The "Clean" Phenomenon

Panera's new clean campaign, snapped at my local store

Panera's new clean campaign, snapped at my local store

The New Year is upon us, and that means advertisements and initiatives to be a better you, which in common parlance means “a healthier you.” On social media, I have seen people I love talking about their diet regimens, full of whole food and clean eating. There’s nothing wrong with being healthy, of course. We have bodies and they are good--we need to care for them. There is a problem, though, with a lot of the language we use to talk about our bodies and the food we put into them. Particularly, I’m concerned about the phrase “eating clean,” and I have seen it at Panera, where I do my writing, and elsewhere.

You might say, “Amanda--these are just words. Does it really matter how we say things if we are just trying to get ourselves and others into a healthier state of being?” Well, let’s take a look at a passage of Scripture that can shed some light on this issue.

In Acts 10, Peter is traveling to share the good news of Jesus and performing miracles. He comes to Joppa and raises a righteous woman, Tabitha, back to life. He decides to stay in Joppa a little while in the home of Simon the tanner, presumably to continue to share the Gospel and to spend time with the new Christians there. While he staying at Simon’s home, he escapes to the roof to have some time alone to pray, and it is there that God gives him a vision.

Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air.
And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything uncommon or unclean.”
And a voice spoke to him again the second time and said, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven.  (Acts 10:9b-16 NKJV)

Just to comment on the literal level of this passage, it is pretty clear that God redirecting the words that Peter uses to refer to his food. The Jews had a very strict way of eating according to Levitical law (cf Leviticus 11), and Peter put a lot of stock into eating cleanly. Leviticus 11:47 encapsulates this: “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten." When he protests the eating of these unclean animals, he uses the words he has learned from the Scripture and his culture: “I have never eaten anything uncommon or unclean” (verse 14).

So it is a little surprising to hear the voice of Jesus respond with such a strong counterstatement: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat [these unclean animals]...What God has cleansed you must not call common.”

For Peter and his fellow Jews, eating practices were a large part of what defined a person. The Jews ate one way--a very specific way, given to them by God. So what is God doing now by redefining what is clean and common?

Peter’s encounter with the sheet full of animals is framed by another story. Acts 10 opens with the story of Cornelius, “a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people and prayed to God always” (10:1-2). Right before Peter has his vision, Cornelius has one of his own, in which God tells him to go find Peter. He obeys and sends his men to bring Peter to him.

There’s just a slight problem--Cornelius is a Gentile, and Peter is a Jew. At this point in history, in this part of the world, these two groups don’t really mix. But Peter has just had a curious encounter with God, and he listens to the voice of the Holy Spirit that tells him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them” (10:19-20).

Peter welcomes them in and the next day they journey back to Cornelius. When Peter meets Cornelius, he says something really important: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (10:28). 

Peter takes the vision he received and translates what God says about food into what God is saying about humans. For whatever reason, the way we talk about food is without a doubt connected to how we view the people who eat certain foods.

Therefore, we can see that it is no small thing to make the jump from “clean eating and unclean eating” to “clean people and unclean people.” This was a defining mark in the Jewish tradition--how you ate determined your inclusion or exclusion. 

We see this dynamic at play in American culture, for sure. The phrase “eating clean” is currently popular, but the same idea is expressed in many ways: eating healthy, eating right, eating whole. It’s not that these terms are bad in themselves, and I readily admit that it’s hard to think of talking about health and food in other terms.

But I think that as Christians, we have to be careful of the implications of the way we talk about food and self-care. The way our society is structured makes it really challenging for those with less money to “eat clean.” (I’ve written about this a little bit before.) The implication is that if you’re not eating clean then you’re eating dirty. And because our culture defines us how we eat (and this is also reflected in Peter’s experience in Jewish culture), people who don’t eat clean aren’t clean. They are dirty. They are unhealthy. They are not whole. This kind of thinking is insidious but it is real and affects the lives of millions of Americans. I can speak from my experience as a fat person. Our culture so tightly clings to the idea that you are what you eat. There is a social disgust for certain foods and the people who partake of them. Just think about the images of fat people you see on news reports, maybe buying pizza or burgers, their headless bodies waddling around a mall food court. That is not dignity. That is dehumanizing.

As Christians, we have to think of the implications that our language and behavior have for our neighbors. We cannot let how someone eats define their personhood. What God has called clean--in food and in people--we cannot call unclean.

The heart of the matter is how we see people, and it has always been on God's heart to include those who have been marginalized--the poor, the sick, the unhealthy, the fat, the "unclean."

So how can we counter this unfortunately and ungodly aspect of our culture, for the sake of our neighbors? I think we have to start by changing the way we see food and the way we talk about it. Based on what I’ve learned in preparing this post, I don’t think calling food “clean” or “unclean” is actually helpful. With my kids and for myself, I try to frame it as “everyday foods” versus “sometimes foods” (thanks, Cookie Monster).

Maybe you're on a New Year's journey of eating differently than you have before. Be blessed in what you're doing! And make sure that you are loving your neighbor as yourself as you go about your day. 

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 
1 Corinthians 10:31 NKJV

Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope this post has given you food for thought. :)