Melissa Browning, Ph.D.
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies congregational and community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her recent book, "Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania," builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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Activism LGBTQ

Chicken Nuggets and Family Values

By on July 18, 2012

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on July 18, 2012


I have one fast food weakness — an eight-pack of chicken nuggets in a white and red box. I could go years and never crave a fast food burger, but I’ll admit I have a deep kinship with Chick-fil-A’s version of fast food. As a kid growing up (Christian) in the south, Chick-fil-A has always been part of the good food I loved. They donated free sandwich coupons to our church fundraisers, and as a teenager I attended community prayer breakfasts that met at our local Chick-fil-A. True story: I’ve even dressed as a cow to get free food.

But today, we’re parting ways. For the past few months, I have been following the news that Chick-fil-A donates money to groups such as Marriage & Family Foundation, Exodus International and the Family Research Council. These groups and others have contributed extensively to the religious hate speech that marginalizes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. They have spoken out against civil rights for LGBT individuals and have even discouraged anti-bullying campaigns that seek to prevent LGBT teens from taking their own lives.

I’m not one to rush to a boycott. I recognize that many of the places I eat have unjust practices. Even when I cook in my own kitchen, I have little knowledge of whether or not those who grew, harvested and packed our food were paid a fair wage for their work. Beyond buying a label that says “organic,” I have little information about whether the process of growing my food hurt or healed the earth.

But we are what we eat — isn’t that what they say? And as it turns out, I can’t eat hate. Over our breakfast of fair-trade coffee and organic fruit this morning, my husband and I read Dan Cathy’s latest anti-gay comments in The Huffington Post. In talking about the article, we both admitted we’d felt guilty every time we popped into Chick-fil-A for nuggets or that delicious cookies and cream shake. But we knew what we needed to do. As people who grew up in the churches that fueled this dehumanizing anti-gay rhetoric, we’ve stomached enough hate for a lifetime.

As I read where Dan Cathy talked about the “the biblical definition of the family unit,” I couldn’t help but think of the teenage girl in Louisville, Ky., who was beaten by a group of adults who shouted anti-gay slurs as they broke her jaw the day after his comments. Unfortunately, the “biblical definition of the family unit” that Cathy speaks of would not seek justice for this girl. After all, those who were considered an “abomination” could be stoned for their lack of conformity to the patriarchal norm. Did I mention that the place where this teenage girl was beaten was in front of two churches? Words have consequences, and the words that some churches have been speaking are still creating an atmosphere where violence can be justified. The consequences of our words are coming back to our doorsteps to call us to account.

As cited in HuffPost, when Dan Cathy was asked by Baptist Press about his company’s support of the “traditional family,” he replied, “Guilty as charged.” Like Cathy, churches that speak hate through exclusion are “guilty as charged” for the violence we incite. By promoting (or simply ignoring) speech that marginalizes people — any people — we deny that we are all made in the image of God, deserving of human dignity and human rights — no matter who we are (or aren’t) having sex with.

As a kid, I not only loved Chick-fil-A’s nuggets, but I also loved that Christian values shaped their business. I loved that they hung out a sign to say they were closed on Sundays. I still believe that, as people of faith, we are called to live out our faith in whatever work we are called to do. But hate is not a Christian value. Jesus, who never married, did not come to marginalize people but to proclaim justice. Perhaps Dan and his family will understand. I’m hanging out my sign. I won’t eat at Chick-fil-A on any day of the week because I can no longer be part of these contributions that fund hate. Words have consequences. I don’t want to be “guilty as charged.”

I have a 1-year-old daughter who also loves her chicken nuggets. Unfortunately, if Chick-fil-A continues to donate money to groups who speak violence against LGBT individuals and their families, then she will not grow up with same love for this food that my husband and I had as children. A small sacrifice, I guess. I just hope she grows into a world where hate crimes become uncommon, where people are not beaten in a church’s front yard for being different, for being queer.

Throughout the Christian church’s history, food has always been a sacred space of sharing. The common religious ritual that forms both liberal and conservative churches is communion — the act of taking part in the table of Christ. Willingness to participate in the life of Christ — willingness to drink the cup and taste the bread — has always been the signifier of our faith, not our sexuality. I teach ethics, and during a recent class the subject of homosexuality came up. When some students began to cite the biblical reasons against homosexuality, another student felt marginalized by the discussion. She said, “I’m glad to hear everyone’s voice, I’m glad that as a church we can come to the table, but I can’t come to the table if people are throwing food at me.” The violence is not only at our doorsteps, but at our altars as well.

On my daily commute to work, the only Chick-fil-A in the city is 10 feet away from my subway stop. To leave the train and walk the one block to my office means I will pass Chick-fil-A each day. But now, instead of stopping in for a chicken biscuit and coffee, I’ll keep walking and say a prayer for peace. I’ll pray that love will conquer hate, that justice will roll down like waters and that I’ll have the strength to keep on walking.