Culture At Large

Childhood obesity and systemic sin

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

A pediatric hospital in my home state of Georgia has been running an advertising campaign about childhood obesity which has ignited some controversy.

This NPR story summarizes both arguments: the ad producers point out that Georgia has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity and argue that the harsh tone is necessary for parents who are in denial about their kids' weight and its potential health effects. Others believe the tone of the ads might hurt kids who are already stigmatized for their weight. I’ve written before about what I make of the health-communication research about scare tactics in these types of ads. This controversy raises that and other issues, many of which are important for Christians.

Of course Christians should be concerned about what experts have called a health crisis. When Paul wrote, “Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?” he wasn’t addressing obesity, but it seems to apply. We should care for our bodies because they are given to us by God. We should be concerned with helping others to stay healthy as well.

We must also be careful, though, to not make people who are already alienated by society feel worse. We should also avoid emphasizing thinness as the only sign of healthfulness, which can encourage eating disorders and exercise disorders or just too much focus on our own and others' appearance. TC contributor Caryn Rivadeniera wrote about that very issue last year at Her.meneutics. We  need to be careful to balance helping people feel they can take control of their weight by changing their habits and not making people feel ashamed about their bodies. I worry these Georgia ads lean too hard on making kids and parents feel ashamed.

Additionally, when a problem like childhood obesity grows at the rate it has in contemporary America, it's necessary to think about whether our societal sins contribute more than individual choices. It's unlikely that so many people have just gotten lazier or more indulgent; at least some of the problem is likely a result of culture or environment.

The website associated with this campaign points to some of the usual suspects (junk food, screen time replacing physical activity), but ignores some of the potential causes at a social level (fewer green spaces, loss of recess and PE time in public schools, parents working too many hours to prepare healthy meals and snacks). Individual solutions are easier to implement, but I think we have a temptation to assume thin people are more virtuous, when the biology and sociology of the situation is a lot more complicated.

As Christians, we have a lot of theological concepts that help us hold these two issues in tension with each other. A systemic view of sin helps us get beyond the complex question of fault. If we think of our entire world as broken by sin, then obesity is a combination of the specific consequences of individual sin and the general consequences of living in an imperfect world. We can understand it as just another problem we must address with the grace and mercy that God extends to all of us, in our communal and individual sinfulness. This doesn't mean we can't help people live healthier lives, but it also means we must approach obesity like any other problem - with humility, empathy and love before judgment.

The even tougher question is: how does that look? What should the church do to love and help its own members and others who are overweight or obese?

(Image courtesy of Strong4Life.)

If we think of our entire world as broken by sin, then obesity is a combination of the specific consequences of individual sin and the general consequences of living in an imperfect world.

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