Update: This post. It was one of the first I wrote when I started blogging. I wasn’t prepared for the strong reactions it would stir. It seems to have stuck too. Every day people are led here from a google search with some combination of the words: obesity, sin, church, and fat. Since writing it I’ve had a few shifts in my thoughts on it. I still agree with my original central idea; that the church should help its members dealing with obesity.
The details though, I have to amend. I underestimated the shame that those who struggle with obesity have endured and the church should be the least shame-filled place on earth. Also, some who agreed with my original post went on to say hurtful things to others that I would never say or agree with.
So now I’m in a conundrum. I could just edit it to fit my current thoughts, but that would put the comments on the post, and the other blogs that have linked to it appear out of context, and wouldn’t do them justice. I could just leave it as is but then it keeps propagating ideas that I don’t think are most helpful or constructive. So the third option, the one I’m choosing, is to leave the original words but comment on why I’ve changed my opinions and say what I think is a better way. Those comments are in red.
Last week there was an article on NPR about NYC’s ban on big sodas in an effort to curb obesity in the city. The article’s author astutely pointed out that the problem with these kinds of bans is that they’re based on values, and values are different from person to person. What is unacceptable to one might be perfectly permissible to another or even necessary.
I’m not interested in making a statement about what should and shouldn’t be public policy.
Here is what I do want to say: Even though there was no mention of church or religion, the writer of the article was pleading for the church to do its job, a job that it’s neglected for some time now.
If public policy is the government’s purview, then values are the churches.
The church is generally quick to point to the numerous instances in scripture where our bodies are described as a temple; those passages are convenient, when we want to address illegal drugs, smoking, and alcohol abuse. But rarely, if ever, do we address gluttony.
If I had to say why, I think there are a few reasons:
- Many of our pastors are obese. It’s tricky, because I can’t think of any other sin that you can see just by looking at a person. Gluttony may be the modern scarlet letter. Please, understand, I’m not saying that being heavy is a sin, but try preaching a sermon about gluttony, and lack of self-control when you yourself are standing before a congregation and noticeably overweight. Unfortunately, this doesn’t excuse us from withholding a part of the Gospel from God’s people.
No, it doesn’t excuse us from withholding part of the Gospel, but one of the flaws in my thinking was that for the church to address something means it has to be addressed from the pulpit, by a pastor. This really elevates the role of a pastor and demotes the rest of the church, both to an unhealthy place. We should “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:1-2), but I think this presupposes an intimate relationship, one where we have given permission to the other person to be honest with us. I think to bear one another’s burdens looks more like “How can I help?” and less like “You’re doing this wrong.”. It also means that I’ve opened myself up to you bearing my burden before I ask to bear yours.
- Many in our congregations are obese. Same as above; being overweight isn’t something you can hide. Many pastors or fellow church members just don’t want to offend or embarrass people, and while that comes from a loving place, remember it’s never fun to be called out on your sin; we have to find tactful and loving ways to be or brothers/sisters keeper.
The fault here is the idea that help has to come in a confrontational and public way. Even I’m open about my struggles, I had the choice to be open about it. I had the luxury of choosing to be open about it. To address obesity in a public forum, in front of guests, non-believers, and children who might be obese is simply unhelpful. Even when all intentions are loving, I’m not sure that it can be done in way that doesn’t bring shame.
Several years ago I was working at a youth conference and went to lunch with several denomination leaders. The conversations turned to a church in Germany that decided that they would no longer have beer at their fellowships (a cultural norm) because of a problem of alcoholism in their community. Everyone at lunch believed this to be wonderful because the community was looking out for the health of their people. I agree. But if it was so obviously the right and loving thing to do, why aren’t we applying the lesson to our own American churches.
If we are truly concerned with the health of our brothers and sisters, we would probably take a cue from that German congregation, and ask in kind and loving ways, that no one bring fried chicken, fatty biscuits, or large portioned desserts to the pot-luck. Whoa… I can hear my heresy trial being assembled as we speak. A move like that might rock the boat. It might upset the sweet old ladies that tithe O so consistently. I still think that church should be a great place for people to learn moderation. However I think these kinds of decisions should be made within the church and together, with all of the church being in on this type of decision, not one segment demanding it of another segment.
This isn’t a move we need to make flippantly. Christians, we’ll have to walk with each other through this slowly, carefully, and most of all lovingly. Those who don’t struggle with this one will need to be transparent about the weaknesses they do have, and be serious about those short comings too.
It will be a narrow road to travel, one with pitfalls on either side. The last thing we need is to turn the church into vain snobs, calling anything that couldn’t find its way into a grocery store magazine, sinful. We also can’t make it strictly physical, neglect the spiritual side, start a P90X class in the gym and call it done.
We were never promised an easy road. But, when we ignore the problem, decide not to be our brother’s/sister’s keeper, we stand by while people kill themselves slowly, and it will be yet another facet of life in which we are no different from the world around us. We’ve got to open our eyes and see that this obesity epidemic is the church’s problem.
What do you think? Do you hate me now? Have you ever seen a community address this issue well? If not, how can we do so?
Thank you for reading and thank you for the grace and mercy.