Chipotle’s “Scarecrow” and Theology: What the Church Can Learn About Witness From a Burrito

Chipotle has taken a risky marketing strategy, but one that is likely to be popular among Millenials. Both the Church and marketers have failed to reach these young people in the past because the slick campaigns that worked with their parents just appeared to them to be inauthentic. The marketing challenge for Chipotle will be convincing their audience that they embody the cultural critique that they are communicating. I’m not a marketing guy, so you would do better reading the marketers’ commentary if we want to think about what Chipotle is doing here.

I’m more concerned with what these story tellers can show us about the values of the Millennials that they are targeting. I’m not going to provide much commentary on the content that is best available here, so you really should watch it before you read what I think the Church can learn.

A few brief remarks: While the ever present crows nag the scarecrow and distract from the effort to break out from the system that has engulfed him, the most remarkable thing about the depiction of the system is the lack of an antagonist. Wherever the evil ones that have created this ugly system are, we can’t see them. All the customers see is the end product, with a facade covering the realities that lie within. The workers don’t even see the most problematic aspects which are stored away in hidden caverns, rather they just get caught up in the everyday whir of machines. When the scarecrow finally discovers the animals behind the system, he hardly seems surprised.

But he does in fact discover a better way of life. And when he presents this better way of life to the community that is simply busy consuming, he seems like a quaint offering amidst the giants of production around him.

But the Church should pay attention. When he presents the fruits of the way of life he has discovered, at least one (more?) joins him in that which is good.

Sometimes the life of justice and mercy that is central to the message of the gospel may seem to be just as quaint. Can those college kids running around talking about trafficking make a difference in a global and systemic trade of human beings? When 1.1 billion people do not have clean water and sanitation, that well that we spent so much time saving to build seems like a drop in the bucket.

But we don’t live a life of witness only so that those we serve will have a better way of life. We do the best that we can, but ultimately our work for others will only be brought to completion at the reconciling of all things. We also need to live this way because it is the most beautiful way of life. Our neighbors also need us to live a beautiful way of life, because they too need to be saved from the dehumanization that we experience on the consumption side of the unjust system that delivers our food.

The scarecrow wasn’t the cause of the hidden injustice or the creator of the factory. But he was complicit in it. And he came alive as he experienced a more beautiful way of life, even if it seemed quaint in comparison to the monstrosity of consumption around it.

The short film teaches us something else about the Church’s mission: the most beautiful way of life is also more difficult.

The food prepared after his epiphany moment has to be cultivated and harvested and chopped. All of that work culminates in a modest plate of tacos to be served to a single neighbor. Meanwhile the factory continues to churn out unending supplies of prepackaged “food.”

There is a growing movement of “slow food” advocates that insist that the ways that we eat actually matter for the kinds of people that we become. They suggest that food should be good, clean, and fair. But the actualities of this alternative are messy and difficult.

Our churches have often learned that they too can prepackage the “Gospel” in ways that are easy and quick. I have suggested to some that a growing church can be built with a simple formula: 1 dynamic preacher, 3 good musicians, a well selected location, lots of marketing dollars, and two years time. It happens over and over again. And I know that some good comes from these churches.

But I want to suggest that “Scarecrow” teaches us that the best kind of witness will not come easily. My friend Chris Smith is coauthoring an upcoming book on what they are calling “Slow Church,” where they learn from the principles of the slow food movement as they apply them to church life. Like those in the vein of New Monasticism, CCDA, and other similar movements they suggest that the most significant witness to the Gospel may in fact be slow and hard work.

But we need to witness to the Gospel this way, not because it will save the most people from poverty, oppression, and violence. We need this slow and steady witness to the Gospel because we too need to be saved. To harvest, chop, and simmer our food is part of the process of enjoying it. And the relationships and messiness that come from sharing life with neighbors who victims of similar injustices is part of our spiritual formation (and theirs).

The scarecrow doesn’t just provide hope to his neighbor. By the slow and laborious process of creating that which is life-giving and just, he witnesses the good life himself. The Church can learn a lot from a burrito restaurant.

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Comments

  1. says

    Hello Reverend,
    As a Christian I definitely appreciate your efforts to relate the video to Gospel. As an agriculturalist, however, I am disappointed one of the messages that was not discussed was the blatant misrepresentation of US Agriculture. This is the same type of smear campaigning we see each election cycle that sickens most people. Unfortunately, the average American consumer is 3 or more generations away from the family farm (by the way over 97% of all farms in the US are family farms). Check the USDA graphic. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/detail.aspx?chartId=40046&ref=collection&embed=True#.UjsLmLyKQgC

    The idea that “Big Ag” treats animals poorly is due to a very small percentage of farmers that have been exposed for mistreatment of animals. Of course, the footage has often taken months to create and splice together, and are the actions of hired hands, not the actual farmers themselves. Furthermore, large scale producers have more access to proper methods of treating animals and preventing lameness and disease than small farmers. Here’s some valid research on a public forum that was published in one of the top tier peer reviewed journals in the field to back my claim. http://www.dairyherd.com/dairy-news/latest/Do-large-farms-really-take-better-care-of-their-animals-215819851.html

    Again, I think it is great that you have tried to tie a creative piece of marketing that will likely win consumers over to discussing the Gospel with young people. Perhaps though, the evil you reference in the blog is actually coming from the marketers. Without knowledge of the agricultural industry it would be easy to believe what they presented is an accurate depiction of most farmers. After all, several people seem to believe that is the case, and this video likely reinforces that misconception.

    I remember the Good Book making reference to something about not bearing false witness…
    In my opinion, that is the greatest lesson we can take away from Chipotle’s advertising techniques.

    • says

      Kyle, I appreciate that the justice issues related to food production are not easy ones. And a piece of art (whether marketing or not) is rarely going to have the effect of giving nuance to the conversation. At the same time, if you are to suggest that large farms are categorically more just than small ones based on a few concerns (how soon a calf gets fed after birth, for instance) then that also would not be the whole story. If you take seriously that there are justice issues involved with food production in your industry (I assume that you are somehow committed to the industry) then you should probably welcome the conversation that they are provoking. I assume that this isn’t the only forum that you are posting on. Do you regularly have an opportunity to discuss justice issues and food production with such a broad audience? This is a chance to do so. If I were an expert in the field, I would welcome “big ag” as partner in an effort to create more just practices. If the business that you involved with shares those commitments then you can join Chipotle in the critique. It’s not like they are a mom and pop store that is collecting eggs on the way into the store each morning.

      • says

        Thanks for responding back! I know it is not the point of your reply, but I want to briefly address the issue of how quickly a calf gets milk after birth. I think it is important, because I read your response to make it sound like it is not really a big concern.
        The first milking after birth is filled with antibodies that serve as the foundation for developing a strong immune system, especially in ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, deer, etc.) since the absorption capabilities of the rumen (the major portion of the four-stomach digestive system of ruminants) is reduced about 24 hours after birth. Some estimate a mortality reduction rate of ~30% based on timing of colostrum delivery to a newborn calf (http://www.agrilabs.com/t-BHWD10-Good-Colostrum.aspx). This should be a huge concern for small farms because on a percentage basis the loss of one calf has a greater impact on future success of the operation than it would for a large scale farm. For organic or natural operations that refuse to use antibiotics (by definition they can’t sell products labeled as organic or natural after using them) failure to deliver colostrum quickly enough can result in a lifetime of health issues due to a compromised immune system.

        Back on point. I am not, nor will ever endorse that the size of an operation is the limiting factor for proper animal care. I simply wanted to reference some research that being big doesn’t necessarily mean bad. In fact, I am all for any farmer finding a responsible way to produce food regardless of the size or scope of the business. That is where my issue lies with the deceit of this type of marketing. It is depicting that small farms are inherently more just than large ones. This type of generalization is completely false. There is amazing and horrendous treatment of animals on both small and large operations.

        Would we generalize the same thing about how children are raised in a big family of people versus a small family? I’d like to think not.

        You are correct in assuming that I am involved in the industry. I am not a direct producer now, but have been in the past and plan to be in the future. Currently, I am on faculty in the Animal Sciences Department at Ohio State University, and am pursuing a Ph.D. in Agricultural and Extension Education. I think it would be a great opportunity work with Chipotle as you suggest, however, after reading the communication shared between their marketing department and the author of this blog (http://www.righteousbacon.com/chipotles-scarecrow-part-one-lessons-in-corporate-greed/), Chipotle apparently understands their ad is dishonest. Worse yet, they don’t seem to care.

        Many states, including Ohio (where I live) have existing state-run livestock care boards to establish and review humane practices. Ours consists of a mixture of industry professionals, public consumers, academics and veterinarians, from multiple political affiliations.

        You are also correct that I post on other forums. I chose yours to post on because I love the message you are trying to make, and think we need to find ways to engage young people in Christian teachings. I am just not convinced that we can use negative marketing ads to tell the whole story without embracing that doing so requires us to accept untruths (even in a fictional setting) about the industry being represented.

        Should Christians stand behind defaming ads about religion, even if the artwork is entrancing? Would believers have the same positive reaction to a brilliant cartoon short developed by non-religious groups spreading a false message?

        I hope that the collective group of believers spreading the message can learn the positives associated with this piece of art (that may not give nuance to the conversation, but has been seen by over 5.7 million viewers and is being heralded as great advertising), but are not willing to accept promoting anything other than the truth.

      • says

        The email exchange in the blog is particularly interesting. Though we are only getting the edited version, one part of the exchange acknowledges the complexity of the situation and said like I do that the point is start conversation. But in another part he seems glad to admit that they aren’t interested in speaking to the industry at all. Of course, we know that marketing serves the limited purposes of selling product and increasing brand recognition. But I suppose that this is the biggest fallacy. You can’t claim that your aim is educate at one moment then admit that the aim is selling burritos in the next moment.

  2. says

    The current food system is broken and we need a new relationship with food. The problem is our food system is highly fossil fuel dependent and as we are starting to run out of oil (the oil price is very high by historical standards) the price of food increases as well. We will have to re-localise the food system and run it without oil but this is not going to be easy. See http://www.theoillamp.co.uk/?p=1971, there are more details in our book/ebook if you are interested….

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