Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth
It was one of the best croissants I’d ever tasted. I would not, however, have tried it were it not for the insistence of someone I’d met at a nearby marketplace.
You see, whenever I travel, I like to eat and drink local foods and beverages. And, when I arrived the night before, I found my way to a restaurant full of locals; I was the only tourist. When the waitstaff were convinced that I didn’t want watered-down, sugared- and salted-up fare other tourists seek, they steered me to a laap consisting of marinated chicken, lemongrass, and shoots of a flowering plant found on the riverbanks. It was delicious and satisfying in ways different from anything I’d eaten before. Moreover, one of the servers schooled me on how to eat it: not with forks, spoons, or chopsticks, but by grabbing a wad of sticky rice and using it like a mitt to pick up the food on my plate.
By now, you surely know that I wasn’t in France, the United States, or anywhere else in the West. So, I was surprised when a fruit-seller at the marketplace, who could see that I was interested in local fare, insisted that I had to try a croissant, baguette, or other French-style baked items at Le Banneton in Luang Prbang, Laos.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that, to this day, the croissant from Le Banneton is the best I’ve tasted outside of France, where I lived for a time. For one thing, according to a couple of bakers I know, croissants bake best in humid climates. (That’s why they’re better in Boston, Washington, New Orleans, and my hometown of New York than in other parts of the US.) And, for another, Laos, like neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam, was part of Indo-China, a French colony for much of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
So why did Putin’s invasion of Ukraine get me thinking about that croissant again? And what does Christianity have to do with the invasion or the croissant?
Well, one effect of the invasion is something about which we’ve heard so much during the COVID-19 pandemic: the disruption of supply chains, all the way up to the source. Specifically, the prices of many food items throughout the world have risen sharply because of a decreasing supply of wheat, corn, and other basic food items from Ukraine and Russia. As so many men, young and middle-aged, have been conscripted, there are fewer bodies to till the soil — if it hasn’t been ravaged by bombings and other depredations of war.
Not surprisingly, when food becomes more expensive, it’s the poor who suffer the most. While one could argue that “poor” is a relative term, there is no doubt that even in wealthy countries like the United States, millions of people are “food insecure.” And in other countries, like Afghanistan (ravaged by decades of attempted occupations by foreign forces) and Somalia, Yemen and Haiti, insufficient nourishment is all but a norm.
While the countries I’ve mentioned have indeed been victimized by extreme weather and other natural disasters as well as corruption and mismanagement, they also have been tied to — held hostage by, some might say — their dependence on imported grain and other foodstuffs. Some of that has to do with their own inability to produce enough for populations that are, in some areas, growing exponentially. Much of the blame, however, can be laid upon colonialism of the economic as well as political and religious variety.
To this day, Laos grows very little wheat. Until a few years ago, it had no dairy farms. As in much of southern and eastern Asia, rice is the staple crop and soy is the “cow.” The same could be said for many other countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Or, in those countries where wheat is grown in significant quantities, it is cultivated to satisfy the tastes of colonizers or their descendants, whether locally or in the colonizing country. This situation almost perfectly parallels the ways in which colonial powers “developed” the countries they colonized: their schools were pale imitations of the ones in France, Britain, or other European countries, and offered education in quality and quantity just enough to make local people capable servants of their colonizers, or masters, if you will. The roads, ports, and other infrastructure were built mainly to facilitate the transport of raw materials back to the colonizing countries. And the Africans, Asians, and American natives who were allowed to study in Europe (or, later, the United States) were given such permission for the purpose of bringing the “mother” country’s cultural values back to the colony and fostering dependency on its technological skills and expertise.
Oh, and missionaries, whether from the Roman Catholic or other Christian churches, gave the colonizers a rationale or, more precisely, laid a veneer of virtue on their edifice: The colonizers were bringing the “light” of their faith, along with their watered-down education and culture, to the benighted masses. It’s been said that in 1452, when Pope Nicholas V issued his bull authorizing Portuguese King Alfonso I the authority to subdue and enslave non-European, non-Christian people, Europeans had the Bible and Africans had the land. A century later, it was the other way around: Africans were choking on the Bible as Europeans grew the foods they consumed themselves, or sent back home, on the land they took from the Africans.
Now, if you know anything at all about history, you are probably wondering what Ukraine has to do with anything I’ve just mentioned. While it’s true that Ukraine doesn’t have a history of colonizing faraway lands (and indeed has been subject to cruel repression by hostile neighbors), it’s become an agent, if unwittingly, of that direct descendent of colonialism: globalization.
One of the chief principles of colonialism and globalization is centralization. It’s necessary to maintain the economic systems and cultural mores the colonizers impose on the colonized: The levers that control the means of production have to be kept far away as possible (physically as well as psychologically) from those who are forced to be the toil over those means (which include the land). Thus, just as the “home offices,” if you will, of the churches where many Africans, Asians, or Latin Americans now worship are in Rome, Canterbury, or some other place in the colonists’ countries, financial markets are concentrated in London, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and a few other places. High-tech innovation incubates in areas like Silicon Valley and Route 128. Things people use and wear are designed in Paris, Milan, and other European and American metropoli. And the stuff people buy in those places, and around the world, is made in China or other countries where workers and the environment have few or no protections.
Agriculture has likewise been centralized. As an example, almonds originated in western Asia. But 80 percent of the world’s supply is now grown in California Pistachios also are believed to be native to western Asia, but the United States accounts for half of the world’s crop, with nearly all of that coming from — you guessed it — California.
In fact, while California is one of America’s, and the world’s, leading food growers, very little of what is now cultivated in the Golden State was there before los conquistadores arrived. The same is true of many of the world’s “breadbaskets”: they are growing large portions of the world’s supply of one crop or another in areas to which those crops aren’t native. In many cases, those crops were planted to satisfy the tastes of colonizers — or to increase the bottom lines of agribusiness corporations which have, in effect, become the new colonizers.
Now, to be fair, Ukraine has been a major grain producer for centuries and it is not far from areas where those crops were first cultivated. But it’s nonetheless disturbing that so much of the world has come to depend on Ukraine and Russia (or the US, France, Australia, or a few other nations) for foodstuffs that are deemed vital only because some colonizer, whether present or gone, not only inculcated a taste for them, but also destroyed or disabled the ability to grow native grains, fruits and vegetables and to raise local animals. As an example, when societies are shaped by the cultural and economic values of actual or de facto Western colonizers, the demand for beef and dairy products increases. Not only have military, economic, and religious colonizers imposed their culinary and other mores, they have also, in many cases, taken the very land on which many generations sustained themselves — and made them dependent on food from places and people they’ll never see, just as their countries depend on usurious loans from the World Bank or other products of colonialism to maintain the schools and infrastructures that were imposed on their countries.
So, while Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is correctly seen as a brutal attempt to re-colonize a nation, and we are right to be worried about the disruption of Ukraine’s food production, the fact that so many poor people in rich and poor nations will be affected should be viewed as a yet another symptom of how the current economic and political order needs to change — which includes un-tethering former colonies from Christianity. Yes, I am happy I ate that croissant in Luang Prbang. But whether and what Laotians, Yemenis, Somalians, and other currently and formerly-colonized people eat shouldn’t be beholden to power and production — and therefore wealth — centralized in banks and cathedrals in so few places, controlled by so few, and so vulnerable to disruption, whether by humans or nature.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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