Themes / Bible & economy

Ethical Consumption

A new legalism or the law of love?

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters August 2013


I abhor almost everything about KFC and what it represents. I abhor the sort of agriculture that is required to supply it and what this does to farmers, to animals, to the land and to the poor; I abhor the form of food that is produced and the resulting health impacts in our community, especially amongst the marginalised; I abhor the forms of marketing, advertising and branding it employs, and the ways in which it manipulates and distorts desire, family, sexuality, childhood and adolescence; and I abhor the style of business it represents, particularly how it drives out locally-rooted independent small-scale businesses.

But geez I love that chicken and those chips!

Every summer, when the cricket is on, saturated with KFC adverts and branding, I am plunged into a titanic spiritual struggle. Jesus got it right when he said that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak – especially when the flesh is coated in those eleven secret herbs and spices and a truckload of salt and MSG! As the cricket season progresses the tension becomes unbearable, and I inevitably end up making a surreptitious trip down to the local KFC to buy some of that infernal chicken, feeling more self-conscious than if I was buying pornography. To make matters worse, my good friend Nick Ray, author of The Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping and generally inspirational human being, lives just across the road from our local KFC. Damn!! Perhaps the Apostle Paul was fighting the aroma of those chicken fryers when he wrote: ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. […] Wretched man that I am!’ (Rom 7:15-24)

What I am describing here is an example of the tormenting struggle between conscience and desire which many people would experience in one form or another. In this case, however, my struggle is entirely the product of my subscription to a self-imposed code of conduct that might loosely be called ‘ethical consumption’ or ‘responsible consumption’. But there are many who quite understandably ask: is all that torment worth it?

This question can be broken down into some more probing questions of ethical consumption: (i) does it achieve any good in the world?; (ii) what will happen to the people who rely on ‘unethically’ produced goods for a livelihood if I switch my purchasing behaviour?; and (iii) for those who are Christian and interested in trying to follow a Christ-centred way of life, what does this mean for how we think about faith? Or to put it another way, what is a Christian way of thinking about the struggles and conundrums involved in ethical consumption?

There is a mass of writing about the first of these questions (including Manna Matters Nov 2009) so I won’t tackle that here, and the second question is addressed in the accompanying article of this edition. The third of these questions is, in my experience, rarely articulated but exists as a tension just below the surface for many Christians who begin to explore ethical consumption. When I am at a friend’s house and they are serving coffee that is not Fair Trade, should I have some? When someone gives me a box of chocolates that is not Fair Trade, should I eat it? These are immediate questions but they have deeper theological implications, and it this that we shall explore here.

The idea of ethical consumption is founded on two simple primary principles:

  1. Our need to reduce unnecessary and frivolous consumption, thereby reducing the strain on the earth’s resources and on the other creatures who share this planet.
  2. Our need to encourage production processes that take better care of people and the earth. Generally, but not always, this involves being prepared to pay a higher price.

However, as simple as the principles sound, actualising them in day-to-day life is immensely complex – the genius of our consumer system is that the true story of the impacts on people and places is entirely hidden from our view. That is why, over the last couple of decades, a huge amount of work has gone into developing some easily recognisable proxies for these principles that allow the average person to translate ethical aspirations into action at the checkout. These proxies are starting to become well known: Fair Trade, organic, no sweat, free range, palm oil free, GMO free, 100% recycled etc. But there are other considerations too: company ownership, the amount and type of packaging, and transport miles.

In 2007 the Ethical Consumer Group produced The Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping that comes out in a new edition every year. The fact that the Guide sells more than 20,000 a year is an indication that concern about the impact of our consumption is not limited to a few fringe hippies and radicals. The Guide offers a simplified means of choosing between similar or identical products by distilling a huge amount of information about the record of the companies behind the products down to four different types of ticks or crosses. As I mentioned, Nick Ray, one of the authors of the guide is a good friend. Nick is painfully aware that such ticks and crosses cannot adequately represent the situational and moral complexity of the choices we are faced with; however, he is also painfully aware of the need to help people move beyond analysis paralysis. Thus, when standing at the supermarket shelf for olive oil, rather than agonise over a series of conundrums and lack of information, I can choose the one that is made in Australia, and owned by an Australian company that gets a tick for company record.

So I choose the products that get the tick, or have the Fair Trade badge, or are certified organic. And I try, despite myself, not to choose KFC. But in following these proxies to guide what I buy, have I unwittingly subscribed to a new kosher? Do we now have a new form of clean and unclean foods, the consumption of which marks the righteous from the unrighteous? If I say that I make these choices based on faith and conscience, am I saying that God requires them? Is not this then justification by works rather than faith? In short, is there a danger that by adopting an ethical code of conduct about what we buy and eat, we are in fact setting up a new legalism, the sort of religious system that was overthrown by Jesus and Paul?

To explore these questions requires untying, or at least loosening, some deep-seated theological knots: our attitudes to and understanding of the Old Testament law; our understanding of where Jesus, and then Paul, stood in relation to this law; and how this informs our approach to modern codes of conduct.

Torah Re-visited


To usefully compare modern ethical codes of conduct to the Old Testament law – the Torah – we need to gain a fuller sense of both the positive and negative implications of such a comparison. Rather than ‘the law’, a more sympathetic interpretation of the word ‘Torah’ is instruction or teaching. Although, because of the huge gap of context it is hard for us to see, Torah is far from an arbitrary list of rules. It is, rather, a detailed, wide-ranging, holistic, integrated vision of what it would look like for humans to live in shalom (right relationship) with each other, with creation and with God. It addresses not just religious rules, but economics, politics, ecology and situational ethics. Torah not only provides a series of instructions and guidances on how individuals can conduct themselves ethically in the day to day complexities of life, but articulates a structure of society in which – as Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker movement would have said – it is easier for people to be good. More than that, it is through the Israelites’ obedience to Torah that they are to embody the character of God in the world . It is by living out this instruction in God’s way of life that God’s people are to tell the world about God. (For a fuller exposition of these ideas, see Manna Matters Nov 2009.)

Both Jesus and Paul affirm the fundamental goodness of the intent of Torah. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously states: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.’ (Matt 5:17) Paul, in his extended discourse on the law in the letter to the Romans, declares that ‘the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good’ (Rom 7:12).

Nevertheless, one of the defining conflicts within the gospels is between Jesus and those who have most staked their faith to Torah-observance, the Pharisees. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees is strident and unrelenting, pointing out that in their ever-more intricate development of rules to live by, the Pharisees have ‘strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel’. In Matthew chapter 23, Jesus pronounces an extended indictment of the rules-based religion of the Pharisees. The Torah that was intended to give guidance in the ways of justice and shalom has ended up squeezing out the place of love for one’s neighbour, it has replaced the need for honest and humble self-reflection in the presence of God, and it has ultimately become a vehicle of death rather than life. Jesus’ re-interpretation of a series of Torah commandments in Matthew 5, and his general unconcern for rigid Sabbath-observance (see Matt 12:1-8) reveal his purpose both to reclaim the intent of Torah, but ultimately to go well beyond it in fully revealing the way that leads to life.

And it is Paul, the once Pharisee, who, after his conversion encounter with the risen Jesus, is led to dramatically declare that those who are ‘in Christ’ are no longer under the law. Paul’s life is gripped by the breathtaking insight that God’s covenant with Abraham (‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ - Gen 12:3) and the intentions of Torah (the faithful embodiment of the character of God) are all accomplished in Jesus. Paul understands that the whole meaning and intent of Torah has now come to fruition, which means it has taken new shape. And for Paul, the new shape of following God is summed up in one little phrase with a big meaning: ‘faith in Christ’. Scholars such as NT Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson have argued that our English rendering of this pivotal Greek phrase (pistis Christou) does not quite do it justice. A fuller rendering would be something like ‘faith in Christ’ plus ‘the faith of Christ’. Following rules and commandments might be an easily comprehensible way of practising religion, but it fails to achieve the profound transformation (the second birth) that God desires for us. For Paul there is now only one defining teaching and instruction, one ‘Torah’, to live by, and that is the person and the lived example of Jesus.

Paul is therefore horrified at the scurrilous suggestions that one can have an intellectual and abstract ‘faith in Jesus’ that then somehow allows one to ignore frameworks for living in right relationship. Paul is on the one hand adamant that the life of faith is the life of grace and therefore cannot be lived by a written set of rules; but on the other hand he is also adamant that the life of faith in Jesus requires the conforming of our whole conduct in this world to ‘the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:2). He calls for our bodies to be given as ‘living sacrifices’ (Rom 12:1) and declares that the ethical standard of life is now fundamentally simple, yet profoundly demanding:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Gal 5:13-14)

Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:1)

Paul & Ethical Eating

Like Jesus, Paul’s call is both liberating and daunting. What does it mean to love my neighbour in all the complex interactions of life? If we had no more guidance than this we might struggle to agree on how to interpret Paul’s intention, but luckily we have a couple of instances where Paul works this principle through in relation to the ethics of eating, and he shows how his approach is finely nuanced to the complexities of situation and circumstance.

In 1 Corinthians chapters 8-10 and Romans 14 Paul addresses questions of conscience that have come up around eating in these two communities. In Corinth, a community with largely ex-pagan converts, a dispute has arisen as to whether Christians should or should not eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan idols. In Rome, perhaps a more mixed community of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, Paul gives guidance on how these two entirely different food cultures can co-exist within one body. What is immediately striking when reading these passages is that Paul’s guidance is not simple. Paul steadfastly refuses to lay down a rule about ‘what is right’, but rather insists his readers dig below the surface of their own ideas about food and pay attention to the relational implications of their actions. How do their decisions about food affect others?

In Corinth, it seems that some Christians, self-confident in their belief that there is only one God, have insisted that there is no harm in eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols, as such idols are not real. (Most butchery in the Hellenistic world was associated with the rituals of a pagan temple of some sort.) Paul agrees with them. Meanwhile, others in the community are not able to disassociate eating such meat from supporting the idolatrous religion that they have turned their backs on. Paul is entirely sympathetic with their position. What are they to do? Paul refuses to admit an absolute right or wrong with either partaking or abstaining, but rather insists on one principle:

‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.  (1 Cor 10:23-24)

In particular Paul insists that ‘the strong’ (and surely his usage of this term is laden with some irony), those who are self-confident in their beliefs, show regard to ‘the weak’ (those whose consciences are fragile) and be prepared to change their eating habits for their benefit: ‘if food can be the cause of a brother’s downfall, I will never eat meat any more’ (1 Cor 8:13).

In his letter to the Romans, Paul similarly refuses to take sides in their differences around eating, but points them to the same principle. While Paul recognises that there are different perspectives on the ethics of eating within the community, he is sharply critical of anyone whose adherence to one perspective has led them to become judgemental of those who differ. Rather than try and bring these groups to a common perspective on the Jewish food taboos (either for or against them), Paul is concerned that each person act with integrity to their own conscience: ‘The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve’ (14:22). However, Paul is also fundamentally concerned that each person’s conduct take into account the good of the whole community: ‘If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love … Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat’ (v.15, 20). While Paul is not disagreeing with anyone’s intellectual conviction, in practice he is asking that those who have no inhibitions about food and drink to nevertheless be prepared to accept some restrictions, for the sake of their brothers and sisters. What is crystal clear to Paul is that personal gratification should never get in the way of relationship: ‘For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but justice, peace and joy’ (v.17).

A Modern Torah?


So what does all this mean for us now? Would Paul support contemporary efforts at ethical consumption, or would he see it as a barrier to ‘the law of the spirit of life’?

What should be immediately clear from the above discussion, but what nevertheless still needs to be stressed, is that Paul is not at all interested in what we might call ‘purity’. He shows absolutely no concern that what you eat or drink might somehow put you on the wrong side of God.

From my observation, there is sometimes a real danger that discussion of ethical consumption amongst Christians can implicitly assume – without ever quite articulating it – that the goal is ‘not doing the wrong thing’; or to put it more bluntly, staying clean. Perhaps, even more worrying, the goal can even subtly shift to being seen to do ‘the right thing’.

When ethical consumption becomes a code for ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, then it must be rejected. For one thing, it would require all those proxies we have developed to guide ethical consumption to always be ‘right’ all the time (an impossible ask), or else the whole exercise becomes futile. Moreover, the idea that in this mind-bogglingly complex global economy we could somehow achieve a status of being ‘pure’, no longer implicated in wrongs of the world, is delusional.

But more seriously, as both Paul and Jesus understood, purity codes have the effect of creating division between people – of delineating those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’, and further leading those who are ‘in’ to become judgemental of those who are not. And that is one thing that Jesus and Paul won’t countenance: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?’ (Rom 14:4); ‘Judge not, so that you may not be judged’ (Matt 7:1).

More than once I have heard new converts to ethical consumption agonise over whether they should or should not drink the coffee at their friends’ house, knowing that it is not Fair Trade. From a Pauline perspective, this is a non-issue: drinking a cup of Nescafe (that your friend has already bought) is not going to hurt anyone, however, refusing the hospitality of a friend (or anyone for that matter) has more serious relational implications. In our household we have made a decision not to buy any Nestle products because of their woeful corporate record, but it would be rude, ungrateful and plain wasteful not to accept and enjoy a box of Nestle chocolates that someone, acting out of kindness, has bought for us. The great spiritual danger of purity codes is that they become a substitute for, or even a barrier to, faith, that small-but-huge word that Paul uses to describe the ongoing process by which humans struggle to be oriented to the God of love, the only source of real life.

So a concern for purity – something that supposedly keeps us on the right side of God – is not a reason that Paul would endorse for exploring ethical consumption; however, there are some much more substantive reasons to take up an ethical code of conduct in consumption, and these align closely with Paul’s primary concerns.

As noted above, foundational to Paul’s instructions on eating is the relational implications of people’s decisions: ‘For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but justice, peace and joy’ (Rom 14:17). In this quote Paul is drawing on the big Hebrew concepts of justice/righteousness and peace/shalom (right relationship) that fill all his writings. It represents his conviction that through the coming of Jesus, God is undertaking the work of putting the world to rights – of establishing right relationship between people, between people and God, and between people and creation – and that those who are ‘in Christ’ are called to participate in this great shalom-making purpose (see 2 Cor 5:17-20).

One of the great accomplishments of people such as Nick Ray, the Ethical Consumer Group and others like them, has been to lift the veil on the consumer economy and show how, through our acts of consumption, we are in relationship with people all over the world, and with the earth itself. And the reason this incredibly dense web of relationships is so ingeniously hidden from our view is that so much of it is exploitative and alienating, the opposite of justice and shalom. Through the frameworks of ethical consumption, however, we can, acting out of love and from our own free will, choose to restrict our own consumption and limit our own gratification in order to make the best choice that we can for the sake of our neighbour, and for the sake of God’s good earth upon which we all depend. Surely this is an idea of which Paul would thoroughly approve.

When acting from this basis, we are acting according to what Paul calls ‘the law [Torah] of the spirit of life’. Not only is it a choice of love, it is a choice of conscience, which is another way of saying it is a choice to integrate belief and action, and this also is critical for Paul. Knowing what we now know about our consumer system, how can we now read Jesus’ challenging response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and continue to ignore the implications of our consumption for others? ‘Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith’ (Rom 14:22-23).

But this is exactly where we need teaching and guidance, because the complexity of the consumer system so effectively obscures what a choice for love might look like. The frameworks and proxies that have been developed around ethical consumption offer practical guidance - yes, a kind of Torah - for negotiating these complexities in our day-to-day choices. Indeed, by invoking the comparison to Torah, we very usefully gain a sense of the benefit, but also the dangers and limitations, of trying to live by such frameworks.

So let’s embrace ethical consumption frameworks for what they are, and not imagine that they are something more. They are partial, contextual improvisations that help us to more easily make good choices in a global economy that is horribly broken and horrendously complex. They are not infallible and they are not the last word on what is right or good, and neither should we expect them to be. Tools such as the Ethical Guide are based upon the best information available, however, such information is never perfect or complete, and is changing rapidly. Certification codes such as Fair Trade and Australian Certified Organic are systems which endeavour to guarantee better treatment of people and the land, however, all human systems are liable to break down somewhere along the line. Don’t be dismayed or even surprised when some certification code is shown to be flawed in some way – they too will always need scrutiny, critique and improvement. Don’t let our inability to make ‘the perfect choice’ (whatever that is) stop us from making the best choices that we have available to us. What the world needs of us and what God hopes for us is not that we attain moral perfection, but that we form habits in trying to choose what is good, acting out of love for our neighbour and for the earth, even if we sometimes fail, and even if we sometimes just can’t quite resist slipping down to the local KFC …


The other day I read an article in an organic gardening magazine that rhetorically declared, ‘What could be better than growing your own organic kale?’ I reckon I could think of a few things. Top of my list would be if I could get my hands on some locally-sourced, organic, free range, Kentucky-style fried chicken made by a locally-owned, independent small business! I reckon I might just pass up the organic kale for some of that …