Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Does God Care about the Slaughterhouses?

Before you think I'm officially off the deep end and on my way to picketing fishing decks, boycotting wool, and forgoing my former hygiene regimen, hear me out! And take into account that, as I write this, I'm wearing a sweater that's 7% wool and 6% rabbit hair (I thought the rabbit hair was weird, too). And please provide feedback! I'm posting this as an honest exploration of Christian responsibility and asking myself what issues, in the large picture of conscientious stewardship, actually matter to God. It's a hard question to ask... and maybe we don't ask it because we don't want to confront something that's easier to ignore. Out of sight, out of mind. But that's why I'm inviting you to weigh in and help me sort through some thoughts.

I hadn't really looked into the ethical side of Veganism until, well, this week... While I knew and agreed that a lot of wasteful and inhumane brutality goes on behind the closed doors of factory farming, I wasn't in the place to say that it was a moral issue. It was more like a: "That's sad, but oh well. There's larger fish to fry" scenario. Yes, I love my pets, animals are cute, but I wasn't about to chain myself to a tree to protect the spotted owl. Horrors like gendercide, sex trafficking, abortion, and religious persecution are already way too pressing.

Now that I've taken a glimpse at some of the unnecessary cruelty that goes on during meat production, I'm simply praying and opening myself up to a few questions. I'm not taking up a New Age worldview or advocating a radical conversion (get the leather, pearls, and honey out of this house!). I'm simply asking God (and you!) to sift through some thoughts with me.
  • When it comes to the way that Westernized societies waste, mistreat, and over-consume animal/ecological resources, can we honestly confirm that this is what God had in mind when He gave Adam a Garden for sustenance and entrusted him with dominion over creation? 
  • Have we abused the notion of dominion? Properly defined, it should amount to a call to compassionately and productively protect and manage the resources we've been given (think of the parable and the talents). Yet it seems that we've used "dominion" as an excuse for our excess, greed, and capitalist consumerism in recent history.
  • Can we truly say that consuming more animal products than we need to (all the while destroying our health and compromising creation) is really the most responsible way to manage the assets we've been given? 
  • And while I think that it is DEPLORABLY inconsistent (in fact, sickening and angering) to advocate for the rights of animals on one hand while supporting abortion on the other, is it nevertheless hypocritical of me, as a Christian, to advocate fetal rights while remaining apathetic to egregious animal mistreatment (i.e. animals being kicked, whipped, and bludgeoned to speed up productivity; cows being castrated without pain killers; baby male chicks being sorted out and thrown into shredders or dumpsters because they aren't needed for egg laying, etc.)? Can I be selective about what areas of stewardship matter to God and still be consistent within myself? We might not equate abortion with animal cruelty, but just because two things aren't equal, does that mean that one matters to the exclusion of the other?
While I agree that it's alarming to think of the lengths to which ethical Veganism can go, I think it also honors God to acknowledge Him as the God of small things. A God who cares about big issues (like abortion and genocide) as well as what we might consider small ones (like recycling, compassion, and using good manners). Do I think it's wrong to kill animals in all instances? That's a bit totalizing and extreme. Do all creatures, from insects to carp to antelopes, have souls and eternal destinies equal to that of humans? I think not. Does this concern mean that the Bible is wrong in its instances of animal sacrifices and meat consumption? No. But I AM wondering about what we are doing today, with the resources, technologies, and nutritional options we have in this situation. We don't need meat or dairy for calories or nutrition (if anything, they're the new "junk food"). We aren't limited seasonally to the plant foods available to us or dependent on animal products for survival. And we certainly aren't stewarding animals kindly or humanely in our efforts to mass produce them for the expanding demands of the omnivorous diet.

So YES, ethical Veganism has the reputation of going WAY too far; many people think of those radicals who equate animal "souls" with human ones, self-righteously brow-beat meat-eaters, elevate this concern as an issue tantamount to eternal salvation, and obsessively arrange the minutia of their lives to protect insects and animal hair. I still agree with the witty observation: "If you want to truly protect the environment, then annihilate yourself." There's a degree to which this all gets way too blown out of proportion, impractical, and dramatically over-emotional.

But because of political/spiritual associations with ethical Veganism (leftist liberalism, hippie-ideology, mother-earth new-ageism, atheism  etc.), we pendulum swing in the other direction to distinguish ourselves from it. Somehow concerning ourselves with the environment and animals becomes an UN-Christian thing to do, when any cursory glance at the Creation story and the corpus of Scripture would strongly suggest otherwise. Somehow the descendants of Adam want nothing to do with ecological responsibility because of its political and ideological taint. And because of that, we feel justified in overlooking a glaring responsibility. I know I have.

Although I usually can't avoid it, I don't like using the word "vegan" in reference to myself because I would rather people know that I'm a Christian above and before anything else they know about me. I just happen to avoid meat, dairy, and eggs in my diet for many reasons (mostly for health, but also for broader financial and stewardship reasons). But even so, food doesn't define me; it's not the substance of my soul or the prerogative of my life. That's reserved for Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

But by refusing to touch vegan-mania and animal right's activism with a ten-foot pole, we also ignore the underlying reality of what they're concerned about, and anesthetize ourselves to the fact that we might actually be misappropriating the resources God has given us in order to maintain a lifestyle we think we need or deserve. We often think, "Animal rights activists don't care about abortion which is worse. So the animal stuff is piddling nonsense in comparison." And then that's the end of that.

But perhaps the norms of conduct in slaughterhouses DO matter to God. He made animals, they're a part of his beautiful, intelligent, intricate creation, and it seems that, before the Fall, God intended for us to live harmoniously with them and subsist on the fruit of the garden. It was after Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world that the first animal was killed for clothing (Genesis 3:21). Perhaps the omnivorous lifestyle that resulted after this transition was just another sad repercussion that God allowed to take place, not the ideal He had in mind. We often look to the Garden for insight into God's original game plan. We seek to bring Kingdom Now restoration to earth as faithful Christian stewards. Is it possible that our intended relationship with animals can be found in the Garden, too? Just some interesting considerations, not necessarily a dogma or theology...

So perhaps these issues, stigmatized as they may be, are spiritually relevant and timely. Perhaps a plant-based diet really is an optimal means of holistic, three-fold stewardship (a lifestyle that best promotes the integrity of human health, of creation, and of animals).

Here's why:
1). It's a diet that science is increasingly supporting as ideal for health, longevity, and disease-prevention.
2). It doesn't wreak havoc on the land's natural resources whereas meat production is a leading source of pollution, exploitation, and waste (and also results in limited food resources for the global poor since crops that could feed destitute populations are fed to to farm animals instead).
3). It spares the mistreatment, waste, and degradation of animals that we no longer require for calories and survival. Even if we find supposedly "humane" farms or raise animals ourselves, I still can't get around the reality that we simply don't require meat or dairy, which makes it a (potentially wasteful and health-harming) want, rather than a legitimate need.

So, just because something isn't an ultimate issue, doesn't mean it not an attention-worthy one. Just because something isn't the biggest problem, doesn't mean it doesn't need fixing...

Thoughts? Scripture? Ideas?

A resource on this:
Christian Vegetarian Association
My caveat: I would be leery of some of this organization's scripture interpretations (they seem to be in denial that the Bible really did record and/or allow literal instances of animal killing - we can't go that far and we don't need to. What God may have permitted for one period in human history can still become superfluous and debatable in another). However, they have some pretty compelling tidbits on their FAQ and Benefits pages. I would strongly suggest looking through those articles for more data and resources than I provide here.

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