Last week Emily and I had the chance to go to a film screening and discussion put on by the Humane Society of the United States and two Duke Divinity School professors, where we watched a clip from a short film called "Eating Mercifully" and discussed Christians' calling to live well on this planet with the rest of God's creatures.
The film details the the phenomenon of factory farming, the source of almost all of the meat we consume in this country. Simply put, factory farming is a gruesome practice, where animals are treated as no more than production units. The bit of the film we watched focuses on the conditions pigs suffer in this system: living spaces often only a few inches larger than the animal, while the larger spaces are oppressively overpopulated; violent behavior resulting from the psychological effects of these conditions; a million pigs dying every year in transport. It's a chilling reality which my descriptions can't begin to communicate. (You can view the trailer for "Eating Mercifully" here.)
The ladies from HSUS's Faith Outreach program then made a short and helpful presentation. The issue, they stressed, is not about animals' rights. The animals have no rights, and this is precisely the point. Animals are completely powerless before us, totally at our mercy; how are we going to use that power?
Afterwards, Dr. Stephen Chapman, a professor of Old Testament, and Dr. Norman Wirzba, a professor of theology, offered some really insightful and important comments that I hope we'll all consider long and hard.
Chaps began by describing his surprise as he discovered, over the years, the prominence of animals in scripture. They are in the story of creation and Eden; they are included in God's covenant with Noah (Gen 9:8-17). They're also present at the End--indeed, animals may provide the Old Testament's most important image for God's healing work in our world. They certainly offer the most memorable image--think 'the lion and the lamb' (Isa 11:6-9). Psalm 36:6, he pointed out, keeps us honest here: "you save humans and animals alike, O Lord." God's saving plan is for all of creation--not just humanity, or our souls! This is not just an issue of cruelty to animals, he emphasized: Christians need to be recalled "to what the gospel is really about." God's vision is more expansive than our common, narrow focus on 'getting to heaven when we die'.
Then Dr. Wirzba opened by sketching a quick historical picture of us--21st century Americans--as "the most ignorant eaters the world has ever known." By and large, we have little to no contact with the processes that bring us our meat: we simply go to the store and look for the best pieces at the best prices, and take them home to cook. We're pure consumers. Given this, the horrific realities of factory farming should come as no surprise; as Wirzba put it so well, we have "lost the imaginative capacity to see these animals as anything but a commodity to meet our demand for really cheap food." If animals are simply a commodity, why would we care about anything other than cost and efficiency?
Given this situation, the questions Christians need to ask themselves, Wirzba suggested, are how do you make yourself worthy of another creature's life and death? How can we become more gracious and more grateful eaters?
"Eating Mercifully" is available for free online. The film is 26 minutes and the product of a lot of research and consideration--about how to communicate the importance of these issues to faith communities and about how to expose viewers to the horrors of factory farming without gratuitously-violent visuals. There are also other resources available from the HSUS for those interested in learning more or taking steps towards a life lived more conscientiously with God's creatures. You can check them out online here, and on facebook.
Have you given much thought to where you meat comes from? If the sweep of God's saving work in the world includes the redemption of animals, what changes for you?
What can you do to be a more gracious and grateful eater?