A Sunday school lesson on the Word of Wisdom is a very funny thing. Sunday school lessons are funny things for a lot of reasons, but I noticed it particularly this time because my mind has recently been on the topic of food as the result of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Discussing the Word of Wisdom in Sunday school is largely an exercise of patting ourselves on the back for not drinking alcohol, smoking, or dropping acid. First, we dive into D&C 89:4:
Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation—After reading that, the inevitable Sunday school question ensues: "What are some examples of these evils and designs that we have seen in these latter-days?" Now the faithful members of the Sunday school class will reveal our main enemies, the dangerous, conspiring evils that constantly threaten to undermine our health: the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry, and the illegal drug underworld.
Can you see anything missing from this picture? Like maybe the industry whose products end up on our plates every day? Let me state a few observations about the demographics of the Sunday school members in this ward as well as many other wards I've been to in the U.S. The overwhelming majority of them do not smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs. I would bet that a majority of them have never in their lives sipped coffee, smoked a cigarette, sipped alcohol, or would even recognize an illegal drug. I'm practically 30 and the only time I've ever come close to ingesting these things is in the occasional annoyance of a nearby smoker or that one time that I confusedly gave in to the incoherent demands of a teppanyaki chef (long story).
Constant vigilance, brethren and sistren! Let's be extremely conservative and say that 10% of the Sunday school members actually struggle with one of the Big Word of Wisdom No-Nos. What do the other 90% get out of the lesson? They get to feel good about themselves while telling anecdotes about other people they've known (or sometimes younger versions of themselves). For most people there, the Word of Wisdom has nothing to do with sacrifice or resisting temptation. Many of us believe that the Word of Wisdom is as easy as the law of tithing, or easier.
I'd like to submit that "obeying the Word of Wisdom", by which I mean taking the typical legalistic approach and adhering to the simple list of official proscriptions, can be culturally compared to graduating from high school. Congratulations, folks. What an incredible accomplishment. The difficulty of doing this actually depends a lot on what background you have, like what kind of family you were raised in. Most of us middle-class Sunday schoolers have been blessed with a lot, and therefore graduating from high school is about as easy as falling over a log. Similarly, abstaining from Word of Wisdom No-Nos requires minimal effort, because to break it would mean acting against all the ingrained cultural and familial forces that have shaped your life since before your skin was exposed to the atmosphere.
No, my dear Mormon readers, this is not at all impressive or effective. Keeping out a short list of certain types of filth does not make your body pure or healthy. It only keeps it free from a short list of ailments and addictions. The "evils and designs" that threaten your health you may only be vaguely aware of. The industrial machinations in place to provide you with the cheapest possible selection of food would likely surprise you. This industry, from which you and I freely gorge ourselves, is motivated by something that may rhyme with "health" but it starts with a 'w' and has a significantly different meaning.
"That sounds like one of those crazy conspiracy theories," you say. Like the kind in D&C 89:4? Of course not, right? Everybody knows that those conspiracies are the tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drug industries. The evil Marlboro guy. Those devilishly funny beer commercials. The "secret combinations" of teenage gangster wannabe crack-smokers. That's where the evil lies, not the friendly McDonald's ads or the "variety" of processed corn-derived products lining the shelves at the supermarket. The tobacco/alcohol/drug fiends are motivated by something completely different than the food corporations, right? These guys want you to get sick and die! The food guys just want to earn a living!
Another funny thing is the way we like to gloss over the meaty parts (D&C 89:12-13):
Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.Luckily we have a more modern interpretation of this scripture: "sparingly" and "only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine" actually means "every day".
We sit back and complacently distance ourselves from the soul-destroying monsters of alcohol/drug/smoking addiction, and yet we have no idea where our own food comes from and why. It might be wise to consider these kinds of things, since they directly impact our health. What better time to talk about these things than during a lesson on the Word of Wisdom? Can we get past high school?
[Footnote: My comments regarding high school and the like are not intended to diminish the accomplishments of those people who come from poor or otherwise difficult backgrounds or circumstances and have had to overcome incredible odds.]