As the recession drags on and environmental issues remain in the public consciousness, Freeganism – the practice of gleaning food from supermarket waste – is becoming increasingly popular.
It’s not hard to see why. Britain’s supermarkets generate an estimated 300,000 tonnes of food waste annually, 17,000 tonnes of which gets ploughed into landfill, because it’s the cheapest option for waste disposal. A large percentage of this food waste comes from supermarket surplus – food which is in date and undamaged but surplus to the retailers’ requirements. Yet the big five supermarkets remain reluctant to take any major steps to restructure the way they buy and sell food to reduce this waste.
Despite this surplus, the Government Food and Health forum reported in 2003 that on average, about 5000 people per parliamentary constituency (of which we have 650 = 3,250,000 people in total) in the UK, are in food poverty – unable to attain food of sufficient quality or quantity. In light of this, intercepting food from behind supermarkets before it becomes part of this waste statistic seems, frankly, virtuous.
There is however, a catch: taking food from bins is illegal.
Only a couple of people have ever been prosecuted and frankly, it seems unlikely that the police force would divert resources from elsewhere to tackle those pesky rubbish-stealers, but still, it’s absolutely against the law. Unfortunately the Bible’s position on obeying the law doesn’t let you off the hook if the law is poorly constructed and wasteful. Caesar was the guy who invented watching gladiators kills each other for entertainment, but Jesus told us to pay him taxes, and to respect government (Mark 12.17, also see 1 Peter 2:13). So can you really justify Robin Hood style vigilante action over a sack of binned parsnips?
Unsurprisingly, most Christians I’ve surveyed have opted for a blanket ban on illegal activity. I’m not so sure though. Just as there are moments when what is legal is not permissible, like tax evading, my inclination is to say that there are moments when what is permissible is illegal. The early Christians were all over breaking the law, albeit for the principle of spreading the gospel rather than for some knock-off iced buns. What’s critical to note is that they still showed respect to the Romans; they broke the law in full awareness of the consequences and accepted the punishment when they were caught. Paul didn’t get imprisoned and write “This is so unfair, no one told me, your law is immoral you Roman cretins”. He responded to the law with the attitude, “I know your law and accept the punishment but believe my principle is worth breaking the law for”. It might be stretching it to say that this applies as much to gouda as to the gospel but, yes, actually it might – it’s still about living by a principle.
I’m not suggesting Christians run wild and abandon the laws of the land in favour becoming trash-pillaging hippies, but it does mean that I am prepared to come out and say: Yes, I steal from bins and actually I’m not sure Jesus would mind.