As alluded to in last week's posts on fasting for Lent and Sarah's reflections on Dominion, we're going to take a look at the possibility of eating more compassionately in the coming posts. This can be understandably be a bit of a daunting discussion, as animal meats and other products are such a huge part of our consumption habits and traditions: from fast food burgers and Summer barbecues, to Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas ham, even church potlucks.
But what you may not realize is that just about everyone comes at the issue with similar questions and reservations, and we all start somewhere in deciding how we're going to respond to a growing awareness that the way most animals are raised and slaughtered on modern 'factory' farms isn't something we can stomach.
We know it's wrong, from the loving way we treat our own animals, to the way our hearts sink and eyes brim with tears when we learn about baby veal calves (a constant by-product of the dairy industry) being ripped from their bellowing mothers only hours old, and condemned to a few short months of isolated misery in crates so small they can't turn even around. We cringe when we hear about the unbearable stench of ammonia and the haze of dust which surround egg-laying chickens crammed into wire cages so small they can't spread their wings, and often get caught in the mesh. And what does anyone make of recent reports of literally millions of baby male chicks being tossed aside, useless to the industry 'processing' them, to suffocate slowly in garbage bags or be ground alive in shredders?
The examples mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg, tragically. We know by common sense, let alone our consciences, that insanities like these have got to stop, and post haste. Factory animal farming has been referred to as a hell-spawned industry, and I think that's a fair assessment. This quote from Matthew Scully on his exposure to an industrial pig farm is worth repeating:
The smallest scraps of human charity - a bit of maternal care, room to roam outdoors, straw to lie on-have long since been taken away as costly luxuries, and so the pigs know the feel only of concrete and metal. They lie covered in their own urine and excrement, with broken legs from trying to escape or just to turn, covered with festering sores, tumors, ulcers, lesions, or what my guide shrugged off as the routine "pus pockets."
C.S. Lewis's description of animal pain - "begun by Satan's malice and perpetrated by man's desertion of his post" - has literal truth in our factory farms because they basically run themselves through the wonders of automation, with the owners off in spacious corporate offices reviewing their spreadsheets. ("A Religious Case for Compassion for Animals", pg. 13)
As Christians, we're all at different stages of working out God's call on our conscience with respect to eating compassionately; and that's ok (see not one sparrow's own disclaimer on this issue). How do we honor the flexibility with which the New Testament seems to treat dietary choices, and still be supporters of responsible and compassionate animal husbandry, which the Bible does consistently expect, through the groceries and meals we purchase?
We need to start somewhere, we do need to respond in some way, even with the smallest of steps towards eating more humanely. But please don't think you'll need to become a vegetarian overnight, if at all. You might even be surprised at how basic and accessible some first steps might be. Please stay tuned over the coming days for some encouragement and practical advice. We won't overwhelm you, I promise, and don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of further help personally.
In the meantime, you can find perhaps some helpful perspective along these lines from pastors Justin Bills ("A Pastor's View on Eating Mercifully"), Dave Kelly ("Eating Mercifully") and Greg Boyd ("Why I'm a Vegetarian").