Alternative Food, Cultivating Food Justice: Race Class, and Sustainability, Eds. Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 276.
 Ibid., 276.
 William Cavanaugh, 94.
 Luke 9:13.
 Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 73.
 Jane Webster, Ingesting Jesus: Eating and Drinking in the Gospel of John (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 70.
 As quoted by Alfonso Morales, “Growing Food and Justice: Dismantling Racism through Sustainable Food Systems,” Cultivating Food Justice: Race Class, and Sustainability, Eds. Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011),163.
 William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 14.